The American Anthropological Association and Egypt: It’s Mostly About the Artifacts?

Posted on February 5, 2011 by

I was getting really upset that every time I went on a show, all you would see is “Crisis in Cairo,” “Unrest in Egypt.” And they were totally missing the historical significance of what was happening. My country, you know, my people, these incredibly courageous people in Egypt, were standing up to a tyrant of 30 years, and all they wanted to focus on was this looting, that was clear at the time and now has been proven to be linked to the Mubarak regime. And all they wanted to ask was, “Are American citizens safe? And how are the artifacts in Egypt?” And I said, “Look, everybody is safe. We all care about the artifacts, but can we please talk about Egyptians and what a historic moment this is?” —Mona El-Tahawy, Egyptian journalist

In a first-rate public exercise of missing the point, the American Anthropological Association released a statement on 02 February, in conjunction with the Archaeological Institute of America, misleadingly titled “Statement of Support for Egypt.” After getting past the brief formality of noting that Egyptian lives and rights are being trampled upon, the statement goes on to focus on the fate of the artifacts housed at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities–visited by countless tourists, and a specialized class of tourists known as archaeologists. Self-interest, anyone? Indeed, the statement is 190 words, of which at most 31 are devoted to Egyptian lives and rights, and 150 are devoted to the blessed artifacts.

One has to hope that few Egyptians will read the statement, or give it much thought, or it could fuel a rage that is exclusively reserved for the artifacts. One should recall how in March of 2001, the Taleban then ruling Afghanistan decided to destroy the giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan, that in turn inflamed public opinion abroad. What sparked the decision was the fact that UNESCO and European delegations had offered to spend money restoring the statues, at a time when international economic sanctions were hurting Afghanistan, and when other UN officials were simultaneously warning of the worsening of famine in the country. The Taleban had been requesting international aid to help a million Afghans confront starvation–but instead only an art restoration project was offered, for the statues. Is it a wonder then that in a fit of indignation and rage the Taleban vented their fury on precisely the sole objects that occupied Western concerns? Which is the greater of the outrages?

Nor did the AAA statement mention the Egyptian authorities’ practice of denying entry to the museum by locals dressed in galabiyasNora Shalaby (photo), an Egyptian archaeologist at the Cairo Museum, reports that there were a number of times “whereby Egyptians who are not considered ‘civilized’ enough are denied entry into the museum so as not to tarnish Egypt’s image in front of foreigners! At the same time tourists are allowed to roam freely in the museum with bare chests, and wearing bikni tops and hot pants in complete disregard to the country’s culture.” So, as 3arabawy put it sarcastically, “those dirty, uncivilized Egyptians” were blocked access, but not of course foreigners, some of whom then publish statements like we read above, where the Egyptians are themselves worth little more than a passing mention, restored to their place as wallpaper for an American spectacle.

Sometimes, misplaced concerns and misdirected sentiments can provoke the exact opposite of what is sought. What is of far greater concern is not the relics of a remote past, but whether Egyptians will be allowed to build a better future, free of the weight of intervention by the government that the American anthropologists’ statement failed to condemn: their very own.