“I’m sorry Madame. It’s an English driving license.”
So while my parents entered the pink Cairo Museum on the substantially lower ‘Arab’ price. I had to pay the foreign price. I didn’t care. It’s only a couple of pounds. To my mom saving a couple of quid is a way of life. I’ve always admired how my parents lifted themselves out of the poverty and limitations of the rural working class they were born in. Part of their success wasn’t just an education. It was their attitude towards money. Take care of the pennies and the pounds take care of themselves. My mom could have coined that. My dad and I look at money as something to enjoy when had, and bemoan when hadn’t. The only real way to make money, or save it, is simply to spend a lot less than you earn. So we waited until the attendant made it absolutely clear that I will pay the full price.
I hate museums. The bigger they are, the more diverse their treasures, the more they have for everybody, the more I hate the experience. First of all its the amount of things to look at. The many different directions to choose from. Should I get an audio guide or shouldn’t I. Should I start at the uppermost floor going down? Clock-wise or counter-clockwise? The problem with me is I need a start, a middle, and end. I need a story. Or a theme. Or something, anything that lifts the comatose state that takes over every time I go in one of these generic, general museums. I’ll go to catch something specific, but not to spend an afternoon. My parents wanted to go though, so here we are.
My plan was to photograph my way through the experience but no sooner had we gone through security, I was told that absolutely no photography was allowed.
“I’m sorry but can I see a manager please.”
I did. The answer was still no. It was just me and the museum now. What made it even more irksome was my parents scampering from one room to the other. They’d obviously been here before. I was like the teenager that really didn’t want to be there. Skulking, dragging my heels, and dismissing everything as rubbish.
” You know what’s annoying? The only way to make sense of all of this is to hire a guide. Which you refused to fork out for, Mum.” I moan.
” How am I meant to understand what I’m looking at here. Half the time they haven’t even written any explanations.” I continue.
Annoyed at being annoyed. I try to convince myself that come on.. this is Ancient Egypt all around you. Every since I was a kid I was fascinated with Egyptology. In fact, one of my perverse hobbies as a kid was to make underground tombs in the back yard for me to excavate 6 months later. I would get a collection of ordinary cardboard boxes of varying sizes and connect them together to create chambers. These chambers I would spend weeks working on. Recreating hieroglyphics, The paintwork, the sarcophagi, The next life necessities. It was a labor of love. I would then dig out an area and carefully put in my tomb. Carefully burying it and marking it out with a cardboard pyramid. When it was time, my brothers and I would carefully go around excavating and photographing the sites. Obviously the cardboard boxes got wet and started to collapse into itself but that was part of the effect. The mold that covered the guilded interiors. The rot, the fascination with the decomposition. Still, It kept me off the streets playing marbles,. So I kind of expected that I would be a bit more enthusiastic being there. Maybe all the best stuff was abroad?
Then I came across a chair. I didn’t recognise it at first, in fact I was confused. For a long split second, I thought I was looking at a modern piece. Art Deco. The simplicity of it. The The purity of its design and how it was put together. It was oddly minimal with very restrained, a very sophisticated sense of ostentation. The only materials used were wood and gold leaf. It was a work of art this chair. Looking around I spot where I am. I’m in the Tutankhamen section. The little boy king who inspired my backyard tombs in the first place. Suddenly the museum leapt to life and so did I. I had a story. A story of a boy king. A story of design. Everything I had seen to this point was husks. Husks of pillaged dismembered tombs. Remnants of plunder. The left overs robbers and thieves. from the world over, have left behind, were brought together and placed in this building. A monument of the rejected. Not about what’s great, but about what is left. I can well understand why the Greeks want their marbles back.Tutankhamen’s tomb wasn’t pillaged. It was found intact. Whole. A complete snapshot with nothing missing and what a difference it made. Tutankhamen’s belongings humbled its observers. They were regal. Rich. Vibrant. They had the strangest ability to appear completely comfortable in 21st Century Cairo. If this was the tomb of an insignificant boy king, what did the tombs of the greater ones like? He might have been insignificant boy king, but insignificant boy king was behind an explosion of worldwide interest of all thing’s Egyptian in the 1920s. That was the Art Deco that I saw in the chair. King Tut gave the world Art Deco as far as I am concerned, and if you don’t believe me have a look. Its ancient Egyptian aesthetics all over. Then there was another chair. and another. and another. Each chair was a study in its own right. Then there were the beds, the pieces of furniture. The games. The chest of drawers. The iconic death mask. From a designer’s perspective it was amazing. How the objects were put together. How the material was manipulated to create something with function. It’s all very well to look at the Pyramids and say how brilliant, but to me its in the little details like the head rest carved to correctly support your spine when you are asleep. When you make or design something that still looks relevant and fresh nearly 30 centuries later, you have to at least pat yourself in the back.
As my mother’s enthusiasm over the museum waned, my dad and I were on the up.
“Let’s splash out and see the Royal Mummies.”
Either the price tag or the thought of seeing real corpses made my mother opt out. She sat on a bench next to what turned out to be a worn out looking Syrian woman. Yes. They started talking about Assad while we queued up to look at the royal mummies. I hadn’t realised that I was about to look upon Ramsis. I didn’t know he was there. He introduced himself first. All the other mummies looked the same except him. He stood, or laid, apart from the rest. All were an oxidised black. All looked somehow not human even though I was looking at actual dead people. All of a sudden I was looked at a dead person. For a start he wasn’t blackened. He was almost red. He had more hair. His face more intact preserving a face that almost looked preserved in the last throes of death. When I looked at the information plaque, it was Ramsis. My dad and I gawped. This body, this person, God commented on. This body saw Moses. The Seven Plagues. Who’s last moments were of the realisation of God as the Red Sea and the Door of Repentance closed on him. And just like that verse in the Quran has promised:
“We brought the tribe of Israel across the sea and Pharaoh and his troops pursued them out of tyranny and enmity. Then, when he was on the point of drowning, he (Pharaoh) said, “I believe that there is no god but Him in whom the tribe of Israel believe. I am one of the Muslims.” What, now! When previously you rebelled and were one of the corrupters? Today we will preserve your body so you can be a Sign for people who come after you. Surely many people are heedless of Our Signs.” (Surah Yunus 10:90-92)
It was one of those moments when the hairs stand on the back of your head, not just because of the presence of the Great Pharoah, but because of an infinitely bigger Presence right there in the museum with us. Or me. A quick look at my dad told me it wasn’t just me. Ramsis had made us very much aware of God.
“Look at me and make your choices.” Ramsis seemed to say
“He is rather special isn’t he?” said an Essex voice, slightly cutting through the atmosphere
“Yes. He is” I said to a middle aged but well preserved English couple as we start a conversation.
” Did you know he was received with the full honors of a living head of state by De Gaulle when they sent the body to France for analysis in the 60s?” I was boasting.
“Oh really?” She said politely.
“And one of the scientists who analysed him converted to Islam because they found a high content of sea salt in his remains.” I continued.
“Oh really? Isn’t that fascinating.” She humoured me.
Then my father told her about the verse of the Koran where Pharoah is promised to be preserved as a Sign. He wasn’t Quran bashing. He was sharing our fascination.
“Tell me,” She said with that every so polite tone that only the English can produce, “Does it please your Father to think of Ramsis in eternal damnation?”
That comment, and she said it with full eye contact. It’s one of those seemingly innocent, innocuous things that come out of uni-cultural people like:
“So how many wives do you have Abdullah?”
“So where do you stand on the whole terrorist thing. Is it a good thing a bad thing? What are your thoughts?”
Essentially its patronising which is fine but don’t do it to my dad in front of me and when my dad speaks to you and you ignore him to answer him indirectly through me, then I think somebody has forgotten to pack their manners with their sunblock.
” I don’t think it whets my Dad’s appetite to imagine Ramsis undergoing Eternal Damnation.” I mimicked the faux smile of geniality and deliberately waited as if waiting for her response. I meant to make her feel embarrassed and uncomfortable. I suppose what she was really getting at was a confirmation to herself that Muslims do get off on the suffering of others. The idea I suppose, was that we were meant to fall over ourselves, foaming at the mouth, shouting Allahu Akbar. Burn Ramsis burn. How smug. How patronising.
“Look, it’s not really about whether my dad gets off on it or not. What it is about for my dad and I is that we are standing in front of someone who God Himself singularly commented about. Not in one of the Abrahamic faiths but all. I’m presuming your Christian right? You do believe in your Bible don’t you?” Well if she can presume, why can’t I? I know most Brits are secular and she could be one of them but hey, lets generalise and play stupid. And put on icy frigid smiles and pretend to be civil.
“And I don’t think the first thing my Dad is going to get asked when he’s summoned from the grave is how much he celebrated Ramsis’s suffering. Everyone answers for themselves.” My face in the fakest smile I can contrive
“He has done a lot for Egypt” she said at one point.
“Including the Seven Plagues?”
Fake laughter all round.
Afterwards, I asked my Dad if he felt she was rude for ignoring him. What about her snidy comments?
“Really? you read all that in her comment?”
Seriously Dad. So I’ve got a chip on my shoulder?
We go back to where my mom was sitting with the Syrian lady. Clearly a lot of water had run under the bridge of their brief friendship. There’s obviously been some tears. They hug like theyre long lost friends about to lose each other again.
When I repeat the story of the English woman to my mom, roughly translated equivalence, she said:
“What a bitch”
That’s what I thought.
Shouf 3ala fatalah is what my mom said.. that does mean bitch right?