Tuesday, 26 July 2011

"A Slur on the Egyptian People"

Commenting on a story about Zahi Hawass in the National (Youssef Hamza, 'Egypt's own 'Indiana Jones', Zahi Hawas, is pushed from power', National [Abu Dhabi Media company] Jul 25, 2011), Nigel Hetherington (Past Preservers) commented on the bit which says:
"Looters also bedevilled Mr Hawass. On the night of January 28, looters ran free in Cairo after a day of deadly clashes between anti-regime protesters and Mr Mubarak's security forces. The Egyptian Museum, on the edge of Tahrir Square, was broken into and ransacked just hours after army troops were deployed. The soldiers did nothing to stop the criminals"
This appears to have annoyed him. He ignores the fact that, by all accounts, the vandalism and looting of the museum took place before the soldiers took up posts in and around the Museum. He is more concerned with the other part of that passage. He says:
I really wish journalists would do their homework, this is old news now discredited and a slur on the Egyptian people!
He then got irritated that I questioned that statement and explained somewhat touchily:
Cut the tone down a level Paul, [...] its well accepted by most sane folk that the museum was not "ransacked" and that the Egyptian people stopped any further damage by agents of the old regime!
Now in my opinion, it is wrong to say that the story was "discredited". Call me "insane" if you like, but the Museum was indeed ransacked, that is what I would call the smashing of the showcase glass, the ripping out and removal of objects from those cases and their scattering across the floor of the Museum, including those mummy heads. The carrying off of some of the objects into the darkness from which some were recovered, some in the garden, some in the area outside the museum, some others in unexplained circumstances falls within what I think most of us would call "ransacking" and "looting". Is Mr Hetherington now saying this never happened? That this version of events has now been "discredited" (by whom, and where is this reported)? Or does he think it did not happen on the 28th January?

That it was "agents of the old regime" who had done all this (in the Egyptian Museum) has been a theme of my discussion of the whole affair from the moment I went to the Museum and was able to see for myself the traces they had left. What is notable is that there has not been a post-revolutionary peep of reaction from the Museum "professionals" about this, not a hint that we will ever learn from them what happened that night. Instead, those of us who try to piece together the information, such as it is, that emerges from our fellow heritage "professionals" over there in Egypt are criticised for doing so.

What is meant as a "slur on the Egyptian people"? Who does Dr Hetherington count in that group, and more to the point who does he exclude? It probably was not aliens from Alpha Centuri taking advantage of the riots to come back to earth, teleport themselves into the Museum to get their clobber back that had been left aeons ago when they helped build the pyramids. Neither do I think it very likely that these were Argentinian or Mexican agents in the employment of Mubarak's Interior Ministry. Surely the dastardly deed(s) was/were done by Egyptian nationals, who may or may not have (supposed to have) been working for somebody in the Mubarak regime. Are they therefore not counted as "the Egyptian people"? Whoever they were were they not the product of the same socio-political and cultural development of the past few decades of Egyptian history as the people outside in the Square?

I think it is very dangerous thinking to treat political alignment as some kind of ethnic divider. I saw the same thing in Poland in 1989 when we had our revolution, the tendency to blame everything on "the Communists", rather than take a step back and identify broader national characteristics which were responsible for the (many) faults in a society trying to reconstruct itself after political collapse. Poland did it, but Poland had a huge head start in many ways on the Egyptians. This is why it is important that the latter should not be allowed to fall into the traps of schematic thinking about society and the way it is heading. I'd say archaeology (that which is more anthropological-orientated rather than the object typology-art/culture-history brand) has a place in exploring cultural variety and identity and the way we look at them, so it would be nice to see archaeologists working in Egypt having a slightly more nuanced approach to these issues. Also, in passing, I personally would not be so sure that it is not premature speaking of "the old regime"...

As for the "Egyptian people stopped any further damage by these agents", we are on to that story about the "human chain". If the agents were inside the Museum, and "the Egyptian people" outside, how according to Dr Hetherington did they stop the damage in the Museum? What actually did happen that night? Will we ever break through the fog of myth and misdirection? When will the Egyptian Museum staff find its voice?

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