My movie debut, Part One
Trip Start Feb 22, 2007
38Trip End Jul 19, 2008
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The other day, whilst walking to a recently-discovered pool-hall in Damascus, a group of classmates and I were approached by a man claiming to represent an Egyptian movie production. "Excusing me, you speak Arabic?" said he. "Ey, shway shway" (yes, a little), said we in unison, our eyes glancing down with suspicion to the 'production company' card hanging from his neck. Seemingly oblivious to our affirmative response, he proceeded to speak in broken English, aided by a series of elaborate charades: "Film big... Egyptian ... tomorrow... shooting two days... in Homs [Syrian city]." Sensing our disinterest, he stepped up his spiel: "We needing Western people for tourists in film. There is terrorists and you pretend be kidnapped, be frightened", he explained while miming a Rambo-style gun attack.
Suddenly this was sounding like a potentially fun episode, but his broken English was starting to grate. We managed to procure some further information from him in Arabic to speed things up, and established that we would each be paid SYP1000 per day ($20), would be transported for free to Homs and back, and would be put up in a Five-Star hotel for one night between filming. We then exchanged phone numbers and parted ways with the man.
Over the course of our pool-playing we discussed the pros and cons of this potential expedition, and the likelihood of any of it actually being true. We decided, as it was the weekend tomorrow anyway, that we would go along to the meeting point: if the bus was actually there and waiting to take us, then we would go. We figured one of three scenarios was possible: (i) the whole thing was true and we'd have an unforgettable time; (ii) the whole thing was false, in which case we'd simply stay in Damascus; (iii) the whole thing was a cunning ruse to entice us on to a bus where we would actually be taken hostage by real terrorists. All three scenarios had a certain appeal, so we figured we'd give it a shot.
Fast-forward to Friday lunchtime: the bus and the man were both there waiting. We took our seats on the bus, stopping off a few minutes later to pick up another set of tourists and students who had been likewise accosted the previous day. During the journey we established that the filming was actually taking place in Crac des Chevaliers, a marvellous Crusader castle in the lush green countryside of western Syria. This was an excellent turn of events, as Homs is a bland city and Crac des Chevaliers had been top of my list of places left to visit in Syria. So, an hour or so in to the three-hour journey and things were looking up.
Our contentment did not last much longer though, as, without warning, freezing cold, noxious-smelling water suddenly spewed forth from the ventilation shafts above our seats. We did what we could to stem the tide by using the curtains to catch the water. All the while, people were bending and leaning over one another, like a game of twister, to try to avoid the water as it gushed from different vents at random. Eventually, once the air-con had been switched off, we brought the situation under control. As we sat, cold and wet, half pissed-off and half in hysterics, our hopes of that five-star hotel suddenly felt that little less likely if this episode was any indicator.
We arrived at Crac des Chevaliers in the late afternoon, and it was a splendid sight. I will refrain from describing it though, as some of my recent blog entries have been mocked by certain people for being overly-elaborate, none more derisively so than from my own flesh-and-blood! Besides, I at last have an amusing anecdote to tell from my time in Syria, which need not be padded with purple passages.
Anyway, this was the moment of truth: was there really a movie being filmed here? Lo and behold there was and, as we entered a large terrace area in the higher reaches of the castle, we were met by a host of film crew busily setting up an array of camera and lighting equipment. At the centre of it all was the star of the movie, Mustafa Shaban, who was sat nonchalantly in his designated chair vainly grooming himself. None of us had seen or heard of him before, but we were quickly informed he is one of the big stars of Egyptian film. Unconvinced, we observed him for a few moments; the males among our group actually watching his attractive female co-star who was sat next to him. Upon enquiring after her, we were told she - Dalia something-or-other - is a new up-and-coming actress; ironically though, a few among our group reckoned to have seen her before on TV - more than could be said for Mustafa (if I may be so bold as to refer to him by his first name)!
After a few minutes a group of teenage girls making their way around the castle noticed Mustafa and immediately rushed over in frenzied excitement. They each took it in turns to have their picture taken with him, some screaming almost uncontrollably. Soon enough their commotion had drawn the attention of other passers-by, and they too hurried over in hysterics. Soon, Mustafa was being mobbed and members of the film crew had to intervene to restore order. It was quite a scene and we needed no more convincing of Mustafa's status, which by virtue made this a high-status movie.
With our ears now ringing from the screams we headed away from the chaos in search of some peace and quiet. After a few minutes the 'chief stylist' came over to us and instructed us all to put on our sweaters or coats (even though it was still quite warm), as the movie was set in the Serbian winter. Yes, you read that correctly. Upon enquiring about the Serbian aspect, we were told that the movie was set in Serbia, and that we would be playing Serbian tourists. Seemingly satisfied with our look, a 'production assistant' informed us that we would not be needed until after dark, but that we were to join the film crew and actors for a huge dinner in the grounds of the castle once they had finished the next couple of scenes. This gave us a little time to wander around the castle - again, I'm on descriptive strike, so you'll have to Google it if you're interested to know how magnificent it looks.
As the sun began to set and they finally finished shooting from the terrace location, we were all summoned to eat. It was quite a sight, as perhaps a hundred people or so were lined up along tables as if at a wedding reception; the bride and groom and traditional entourage, though, replaced by Mustafa and Dalia and a select band of sycophants! The food was as superb as it was abundant. We feasted on an assortment of Western, Syrian and Egyptian classics, as well as freshly barbecued chicken. As we sat there devouring our food, our faces almost rictus with broad smiles, we started to believe that perhaps we would get our five-star hotel after all.
But first, we had some 'acting' to do, and our big moment was almost upon us...