The initial online silence was a little uncanny–in Qatar the alarm over the events in Egypt was striking and immediate, even in our semi-isolated, media-deprived compound in Shamal. Doha is the headquarters of Al Jazeera and early reports accused them of deferring to a friendly relationship between Qatar’s Emir and Mubarak. Then, in a dizzying flash, the eyes of the world were on the Middle East. I was invited to virtual protests and people were reposting from twitter accounts from The Arabist. It was an interesting tension between a hyper-aware, invested public trying to learn everything they could about the situated and run-of-the-mill slacktivism, wherein reposting links is seen as a kind of political action. I was happy to see people investing so much of their time in learning about the situation and trying to find a way to participate–I was doing much the same.
I’ve never worked in Egypt, but I know a lot of people who have, including some folks that were there when things went live. They were and continue to be deeply invested in the protests and have been using their contacts to make the situation that much more real for those of us who aren’t in Tahrir Square. I genuinely hope that people who were turned on to Middle Eastern history, government, and media by the Egyptian protests continue to learn as much as they can about events over here, and question the US government’s continued support of corrupt and oppressive regimes. It is uncomfortable being American in the Middle East, but not necessarily because the local people hold that against you, but because there is an unavoidable feeling of culpability–I have been protesting the wars for a decade, but have I been doing enough when the policies of my government directly introduce misery into the lives of so many people?
The online archaeological community immediately turned their attention to the antiquities in the country, and The Eloquent Peasant in particular detailed the damage done to artifacts in the National Museum. Some criticized Zahi Hawass for accepting an appointment to Mubarak’s new cabinet, and he released a statement minimizing the damage. Hawass is a lightning rod for archaeologists in general, and discussion of his policies and media statements and is potentially career-ending for people who might want to work in Egypt. Recently he called for a damaged obelisk in Central Park to be conserved or returned to Egypt for proper care. Alex Joffe, writing in the Wall Street Journal, uses the unrest in Egypt as an excuse for repudiating these repatriation requests, willfully ignoring the destruction of many antiquities in Germany and the United Kingdom during WWII. Should we pack all of our artifacts away into mountain bunkers, safe from the descendants of the people who made them? As Neil Silberman writes, “Antiquities are seen as an unalloyed good, the property of all humanity, above politics. But are they just the fetishes of the powerful, tokens and illustrations of a narrative that separates the haves from the have nots?” To extend the point, if artifacts have agency, do they have the right to participate in the political action of the oppressed? Some Egyptian protesters stepped in to protect the artifacts in the museum, even as sites away from the main action are being extensively looted. Artifacts and sites are a mutable, active component of the construction of Egyptian identity, and this interplay within the context of the protests shows their deeply contested nature.
This focus on antiquities instead of people is contentious, to say the least. Yannis Hamilakis has written extensively and instructively on this topic, particularly regarding the ethics revealed in the responses of archaeologists and institutions to the looting of the National Museum in Iraq. How can we be worried about the remains of past cultures when there are bloody protests in the streets? It is a difficult situation to be in–while I am not an expert on politics, religion, or protests, I can say a few things about artifacts and contribute my knowledge to the dialogue surrounding cultural heritage. As a politically aware archaeologist, I try to consider my informed contribution about the situation and potential personal gain (publications, media coverage, etc) in view of the people who are fighting and dying for liberation. As Hamilakis (2003) writes, “we should reject the role of the professional specialist who provides expertise in their narrow field but who fails to question the meta-narratives and practices of nationalism, neo-colonialism and imperialism within this knowledge is deployed.”
I am anything but ambivalent about the fate of the Egyptian people, the sites and the artifacts in Egypt, and the larger political ramifications for the Middle East and the whole world and I hope that I can attain and convey a perspective that is both politically and archaeologically informed–keeping these shatteringly huge events in mind while writing about archaeological ephemera and scratching around in the Qatari desert.