King Khaled State Visit to Egypt 1976
The crew consisted of Guiliano Nocco and his soundman, Andrea, from the Rome Bureau, Felix Yiaxis, the UPITN staff cameraman based in Cyprus, and Osman Mahmoud Osman, our retained cameraman in Cairo. His soundman was Farouk Foley, who later became the staff cameraman in Cairo.
Peter Hellyer came along as production manager. He was supposed to work a few days in advance of us to lay the ground for our arrival at each location.
Our Cairo bureau was run by an Egyptian lady named Nadrah. He husband worked as a journalist with UPI.
Mainly because of the State Visit, hotel rooms were hard to come by, that is, acceptable hotel rooms. Nadrah rented a flat for us in the Garden City. We all met up there. My bed was a mattress on the floor. Felix took one look around the flat and said he was going off to find a hotel room. That left Hellyer, Nocco, his soundman and I in the flat. It was rented to us for £124, sterling that is, which was a huge sum of money for the period. The owners of the flat were two young women whose own flat was in the same building.
They did not even provide us with tea or coffee.
After unloading my bags, Osman called to say that we needed to get to the offices of the Internal Security. To arrange passes for the crew. We would be moving into some sensitive areas. First, I needed to go to the UPITN Bureau to say hello to Nadrah and Farouk Foley. In so doing, I missed lunch and, as was my habit of the time, I did not take breakfast.
We got to the Interior Ministry in the early afternoon. As had happened so often during my visits to the Middle East, I was obliged to wait in some corridor or outer office with no-one offering a forecast as to when I might get my appointment. It was in such corridors that I learnt patience.
After five hours, I got invited, with Osman, into the inner office. The Security man made it quite clear that the whole concept of film crews moving around Egypt un-restrained was something of an anathema to him and his superiors.
I pointed out that we were, temporarily, members of the Saudi delegation and that our main interest was the activities of the King and the President (Anwar Sadat). He knew that he could not withhold accreditation from servants of King Khaled of Saudi Arabia. The same Saudi Arabia that was pumping in millions of dollars to the Egyptian economy.
Eventually, we got our passes. My pass was different from the rest, it was a lapel badge covered in Arabic writing. I did not know what it said. By now, I was exhausted and asked Osman to take me back to the flat. There, I flopped out and slept through to the next morning.
We needed some transport. Osman could move himself and me, but Yiaxis and Nocco needed additional transport.
When I arrived at Cairo Airport, I went outside with my bags to be met by a crowd of taxi drivers. Soon they parted to one side and the other to allow through a giant of a man. He was about six foot four, eighteen stone and in his mid forties. He was Egyptian, who spoke impeccable English and introduced himself as Alexander. He was obviously the leading taxi driver, certainly among those who attended the airport.
I told him to come to the flat where we did a deal for him to be our main transport while we were in Egypt. He became our Dragoman, our interpreter and guide. It was not now necessary to stay with Osman as interpreter and, in any case, Osman’s English was not of a very high standard.
We fronted up to the Airport the next morning. Felix and Guiliano were with me to cover the landing of the King’s aircraft, his greeting and driving off. Osman and Farouk were on the route into town where the Egyptian Government had assembled thousands to line the streets by the employment of Baksheesh, a bribe to turn up on the route of the Royal visitor and cheer. It would have been quite expensive. We followed the King’s car and we were able to film the progress of the column into town.
I was called to pay another visit to the Ministry of the Interior where the same officer asked me for my pass which he exchanged for another. This time, it was all red with Arabic letters in white. All hand-written. I missed lunch.
That evening, there was a main event, the State Dinner at the Qubba Palace.
We arrived early, as was our wont, In the large estate in the middle of which sat the great palace. This had been the Royal Palace since the days of Turkish rule and the Sultan Faud who became King Faud.
It was about six o’clock in the evening and the whole crew were there. I said to Osman “Do we get to eat here ? I haven’t eaten for thirty-six hours”. He said, “I don’t know”
Had never known hunger like it before. It was starting to hurt.
We set up inside the Palace entrance and deployed our lights. King Khaled was to meet President Sadat there and then go inside the Place for a while for talks. After that, he was do to, re-emerge from the Palace and attend a sumptuous banquet in the grounds. The grounds were all laid out with fairy lights and street lights. Tables and chairs were set out with a small army of waiters in attendance. The food was being “dished up” in several huge marquees. The smell of the food was wafting across the lawns and I was becoming quite ill with hunger.
The King arrived and off he went inside with Sadat. I said to Osman “I must eat something or I will collapse”. He went away through the milling guests who now occupied the front entrance of the Palace.
After several; minutes, Osman returned with a flunky, all dressed up with buckled shoes, white knee-length stockings, white breeches, a tailed jacket braided in gold lame and silver decorations. He wore a white silk shirt with a white silk scarf around his neck. On his head a curled wig. I thought that I was hallucinating. How could this man exist in the Republic of Egypt, a country that had been a Republic for over twenty-five years.
In perfect English, he asked me to follow him. We wended through the gathered guests into a long corridor. We must have walked about sixty yards along this corridor when we turned left into another. We walked another sixty yards down that one until he ushered me into a large room.
The room was a dining room, with a table for about twenty diners. The room was luxuriously decorated. The walls were covered in great drapes of red and gold with intricate decorations. The floor was carpeted from wall to wall. The furniture was magnificent.
My guide pulled back the carver at one end of the table and invited me to sit down.
He said “Would you like a beef sandwich ?” “Oh, yes”, I said “That would be perfect”.
A few minutes later he returned with a dinner plate piled high with “beef sandwiches”, he also offered me a half-pint of fresh orange juice
I told him what a wonderful room it was and how grateful I was to be able to have something to eat.
He said “I cannot tell you what an honour it is to be able to serve someone in this room, it is many years since I have been able to do that” He went on to tell me what it was like when King Farouk was living in the Palace. He must have been quite old to have witnessed life with the King, he had been gone since 1952 when he was deposed and kicked out by Gamel Abdel Nasser.
I have always thought it strange that, in countries that were former Kingdoms, the republican governments have gone to great lengths to preserve the best of the Royal Palaces and buildings. Witness the Hermitage in St. Petersburg which hasn’t changed one iota since the departure of the Romanovs over ninety years ago.
I had to sit there, in the Qubba Palace Dining Room, to recuperate after the sudden intake of food. The Chef, who had prepared the sandwiches, came out to shake my hand. It was quite an experience.
My guide took me back to the main entrance where Osman and the rest of the crew were moving their gear outside the palace where we would shoot some of the banquet scenes.
I always made a point of never shooting people eating, especially at banquets. However, I thought that it was in order to see the guests at their tables talking and awaiting their first course.
We finished shooting and Osman came over to me and said “Now we eat !”. I said “What do you mean ?” He said” We are invited to have a meal over in the press tent”.
“Do you mean that I have eaten beef sandwiches while the banquet meal awaits us in the press tent ?”. He looked a bit sheepish, knowing that somewhere, somehow, something got lost in translation.
The press tent in fact was one of the serving tents or marquees. They were situation with thirty or forty yards of the perimeter wall of the palace grounds. For the first time, we could see that the entire inner wall, on this side of the Palace grounds, was occupied by people, by families, living in crude leant-to tents. They were the poor of Cairo with nowhere else to live. They had been invited to camp inside the Palace grounds by President Sadat. What a wonderful gesture. All this within a few yards of a State Banquet. I could imagine that, in some other places, they would have all been thrown out, at least for the duration of the State Visit.
However, the Presidential gesture was not confined to providing camping grounds, waiters from the banquet move over to speak with the heads of family. They were instructed to go to the serving Marquees where they could gather food that had not been sent to the banquet tables. There was so much food and I became quite annoyed that I was only able to sample it.
The menu was, obviously, fit for a king. There were several courses. The encamped poor of Cairo must have seen some of the food for the first time in their lives. Nile Carp and Tilapia were on the menu. I had first eaten Tilapia in Nairobi. That fish had come from Lake Victoria and was extremely tasty.
There was lamb which fell off the bone and a beef stew rather like a Greek Stifado. When we left, the campers were still coming back for more. By now, they were prepared to take food sent back from the table, but the waiters would not let them eat anything that had been on someone else’s plate. The campers would have already had an enormous meal and it was a pity that none of the food could have been preserved for more than a day.
The next morning, Nocco went out early to go to the Bazaar. He was back at the flat by 9.30am. He placed on the table several newspaper parcels. He undid them one at a time. Each parcel contained an ivory carving. He showed me one, a magnificent miniature statue. He said “That only cost $200”. Giuliano was a collector of Ivory and it was amazing that he should be able to go out to the Bazaar and spend almost $1,000 on Ivory. It showed the vast difference between the salaries paid to us in London and the star cameramen in Europe.
Soon we were on our way out of Cairo. Our next assignment was in Alexandria, about 120 miles to the north-west of Cairo. King Khaled was going there for two days. He would travel by Presidential train. Yiaxis and Nocco travelled by the same train while Osman, Hellyer, Farouk and I drove up.
We drove along the desert road. To the west of the road lay the great Western Desert and the Sahara. There was little to be seen on the left side of the road except sand. From time to time, there would only be sand on both sides of the road.
It was a long and hot journey. For something to say, I asked Osman about places like El Alamein, Tobruk, Derna, El Adem and Mersah Matruh. He had never heard of any of them. These were the names that we heard on a daily basis during the first two years of the war and every schoolboy know exactly where they were. Osman, who lived only 150 miles from these places, was ignorant of their existence and significance.
The desert road reaches Alexandria in its western suburbs. We turned into the road going parallel with the coast which leads into the centre of the city. There were thousands lining the streets. Eventually, we came to a large square which was surrounded by people, and policed by dozens of armed police and soldiers.
We drove through into the square where we were immediately stopped by the police. They said that we could not proceed. Alexander, who was driving us, said that there was no alternative route for us to get to the eastern end of Alexandria.
Soon, we were surrounded by several police and military. Osman said “Show them your pass”. I detached my pass from my lapel and offered it to a policeman. He looked at it quizzically. Alexander said “I don’t think he can read”. The policeman took the pass over to an officer who, upon seeing the pass, almost exploded. He shouted for the people surrounding our car to clear off. He came over and offered me back my pass. He then saluted and in fairly good English he said “Please proceed Sir“, pointing to a position on the other side of the Square.
There were so many people that it was difficult to see where the road was on the other side of the Square, but, eventually, we found a way through.
I said to Osman “What the hell is written on my pass?”. He said “It suggests that, if anyone tries to stop you going where you need to go, they could face a court martial”.
It did not come out like that, he needed several goes at it before it made sense.
We drove on to the hotel where the Saudis were lodging. They had taken over a couple of floors of the hotel. Yiaxis and Nocco were already in Alexandria, having filmed the arrival and drive by the King’s entourage.
We had a drink at the hotel bar.
The hotel had been taken over by a large number of Saudi princes. They all seemed to be in their early twenties.
Our hotel was quite modest, probably a two star hotel, but it was difficult to get accommodation under the circumstances. After a long day, I was tired, but I needed to spend some time thinking about what was happening the next day. I lay on the simple bed which resembled a hospital bed except that it was somewhat wider.
The next day was a big day. We had to get up very early and make our way to the Ras el Tin Palace. The Palace was built in the first half of the nineteenth century. It has never been open to the public. It was where King Farouk signed the document that dispossessed him of his throne before he sailed away to Europe and to exile. The Palace was being used to house State guests and it is where King Khaled had stayed.
The Palace was also the centre of the Egyptian Naval Base.
We assembled there to get a final briefing on what was to happen next. First ,Nocco and Andrea went off to a nearby naval helicopter unit where they would board a helicopter to fly out over the Mediterranean. There, on board the Presidential Yacht, the El Horriya, the King would be a guest of President Sadat and where they would review the fleet.
There was not much a fleet to review, but it did include the destroyer “October 6th”, a ship that had taken part in the October war with the Israelis and which had done rather well in the short campaign. Felix Yiaxis was assigned to the destroyer, so that he could film the Presidential Yacht at sea, as well as the rest of the review. Peter Hellyer would go with him.
The rest of us, Osman, Farouk and myself were to be filming on board the Presidential Yacht.
My party and Felix and Peter all went from the Palace to the main dockyard gate. There we were to come across yet more bureaucracy as guards on the gate would not let us in.
Time was running out fast. I even showed them my pass, but, once again, it is likely that they could not read. Eventually, an officer arrived and let Felix and Peter go through to get on board the destroyer.
From the gate, we could see the Presidential Yacht tied up. It was about two hundred yards away. Another officer came through the gate and we spoke to him. By now, the dockers were loosing some of the ties on the yacht. The officer, looking at my pass, ordered us through and we had to run. When the last of us reached the top of the gangplank, it was lifted away.
The El Horriya was built in England in 1895 and had been built for Faud, the sultan who became king. As I write, it is acknowledged to be the fifth largest yacht in the world, it is 478 feet long
We were ushered into a forward dining room where we could keep our gear. We left the gear and then went to explore the ship. To our utter amazement, we were suddenly confronted with the sight of Felix Yiaxis and Peter Hellyer coming towards us. They had been prevented from going on board the destroyer October 6th and had been sent to the yacht, which they had boarded before we got on board.
Once at sea, we could start filming the assembly of the fleet. As I have said, it was not a fleet as such. I do not know how many ships are required to form a fleet, but I could not see any more than a half dozen ships of varying shapes and sizes.Soon we were able to take up position to get some good shots of Himself and the President. Felix went to an upper deck where he could film the rest of the fleet. Soon afterwards, a navy helicopter flew over and we could see Nocco shooting from the open doorway. All was well.
After about an hour, the fleet dispersed and I think we went round in circles while we took lunch. I am sure that we were offered the same lunch as the king, it was a feast fit for a king. There were lots of Arab delicacies, Mansaf with lamb and wonderful salads.
It was almost three o’clock when we disembarked. Felix, Giuliano and Andrea went back to Cairo by Train, the royal train, while we went back in the car.
The next morning, we were all assembled at the airport for the departure of Himself back to Saudi Arabia.
There were full military honours and marching bands at a part of the airport reserved for such occasions.
That night, the whole crew had dinner together. The restaurant was the choice of Osman. We always listened carefully to the locals when it came to choosing somewhere to eat. At no time was I ever to be disappointed by our camera crews choosing a restaurant in their own country.
The following morning, we all made our way home. I went to the airport with Osman where we said our farewells. He had been a solid member of the crew and a gentleman to boot.
I went into the duty free shop to buy a bottle of whisky. I wished to use up all my Egyptian Pounds which one was not allowed to take out of Egypt. I did not have enough and had to make up the price with an English Five Pound Note. That was too much and the man said that he did not have any sterling change. He offered me an American Dollar Bill which I accepted. I was to keep that dollar bill in my wallet for fourteen years.
On a return visit to Cairo in 1992, I went into the same airport departure lounge and wanted a drink. By now, I did not buy bottles of duty-free whisky because the high asking price was not worth the risk of smashing the bottle before getting it home.
I went to the counter to buy a bottle of Perrier. This time, I did not have any Egyptian currency and only had about forty pence in sterling change.
The man, peering into my wallet to assist me in completing the transaction said, “What’s that, it looks like a Dollar Bill”. I said, “Yes, it is, a One Dollar bill”. “ He said “That will do”.
Easy come, easy go. The following year, I told that story to a gold prospector from Canada. He said that he liked the story so much, he would give me another Dollar Bill to replace the one I lost. I still have it.
So I had seen Cairo and more of the countryside than the average tourist might see. The great city, one of the largest cities of the world. It had enormous contrasts, the hovels around the bazaar, new highways and the garden city in which one could easily believe that one was on another country
I watched in wonderment as the fleets of ancient cars drove around the city. A new car was a rare sight. The import duty was prohibitive and only the very rich, or foreigners, could afford a new car. Many of the cars were pre-war. There was a thriving industry in re-building cars from scrap. A scrapped car was a rarity, almost any condition of car could be resurrected and put back on the road again.
A memorable visit.
© Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
For other articles about UPITN click here.