The Egyptian Museum came up with a wonderful idea some years ago. They launched a summer art class for children on the museum’s premises. The children would be taken on a tour of a particular wing of the museum, helped to appreciate the ancient Egyptian artifacts on exhibit, given a bit of the history of these artifacts, all of which they would then use in class (set up in a room in the museum’s basement) as inspiration for a variety of arts projects, including drawing, sculpting, and so on.
The idea was brilliant in conception, even if somewhat disappointing in execution. Finally, there was an initiative designed to connect Egyptian children to their magnificent ancient heritage in an interactive, stimulating manner that transcends the crudely propagandistic and dreary rote learning methods through which Ancient Egypt (and pretty much everything else) is introduced to our children in the school system. As soon as I found out about the program I enrolled my son, Hossam, then around 10 years of age.
Constructed in 1900, the neo-classical building of the Egyptian Museum, which to this day houses the largest collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities anywhere, is situated in what urban development has transformed into the very heart of Cairo, the chaotic and ever transmutating Tahrir Square.
Surrounded by two Hilton hotels, standing a short stretch away from the headquarters of the Arab League and besieged by sprawling roads and flyovers, designed piecemeal to ease the endless flow of motorized vehicles, inhibit street demonstrations and kill all but the most nimble pedestrians, access to the museum is a Herculean task, with all the dangers to life and limb associated with such. A bad situation was doubly compounded by the wave of militant Islamist terrorism of the 1990s which, by targeting foreign tourism, helped transform five star hotels throughout the country into virtual police barracks, and by virtue of a 1997 attack, set the museum itself as a potentially high-order target – what with its being top full of heathen idols from the ancient past as well as infidel tourists from the contemporary present.
Subtlety is not among the more identifiable traits of the Egyptian security bodies. Indeed, their domestic “war on terror must have served as a template for George W. Bush’s global effort launched a decade later.
Last week an Egyptian citizen, Amgad Hussein, was stripped, tortured and sexually abused at a police checkpoint, while traveling with his family to South Sinai – the country’s most up-and-coming foreign tourist destination, and hence a new-found target for terrorist attacks. According to press reports, the State Security Investigations department had learned that Al-Qaeda terrorists (which we’ve been assured repeatedly do not exist in the country) were planning a bombing attack on tourism resorts in South Sinai using a laptop. Hussein had a laptop that was only a laptop in his possession.
In the minds of Egyptian officialdom, the Egyptian Museum and South Sinai are abstracted from their concrete forms – beach resorts and stuffy corridors full of mislabeled treasures translate into identical dollar signs. And these are to be protected at all costs.
The street before the Egyptian Museum is closed to all traffic save licensed tourist buses. Egyptians pedestrians are belligerently asked to state their business – and, more often than not, to produce identification – merely for venturing onto the street.
Yet undaunted and filled with enthusiasm on that memorable day five years ago I nevertheless negotiated the harrowing process of finding parking, taking my 10-year old boy by the hand and hazarding the street crossings, climbing onto and off of the privatized, ever mounting side-walks that must have contributed to making Egypt’s disabled the top champions of the Paralympics. With great steadfastness I calmly negotiated also the humiliating exercise of an Egyptian citizen having to gain police permission to walk onto a public Egyptian street. Until, with now a thoroughly exhausted and dispirited child in tow, I arrived at the gate of the museum. “Where are you going? the policeman standing at the gate blandly asked me. It was the last straw.
The realization suddenly hit me that Egyptians did not belong in the Egyptian Museum. This was not the great home of our ancient heritage but a bazaar for foreign tourists – merely a large and rambling stall of curios which foreigners, in their strange ways, like to spend money on, and which will eventually spin off and spill over into our pockets, each according to how much he can grab. An Egyptian going into the Egyptian Museum is either a crazed terrorist wanting to blow it up sky high, or some depraved, sexually starved lout wanting to ogle and/or hit on mini-skirted foreign women. Both of which are presumably alien to our 5000-year old civilization, so jealously safeguarded by our ever vigilant police force – for the sake of our “image abroad and even more foreign tourists.