Monday, June 2, 2008

The Mummy Daddy

"So, what do you want?" Zahi Hawass thundered at my students.

They're a mix of Arab & American journalism students, who are here in Egypt (and later, Qatar) for a 3-week mideast journalism bootcamp. The course is made up of field trips and seminars. We were in Hawass' cavernous boardroom as part of an archeology field trip.

His official title is Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and Director of the Giza Pyramids Excavation. He would much rather be called Egypt's Indiana Jones, complete with the hat.

Today, no monument or artifact in this country can be officially "discovered" by anyone other than this man. If your donkey falls into a hole and you find an ancient tomb down there, you call Hawass' office. His convoy blazes to wherever you are, and he discovers whatever you've found. So, in Egypt, this man is pretty much every mummy's daddy.

"What are you here for?"

"Well, Dr. Hawass..." one of us offered an explanation, and the students began their questions:

"What role does archeology play in boosting tourism, and thereby driving the economy?"
"What kind of environmental concerns do you have when it comes to preserving antiquities?"
"Do you worry about terror threats against the ancient sites?"
"What's the difference between the status of women in ancient Egypt, and modern Egypt?"
"How come most of our excavations are undertaken by foreigners, and not Egyptians?"

Hawass was loud, outspoken, and almost flippant:

"Tourism is the enemy of archeologists... I want to make tickets more expensive..."
"People are ruining our heritage by bringing in so many millions of visitors..."
"I told George W. Bush that he cannot bring democracy to the Middle East... these people need dictators... who kill people every now and then... to preserve stability..."
"The woman should take care of the house first..."
"I am writing letters to congressmen... fighting with museums... to recover the Rosetta Stone... and so many other artifacts that were stolen from us..."

We went on for over an hour. One of my students had to change an hour-long tape in her camera. Each answer was a lecture, a litany, a lament. Long and strong.

I wanted to ask a question: "You say you're trying to recover stolen treasures. Given the current state of the Egyptian Museum, and the poor condition that most of the antiquities there are kept in (badly built cases, no climate control, no labels, etc. etc.), how would you preserve the stolen artifacts that might be returned to you?"

For once, the man was silent... and then the answer: "I am doing that now."
"That's it."
"That's it? That's your answer to my question?"
"Well, thank you for your time."

Applause, photographs, autographs.