Famed composer Yanni arrived in Cairo this week and the result was a citywide freak-out. Skot Thayer, new to the nation, not quite used to our excitable ways, decided to make his way over to the press conference in honour of the musician over at The Cairo Marriott. Here's what transpired...
When word came out that Yanni was going to be playing in Egypt and was having a press conference, I had no idea what anyone was talking about. After a brief Google search I was surprised at myself for never hearing of him. As a musician myself I thought this guy would have crossed my radar at some point. Then the boss's finger leveled in my direction and said “Skot, can you cover the press conference?” I reflexively said yes, though alarms screamed in my head “WARNING: EXTREME BOREDOM LIKELY.” If I had said “Yanni? Are you serious? Not likely. Let me know when Iron Maiden comes to play at the Pyramids,” my career would have gone down in flames quicker than a Malaysian airlines flight.
When I got to the Cairo Marriott Hotel and Omar Khayyam Casino where the conference was being held, I followed giant Yanni signs to the second floor and ran headfirst into a solidly packed group of about 200 people waiting to get inside the hall. I’ve never seen Egyptians stand in anything like a line or queue so everybody was just pushing their way to the front. Photographers, news reporters, magazine editors, most of them dressed to the nines. All shoving past each other. Then there was me, a big white guy with knuckle tattoos in jeans.
A few disagreements almost turned the whole thing into a riot. These people were really excited to see Yanni. I’ve played and attended all kinds of hardcore metal shows and those moshpits don’t compare to the type of craziness that just happens whenever a group of people are waiting for something in Egypt.
Even while we waited (forever) for Yanni to come into the hall, people kept shoving and trying to get a better spot for their microphones and cameras. I’d never seen two grown men almost slap each other over their tripods touching and I hope I never have to see it again.
The stage was set. A huge backdrop said something like “Wow It’s Yanni You Guys!” flanked on each side by vertical banners listing the sponsors of the concert. Something must have changed last minute however and another sponsor was added after the banners were printed. This was obvious when three maintenance workers carrying an 18-foot aluminum ladder came rushing down the middle aisle.
Clad in plaid shirts and jeans, I identified with them since they stuck out like poorly dressed thumbs against the sea of black dresses and suits. They threw the ladder up, stage left, and two of them anchored the flimsy thing. A bungee cord was the only thing working against the ladder's collapse as the the third guy climbed up. A staple gun in one hand and a rolled up piece of white material in the other. He unrolls the new banner, which has an additional logo just glued onto it, and starts with the staple gun.
Keep in mind, at this point everyone is sitting waiting for Yanni. Journalists from CNN, BBC and everywhere else are here for a rebirth of Egypt’s tourism industry and we all fall dead silent as his staple gun fires over and over again. Then he takes a pocket knife and starts to hack away at the excess material that's just flapping in the air-conditioned breeze. Realising he needs two hands for this, the guy just throws the staple gun from the top of the ladder to the floor. It almost hits some poor woman in the head on its way down.
I’ve seen press conferences on TV before. They seemed quite orderly. I don’t know if that's just production magic or if press conferences in Egypt are like everything else here; a total free for all.
As soon as Yanni walks into the room, people totally lose their shit. I try to get a shot of him holding his #ThisIsEgypt sign but with all the screaming and pushing I end up falling and knocking over the quaint red velvet rope that separates the stage from the press. Two of the 'roided out security guards pick me up and throw me back like a fish. Yanni, the Minister of Tourism, and the guy who put on the show take the stage, shake hands, smile. Typical photo-op stuff. Except I don’t think anyone there got a single decent picture.
As soon as they sit some guy seated in one of the back rows begins to jog up the aisle towards the stage waving a tiny Egyptian flag. He manages one meager hop and gets a leg over the rope before he is completely snuffed out by ‘Roid security and guys with earpieces. They drag him back up the aisle and out the door. I kind of felt bad for him. I assume that this man’s family will never see him again.
Then come the questions. The first few aren’t really even for Yanni. A guy asks the Tourism Minister, “Why was the media banned from Yanni’s concert?” This question is flat out ignored by the minister but Yanni looks struck. He says he had no idea and would do everything he can to make sure everyone can come. Yanni looks at the minister who makes a face and holds up his hands like, "We’ll see what we can do buddy but don’t get your hopes up.” Another thing I noticed, and I don’t know if this is just how Egyptians address public officials or if it’s something the translator added but, the Tourism Minister was always referred to as “Exalted” or “His Excellence” which is honestly kind of creepy.
This continues for a while, people ask mostly boring questions and the few interesting questions are given boring answers. So I get bored. So I head back out into the hallway and see that there is a magnificent buffet set up. Fruit, little cheeses on a stick, tiny sandwiches, all untouched.
I was thinking about leaving since I got a good picture, but now I don’t want to miss out on snacks! I go up and down the table checking out the food and scoping out the security situation. There are a few busboys manning the coffee dispenser a few yards past the other end of the table but other than that, everyone is inside getting their Yanni fix. I decide to take my chances. Grabbing a small napkin I start loading it up with little muffins, brownies, cheese and fruit kebab things, and stuff them in my bag working my way down the table. At the end, I grab a tiny sandwich and shove it in my mouth whole, just as two of the very large, security types come out of the door. They get a little excited.
Chewing me out in Arabic they start telling me how the buffet isn’t open until after the press conference. I try to explain that I’m sorry and I didn’t understand. Using my basic Arabic, which I imagine makes me sound something like a caveman. A couple more of their bulky bros come over along with one of the busboys. Trying to just make it back into the room with Yanni I keep repeating in English, “Oops, my bad, sorry guys I’ll just go back in here."
I make it a few steps away from them when one of the guys grabs me by the arm and starts making like he’s going to have me kicked out. I panic. This is not how I wanted to have my first assignment go down. So as soon as lays his hands on me I yell, “Hey! You can’t touch me, I’m with CNN!” And holy crap it works. He backs off and takes his buddies inside. The busboy is laughing his ass off and I vacate with my bag of snacks as quick as I can without looking too suspicious. Suspicious for a white guy covered in tattoos who clearly does not give a damn about Yanni.
In the back of an Uber on my way home, I can’t stop laughing with a mouthful of cheesecake brownie. Welcome to Egypt.