Portraits in the Souk

Tom Zimberoff
Mar 23 · 15 min read
Tea Shop Proprietors, Cairo / ©1980 Tom Zimberoff

Part One

It was a volatile time to arrive in this neck of North Africa — anywhere near the Middle East. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was gunned down while watching a military parade six days before my arrival in Cairo, right there at the airport. I could see where the atrocity occurred. The authorities hadn’t yet cleaned up the carnage. The next day, I went off to cover Operation Bright Star.

“Hey, Zimbo!”

I looked left. I looked right. I swung around and looked behind me. I saw no one trying to catch my attention. No doubt about it, though, I heard my nickname called out loud.

“No, up here!” The voice said.

What? I craned my neck toward the sky. It was raining . . . mushrooms. Paratroopers. The 101st Airborne Division, having flown non-stop from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was falling out of the blue, delivered by a fleet of C-141 jet transports spewing mushrooms out their butts like spawning fish. Giant flying fish spawning mushrooms. I had not taken psychedelics.

Bright Star was the first joint exercise of the U.S. Rapid Deployment Force with the Egyptian army; the first deployment of American combat forces to North Africa since World War Two. The Carter White House wanted to send a message to Iran in the waning months of the hostage crisis, in the fall of 1980, and to the Soviets who had invaded Afghanistan: We’ve come to wave our flag and unsheathe our sword, so mind your Ps and Qs. I was on hand to cover this martial extravaganza under the aegis of Sygma Photos with a guarantee from Time.

A helmeted soldier dangling underneath one mushroom called out again: “Zimbo!” Thud. On the ground, throwing off his harness, grabbing his rifle and pack, I recognized Major Seth Hudgins. He was a major when we met in Brussels two years earlier. He was General Haig’s aide de camp at NATO when I shot my story about the Supreme Allied Commander for Look. Seth was now a lieutenant colonel leading a battalion of the 101st, the vaunted Screaming Eagles. I’ll bet they screamed when they jumped, until their chutes snapped open. But how the hell did he recognize me from way up there? I must have looked like hair with lenses sticking out. Screaming Eagles have eagle eyes, too.

My reunion with Hudgins was brief. He had to muster his troops, all on the ground now. But before he went away, he spoke to a couple of officers and got me access to places I would not otherwise have been able to photograph during the exercise, and . . .. Wait a minute! What kind of crazy small world is this where acquaintances unexpectedly fall out of the sky bearing favors? I mean, we were in the middle of the Sahara desert, near some wretched place — if you can call sand in all directions a place — a long, bone-rattling ride halfway up the Nile toward Alexandria from Cairo, then a hard left toward Libya. It’s not even real sand, like beach sand. The eons had ground down immense forests that used to grow here into a brown talcum powder. It got into everything. I felt abrasion when focusing my lenses.

I arrived there in a diesel-powered Conestoga filled with bouncing Egyptian soldiers, a wire service reporter, and a few other photojournalists. We couldn’t see where we were going; just out the back, where we’d been.

We stopped in a wadi, Arabic for dry valley. It was said that French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry crashed there in 1935, inspiring his classic book, The Little Prince. And, to be fair, the nearby town of Wady El Natroun was an oasis, out of sight from the martial madness about to begin, and an important center of Coptic monasticism. This day, however, its environs would quake under tens of thousands of pounds of high-explosive bang-bang dropped in a precise linear pattern, like sewing a stitch exactly one mile long and one mile away by a dozen B-52s flying low and in single file. Invited spectators (journalists, diplomats, and military officers), were supposed to feel as well as see the effect of an extravagantly violent pummeling by the USAF Strategic Air Command. The bombers flew non-stop from Minot, North Dakota, emptied their load, turned around, and flew right back; refueling in midair. But their spot-on arrival kicked off this set piece of force majeure, aka a dog-and-pony show; a staged demonstration of military might.

The VIP audience sat on bleachers, a grandstand decorated with bunting, transported and situated strategically to survey the scene — a surreal apparition in the desert landscape, as out of place as a stripper pole in a mosque. Generals from many armies and as many countries came to watch. Their uniforms represented a multifarious saber-rattling ostentation of shakos and busbies; epaulettes and aiguillettes; tunics bedizened with colorful ribbons and medals of gleaming cloisonné.

After the overture was performed by the Strategic Air Command, a brief silence ensued. Then, barely audible above the ringing in my ears, but growing insidiously louder offstage, came a commotion of thrumming and thwopping. Anticipating what would happen next, I dropped the needle on my internal orchestral soundtrack: whirling strings leapfrogged three octaves, ushering in the familiar and bellowing brass fanfare of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Right on cue an apocalyptic fleet of AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters rose in terrifying unison from behind a berm, firing rockets and canons. The latter, popularly called machine guns, are much scarier and creepier than in the movies where they go rat-a-tat-tat tat tat tat. No sir, no ma’am. These are electric-powered “chain guns” that spew more than 50 rounds per second. What you hear when someone pulls the trigger sounds like a burp with extended hang time or the lowing of a cloven-hoofed bovine from hell. Shooting from a fast-mover, like an A-10 Warthog armor-fighting aircraft, the Doppler shift makes it sound scarier and creepier still. They don’t shoot bullets; they spray them.

Next, over our heads, came a barrage from a chorus line of heavy artillery, their long guns kicked up like the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, firing with operatic abandon. Each flame-belching crack from one of those 120mm guns lobbed a whistling round into the end zone, spiked with an incendiary eruption of sand. I couldn’t hear my inner Wagner any more. Another piece of heavy equipment airlifted in with the airborne infantry, a six-wheel-drive off-road vehicle called a “Gamma Goat”, hit the drop zone before its parachute opened. Aptly named, it was the only sacrifice proffered to the gods of war. The 101st, having shucked their parachutes, were accompanied by Egyptian reinforcements as they bounded across the dunes, flanked by armored vehicles and firing blank rounds from, respectively, M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles. American M-60 machine gunners took up positions and fired over their heads. Fighter jets criss-crossed the heavens, howling like banshees. This is what the cavalry looks like, feels like, sounds like — coming to the rescue! But with nothing to rescue, and no one shooting back, it’s much more fun to blow up shit. In fairness, I shouldn’t be too cynical. These guys are prepared to risk their lives to preserve American interests around the world. Gotta make sure their weapons work.

I hadn’t come to Egypt to make portraits. But now that I was in Egypt, once I stopped playing war correspondent, I was determined to play tourist and visit the pyramids. First things first, though, I went back to Cairo International to ship my unprocessed film by waiving a U.S. $20 bill at the Air France departure gate. Then, I telexed my agency in Paris and told them to meet the flight at Orly and grab my film from the nice man with the yellow envelope when he exited customs. Finally, I checked into a cheap hotel near the banks of the Nile, whipped out a cigar, and drank thick sweet tea while watching the feluccas sail by.

Part Two

How naive! I was disappointed that I didn’t have to don khakis and a pith helmet, climb on top of a spitting camel, and trek for three days into the broiling desert to get a glimpse of the sphinx and the pyramids rising above the dunes. Fulfilling my jones for Indiana Jones nirvana was but a stone’s throw from any hotel in Cairo. And my good luck, including Colonel Hudgins falling from the sky, should be packaged and sold; because I took a taxi from my hotel to Giza and found the place deserted. Was it lunchtime? A holiday? I don’t know. But I walked right up to the Great Pyramid, all by my lonesome — no gate, no guards, no fee, no noisy and smelly crowd of tourists— and went in.

I’d spied a hole on one sloping side of the pyramid, roughly A-shaped and tall enough to walk through, about twenty feet above ground level. I climbed up several stone blocks to reach it, then made my way to a long and steeply rising passageway. It was too low to stand upright, forcing me to creep forward bent at the waist. Wooden planks had been laid down to prevent slipping on bare stone. A bannister hammered into one side was available to grab if need be. The feeble incandescent filaments of bare lightbulbs, strung up intermittently, struggled to illuminate this Stygian footpath. I imagined what it would be like to inch forward carrying a fluttering torch, choking on smoke and followed by my dancing shadow. The low ceiling eventually gave way to a tall but still narrow chamber. I continued to climb. It was getting hotter as I made my way further inside. Headroom again diminished and I ducked lower still. Near the end of the corridor I was nearly on my hands and knees before exiting through a portal into a vault, a space enclosed by huge cut-and-polished granite blocks about the length and breadth of a suburban bedroom but with nearly twenty feet of space above my head. The immensity of the pyramid surrounded my small self, weighing down upon my ability to comprehend. This was the pharaoh’s burial chamber. I was deep inside the Great Pyramid. Alone.

At the far end of the chamber was the broken sarcophagus that had held a pharaoh’s remains for centuries. Napoleon is rumored to have slept in it; that he stayed inside the vault for seven hours and reported, later, to have had an occult experience; the details of which he kept to himself. There was the stone coffin — a big empty bathtub. I climbed in. I tried to doze off. Too excited. Nevertheless, I choose to say I took a nap, alone, inside the Great Pyramid of Khufu. If we could shoot selfies in those days, I would have. It was too dark, even for the sensitive black-and-white film in my Leica. I wasn’t carrying a flash. And there was no high enough vantage point to rest the camera on and set the self-timer. No matter. The most cherished photographic prize I would take home from Cairo would be a portfolio of portraits I made, later, in the souk.

Part Three

Cairo is the most beguiling city on the African continent, a conurbation of both religious and secular historical influences; a quintessence of archaeological sites; and the epitome of Islamic architectural grandeur. It’s hard for a photographer to know where to end a description of a city like this, particularly if he wishes he could capture it all on film. Conversationally, I tried once to evoke Cairo in a nutshell. All I could say was, it looked just like Paris but no one had taken out the garbage in six hundred years. The good people of Cairo threw their garbage into the streets; not in bags or cans; they just dumped it everywhere, anytime. It was tossed, like a salad of fetid rubbish bound to become the debitage of future archaeologists. I didn’t have weeks or months to invest in photographing the subculture that evolved to deal with this phenomenon: a self-styled caste who call themselves the Zabbaleen, having founded a marginally sustainable lifestyle over generations by voluntarily removing this mess with donkey carts and pickup trucks; then sorting, composting, recycling, and living in it. I wanted to stay longer in Cairo, or return later, to delve into this and other cultural phenomena with my camera. I chose pragmatically, instead, to photograph the denizens of Cairo’s great souk, the Khan el-Khalili; to stay within its confines, given the limited time I could afford. I would work as an artist, if not as a documentarian with a socially conscious axe to grind.

©1980 Tom Zimberoff

The souk was originally a caravanserai, a truck stop for camels going back a thousand years. Today it’s a bazaar, a labyrinth of alleyways connecting workshops, stores, and stalls where artisans and merchants produce and sell their goods. It’s riddled with exotica and abounding with stories; as many stories as there are people to tell them. Some of those people became the subjects of my camera — my stories.

Khan el-Khalili must be more touristy now. But I saw mostly locals shopping for raw spices, staple foodstuffs, and household items. Men socialized in outdoor cafés smoking hookahs and drinking tea. Women, not so much. I discovered a place where men made hashish by compressing balls of cannabis “kief” in their hands, then further treating it with heat, then into bricks. On foot, everywhere I stopped to speak with someone, or even if I just dallied, I was offered tea. In my mind’s eye, I saw portraits everywhere.

I didn’t want to freak people out or insult anyone by pointing a camera without permission . . . click and run. Besides, impropriety notwithstanding, I wanted my subjects’ willing participation. So, I came up with an idea. I’d brought a Polaroid camera with me to Egypt, the old-fashioned folding-bellows kind and a half-dozen boxes of instant film. I asked my hotel concierge to recommend a young student who spoke English, whom I could hire to translate for me. I found someone right away. The two of us ambled through the souk for hours on end, browsing and buying cheap souvenirs, talking to merchants and drinking tea. Gallons of tea. I bought a gold chain and cartouche for my mother, inscribed with her name in pseudo hieroglyphics. I still have the silver one I bought for myself. When I found someone I wanted to photograph, I asked first, then carefully composed a Polaroid. But I gave the instant print to my subject right there — a gift. I asked my translator to explain that I was an artist, not just a tourist, and that I would like to come back to their shop in a few days with a film camera, my Rolleiflex on a tripod, to pose them for a formal portrait that I would take home to memorialize my trip. I shot nothing but Polaroids for several days. I earned some street cred this way. People accepted me and took seriously what I was doing. I made about twenty portraits on film this way; and I hope they are the better for it.

Part Four

During one of my excursions through the souk, it occurred to me that the acclaimed “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition, having recently toured Europe and North America, had returned to its home in the Cairo Museum. I didn’t get to see those treasures when they came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1978; tickets were pricey and lines stretched around the block. I thought I’d see if I could get in to see Tut on his home turf — er sand dune. I dismissed my translator and went on foot to the museum; one never knows what one will find to photograph while hoofing it through unfamiliar territory.

The museum, a French architectural gem of the late 19th century, was guarded by a somnolent Egyptian soldier stationed at the entrance, shouldering a vintage rifle; ceremonial I think. With no wait to go in, I paid a whole lot less than the cost of a ticket in LA to proceed past the concourse, and . . . OMG! The entire funerary was on display in gallery after gallery; far more than what had gone on tour. Gold! Mummies! The galleries, while not completely empty of people like the tomb of Khufu where I almost fell asleep, were hardly crowded. One could walk up to any display and linger, closely admiring the spoils of the young pharaoh. I’m sure these artifacts are less approachable today. But I’ll tell you what impressed me most of all. Forget Tutankhamun. Forget cousin Khufu. There lay the body of Ramses II, son of Ra, the great Ozymandias himself, the 19th Dynasty pharaoh who ruled the world 3,200 years ago

I’m at a loss for words to describe how his remains were so. . . accessible, let alone that they could even exist. This man spoke face to face with Moses! Yet, here he was, lying in a vitrine, in need of body lotion and a manicure. I was mind-blown, if that’s more superlative than astonished, that the curators hadn’t amped up their production values to honor this man’s (literally) monumental role in history. They could have added some historically contextual pizzazz, if only to acknowledge his shout out in the Bible and the whole Let my people go! thing. Maybe it was my LA upbringing, but I’m just saying, this wasn’t any old pickled corpse. They might even have had him lying in state, in a recreation of the movie set where Charleton Heston gave Yul Brynner a piece of his mind in Cecil B. De Mille’s “The Ten Commandments.” Incidentally, the expired Ramses had more hair than the breathing Brynner. The same goes for Moses himself, Charlton Heston, who wore a toupee. I photographed him, too, a few years later.

Yours Truly . . . It’s a long story.

Part Five

On my way home, I did the second-most stupid thing in my life. Despite having seen the movie, “Midnight Express”, only a year or so earlier, I packed a fist-size hunk of that hashish I’d found in the souk into my suitcase and flew back to Paris with it. (Remember that luck thing I said I should package and sell?) I flashed my press pass at customs and said I had a deadline. I breezed through. No search. No sniffy dogs in those days. (The stupidest thing happens in another chapter and had terrible consequences, but was not so foolhardy.) I stayed in Paris for a couple of weeks, lucky, again, to meet the drummer in the Folies Bergère orchestra (00h la la), when I tried to charm a woman who turned out to be his wife. In the forgiving manner of a Frenchman, I was invited by the two of them to dinner. Then, I was invited backstage at Les Folies. The wife had just-as-attractive single friends.

I had most of that hash in my suitcase when I flew back home to Los Angeles via New York. Again, no customs search. Press pass! Gotta run! Try that today. It was December, and I gave away much of the hashish to my friends; stocking stuffers and Hanukkah geld. On New Year’s Day, 1981, I tuned into to an eleven-hour-long broadcast on National Public Radio: “The Lord of the Rings” in contiguous episodes. The last of that Cairo hashish went up in smoke, while I lazed on my living room couch in front of the fireplace, feeling very comfortable in Middle Earth.

©1980 Tom Zimberoff

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Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and…

Tom Zimberoff

Written by

ARTREPRENEUR, PHOTOGRAPHER, CLARINETIST, MOTORCYCLIST Fate follows the path of least resistance. Success follows the path of maximum persistence.

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

Tom Zimberoff

Written by

ARTREPRENEUR, PHOTOGRAPHER, CLARINETIST, MOTORCYCLIST Fate follows the path of least resistance. Success follows the path of maximum persistence.

Storius Magazine

STORIUS is an online magazine about the art, craft, and business of storytelling. Featuring perspectives of professional and emerging authors, filmmakers, and other creators, it delivers a rich mix of storytelling facts, news, and techniques to its readers.

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