Sunday, August 31, 2014


By Verne Strickland   September 1, 2014 

The first time I traveled to Egypt and spent some time with the bluebloods there, I didn't know what a Muslim was.

I just knew I liked them. They bought a hell of a lot of expensive U.S. flue-cured tobacco, which satisfied their smoking taste for the best cigarettes in the world.

And they knew how to party.  

At the time, I made my living reporting on agriculture for WRAL-TV5 in Raleigh. I was getting a reputation for covering international trade missions -- including many launched to boost exports for NC farm crops -- notably tobacco, cotton and soybeans.

Other overseas business I covered focused on "reverse investment" forays which sought to attract foreign manufacturing to North Carolina.

These missions were often high-profile trips led by our Governors. It was my privilege to promote them too -- for Bob Scott, Jim Holshouser, Jim Hunt, and Jim Martin.

But this story is about the tobacco trade, and one particular experience in Egypt -- around the 1970s -- a particular incident that I never forgot.

Traveling with the elite business kingpins of Egypt kept us on the Four-Star circuit for the most part. That was not particularly hard to bear.

On one tobacco trade mission into Egypt, my filming took me from hot, dusty cigarette manufacturing plants to the steamy streets and bazaars of Cairo to the ritzy clubs which catered to the mega elite. 

U.S. tobacco export experts were hosting a dinner for the high-flyers of Eastern Company, dominant importers of high-quality leaf for premium Egyptian cigarettes.

This was a gala affair in one of the ritziest hotels flanking the storied Nile which flowed through central Cairo.

I had been out in the city filming scenes for a documentary I was commissioned to produce about the effort. As a consequence I arrived fashionably late for the dinner, just as the evening's entertainment was to commence.

And the entertainment in this lavish club was an appearance by Egypt's most popular belly dancer. This is where plot thickens.

I sat down among the U.S. and Egyptian guests, who had obviously been imbibing with gusto -- the Egyptians moreso than our Americans.

Anyhow, as I sat down, I was introduced to the group as a "cinematographer" (aka a camera guy) who was shooting a film on the Egyptian tobacco business and the exotic sights and sounds of historic Cairo.

As I had come straight from filming to the dinner, I was carrying my portable cinema equipment -- 16-millimeter movie camera, portable hand light, and battery. The battery was strapped to my waist, and the light I held in my hand.

I could see a Testosterone light bulb turning on behind the eyes of the Egyptian tobacconist sitting across from me. He bore the unmistakable evidence of an inebriated Muslim who, true to this faith, does not imbibe.

Suddenly the lights in the club dimmed, and, to the dissonant "music" of the small club orchestra, a spotlight flashed and focused on a somewhat portly dancer who was obviously quite the rage in those parts.

As she took to the stage, I suddenly felt myself being rudely jerked from my chair and dragged through the seated audience to the edge of the stage -- my sweating captor holding the light, to which I was firmly attached. 

There was a bit of a stir in the audience at this spectacle of an American cameraman being yanked helplessly  along like a pet dog. I then understood what my friend wanted. He was out to assist me in filming this apparently arousing (to Egyptians at least) performance by a belly-dancing phenomenon. 

We knelt by the stage -- as the dancer gyrated just above us. My amateur film director picked up the bright hand lamp, attempted to point it at the gyrating midriff of the dancer, and pointed at my camera, which I took to mean "start shooting, American infidel."

I complied, of course, and could tell that the comedic commotion was becoming quite amusing to the patrons. 

It got worse in only a moment as the besotted Egyptian film director fell over face first onto the stage, the bright lamp bouncing away from him, where it lay on the stage floor shining into the eyes of front-row patrons.

By this time, members of our dinner party, and ballroom security, had rushed to my side -- and to the aid of my filming partner -- and hauled him away as gently and respectfully as possible.

Back at the table, I was the center of attention as I was congratulated for comportment becoming of an American gentleman in the midst of a damned laughable shemozzle.

I never found the film from that evening, and fancied that it had been taken from my hotel room so as not to humiliate a highly-respected Egyptian tobacco official and Muslim teetotaler. 

Just as well. I expect the creative lighting had rendered the film worthless. And without that I couldn't see what I was filming anyway. 

The only evidence I can take away is my memory. It is a treasured asset to be sure. I know now what a Muslim is, or should be. But this was long before some of their worst cases became interested in beheading Americans and other infidels. 

Now, even if I wanted to -- which I don't -- I could not get back into the once beguiling city on the Nile where I did some good work and had some great times.  Those old camel jockeys are now crazy wild. Some of them will kill you, and their own as well. Downtown Cairo will never be the same. And maybe I won't either.