There is only the straight way – insights into Egypt’s antiquities organisation

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by Ursula Kampmann

July 17, 2014 – Go to the pub. After a couple of pints even the most complex problem will be solved in two shakes. However, most of the solutions won’t help you anything at all since the common division of the world into black and white, good and bad does not work with complex problems. Instead you will meet with prejudice, human weakness, ignorance, and greed. No easy answer is available how to fight them but only the constant effort employing one’s commitment, skill, and integrity. Waafa El Saddik has all these characteristics. She has championed her country’s archaeology with all her power and describes what impediments she had to face.

Wafaa El Saddik mit Rüdiger Heimlich, Es gibt nur den geraden Weg. Mein Leben als Schatzhüterin Ägyptens. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne, 2013. 21 x 13.5cm, 361 p., b/w illustrations. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-3-462-04535-2. 19.99 euros.

Born in 1950 she was part of the rich and privileged upper class. Her grandfather is a big landowner and watches like a patriarch over weal and woe of his tenants. Her family is of Muslim faith and at the same time, as it was common practice then, they are open to the Western culture. Her father is one of the engineers who plays a part at the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Young Wafaa would never consider veiling or burqinis any more than one of her age-mates in Munich or London. No wonder this family allows the daughters to go to university. And that is how Waafa El Saddik realises her passion for egyptology.

After undergrade studies Eygptian students are entitled to a position in the service of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. What a shame that they are only looking for young men. Women are relegated to an office without any task. Waafa El Saddik does not accept this treatment. She obtains a transfer to field work and experiences indignantly that even there she is not assigned any task at all. The foreign excavation teams virtually ignore her. Only gradually she understands why. With her enthusiasm she is a complete exception. Her colleagues are not prepared to do the real and dirty work. They only sit in their office and extort some tip now and then.

Waafa El Saddik proves, though, that she is different. To her it is all about learning from the foreigners who have a better education. And these foreigners share their knowledge deliberately when they realise her genuine interest. Colleagues procure the dedicated Egyptian woman one scholarship after the other. So Waafa El Saddik travels to the US, takes a doctoral degree in Vienna, and in Cologne she meets the man of her life with whom she will live in Germany for 16 years. Here she has many friends, here her two sons were born. Cologne becomes her second home.
Her intimacy with Western culture makes her realising soon the differences in mentality. She observes how some scholars attend to the most basic tasks free of any personal vanity and how politicians communicate with citizens on an equal footing. (Politely she skips the fact that in this country there are other types of people as well.) Her description of how she met Helmut Satzinger who was to become her doctoral adviser is matchless: In his work coat he cheerfully lies on the floor while quickly repairing a showcase personally.
In all these years Waafa El Saddik learns; enthusiastically she learns everything that may come in handy when you want to conduct an excavation better, organise a museum more sensibly, or arrange a deposit neatlier. She comes to know the up-to-date state of museum technology, museum education and studies. When Zahi Hawass, in 2002, offers her the management of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo she is a true citizen of two worlds and hopes to make use of all her knowledge for the benfit of her country.

In 2003 some 5,000 tourists visited the Egyptian Museum every day. So every day the museum accounted for one million Egypt pounds (at the time around 125,000 euros) of entrance fees. That means ca. 45 million euros in solid years. This budget is abundant for taking such an institution to modern standards. The means generated by the museum do not return to it, though. Instead they are transferred through the Department of Culture into the accounts of the Egpytian government. The government, in turn, concedes the museum a budget (withouth labour costs) of 2,000 Egyptian pounds. No, not per day but per year.
In addition, the wages are miserable. The director receives 750 pounds per month which equals approximately 100 euros. With additional fees she makes it 2,250 pounds. And she would not have been able to live on that. Only the rent for a flat in one of Cairo’s elegant quarters amounts to 6,000 pounds. But her husband has earned himself a German pension after his working as a pharmacist in Cologne. This income maintains her and pays the school fee of her children. Thanks to that Wafaa el Saddik is not in need of making compromises.
At any rate she is in a comfortable position compared with the common workers! These men receive less than 200 pounds, that means less than one euro per day. Pension plan or health insurance? Definitely not! When one of the cleaning crew who works for a subcontractor falls from a high ladder the museum’s paramedics deny him the ambulance purchased only for the tourists. The hospital accepts to take care of the severly injured man only after being paid in advance for the first care.
Everywhere Waafa El Saddik meets injustice. She is particularly furious about the rampant corruption. That starts with the cleaning crew who extorts a fee from tourists for using the toilet; they share this fee with the head of security whose official task was to stop exactly this custom. Overpriced and useless showcases are delivered because an underpaid official tries to make a fortune with the commission. A congress on museum education must be held in an overpriced 5 star hotel because the mayor and the local representative of the Supreme Council of Antiquities succeed in preventing its realisation in the much less expensive premises of an institution. After all the institution had never paid such a profitable commission fee!
There is no end to the examples. But Waafa El Saddik never generalises. Instead she describes one single case after the other. And she proudly lists her successes, too. How she motivated many of the staff and initiated a small social fund for the members of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. She tells us of her enormous task to face the deposit under the Egyptian Museum where she not only cleared out the Augean stable but even catalogues it. Among many other things in the deposit the objects from excavations of various expeditions have been stocked, some of them since decades and still in their original packaging. And she is still glad about the museum tours for blind Egyptian children and her cooperation with Lego which led to a children’s museum.

And of course Wafaa El Saddik describes how she becomes a troublemaker in the Zahi Hawass / Mubarak system where Egyptian antiquities are used as a means of politics and for enriching politicians. The director of the Egyptian Museum tries to inhibit this method as effectively as her position permits. She refuses when they try to rope her in this shady game – which brings her repeatedly before court.
Machination over machination aim at removing her from her position. ‘On some days, Zahi Hawass gives me hell’, as the writer puts it. Nevertheless she shows great strenght of character when she praises the great service Zahi Hawass has rendered to the tourism industry.

What happened after her leaving during the revolution in Egypt and the completely helpless reaction of the Supreme Council of Antiquities has left her full of consternation. Many things she simply cannot understand. The reader, though, who followed her through 361 pages, can. Those who read between the lines understand very well the terrible consequences of the inhuman behaviour of some greedy officials at the switchpoints of power right in this moment of a collapsing central power.

In this short book review it is impossible to expand on the abundancy of the knowledge of details offered by Wafaa El Saddik. In writing the book she was assisted by the Cologne-based journalist Rüdiger Heimlich who has composed an easily readable text the reader will devour like a romance.
Naturally one must not forget that even Ms El Saddik has her very peculiar point of view. However, this point of view seems to be always so nuanced and profound that the book may stimulate the debate of culturale property issues. The readers will be provided with such detailed knowledge that they can stand up against all those ‘pub cultural property activists’ of the world who account the market for the only scapegoat responsible of the destruction of our common human heritage.

If it was just so simple, one might answer.

Unfortunately the book has not yet been translated into English. The international debate of cultural property issues would certainly benefit of an international distribution of this work.