May 1, 1997

How to Sleep on a Camel: Adventures of a Documentary Film Director

Editor's Note: Inspired by the film Around the World in Eighty Days, the Ford Motor Company hired Filmways in New York to produce a series of commercials and a documentary about two guys driving a new 1958 Ford from LeHavre, France, across Europe, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and on to Saigon. To realize this task required a caravan of five vehicles: two identical Fords (in case one couldn't make it), two small trucks—one packed with spare parts and the other with a generator for lighting and camping gear for the rough, remote areas of the trip; a station wagon carried the camera equipment with refrigeration for the film stock. Personnel consisted of 18 men: 5 drivers, each an expert in some mechanical area, 2 camera crews, a still photographer, a doctor, a navigator, a J. Walter Thompson ad agency guy, and rotating interpreters from each country. The following is from veteran filmmaker Nicholas Webster's new book, published by McFarland & Co., of North Carolina, Canada and London (ISBN 0-7864-0349-7) this month. The excerpt is from his chapter "Around the World in 120 Days," detailing his travels for the World Highways Expedition .

The Desert Prince

It had been impossible to drive any farther in the moonless Afghan night. The lead station wagon, with the camera equipment, lurched down into a wide gully; as it came to a stop, the great cloud of dust that had followed it for the last hundred miles caught up and wrapped around it like a filthy cloak.

As the other four vehicles of the expedition pulled in, each carried its own cloud. When the last had stopped, it was necessary to wait several minutes until the dirt settled and we could see one another. Not that there was much to see. We were an odd assortment of 18 men: film crews, driver-mechanics, a doctor and a navigator; 20 if you counted the Prince and his aide, all filthy as chimney sweeps, buoyed up by the giddy elation that often precedes complete exhaustion.

We had been told this would be the most difficult part of our expedition driving around the world. The King of Afghanistan had notified us before we started that in his large territory, he could only be responsible for our safety in the few cities of his country; the tribes in the vast middle-land did not profess allegiance to any government other than their own local tribal units. Did we need protection? None of us was sure. That is why, in Herat, one of the local princes had agreed to accompany us as far as the capital, Kabul. He was a swarthy, handsome young man who insisted on, and was amused by, being treated as just another crew member. He willingly joined our democratic society, where each member shared the chores. His tall aide was a silent shadow.

We felt relatively safe with Prince Ahmed in our midst, providing we were in the territory of his tribe-but were we? In fact, where were we? In the vast blackness, there were no distinguishing landmarks.

Sometime the previous afternoon, during a sandstorm, we had lost the road; rather, the road had become covered with sand. I remembered the "singing sands" described by Marco Polo when he passed through this area—but we heard no singing sands, just a lot of crew members grumbling.

Difficult as it is to believe, our navigator had lost the only map we had of Afghanistan. Standing on a sandy hill with the map spread wide in both hands, a gust of wind had snatched it from him and raced away with it, in a fury, across the desert, seemingly angered that anyone would try to define its domain. There wasn't much use in searching for it; we couldn't run across the sand as fast as the wind. Anyway, in the new, altered terrain, the map was useless.

In the black of night, we went about setting up camp. Each man knew his job. The sides of the two trucks opened up and tables were set. The small generator coughed a few times, then sputtered into a great clatter, startling the absolute silence of the desert; a plug was inserted, a line run and, lo, a light bulb on a stand made a lake of light in the world of darkness.

We could now see one another clearly, and a sorry-looking lot we were. Prince Ahmed was the only one who seemed to be enjoying himself, moving about, helping everyone. To his aide's obvious discomfort, the most menial chore seemed like a lark for this energetic young prince.

With the turning on of the light, we could see that we were not alone. First a single tribesman, with a long rifle, appeared on the upper rim of the gully. He squatted down and watched us with intense curiosity, his eyes blinking in the unaccustomed light. Soon he was joined by many more.

At first they observed us silently as we went about our simple supper and camp—keep ing activities; but, by the time they had grown into a crowd, nearly surrounding the gully, they had become unruly. Apparently something they had seen disturbed them deeply. They uttered inarticulate cries and gestured in the air with their rifles. The prince's aide, seeming to be aware of some impending trouble, conferred quietly with the prince, who hurriedly finished the dishes he was washing and called us all together. Intensely serious, he spoke to us in a low voice.

"We must pack up and leave this place immediately; be calm but act quickly, no questions, move!"

Loaded again, the cars moved slowly up the incline, out of the gully and onto the open desert, pushing carefully through the angry crowd which seemed on the verge of attacking us. As the last vehicle reached the flat, our column began picking up speed. Many of the tribesmen ran along beside us, shaking their rifles and shouting. We saw a blur of swarthy faces and flashes of white teeth as they pounded their fists against the windows. Soon we gathered enough speed to outdistance the most persistent. We relaxed our tensed shoulders and began to laugh with relief, mixed with an edge of hysteria.

Only then did Prince Ahmed explain the situation. They where his people; but, when they saw their prince offered meat, which they considered unclean, and being treated as a menial, forced to wash dishes for the infidel Westerners, they could barely contain their outrage. In another moment they would have attacked the expedition and rescued their pri nce from slavery and degradation.

So much for democracy in the desert!

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