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Cairo’s black cloud: The back story

As I write this, peering up the Nile, a thin grayish haze has taken permanent residence over Africa’s largest city.

It is the start of rice burning season.

Video producer Jon Jensen put together a terrific video that’s running today on GlobalPost about Egypt’s black cloud, which is due to linger for the next two months.

I did some of the reporting with Jon and figured I’d give you more of the back story.

This is the 10th year of the black cloud over Cairo, which began as a result of rice straw burning in the Delta colliding with a change in meteorological conditions.

Taking in a little soccer

The black cloud coincides with the start of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, being contested on fields around the country. The event has become the source of much national chest-beating for Egyptians.

For our first bit of reporting, Jon and I headed to the massive Cairo Stadium, where the Egyptian under-20 team was challenging the Venezuelan team in a warm up match.

Although entry was free, there were probably only 100 spectators at the match, and we sipped tea from primo seats. We’d been promised player interviews afterwards. It should also be noted that these impartial journalists were rooting vigorously for Egypt, with the idea that the players would be more apt to talk if they were riding high from a win.

We weren’t allowed to film during the match because, team officials explained, there was a fear of spying.

At the end of the match (Egypt won 2-1), we made it onto the pitch, talking our way around the burly stadium manager, whose primary job, it seemed, was to protect the integrity of the grass.

We managed to chat briefly with Mohammad Talaat, the team’s star, before the stadium managers began shutting off the lights. Fearful we’d soon be plunged into total darkness, Jon managed to capture some killer footage, in an eerie half-light, of Talaat kicking around a ball.

Talaat was soon whisked away to his waiting bus and, our interview unfinished, we were told to stop by the team’s hotel for a press availability in the morning.

Of course, there was no press event. And the team was slated to catch a morning bus to Alexandria.

So we decided to get into the business of wake-up calls. Knocking on Talaat’s door for minutes at a time, we weren’t able to awake this apparently deep sleeper.

Frustrated, we waited in the lobby.

Soon, though, the players began to emerge. We grabbed the coach for a quick chat and finally got in our conversation with Mohammad Talaat as team minders paced impatiently, eager to herd him onto the idling bus.

But it was with the coach and Talaat that the story began to take a turn. We set out to cover how much pollution (and the black cloud in particular) affects Cairo residents. The science was there. We needed the voices.

But Egyptians have a tradition of what might be called a maalish culture, maalish being the all purpose Arabic word for no big deal.

Starting with the coach and Talaat, we found Egyptian after Egyptian unconcerned about the poor state of air quality.

So our story took a turn.

A Chat with the Government

We took our investigation to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency. We got an appointment with Ahmad Abou Elseoud, the government’s air quality guru.

Abou Elseoud admitted to us that Egypt did suffer from an air quality problem, but when presented with scientific evidence from the World Bank that Cairo ranks as the worst city for particulate matter, he delivered the real shocker.

“What you are seeing is based on rumors. That Cairo is a polluted city,” he said.

The government, it seemed, was willing to admit that things weren’t great, but it wasn’t about to endorse the most damning evidence.

Immediately after, we took our cameras to the National Research Council, the massive government-sponsored research center.

Academics, we figured, would give us the real picture.

We chatted with one researcher, who suggested up front that there was some daylight between his findings and the government line.

But as soon as the camera came out, he clammed up. We got nothing. And he didn’t make it into the story.

It took Jon heading out to the American University in Cairo for a professor, not beholden to the state, to open up about the air quality crisis.

A Reality Gap

Jon spent hours interviewing people around town. Bouncing from one neighborhood to another, he chatted with a number of regular Egyptians, many of whom said the same thing: that they were not worried about air quality.

Jon also had a moment that ranks high on the irony scale. He drove to the top of the Moukkatam cliffs that tower over Cairo on the east. His aim was to shoot the pollution over the city.

Arriving at sunrise, he waited for his shot. But it never came. The pollution was so bad that he was never able to get a clear enough shot to record video.

This story, which took two weeks to complete, took so many twists and turns that we spent days shooting and interviewing before our angle began to emerge.

The only constant throughout this process was that the black cloud was coming.

Jon and I were up in the Nile Delta on Wednesday working on a different story. It seemed that around every turn, farmers were burning their fields. The scene seemed to oddly validate the work we’d been doing.