Cairo Diary: Inside a Trip to the Middle East

Chris Cuomo on camera in Cairo.Clark Bentson/ABC News
Chris Cuomo on camera in Cairo.

As President Obama made his first presidential visit to the Middle East and spoke from Cairo University, Chris Cuomo anchored "Good Morning America" live from Cairo, Egypt. Read his reporter's notebook about the trip below.

Day One: Monday, June 1

6:50 p.m. NYC:

The show is over, the wife and kids are kissed, the bags are packed ... wheels up! Eleven hour flight to Cairo on Egypt Air (motto: our planes smell like Camels. The cigarettes).

I used to dread long flights, but now I sleep. Cairo is seven hours ahead of New York City, so my internal time clock may be a little off-kilter. But in these situations you hit the ground running ... shooting, writing, etc.

I love being on the road and am excited to arrive. I'm a "coverage guy," despite my law and investigative background. The real perk to media life is being a witness to history. This event could be memorable. I've got a copy of Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five," the classic depiction of a prisoner of war witnessing the Dresden bombing. I've read it before but am reading it again for texture.

"Obama Addresses the Muslim World" is a surreal headline -- are there really different worlds? But it's always a good time to talk peace.

Day Two: Tuesday, June 2

12:20 p.m. Cairo/ 5:20 a.m. NYC.:

Kee-Feck Cairo! (that's hello here) We landed! I couldn't wait to get out and stretch my legs. I slept 9.5 of the 11 hours, so it wasn't too bad. My body is telling me it's the early morning ... I'm no stranger to that feeling. Got my taste of some (very strong) Turkish coffee and got my caffeine fix for the month.

I met up with a fixer (a journalist or local who knows an area and ideally knows something about the story you are covering -- a good fixer is key) named Aya, and a local driver named Taher, who were able to help me navigate Cairo.

On the agenda: Walk the city, shoot some interviews, read some local press, work some scripts, but mostly, make calls on Janet Greer, the American mother who traveled to Egypt in search of a reunion with her daughter, who had been taken there 12 years ago.

2 p.m. Cairo/ 7 a.m. NYC:

"Good Morning America" is just starting live on the East Coast. I'm not on today, but I could've been. ...That's OK, plenty of work to do.

I'm staying at the Marriott in Cairo. I just checked into my room and am about to meet up with my producer Clark Bentson (total pro, lives in Italy, teaches me a ton every time out) and crew (shooter is Bart Price, the best) and head off to our first interview.

3 p.m. Cairo/ 8 a.m. NYC:

I just finished an interview with a representative from the Consular's Office at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo regarding the Janet Greer case. Not sure if everyone remembers this story about the American mother whose daughter was taken to Egypt by her father when she was 3 years old and Greer hasn't seen her since. It has been 12 years, and Greer's struggle still continues. I'm here to try to help get answers on why her most recent request to see her daughter, Dowsha (Sarah in English), has been suddenly denied. As a parent, the idea of not seeing your children for 15 years is really upsetting. I'm hopeful that Greer will get to meet up with her daughter someday, but the legal system is different here, so who really knows. I have another interview in 30 minutes -- interviewing some students at a downtown cafe in Cairo. First is Usman Naeem. He is Pakistani, lived in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Canada, Dubai and now is at AUC. Next is Hatem el-Akkad. He is Egyptian, very eloquent and smart. He plays the guitar and is in a band -- overall a good representation of Egyptian youth. Another student is Mennatallah Yousef. She wears the Islamic headscarf and is studying mass communications. She is a moderate Muslim and represents mainstream Islam in the Arab world. Last is a Palestinian student named Yasmin from Gaza. Her family is there. She is studying here and speaks great English. Was president for nearly three years of the Al-Quds Palestinian Club at her University.

4:15 p.m. Cairo/ 9:15 a.m. NYC:

The interview with the students went so well -- they are very insightful and are really looking forward to what Obama has to say Thursday. These kids are different from Americans in that they are so aware of the stakes regarding politics. The United States really is like an island in terms of how much interest citizens have in other places.

Next I headed off to meet Moez Masoud, a young and dynamic television/radio host who is very popular here. He turned out to be a great guy and it was so cool that we were able to explore the Al Azhar mosque, which is the mosque in Cairo. Big thing here is to take off your shoes ... a huge sign of disrespect otherwise. Prayers are done here five times a day (was able to capture some great pics on Twitter, Click Here to see them. Even in this secular place, people say there is a rise in Islamic orthodoxy.

Obama-mania (as we call it in the States) has carried over to Cairo. As I walked through streets the locals shout "Obama shop" as I pass. I see tourist trinkets that even liken him to King Tut! I see his face everywhere. But it is not just the markets that are enthusiastic about Obama.

7 p.m. Cairo/12 p.m. NYC:

Tough thing dealing with time change. We're in thick of it and all bosses at "GMA" are just getting settled, so a lot of hurry up and wait. When they arrive in the morning in the East full of ideas, we will have to scramble.

The real challenge is finding time to "think" when covering news. Most can get to an event and report the who, what, when, etc. It's the "why" -- the context of an event, meaning, opposing ideas, narrative angle, editorial points -- that affords perspective and is the goal. The more time you can think, the better you parse hype from relevance. For example, Israeli-Palestinian peace is a largely ignored issue in the United States, but it is central to almost every political discussion here. Some say the influence of American Jews stifles balance in coverage, but it seems to me the truth stems from nonambitious media catering to a largely uninterested audience. After all, the Middle East is all the way over there and it means nothing here, until 9/11. Of course, that assumes you see terrorism as a continuum of cause and effect from many issues or as a direct result of the U.S. defense of Israel versus the Arab/Muslim world. (Personally, I think the space between the two ideas is most fertile for consideration.)

10 p.m. Cairo/ 3 p.m. NYC:

It's nice to be able to sit down now and really let all the events of the day marinate. This was my first time in Egypt. I've been to the region many times, but each place forms a unique part of a cultural and religious mosaic. That said, Egypt truly stands out. Though its dominance of Arabia has been challenged in recent years, it is still unique in its culture and politics ... and has those crazy amazing pyramids! Trips like this are so compressed that I am mostly working. There is such pressure "to get it right" and in this case, that means gauging local interest and impact, not getting caught in swoon. The key to getting a quick feel is to walk through a place and talk it without a camera (the best time is spent off-camera).

And there are always "surprises" like a Zawahiri tape that just came out ... seems that Obama not the only one seizing the moment to put out a message.

People pour into Cairo at night ... crossing the Nile. I'm going to try to fall asleep to the sound of disco blaring … oh yes, my friends, it is back.

DAY 3: Wednesday, June 3:=

8 a.m. Cairo/ 1 a.m. NYC:

First up, read papers, talk to bosses, tweak scripts, and then ... a talk with Janet Greer. Twelve years ago her daughter's father took little Dowsha to Egypt to visit family members and never came back. In an effort to get her daughter back, Greer spent all her money and made multiple trips to Egypt, including a visit to the apartment where she believed Dowsha/Sarah lived. An Egyptian court even agreed that Greer should have custody of the child. But still, she never saw her daughter. I am hoping to change that … working the phones big time.

2-4 p.m. Cairo/ 7-9 a.m. NYC: "GOOD MORNING AMERICA" SHOWTIME! So weird doing the show in the afternoon! Very used to the early morning hours. It's a nice change. Big, BIG moment for "GMA" was getting word live that Janet Greer saw her daughter for the first time in 12 years!

Always odd to take a break from covering something like Middle East peace to make a call about "regular life." Like some climbing roses I am trying to get on the cheap from a little place on the north shore of Long Island. "Hey, I'll take three plants but I want a break because they are flowering already. No, I can't come now ... I am in Cairo." A new facet to the experience is that my 6 year-old, Bella, now calls me on the road. The best questions: simple, like "why" or "who says."

10 p.m. Cairo/3 p.m. NYC:

Grabbing some grub with the crew. You share a lot of intense situations in the news business. and there can be a real bond among a team of journalists -- at least that has been my experience.

Happy about Greer and then very good sit down with Gamal Mubarak, the son of the president of Egypt. He talks candidly about the possibility of following in his father's footsteps and what Obama's speech means to the Muslim people. He could well be the next president here -- though brushed that query off like a hair on his coat ... or several hairs, because I asked it several times.

I can't believe how many people watch "GMA" in Egypt. I'm known as the "building jump guy"... think that's kind of funny.

Day Four, Thursday, June 4:

Good Morning Cairo!! BIG day here today and also for the rest of the world. Security is extremely tight. Hot as Hades. Anxious to hear what Obama has to say. His speech will be parsed big time, especially in Arabia where language is often about innuendo.

We have first coverage post-speech! including interviews/reaction from Rahm Emanuel and Gamal Mubarak (younger of the two sons of current Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak). Obama has called for a "new beginning" between U.S. and rest of Muslim world. Obama also quotes three Holy books in his speech, meanwhile Bin Laden puts out new message that Jews, Christians and Muslims should not be allies.

Feels good to anchor from an event like this. Wish we did more of this, or at least that I did.

Said my goodbyes to Cairo (for now) and picked up some silver jewelry for my girls and some stuffed camels for the little man ... would love to come back here with them. The best time is spent off-camera.