Indiana Hawass and the pharaoh’s curse

 
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By Osama Diab

Zahi Hawass may liken himself to Indiana Jones, but the minister of antiquities is one artifact of the old regime Egyptians want to live without.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Zahi Hawass, one of Egypt’s top archaeologists, symbolises the point where our proud and glorious past intersects with a bleak and uncertain present. In the minds of many Egyptians, he is associated with Egypt’s modern corrupt rulers rather than the great pharaohs of ancient times.

In Arabic, the word ‘pharaoh’ always has positive connotations except when it’s used to describe an absolute and ruthless ruler or manager. This is exactly the kind of pharaoh Hawass was in the eyes of many of his compatriots.

Since Hosni Mubarak’s departure from office, protests that demanded the removal of Hawass from his position as minister of antiquities were uninterrupted. These were held by fellow archaeologists, the guards of heritage sites, or simply Tahrir Square protesters who see him as an antiquity that they have no interest in embalming from the era of Egypt’s most recent pharaoh, Mubarak.

This pressure has yielded results and Hawass did lose the job he was offered during the 18-day revolution in a cabinet shuffle that aimed, but failed, to calm down angry anti-Mubarak protesters.

If Egyptian archaeology was a country, then certainly Hawass would be its Mubarak. Just like his former boss, he is besieged by allegations about his business interests, accusations of turning Egypt’s archaeology into a one-man show by claiming credit for scientific findings and being the sole speaker about Egyptology in the local and international media. Of course, he’s also committed the unforgivable sin of being one of Mubarak’s favourite men.

Hawass is the epitome of the kind of self-centred, egocentric and possibly charismatic figure that the revolution has risen against, along with the kind of Mubarak-era politics he used to symbolise. Even though he’s been called Egypt’s Indiana Jones, the name that probably describes him best is his very own, Zahi, which means vain or conceited in Arabic.

Evidence of his narcissistic personality is not difficult to find. In April, he launched a clothing line named after himself in Harrods, and his latest book, A Secret Voyage, is Egypt’s most expensive book ever, carrying a price tag of 22,000 Egyptian pounds (about £2,300) with only 750 copies printed, and all signed by Egyptian archaeologists.

With his rock-star attitude, Hawass might have managed to bring archaeology more into the headlines – not necessarily because of his fine discoveries or first-class research, but mainly because of his rather eccentric behaviour. Even though the man was, or made himself, synonymous with Egyptian archaeology in the minds of many, whoever succeeds Hawass is certainly not going to be the media sensation he managed to be. Hawass will be missed by journalists searching for colourful and amusing stories, but unlike his ancestors, this pharaoh’s mystique might be short-lived as a symbol of an unpopular bygone era in Egypt’s history.

The sacking of Hawass, Egypt’s latest victim of the revolution, shows that the 18-day revolution was only the mother of numerous baby revolutions against little pharaohs or mini-Mubaraks in ministries, universities, factories, political parties and so on, and his departure marks another victory for those trying to clear the country of its deep-rooted authoritarianism.

This article first appeared in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian on 22 July 2011. Discussion of this article is available here. Republished with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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A shop window on Egyptian history

 
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By Khaled Diab

The buyers of Harrods are reportedly planning to take over Egypt’s oldest department store, Omar Effendi, whose story mirrors Egypt’s modern history.

10 September 2010

Harrods is a quintessentially English institution. But ever since the flamboyant and controversial  Mohamed al-Fayed, whom the British establishment love to hate though he effectively became one of them, took control of it in the 1980s, it has also become an Egyptian icon of sorts.

But now that Egyptian connection has been severed following the takeover of the landmark department store by a Qatari group. My wife even wonders whether the new owners will keep the incredibly kitsch and narcissistic ‘Egyptian Hall’ which el-Fayed created as an ode to his native Egypt, but also to himself, decorated as it is with Ancient Egyptian busts that bear a striking resemblance to the Egyptian billionaire. Since it is apparently a registered monument, they will have to.

Now that same Qatari group has its sights set on a similarly iconic establishment in Egypt: Omar Effendi which, at 156 years old, is Egypt’s oldest and best-known chain of department stores.

But whereas Harrods is a byword in exclusivity and operates under the motto, “All things for all people, everywhere”, Omar Effendi – despite its new slogan, “We have what you desire” – is akin to some Kafkaesque bureaucracy with window dressing where service with a grimace or an indifferent sigh remains the norm.

Earlier this year, drawn by the local Omar Effendi’s gleaming new facade, my wife, baby son and I ventured in for a look around. But it soon transpired that the changes brought about by privatisation in 2006 were only skin deep, at least at this branch.

The merchandise looked dated and overpriced, a thin film of dust covered many of the products and employees seemed to outnumber shoppers. The staff carried themselves with that classic muwazaf (employee) demeanour: bored indifference and a body language that said: “I’m not paid enough to do customer care.”

Nevertheless, Omar Effendi, probably Egypt’s most famous Omar after Omar Sharif, deserves its iconic status more than Harrods does. Like a contemporary Sphinx, it has borne witness to and been shaped by the major social and political currents in modern Egypt. As my brother put it: “No one can tell Egypt’s story over the past 150 years better than Omar Effendi.”

Originally named Orosdi-Back (after its Austro-Hungarian Jewish creators, Leon Orosdi and Hermann Back), the first Egyptian branch opened in 1856, when Egypt was under British and French control. It was located in Cairo’s spanking new European quarter, which the Khedive Ismail would later try to transform into a “Paris on the Nile”, nearly bankrupting the treasury in the process.

The once-chic department store, which still stands in downtown Cairo like a fallen diva, started off as Cairo’s answer to Harrods, and was frequented by the city’s large European population and the moneyed Egyptian elite, including the semi-feudal land-owning pasha class. It fed the modernising city’s voracious appetite for all things European and western. When it was taken over in 1920, the new owners changed its name to Omar Effendi (who I’ve finally discovered was apparently a member of the Ottoman sultan’s family).

Omar Effendi continued to expand its operation as an exclusive chain of department stores for the next few decades. Following the Egyptian revolution of 1952, the company was nationalised in 1957. In keeping with President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s egalitarian ethos, Omar Effendi was ‘rebranded’ as the department store for the masses.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Egypt’s new burgeoning middle classes flocked there. Under the socialist theories popular at the time in newly independent countries, Egypt sought to industrialise rapidly through a central command economy and achieve self-sufficiency by producing everything from “the needle to the rocket”. This led to a thriving black market in western products and any family or friends travelling abroad were expected to return laden with exotic gifts.

However, this experiment became bogged down by inefficiency, corruption and an increasingly bloated and dysfunctional bureaucracy. At Omar Effendi, this was reflected in the poor quality and narrow range of domestically produced products on show, the neglect of the chain’s infrastructure, and the muwazaf mentality of its staff.

Since Egypt’s neoliberal economic experiment took off in earnest in the 1990s, Omar Effendi has increasingly grown to resemble a dinosaur, where the new moneyed classes wouldn’t be seen dead shopping. Instead, they flock to the new luxury malls which have multiplied like rabbits – even since I moved away from Egypt less than a decade ago. It will be interesting to see whether the new management will be able to reverse the chain’s fortunes.

My parents’ generation had no option but to shop at Omar Effendi and the other nationalised department stores. My own generation witnessed the early advent of globalisation in Egypt. The current generation can buy pretty much everything you can find in the west. However, in the process, Egypt has exchanged one dystopia for another. It has gone from being a society that aspired to produce everything (albeit badly) to become one that produces just about nothing, with the painful socio-economic and employment consequences of privatisation and liberalisation.

This is the extended version of a column which appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 5 September 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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