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."
"Okay..."
"That's it."
"That's it? That's your answer to my question?"
"Yes."
"Well, thank you for your time."

Applause, photographs, autographs.

6 comments:

Dina Ali said...

God,This is so true but at the end of the day.Our stuff is OUR stuff!! at least the man is trying to clean some places like you have mentioned the Egyptian museum.

Marie said...

Wow. Amazing.

Yasir, you know what to ask.

Marie said...

Here's a photo of when I ran into the Doc out at Dahshur. I tried to stir him up by telling him about the New Age chanters nearby, but he just laughed at them.

Anonymous said...

Get off your writer's block (ok, that was another word till I decided to get polite) and blog.

I spent a year in Kuwait and enjoy reading what you have to say. So - off your butt and to work.

Best regards

Anonymous said...

seems to me they should spend more time trying to preserve what treasures they do have rather than reaquiring others. i find it rather disgusting to see chipsy packages dropped carelessly to the ground at the citadel on eid. or mido loves zizi scratched into a wall at haram. or flyers plastered to the sides of the aquaducts. soot from garbage fires that have stained fatimid archetecture. but oh how they love to scream about egypt being the mother of the world, dont they?! with a mother like that i think i would practice matricide!

Yasir Khan said...

I was with you for the neglect part. But matricide is taking it a bit too far, don't you think? Chill out. Smoke something.