Cairo, Egypt, Present Time
Clorice Didactic-Descry, assistant professor of Middle Eastern Archaeology, at the University in Toronto, and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) agent-on-contract, was attending the World Archaeological Society Conference in Cairo. CSIS had become aware that private ‘museums’ had become all the rage amongst Canada’s celebrated business elite. Top dollar was being paid both legally and illegally in the age-old pursuit for prestige. Recently, an insurance claim had been filed for the theft of a lapis-lazuli, carnelian and gold necklace, claimed to have once belonged to the ersatz-bearded female pharaoh Hapshetsut, from one of these corporate collections.
In the hopes that the insurance agency would not have to pay out the claim, they contacted CSIS on the off-chance that the item was contraband. With Clorice’s expert assistance, CSIS determined that the necklace had in fact been a legitimately obtained forgery from an on-line auction site from a supplier in the Netherlands, just the year before. Clorice’s investigations also uncovered clues to what appeared to be a very illegal and lucrative Egyptian antiquities black-market with all fingers clearly pointing to a Canadian source in Egypt’s Western Desert.
After the lessons learned from The Toronto Museum’s Western Desert Oasis scandal in the late 20th century, this time CSIS dutifully relayed Clorices’ intelligence to their Egyptian counterparts.
At the official request of the Egyptian government, CSIS asked Clorice to attend the Archaeological Society Conference in Cairo. After the conference, Clorice would spend the rest of the winter checking out the largest Canadian-funded archaeological field camp in Egypt’s Western Desert in the hopes of finding out some information about Canada’s role in the Egyptian antiquities black market. In return for her intelligence work, CSIS provided Clorice with research funding and a moderate stipend during her sabbatical year. For a Canadian Middle Eastern Archaeologist, research funding was almost impossible to obtain – even given Clorice’s eminence in her field, particularly after the Canadian federal government’s visceral gutting of non-economic research in Canada over the years.
No matter how many times she visited, Clorice was always spellbound by the paradoxical tapestry that defines Egypt in general, and Cairo, Africa’s largest city in particular. Cairo is a megalopolis of 16 million people and growing. It is a city where poorly educated peasants will give their last pigeon and tea with sugar to a stranger, and rich, well-educated citizens will walk past children begging for a pen or pencil so they can go to school. While starvation in Cairo is almost unheard of, as Islamic fundamentalist organizations’ wise social policies take care of the needy that the state itself has marginalized (the ultimate enrolment tool), there is a great gulf between the rich and the poor.
Egypt is a romantic country if one can tune out the oppressive poverty of the have-nots, an up to 94% female genital mutilation rate, an increasing disregard for gender equality that makes Mubarak’s dictatorship seem like the good old days, a bewildering blend of forward-moving secular modernization policies counterpointed by the backward pull of growing religious fundamentalism that favours the narrative of the few over the many, and an increasing and frightening downward spiral of xenophobia. On the other had, the archaeological and physical landscape of this ancient land is formidable, and its people kind and generous.
Clorice had spent the better part of the last three days sitting and watching the world go by, in the faded yet still fabulous Taverne au Champ de Mars on the main floor of the Ritz-Carleton’s Nile Hotel. The hotel is situated at the eastern edge of Taharir Square – the epicenter of modern Cairo and the focal point of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. The Taverne’s atmosphere was elegant, albeit a bit worn; and discrete, reflecting in full glory the 1890’s art nouveau decor that had been carefully shipped from Brussels. Somehow the mixture of multicolored glass grape-cluster lamps, bevelled stained glass windows, elegantly hand carved dark wood wainscotting and soft oriental music transported one back into a world that elsewhere had died long ago. A world veiled by sepia coloured glasses and a rainbow of intoxicating elixirs. A world which still whispered romantic nothings in reticent sighs.
The Taverne was also one of the few drinking establishments where an unchaperoned female could sit without being targeted by local charming dark-eyed financial and sexual predators, and a long-established late Thursday night watering hole where two-spirited individuals could meet in relative safety (although they do need to be ever vigilant of the state-supported gay-bashing sex police).