Kharga Oasis, Egypt: Present
Without warning, the next morning brought in an anticipated but unexpected storm: Her Very Specialness, The Secretary General of the Supreme Council of National Treasures, Dr. Noora Hamama, accompanied by her large entourage, which included her personal and administrative assistants, a joint Public Broadcasting Station and British Broadcasting Corporation film crew, and reporters from the Egyptian press.
Physically, Dr. Hamama was absolutely beautiful. She bore a striking physical resemblance to a young elfin Audrey Hepburn. She had a well known passion for European haute couture, and true to form, was dressed in chic turquoise linen pants, with a crisp white striped three quarter sleeve linen shirt – which looked simply stunning against the golden, sun-drenched landscape. Her long, waist-length black hair was held back with a classic orange Hermes scarf used as a braided headband. Clawing wafts of Cleo Numero 3 – an expensive smelling intoxicating mixture of jasmine, carnation, lemon, bergamot and benzoin, which she must have poured rather than dabbed on, emanated from the very pores of Her Very Specialness. In her hand she casually clenched a Hermes Matte Crocodile Birkin bag which matched her pants.
In addition to her native Arabic and a few dead languages, she spoke flawless English and French, having obtained her undergraduate degree from the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, and her graduate degrees from the Sorbonne Egyptological Research Centre, and Oxford’s Faculty of Oriental Studies: Near and Middle East.
Her looks and natural elegance were a great asset in developing her very distinctive media persona. Her Very Specialness was known worldwide, from her many appearances on western television in which she promoted Egypt as the destination for archaeo-travel and as the cradle of advanced civilization. A self-promoter extraordinaire…equal parts entertainer, stateswoman, saleswoman, scientist, teacher, and magician, Dr. Hamama excelled at moving forward her political agenda.
A child of the post-Nasser years, Dr. Hamama considered herself first and foremost an Egyptian nationalist and a closet Pharaonist. She had received her exalted position after her eminent predecessor, mentor, and idol died choking on a mouthful of Almas white beluga caviar on a cracker washed the wrong way down with 1990 Cristal Brut “Methuselah” champagne, toasting his most recent discovery with his new-found buddy, the current Egyptian President. The fact that alcohol was involved, an indulgence that is strictly verboten in Islam, through not in Egypt itself, was omitted from the local press coverage of his death; however, this same event was played up by the western media.
Dr. Hamama decided that during her tenure she would focus on nationalizing the study of ancient Egypt. Her personal mandate was to conflate the accomplishments and heritage of ancient Egypt with those of the modern nation state Egypt. She then set out to adopt the propaganda devices Paul Joseph Goebbels implemented in Nazi Germany to meet her current agenda with finesse. Her Very Specialness would never let the truth get in the way of her nationalist agenda.
To strengthen her ever tightening reins on the global Egyptology narrative, Dr. Hamama had final approval on all archaeological work done in Egypt. Anyone who negatively commented on the state of ancient Egyptian, Jewish and Coptic archaeological or historic sites, a very delicate political balancing act, would not be permitted to work in Egypt. It was made very clear that any significant find in Egypt or on Egyptian materials outside of Egypt would be very publicly presented by Her Very Specialness in front of the press. Any researcher who scooped her on her finds – which was all of them – would not be permitted to work in the country again. If she disagreed with a researcher’s interpretation of the data, that researcher was not to publish it, or else would not be permitted to work in the country again. National and international journalists alike were also kept under tight control. Expertly manipulating the State of Emergency Laws that had been in place for over 30 years, Dr. Hamama’s team gained complete publication censorship rights in her area of authority.
If someone dared contradict her in the academic literature or the press, she had her propaganda machine write off the person’s research and would have the site destroyed so no third party could bear witness. For example, she reportedly cemented up and buried the opening to a huge granite labyrinth near the Sphinx because it’s discovery was made serendipitously by French hydrological engineers who, in their enthusiasm, and without knowing Her Very Specialness’ rules, announced it to the press. There was international academic speculation that the labyrinth was the one first mentioned by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus in the 5th century B.C. in Book II of his magnus opus The Histories. This tale, whether real, planted by Dr. Hamama’s opponents – or more likely, by her communications team, or merely apocryphal, sent a clear, chilling, and concise message to the Egyptological community.
Through sheer strength of her will and charisma, coupled with the totalitarian authority of a determined and charismatic archaeo-despot, she kept an entire discipline in line both within and beyond Egypt’s borders.
These heavy-handed tactics served her, and Egypt, well. After the 1997 massacre of foreign tourists in Luxor, by an extreme Islamist group, coupled with the riots and the Arab Spring of 2011 and the subsequent rise of an Islamicist government which was in turn overthrown by the military and the ensuing chaos in 2013, the domestic tourism industry, which employed around 12% of Egypt’s workforce was badly hurt. In response, Dr. Hamama, a secular Muslim, took a very pragmatic approach despite her innate xenophobia and increasingly welcomed foreign researchers to spend their time and more importantly their money in Egypt, as long as they abided by her very clear rules. Her media-whore tactics had resulted in her becoming a public television darling. Which, combined with her active lobbying of foreign funding bodies and foundations, resulted in increased research funding and media exposure for the entire discipline and related sub-disciplines as a whole, which led to the discovery and development of a large number of new sites, which in turn led to increased tourism and local economic development. As a result, Her Very Specialness, Dr. Noora Hamama was an extremely well adored and powerful figure in Egypt.
Cameras rolling, the film crew director called Jesse Sublime and Noora Hamama to action.
“Dr. Sublime, it is wonderful to see you again!” Dr. Hamama said in her sultry, exotic stage voice, that made her the wet dream fantasy of every straight teenage boy anywhere there was television, turning a new generation onto archaeology. She walked up to him and gave him Eurotrash air-kisses on both cheeks.
“Dr. Hamama, the pleasure is all mine. As always, it is such and extreme honor to have you here. As the world’s foremost Mummy Whisperer I am sure that you will find wonderful things during your stay, as you always do. You have an almost supernatural talent for seeing what other researchers miss. How do you do it?” Said Jesse, first smiling at Dr. Hamama with puppy-dog fan-like adoration gleaming from his eyes, and then pivoted and smiled, his perfectly even white teeth sparkling for the cameras.
“Perhaps we should go for a little walk so I can get a feeling for the landscape and what it may have to offer? And perhaps, Dr. Sublime, you may learn a thing or two.” Dr. Hamama replied to Jesse with a haughty yet sultry look. They began to stroll off into the horizon which contained what appeared to be kilometers and kilometers of stark nothingness.
The cameras turned off. Jesse and Her Very Specialness went into his office, and behind closed doors. Jesse was to be told in detail how the day would be stage-managed.
In the interim, Archie, who had been through this routine a number of times before, began to round-up everyone to tell them to not go out in the field today. Missing were Scott Boernwhore and his team, who had already departed before the sun rose or a two day field trip to view some of their competition “the merde diggers de France,” although Safia had been left behind. Archie explained that the whole team would be expected to serve in various crowd scenes as professional ooh-ers and aah-ers. He said that when he found out more he would debrief the team on their specific roles in the upcoming joint PBS-BBC 3-D/IMAX-Sense-Surround special about Dr. Hamama, that would be entitled The Mummy Whisperer: Unwrapping a Genius.
Clorice sat down in the dining hall to have breakfast, beside Virginie Montcul, the real discoverer of what would clearly be Her Specialness’ great new discovery. Virginie exuded the confidence and charm that characterized extremely beautiful French women of a certain age.
“Virginie, how can you just sit by and not take the credit for your find?” Clorice asked.
“It goes with la territoire. If I want to work en Egypte, and I do, I have to play by zee rules. I am not so formidable that I am willing to tackle Her Very Specialness’ type of politique de nationalism, when zee stakes are so grande. My work, in time, will speak for itself. I have no doubt.” Virginie said in her lovely pidgin Frenglish. “And anyway, zee academic world knows the truth, and zey are the ones that matter”.
While Virginie was responding, the Temple of Hathor Team Lead, Omar el-Tahtawi, sat and joined in the conversation. “When Her Very Specialness discovered the Hathor Temple Complex in front of the international press five years ago, it resulted in huge media coverage and led to philanthropic financial contributions that I would never have been able to receive on my own. Despite my own innate charm and ‘Very Wonderfulness’. While my ego and tighty-whities were in a knot for about 30 seconds, I realized that I would never have to worry about writing grant proposals ever again. And like Virginie, I am sure that my colleagues and future historians will get the story right. If it is worth getting right!”
“Omar, being an Egyptian yourself, how can you tolerate Dr. Hamama’s protocols?” Clorice asked.
“I don’t like them – but so what? For all her issues, Dr. Hamama is playing a very delicate balancing act – and better her than me. Since the political upheaval in 2011 and subsequent supposedly democratic elections, there have been increasing problems associated with the hardline Islamisists spreading their frightening tentacles throughout the country. That their political and financial sway is felt at the highest levels is undeniable. For example, even though President Sadat changed the constitution and made Islam the state religion, it was not enough – and they killed him. As history demonstrates, when any nation moves in the direction of nationalism, intellectuals as well as targeted groups become the focus of persecution. Remember, it only takes about ten per cent of a population to bring a bloody revolution. For example, the Iranian revolution only had about that much support. The rest of the county could only watch in horror as history unfolded. Intellectuals must always keep a low profile in order to protect themselves, and more importantly their families, from being targeted. I have two children – and their safety and security is more important to me than ideology or pride. Even if I had the opportunity, I would never want to do what Dr. Hamama does.”
Virginie interjected, changing the topic to more neutral, apolitical grounds. “Just follow zee lead of Jesse. Zis is what he does better zan anyone I have ever seen. He can charm a brick wall, and it will part for him to pass. Sink of zis as une opportunite monumentale. We know zat our find may be zee most important find of zis siecle. Zee few moments I had in zee library before we closed it up for la grande decouverte indicated zat it was composed of many chambres. I saw more scrolls and wooden books zan zere are people in zee world who can read zee dead languages zey are written in. We will need very large financial resources to do zis right. Like Omar – today will basically relieve me of a huge load of administration and paperasse. My ego – so what? For me it is important to stay committed to my dreams, but I am flexible in how I achieve zem.”
“You just need to look at the world the right way!” Omar said with gentle humor. Clearly news of Clorices’ outing on the Libyan Plateau with Maxine and others yesterday was already making the rounds. Clorice turned a humorous yet delightful shade of embarrassed red.
Archie and a gaggle of others joined the group. He had just come from a briefing by Jesse and Dr. Hamama about what was to transpire over the course of the shoot and was to spread the word. He brought with him the faint odor of Dr. Hamamas’ perfume which had cloyingly clung to his clothes. She had a way of permeating her environment.
“First, everyone is to dress in their most drab work clothes. Black, beige and khaki spectrum colors only. If you don’t have anything in this color spectrum, as I am sure most of you do, borrow some. This will make Dr. Hamama sparkle more on the screen, and ensure that everyone else will become unmemorable background. This point of protocol is particularly important for you, Virginie, since you would make a potato sack look like a designer original with that bombshell Brigitte Bardotesque body and hair of yours. I can say that because it is true and I am gay and have no ulterior motives! May I also suggest that you completely cover your luxurious golden tresses in a drab scarf or tuck it under a hat, wear absolutely no make-up, and stay as far away as possible from Dr. Hamama when shooting to avoid being in any close-up shots. And button up, it is important to make sure you show none of that insanely gorgeous cleavage”. Archie may have been gay – but he was neither blind nor dead.
“None of us are permitted to demonstrate natural cynicism, charm or wit for the camera. Individualism will not be tolerated. We have been commanded to play the role of a bunch of hopelessly nerdy, brilliant but not as brilliant as Her Very Specialness, clueless, adoring Dr. Hamama fans. To augment this unnatural tableau, I have been provided, by one of Dr. Hamamas’ lackeys, with a box of various shaped black plastic-framed nerd-glasses with clear glass inserts that every other person on the team is to wear.
“Second. Fatima and Mahmoud are going around town to round up some locals, particularly teenaged and very old ones, to surround Dr. Hamama. They have been doing this for years and have the “Ha-Ma-Ma” cheerleading drill down pat. The locals’ sentiments are on par with ours, but like us, they will profit from their participation in this production. The tourists and their money will come.
“Third. If, and only if, you get asked any questions by Dr. Hamama, never respond using the words I, me or my in a sentence, and always promote the Supreme Council of National Treasures or Dr. Hamama herself. For example if she asks you what do you think of the work being done here at Kharga, you can respond something to the effect that: ‘The work being supported by the Supreme Council of National Treasures is without parallel anywhere in the world’; or, perhaps, ‘Due to your incredible finds and wise direction, Dr. Hamama, there has never been archaeological work that has rivaled what is taking place here, in this magical spot.’
“Fourth, and this is really important, do not speak directly to Dr. Hamama. Try and stay completely out of her way. Make no direct eye contact with her. Let Jesse and I handle all the personal discourse with her. Three years ago, one of our team members at the time, Dick Willy Peters, tried to call her on the subject of her Egyptian Only Theory. You will notice that he no longer works in Egypt. He has been banned for life. Jesse had to plead with Dr. Hamama not to close down the entire Kharga concession, and promised that he would make sure that such situations would never occur again.
“Finally, we will meet in front of the Hathor Temple site in an hour and a half. After the film take, we will follow, well behind, in the groundbreaking footsteps of Her Very Specialness until she reaches the spot in the complex where she will make her new spectacular discovery. She will open and enter the site, going into the first room only, come out and make a speech, and then she and her team will depart. Don’t worry, Ahmed will take care of the clean up, so no information will be lost through whatever she does in there. Your collective job will be to remain in the background, look busy, nerdy, make appropriately inarticulate sounds and flash looks of Hamamadoration in the general direction of Her Very Specialness.
“Lei capisce?” Archie concluded.
“Si… yeah… OK… aiwa… oui…” everyone responded with resignation, pragmatically agreeing to do the unethical in the belief that the ends in this case did justify the means. Or, at least their personal agendas would profit from the means. The group disbanded, each recognizing the lapse in their own personal integrity. They each understood that they were being bought to bolster a narcissist’s ego and a national lie. And the price of their complicity was archaeo-dirt cheap.
And they would get to be on internationally syndicated TV.
[Continue reading: Chapter 6.2]