Tuesday 2 February 2010

"Cosmopolitan" behaviour

The collectors of dugup antiquities claim that their activities promote "cultural understanding", that they have a cosmopolitan outlook on World Culture to which others (non-collectors like myself) can never aspire. This is the basis of Cunoesque "Universalism". I really would question whether collecting bits of archaeological sites like shabti figures or cleaning and hoarding bucketloads of dugup Constantinian camp gate and "Fel Temp Rep" coins really does promote international cultural understanding in any way. This is even more unsustainable in the context of some of the other arguments used by the same ranters (and also Mr Cuno), that most often the modern population of a land has no conceivable link with the ancient inhabiants of the region compared with the US or British dugup antiquities collector (an argument I do not accept anyway).

Personally, I think a far more effective way to understand a culture is to live among its bearers. Living here in Upper Egypt for the past couple of months, one learns very quickly what the cultural norms are and is careful not to act in a way which shows (and engenders) disrespect. One of the issues involves an unspoken dress code for males and females alike. Both sexes dress in a manner which hides not only bare flesh, but even the shape of the body. That is how it is, it is neither good nor bad, but a female student venturing outside the tourist zone in tight jeans and flowing red locks (Hi, Kamilla !) knows that she tends to attract more attention than is pleasant from the local "gentlemen". But we are guests in their country, I guess a Papuan New Guinean should not really expect to walk through Central Birmingham naked or wearing nothing but a very long penis sheath and attract no attention. In fact, even in liberal Great Britain, even today he probably would run the risk of being arrested for public nudity.

Members of our team are therefore careful about how they behave and dress when out and about. Sadly for those who know what the local norms are, there is much to criticise in the dress styles of the "cultural tourists" we see daily in our place of work doing their version of the Grand Tour, cameras in hand rushing overnight from their Red Sea coast resorts to do in one day "Karnak, Valley of Kings, Hatshepsut's Temple, alabaster factory and back to the hotel". Visitor numbers at the Temple reach 8000 a day. Many of the tourists clearly have no idea of (or perhaps simply do not care about) what impression they are creating among the local inhabitants by the way they behave while they are guests in a foreign country. Thankfully most of them are shielded from the real locals, they are herded in their tour groups from one sun-baked monument to another, cameras clicking away. They meet mainly the gaffirs (guards) and souvenir peddlars, both of whom one may suspect see them mainly as totally naïve walking wallets (though the more one has contact with both groups, the more one sympathises with the locals). There is also the conviction among the natives of the region that European women dress and behave immodestly and so therefore the normal rules of behaviour towards women need not apply - as many a female tourist walking around a place like Luxor can probably testify. Men in shorts or walking around shirtless also look very much out of place here, Luxor is not Hurghada.

Just a few days ago there was a spate of people visiting the Temple in dress that was extremely unsuitable for the local conditions. Its hot work being a gaffir, and after lunch last week Saïd the Temple Guard was sitting on the ground in the shade just by the entrance to the upper portico watching the people walk past into the centre of the monument just as the excavation team was returning to work. It is unclear who noticed her first, Saïd or my colleague Sarah, but they exchanged knowing glances and she snatched a few shots on my camera as the individual in question gazed into the darkness of the Sanctuary of Amun. After she had gone, a hastily convened unofficial commission of the expedition fashion police failed to reach agreement on what precisely the lady in question, a Russian, was or was not wearing. They were however of the opinion that she was not dressed in the most appropriate manner for visiting Upper Egypt, whoever she was and whatever she thought she was doing.

In the clash of civilisations, whose value system should be applied, that which is most aggressive or the more culturally inoffensive? The same of course applies to those collectors enforcing their "rights" to do whatever they please to get decontextualised pieces of somebody else's archaeological heritage in the name of spreading "cosmopolitan values". That is their own values at the expense of others.

Photos: "townswomen in upper Egypt" top (photo PMB); "tourist bottom", (photo Sarah Fortune).

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