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

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.

11 thoughts on “The American Anthropological Association and Egypt: It’s Mostly About the Artifacts?

  1. Now the destruction of the Bamiyan buddhas makes sense. It never really did before. Thanks for that. I also didn’t know that tasteless tourists were more welcome in Egypt’s museums than citizens who were wearing someone’s idea of inappropriate clothing. Not modern enough, perhaps, or more likely not Western enough.

    Some people said that security guards or police at Egyptian museums were behind some of the looting. It may be true. There is no unrest or uprising that goes unexploited by someone looking for profit. Many art works from Baghdad’s museums disappeared (somebody knows where they are) or showed up on war correspondents’ office walls. They seemed to get much more coverage than the fate of the people in these situations.

    There are too many talking heads reporting on the Egyptian story, mostly about what their “leaders” think about it all or how it will affect their countries. I can understand why many people turned to Al Jazeera to find out what was happening. Most western news outlets tried to undercount or underplay the number of people who were protesting. I was astonished and full of admiration for Egyptians who would no longer accept a illegitimate regime which existed to please just about everyone else but Egyptian citizens.

    One final thought on mummies – they make me sad. Ancients who thought their remains would spend eternity dreaming under the sands or going to the next world have been removed from their resting places and put on display. I know it can’t possibly bother them any more but it just doesn’t seem right.

    There was a photo gallery of the mummies of Capuchin in the Vancouver Sun recently. Originally meant for the monks, the practice of mummification was extended to rich or connected people outside the religious community. The saddest were the small children, one dressed beautifully with a bow in her hair, who were preserved so that their relatives could visit them, sometimes even change their clothes. Thankfully, the practice stopped in the 1930’s, I believe, although the place is still a tourist spot.

    Not for me, though.

  2. YES!
    This line of discussion is long overdue. There was a long exchange on the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) listserve among those who “get it”, and those who have never gotten over the hump of “getting it”. Of course, the “it” is the understanding of what it means when the anthropologist who has been over that hump tries to explain to an archaeologist or to an anthropologist who has never gotten over the hump what that hump is. It resembles the problem of how to explain to someone who lives on a tropical atoll, and does not have and has never seen a refrigerator, what ice is.

    In the case of the WACkies, it was between those who supported the right of living people who claimed to be related to the ancient pre-Christian religions of the Britsh Isles. Like modern traditionalists among the aboriginal peoples of North America who wear Levi’s and Stetsons, these claimants to the indigenous British cultural traditions were laughed out of the listserve by about 70% of those who commented; because that 70% of those professional anthropologists and archaeologists had never been over the hump.

    Let me be more expliscit about what I am referring to as “the hump”, or “getting “it””. There is a reason that fieldwork is/was/sometimes by some considered to be the initiation rites for becoming a cultural anthropologist or ethnographer/ethnologist. Fieldwork was the opportunity for “getting it”. For seeing that the people whom the candidate for “anthropologist” was working with lived in an experiential reality that was a “separate reality” from that in which the candidate for “Anthroplogist” lives in.

    Once you “get it”; then you agree with and applaud what Max is saying here.
    Artifacts are NOT culture. Living people are the carriers of the culture, and the artifacts are the products of technology that the culture utilizes, sometimes to express the thoughts feelings of the people, through cultural metaphor and images of metaphors; but only understood from within the cultural perspective.

    So, in this sense, if you are going to “save” something, there is no question of whether to
    1. help the living Egyptian people or
    2, save the museum which the colonists caused to be built by the members of the Egyptian Society to Colonial specificatios, so their children could see what thy saw before the poor country was “developed”.

    If the museum is destroyed (of course, we hope it wont be); another museum can replace it. If the people who live and understand the culture that created the objects protected in the museum are destroyed; the whole world we are trying to understand is GONE!

  3. Despicable. If this is the American Anthropological Association’s stand on the Egyptian revolution, then we boycott AAA, now.

    I call on all American anthropologists to support the Egyptian people’s right to full, fair and democratic participation in their government, to oppose the horrific violence leveled against the Egyptian protesters, and to demand the withdrawal of American support for the torturer, Suleiman.

    I call on AAA to demand and defend social justice for the Egyptian people, who are well aware of their heritage, and have risked their lives to defend it.

    For godsake, is this what we’ve come to? Is this anthropology?

  4. It stinks, yeah, it sucks.

    From the “Statement of Support for Egypt” :

    “As the prisons are opened, the potential for greater loss is created.”

    People getting out of egyptian prisons, what could be more worrysome and catastrophic than that ?

    Next from the AAA : “We fully support the brave work of the egyptian prisons administration in keeping our cultural heritage safe. Keep up the good work bros ! “

  5. Democracy, freedom, and human life are of course more important than antiquities, but that does not mean that antiquities are unimportant, nor is there an either/or choice here. To think otherwise is to mimic the position of Bush and Rumsfeld when they invaded Iraq and ignored the need to protect Iraq’s National Museum and archaeological sites from looting. Yes, the loss to Iraqis of much of their cultural patrimony is not as important as the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, but that doesn’t mean facilitated looting should be ignored as one of the wrongs done to the Iraqi people.

    One can and should be strongly in favor of democracy, freedom, and humanitarian assistance as well as strongly in favor of safeguarding cultural heritage. It is the duty of specific intellectuals, in this case archaeologists, to speak out for both the good they care for and the universal human good. To criticize them for doing this is a cheap shot.

  6. Not at all a cheap shot, by any means, when we are talking about human lives. Please. Let’s keep things in perspective please–it may not be either/or, but it certainly is not the case that things should be valued as much as people, as if they were equivalent and could be held to be of equal importance (the way some do, not yourself in this case). In the case of the AAA statement, much more space is devoted to antiquities. One cannot even say “cultural heritage,” because if this concept does not include living Egyptians and what they are creating, then it is practically worthless.

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