Zahi Hawass has never been terribly shy about sharing his opinion, and by now everyone with even a peripheral interest in either Egyptology or R&B music has heard about the Beyonce incident. But while most coverage has ranged from treating Dr. Hawass like an irascible uncle to bemoaning his lack of diplomacy, there is a larger story broiling beneath what otherwise appears to be a clash between a frustrated host and a spoiled Western Diva.
With timing that could be considered an example of instant karma, the November 16, 2009, issue of The New Yorker hit newsstands with a ten-page article by Ian Parker that asks “Is Zahi Hawass bad for Egyptology?”
So in case you haven’t heard, Zahi Hawass called Beyonce a “stupid person.”
While on a recent visit to the Giza Pyramids the pop-star failed to show a sufficient level of interest, treating the occasion as a mere photo opportunity. Not previously noted for her interest in Egyptology, Beyonce rather shallowly treated the Giza monuments as a backdrop to highlight her own celebrity. Ignoring for the moment any benefit he may have gained from having Beyonce as a backdrop to his own celebrity, Dr. Hawass (not previously noted for his interest in R&B music) became offended.
“She’s a stupid person and she doesn’t understand a thing and she doesn’t want to understand” Hawass reportedly said (Source: Bikya Masr – Egypt’s Zahi Hawass calls Beyonce “stupid person”).
But the real story in the Bikya Masr article doesn’t start until the third paragraph from the end. “He insults and is so controlling that it has become extremely difficult to work in this country,” was the response of one archaeologist, speaking under condition of anonymity.
Further down, another anonymous archaeologist voiced her/his own disdain for the General Secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities—and now Vice Minister of Culture—also asking for his/her identity to be protected. Celebrity tabloids aside, the real story beneath the story is the extent of Dr. Hawass’ control and why professionals in the field are afraid to speak out.
The New Yorker article, “Letter from Cairo – The Pharaoh: The man who controls Egyptology” pretty much sums up its content with its title. Although Dr. Hawass might disagree, the article is not a hatchet-piece. Writer Ian Parker does an admirable job of treating the complex subject of the man who stands “at the intersection of archaeology, show business, and national politics” with fairness. Parker gives a just account of Dr. Hawass’ efforts to “Egyptianize Egyptology” and concedes that Hawass has decolonialized Egyptology largely by force of his own personality.
But Parker doesn’t shy away from showing Zahi Hawass as a despot, benevolent or otherwise. He quotes Dr. Hawass’ long-time friend and colleague, Salima Ikram of the American University of Cairo, as describing his tenure at the SCA as a “dictatorship,” noting that SCA press releases often announce discoveries while neglecting to name who made the discovery (p. 54).
Zahi Hawass wears his power as comfortably and casually as his trademark Stetson. “To control all of this,” Parker quotes him as saying, “you have to make them fear you and make them love you at the same time” (p. 61). Whether professionals working in Egypt are feeling the love is an open question, but the fear of Zahi has clearly been instilled.
In addition to the two archaeologists quoted in Bikya Masr, Ian Parker spoke with several people who felt a need to protect their identities. Again, Dr. Hawass’ power and how he wields it was at issue. One cited the case of Joann Fletcher, who was made persona non grata for allegedly going public with her work without first submitting her findings to the SCA, a charge her team denies (p. 54).
Another source went so far as to say that Egyptologists fear making the sort of discovery that would attract Hawass’ attention. The implication is clear—angering Zahi, or even finding something he would have rather found himself, can be fatal for your career.
Which brings us back to the real story beneath the Zahi/Beyonce dust up.
In the case of both articles—Bikya Masr and The New Yorker—archaeologists and others working in the field in Egypt do not feel free to speak out about what they perceive as unprofessional, and on occasion unethical, behavior by Dr. Hawass because they fear retribution. In one particularly telling example, Duncan Lee, a 3D imaging specialist with a production crew filming Dr. Hawass in 2004, made the mistake of raising the Good Doctor’s ire.
“You’ll never work in Egypt again,” Zahi Hawass allegedly threatened, “You’ll never get home. Your equipment will disappear” (Parker, p. 54).
One can’t help but wonder how things will change with Dr. Hawass as Vice Minister of Culture, especially now that he has decided to retain his position with the SCA as well. What is that old saying about absolute power?
- Squelching Scholarship? The Case of Ahmed Saleh
- Zahi Hawass to the Terrible God Set: Silence!
- Nefertiti, the Life and Death of King Tut, and KV64: The October Checklist
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2009. All rights reserved.