Friday, June 19, 2009

A throwback to the 1970s

By Jennifer Cupp

Thursday morning’s schedule afforded us a few extra hours of sleep. We then headed to the Egyptian Radio and Television Union building for a tour.

This was no Al-Jazeera.

The front lobby smelled like a barn. We waited there for almost an hour as Caroline negotiated with the men at the front desk. Eventually they led us through a security checkpoint and ushered us into a dirty, dimly-lit lobby. As a condition for entry, Caroline instructed each of us not to take pictures.

Our host led us to a dirty hall with a small elevator, located next to a bathroom, of all places. After waiting a few minutes for an elevator that never arrived, our host led us back to the lobby to a wall of elevators.

We exited the elevator into a smoky hallway. People lounged in the hallways, watching us as they puffed on their cigarettes beneath signs that read “No Smoking.” Three men prayed in a line on neatly laid out rugs. No matter where we stood, we were always in the way.

The interior of the building was a throwback to the 1970s. There were faux wood floors and walls. Employees watched us from their offices, sitting on faded brown, cracked leather seats. Pictures of reporters and the newsroom hung on the walls. They looked oddly similar to what we were seeing during our tour, but the quality of the pictures gave away their true age. It was as if the building was locked in a time portal from 40 years ago.

Our tour guide was a middle-aged woman in a hot pink, flowered head scarf. She rarely spoke in English, preferring to converse in Arabic with the Egyptian students.

First we visited a newsroom. Footage played on television screens mounted around the room and on the walls. Mirrors covered one wall from floor to ceiling, making the room seem twice as large.

We popped into a control room and a news studio where they film the news and current affairs shows. Then we headed down three flights of stairs.

The next studio we visited confirmed the building’s 70s look and feel. The walls were painted with bright orange, green, blue, and pink stripes. White bamboo completed the backdrop. Red leather chairs with white accent furniture completed the set, along with a bright orange wall with foil-covered vases. It was the set of Sabah Al-Kheir Maser, Good Morning Egypt.

Behind the cameras of the well-manicured set were dirty walls with exposed insulation and brown goop dripping slowly down the walls. We shouldn’t have been surprised, given our tour thus far, to find a room full of women on sewing machines in the basement. Even Karim, who works at the station, had no idea what they were doing there. We joked they were there for wardrobe, but it looked more like a sweatshop.

We stopped momentarily in a dark hallway as our guide talked in Arabic. Music drifted from an unseen room down the hall. A small wastebasket overflowed with trash. Cameras mounted on the ceiling watched our every move. The whole ambiance was incredibly eerie and summed up our experience at the station.

“This is the weirdest place I have ever been,” Rachel said, as she described a giant poster of a baby she saw in an office. The caption on the poster simply read “Lovly Baby” (sic).

Back in the lobby after a shaky elevator ride, we exited through a checkpoint and stepped out into the bright Cairo sun. We could finally breathe in fresh air—as fresh as the air can get in Cairo—and reflect on where we had just been.

“I think it’s always like that in Egypt,” Najude said.

“We are used to it,” Hind added.

The two sisters are living in Cairo as they attend the American University here.

The majority of us though were in disbelief—the tour was vastly different from our welcoming experience at Al-Jazeera a week earlier. The experience highlighted the difference not only between the editorial policies and ethics of Al-Jazeera and ERTU, but also the differences we’ve observed between Qatar and Egypt since arriving in Cairo.

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