Tell The King We Don’t Want His Chopper!

5 min read

I love most places I travel. Everything is a discovery - the food, the people, the sights… and the sites.

Jordan is just that kind of place – incredible cinematic deserts, big dramatic Crusader Castles, well preserved Roman ruins – better than what you’ll find in Europe. 

My crew and I are here to produce three travel documentaries about this country, so we’re covering lots of territory: from the gulf of Aqaba, to the spectacular ruins of Petra, from the holy site of Mt. Nebo, to the hills of Amman. 

I have to admit I am swept up in the epic majesty of this historic land.  This is my first trip to the Middle East and the ancient vibe rising from the desert kingdom sometimes overwhelms this middle-class dude from California.  

I’m also getting a lesson in just how crammed together everything is in this part of the world.   We have the most wonderful guide, S., who points out the incredible coziness of this region, “See over there, that’s Egypt and that mountain, that’s Syria and look further down you can see Lebanon.”  And we are standing in Jordan.

JR, our sound man with a porter at UNESCO World Heritage site, Petra.  

So we are seeing parts of four nations in a single glance – all about the size of your basic Tri-County area.  It’s like a cosmic joke.  So much blood, war, history, passion, belief, betrayal, sacrifice, enlightenment – crammed into a space not much bigger than a Western state area code. 

No wonder they’re on each other’s nerves… and at each other’s throats.  If they could all just stretch out a bit, perhaps this world would be more peaceful. Though I have to hand it to the Jordanians and their King; they have worked greatly with their neighbors to try to achieve that peace.

The Jordan Tourism Board

Our client, has been a wonderful host, shepherding us around in style and putting us up in the swankiest places. We’ve been treated like royalty - sailing in the Gulf of Aqaba, traveling the Wadi Rum made famous by Lawrence of Arabia, and treading the biblical banks of the Jordan River.      

Shooting in Jordan's Wadi Rum - made famous by T.E. Lawrence

Our guide, S, frequently links the ancient sites before us to passages in the Bible and Koran.  He’s like the walking scriptures.  And there’s also a lovely, diligent lady from the Tourism Board, our in–country Coordinator.  She’s Brazilian by birth and assigned to us to make sure all goes smoothly. 

Almost everything does go smoothly.  Occasionally my crew can get bogged down in the mechanics of their work and things slow down a little but that’s to be expected. Sometimes we’re so in awe of some incredible, ageless thing we encounter, we grab our still cameras and spend a moment recording stuff because it’s too great to be missed.

Our Coordinator is accommodating but is sometimes a little impatient with us.  This she has shared with me. I think she’s nervous.  Perhaps worried that we won’t complete our filming agenda.  It is ambitious. 

But I assure her that we’ve done this kind of work lots of times and everything is good. We are getting what we need and besides it all looks fantastic, bigger than life. For instance, the ruins we shot at Petra could be something out of a movie.  In fact, they are.  They were used as a location for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”.  And now we are here filming them.

The Historic Treasury at Petra Jordan, a UNESCO site.

So there’s nothing to worry about, I re-assure her.  I’ve calmed down lots of clients like this.  I know that a film crew entering one’s everyday life is new, different, unknown.  We tend to shake up the basic order of things with our intrusion. It can be unsettling.  But to us, it’s another day at the office.  A fun, exciting office, but we know it will all turn out.

Still, she’s nervous.

But the shoot has gone well and we’re down to our last two days. We’re gonna spend one day covering the capital city of Amman and then the last day…  This day will be special. 

The King’s Ride

My partner in this Jordan filming venture has previously worked with Abdullah II, the King of Jordan.   They did a TV special – a tour of Jordan - and have known each other for years.  During our week of shooting he has met with the King, or HRH, as everyone refers to him, and has pulled off quite a coup. Pun intended. 

The King has graciously loaned us a Royal Jordanian Air Force Super Puma helicopter for a full day of aerial shooting.  From Amman down to Aqaba and every dang holy site in between – it’s all ours. 

Sure, we’ve shot from choppers lots of times but never for a full day. Never with so much aviation fuel at our disposal. This will be fun. But first we’ve got to finish up in Amman.

We start out early, moving through this dense, modern city. I’m quickly checking shots off my shot list. We work until we’re starving and then feast at a fabulous café.  They serve us easily the best hummus in our star system.  

But the most glorious moment of the day: we go up to the Citadel, a big hill in the center of Amman, site of Roman and Byzantine ruins.  It’s late afternoon.

There, setting up our gear at the Temple of Hercules, we hear the call to prayer, floating out from one of the city’s mosques.  The sounds echo about the sprawling city below and rise up our hill. Other mosques on surrounding hills now issue forth more calls to prayer.  Their plaintive voices joining in an eerie chorus.  

Flocks of birds suddenly flap over us, reacting to the music and circle low over our heads, beating their wings. They soar and circle around us again and again, driven by the calls to prayer. It’s mesmerizing. It’s a movie and we’re in it. 

“Shoot! Shoot!” I call out.  But the guys are already shooting.  We marvel at the surprising splendor of the moment.

We’re still high as we come down from the hill, pulling up to our hotel.  It was a very good day.  Our Coordinator comes out from the hotel and up to our van.  I share with her all the good stuff we’ve gathered.                            

What’s A Souk?

She seems very pleased and then asks me, “Did you shoot the Souk?”….

I don’t know what she’s talking about. “What?”. 

“The Souk… the Souk”. she repeats.  “Remember, I told you to shoot the Souk”.  

“What’s a Souk?”, I respond. 

Her face tenses, “You didn’t shoot the Souk?!” 

“What’s a Souk”, I ask again. Everything is quickly turning.

Her eyes are widening, “I told you to shoot the Souk…. the market.” 

“No you didn’t. You never mentioned it.” Man… we worked so hard today and are so ready for a drink.

She jumps into the front seat of our van, turns and addresses us: “I told S. (our guide) to tell you to shoot the Souk. Didn’t you tell them?”, she aims at S.

On the spot, S. offers, “Uh… yeah. I think so…”.

And then she explodes.  “You didn’t shoot the Souk! I told you to shoot it. You are the worst crew I have ever worked with! You are completely unprofessional. I have never seen a worse crew!”

There is a moment of silence. I can let it go…. but…. I don’t want to.  These are my guys, my crew and I spit back, “Don’t you talk to my crew like that!”

She’s dumbstruck by my pushback. I might as well have said we forgot to put tape in the camera all week. She is just astonished. But then she rears back and doubles down, telling us in an official tone just how much we suck.   

Now I’m getting really pissed. This is abusive. “You know what?”, I shout. “We’re done; we’re going home! Tomorrow!  This shoot is over. No more!”

As I shout at her and hear my raised voice, I only make myself angrier. Now I’m getting Royally pissed and as I jump out of the van, I take deadly aim:


That felt good.  That felt right.  As I stride from the van, one of my crew members slaps me on the back. Our driver is trying to hide his smile.  

A Brilliant Moment Of Defiance

that lasts…. I’d say one, maybe two more seconds when the thought slams me: “They’re going to tell the King… the King! - that some asshole producer just refused his princely gift. What have I done?”    

What happens in societies like this when you turn down gifts from the King?   

Have you ever been in this position – refusing a kind gift from a generous authority figure?   Perhaps it was a parent, a teacher… or the King of Jordan.  You know what I’m talking about.  You want to show appreciation. You don’t want to disappoint.  You don’t want to disappear.   

As I walk from the smoldering scene behind me and approach the hotel, I’m feeling the seeds of panic take root. How did this happen?  Where did I lose it? Why can I no longer see clearly?

I formulate a quick plan: As soon as I’m out of everyone’s sight, I’m going to run screaming down the hallway, arms waving in the air and leap onto my hotel bed, kicking and sobbing.  I’m doomed! 

But just as I reach the hotel door, I hear it – the muffled sounds of a woman crying. Could it be her?    

I spin around to see the Coordinator, standing by the van, her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking as she sobs.  Oh thank you!  Thank you!  I’m saved!  Thank god!

I gather up my swagger, push the panic from my eyes and strut over to the distraught woman.  There, I take her shoulders in my two manly hands and gently soothe the moment, “It’s OK.  It’s OK. Why don’t we (I look toward S., including him) go into the lounge and talk about this….?”   S. nods and the Coordinator also nods between sobs.  

I love this hotel lounge. It’s sleek with a nice cherry wood finish. Modern accents everywhere and the beer is very good. The crew and I have spent several evenings here, drinking and rehashing the wonders we’ve seen each day. 

Now, as I order beers for the Coordinator and S. I’m feeling optimistic.  I know we’ll work this out. No, better. We each know we have to work this out. There are forces behind the scenes a lot bigger than the petty squabbling of a few commoners.

We all start out apologizing.  S. says he may have forgotten to mention the Souk to me.  It’s Ramadan and he’s been fasting – he’s tired and hungry.  The Coordinator and I look at each other and nod our heads in understanding. 

We sip our beers.  We talk. We even laugh a little.  We make plans for the big helicopter shoot the next day. Of course we’re going to use the chopper. How could we not?

Producer and Travel Writer Jon Lapidese with Super Puma helicopter in Amman Jordan

We feel closer, as only those who have made up from a big fight, do.

We wrap up with a big group hug.  Here we are the three of us: a Muslim from Jordan, a Christian from Brazil and a Jew from California – working out our differences, moving forward together, in harmony. Why can’t everything work out so well?  This is what peace is about.  This is how we do it.

The lounge has become our little sanctuary – our church, our mosque, our synagogue. It is our safe place from all the pettiness and anger of the world. This is how I will always remember it.

That is, until exactly three weeks later, at the exact same time of day, a terrorist blows up the place. 

Dozens are killed. Even more are wounded.

But we were lucky.  For one shining moment, the three of us savored the sweetness of brotherly love.  And it felt right.