I have spent the majority of the last 6 years working between Egypt and London; during this time my archaeological career has changed track somewhat from working on heritage protection strategies in Luxor to assisting media production companies in producing documentaries set in the historical realm. The journey from archaeologist to televising producer has enabled me to travel both metaphorically and physically between the worlds of the media and archaeology while attempting to be part I hope of both, a sometimes difficult undertaking. Generally I spend most of the year, some eight or nine months in Egypt during the archaeological season which not coincidently also mirrors what has become a filming season for the major television networks such as National Geographic, The Discovery Channel and The History Channel.
However due to the economic conditions in the West, the last winter season was very quiet and filming projects were thin on the ground and I therefore decided to spend the Christmas period in England, a decision I was to regret for various reasons that I will expand on later. Before I left Cairo in early December I had finished a project for The Discovery Channel focused on ancient beer. The project was with a great team from the Dogfish Head brewery from the United States, who came over to Egypt from to investigate the Egyptians ancient beer brewing techniques and to seek inspiration for a new beer they were planning to launch. It was a great shoot and the resulting beer should be on sale in the near future, under the ancient Egyptian name for beer of Ta-Henket, but now I was ready to sample some warm British beer and Christmas turkey!
Arriving back in London in December after six years of Egyptian winters is not to be recommended! In what has been described as the worse winter since records began I developed a cold almost on the point of arriving at Heathrow airport which developed into a vile flu over the course of the Christmas holidays! Not exactly what I had planned for my winter break! Surfacing in the New Year, I became aware of growing dissent in the Arab world over the regimes which controlled almost every living moment of the peoples lives there. I had argued and discussed this issue with my friends late into the night in many cafes and bars in Egypt but I have to say I had no idea what was about to unleashed by the oppressed folks of the Middle East!
I should add a bit of background here, as well as being a television producer and what I call a creative fixer for production companies who work on historical programming my company Past Preservers has recently launched our own in house production company. We hope over the next few years to establish a niche for ourselves as a creative powerhouse in the documentary world and because of this new direction for us, I headed off to the United States in the middle of January to promote our new business venture at Realscreen a media industry event that was being held in Washington DC. My cousin has conveniently just relocated to DC, so it was a great chance to catch up with her and of course face more severe cold weather! Now I dont know if you have ever complained about a British winter, even the new extreme ones we get now, well if you have, try the East Coast of the United States in January. What was I doing?, the snow was higher than the cars, at first this was a great novelty, with my cousin looking on in bewilderment as I cooed and gushed about how beautiful it was, that was until we had to leave the centrally heated apartment and try to get to the bus stop! She warned me to cover every bit of skin, I mocked her and said I was from the North of England, where we routinely wear only short sleeve shirts on a Saturday night pub crawl, yet I was soon to discover I am a wimp and I think I actually cried real tears waiting for the bus.
On a side trip from DC to the big apple and a weekend with an old friend from London who has made it good and has the kind of apartment that a Friends character would envy, I started to realize that the world I had left behind in Egypt was beginning to change and change rapidly! Watching the demonstrations from the comfort of DC (indoors) I felt increasing concerned for the friends, colleagues and what has become my adopted family that I had left behind in Cairo.
What became apparent from the early days was that this would become a propaganda war as well as a battle for the streets; the hearts and minds of the rest of the world were to be targeted by the regime in an attempt to convince everyone that this uprising did not have popular support. The days following the withdrawal of the police from the streets, the attack on the Cairo Museum, the withdrawal of the internet and black Wednesday were all carefully managed attempts by the state to put an end to any idea of freedom for the Egyptian people.
Trying to get information out of the country with the net down proved increasingly difficult but I knew in my gut that reports of Egyptians attacking the Cairo Museum could simply not be true, my six years of living there had proved to me one thing, Egyptians were not extremists and would and have previously fought to protect their heritage.
When I did mange to get through to Egypt (thank god for Skype and the occasional mobile network coverage) the picture I received was vastly different from the picture being painted by the state controlled media and being repeated ad nauseam by some news agencies and those with their own personal axes to grind. I was driven to distraction and anger when I posted updates from Egypt setting the record straight but was then shot down by those who it seemed couldnt wait to think the worst about the situation.
I feel it is worth reiterating a few salient points here about those days of uncertainty; at no time did the protestors in Tahrir square storm the museum or loot its contents, in fact the people tried their best to protect the museum even forming a human chain around the site, the withdrawal of the security forces was ordered by the regime, many then returned to the street under orders to loot and create the chaos that Mubarak had promised along with released prisoners and members of the despised interior security services Amn El Dawla. The people of Egypt were asked by the army to come out and protect their property and their heritage and this they did despite the significant danger to themselves. When I was able to contact Cairo and hear the news from my friends I was filled with fear for them but I also had so much admiration for what they were doing and felt complete and utter frustration that I could not be with them.
I left the conference in DC determined to get back to Cairo as soon as possible and spent most of the week there trying to convince everyone present not to believe the worst and to support the Egyptian people in their struggle against the regime. The doubters were numerous, especially I am sad to say in the archaeological world, mainly because I think they let their own personal views of Dr Zahi Hawass, the former Director General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and now the Minister of Antiquities cloud their judgment. Many however acted out of their own prejudiced viewpoint and colonial ideas of Egypt and Egyptians, when I pointed this out on social media sites such as facebook, I was attacked as agent of Dr Zahi and/or being nave and was even blocked from certain groups lead by people whos main agenda was to get their face on the evening news bulletins as a an expert on the situation in Egypt. This may seem a petty issue however it has been recently reported by the museum staff these attacks on their integrity during a very trying situation was and is extremely distressing.
Next time, I land back in a free Egypt! And discover the truth on the ground, visit the Cairo museum, head out to the sites, watch Dr Zahi move in and out and back again in his chair, oh and attend a party with millions of others!