Zahi Hawass, world-famous Egyptologist and Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities – the last word on pyramids – was speaking at UPenn on Thursday, I had the date circled on my calendar and was looking forward to going. I felt like this was the thing that would get me writing again, a little kick in the ass from a volatile genius. It seemed like a chemical equation – put me and Zahi in one room and watch the sparks fly.
Something came up, and I got there late. I had heard stories about the man, stories which conjured a bigger image than the white-haired Egyptian I watched sign books. The man was squat and heavy like a brick, well dressed in gray wool, a smile of deliberate joy fighting the accustomed frown.
The man had condemned the Bosnian pyramid project I volunteered on as "ludicrous," and refused to investigate further. Everyone had something to say about him. He loomed like God over the project. Semir Osmanagic, his crazy Bosnian equivalent, claimed that Zahi protected his interests by not acknowledging the possibility of pyramids. Amir Moustafa, a student journalist studying in Zahi's Egypt, told me he thought it was a larger issue – he protected the interests of orthodox science by not traveling to the fringes. Nancy Gallou, a tough archaeologist and dear buddy, told me about the Egyptian consulate's unaffiliated mission to Bosnia with a black humor characteristic of the time: "This Ali Barakat came here and told everybody lies. Boy, was Zahi not pleased!"
More evocatively, the Boston University-employed geologist Robert Schoch told me a story. He had actually met the man once. He had gravity, Schoch said. One time, he was having a disagreement with another scientist – the story goes – he threw him onto the ground, stepped on his neck and asked him to reconsider. The man did.
I watched him from the cluster of photographers in front of the signing table and its line, my camera out for camouflage. I got nothing from this, his wavering between smiling and serious, posing for pictures, head bowed in signing. I wanted to ask him my question, not really a question but more of a platform, a test. "Why didn't he deal with the Bosnian pyramids more decisively? Despite his one-time condemnation, they still soaked up scientific funding, etc." Looking at him talking with his fans, signing the same Indiana Jones hats Semir had worn, the anxious crowd waiting for their moment, I decided my timing was off and my question that wasn't really a question got put away forever. At least until I ran into Josh Bernstein outside, host of History Channel's Digging for the Truth.
I asked him my question, hungry for some sort of confrontation with an emissary of popular science. He had never heard of pyramids in Bosnia, he said, but it sounded like a tourism stunt. It was, I told him, but worse. It took money intended for science. Grasping at straws, I asked him if he thought this was wrong.
He said, "It's an impoverished country and I guess they have to do whatever they can to get tourism. In Afghanistan they sell opium..."
"Alright, thanks, see ya," I called over my shoulder, unsatisfied.