by Bob Brier
2013 • 256 pages • Palgrave Macmillan Trade
Captain Cinema and I have reacted to the advertising campaign for Exodus: If You’re From Ancient Egypt, Why Are You White? the same way—pure physical repulsion. (I am very good at scoffing. I’m French; it’s practically a superpower.) A sick, tired, rainy day couldn’t stop me from scrambling off the couch and refusing to watch an ad for it during a therapeutic episode of classic Saturday Night Live; even the arduous physical task of sitting through Interstellar (I mean, I enjoyed the film, I just have trouble sitting down for long stretches of time) couldn’t keep us from fleeing a poster of the damn thing at the movie theater.
It boggles the mind that such a film could not only be made in 2014, but also be so vehemently defended by its creative team. Ridley Scott offered a casually racist explanation for why he, one of the most powerful directors in the industry, could not be bothered to seek Egyptians to play Egyptians, Rupert Murdoch rolled his eyes on Twitter about people not realizing that sometimes white people are Egyptian too (which is technically correct but beyond missing the point), and Christian Bale complained that the color of his skin shouldn’t keep him from playing Moses. It’s such an astonishing display of the kind of entitlement that so many white people in the West bring to the table regarding ancient Egypt despite all basic logic. As a little kid, I was fascinated by ancient Egypt, but as an adult, I’m equally fascinated (and repulsed) by the imperialist and colonial overtones of early Egyptology.
Egyptomania, as its subtitle proclaims, is concerned with “our three thousand year old obsession with ancient Egypt.” This, I assumed, would naturally delve into the problematic aspects of Egyptology while also providing an overview of it. When it finally winged its way to me and turned out to be a scant two hundred pages, I remained undaunted. But Egyptologist Bob Brier is not interested remotely in these things. Egyptomania is the fluffiest of fluff, starting with Greek interest in Egyptian culture, ending with the landmark tour of King Tut’s treasures in the United States in the 1970s, and completely, pointedly ignoring anything remotely hinting at troubled waters.
Obviously, I don’t expect every Egyptology book to seriously deal with the imperialistic and racist overtones of how Western powers have exploited, exoticified, and whitewashed Egypt and its history over the last three thousand years. There’s plenty of good reasons a text about ancient Egypt would not cover that territory. A kid’s book about mummies. A biography of Hatshepsut. John Romer’s A History of Ancient Egypt, whose first volume concludes with the construction of the Pyramid at Giza. If you are uncomfortable with or do not feel that you can engage with these issues, there are lots of places in Egyptology where you don’t have to deal with them (beyond, of course, not perpetuating them yourself. That’s a requirement).
But when you’re writing a book about the West’s fascination with ancient Egypt, you have to deal with them.
When you’re breathlessly detailing the feats of engineering the French, the English, and the Americans have all done in order to take obelisks back home, you also have to ask why they feel entitled to them. When you quote a nineteenth century archaeologist’s journal despairing of Egyptians as stewards of their own culture, you cannot simply nod and agree. When you’re rolling your eyes over the anachronisms of a mid-century Hollywood film, you have to point out that the biggest anachronism is that the cast is all white. (At one point, Brier chuckles about a film where an extra played both parts in a fight scene, due to the film’s limited budget and its decision to put the extra in blackface.) This is so beyond just turning a blind eye. To be fair, Brier does mention Orientalism—but he defines it only as romantic paintings that the West creates of the East. And he does engage with the idea of exploitation—in the caption to a postcard of the Carter dig itself captioned “Exploitation of Tout-Ankh-Amon’s Tomb.” He calls it a typo, albeit one that’s “not far from the truth” (169).
Again, there are so many avenues in Egyptology to write a book this fluffy and cute—why select the avenue that brings you cheek to cheek with the Orientalism of Egyptology if you’re never going to engage with it in a meaningful way? It’s so perfectly infuriating that I can only call it irresponsible. I stopped ending my reviews with summaries a long time ago, but this one merits one: avoid.
I rented this book from the public library.