Dig-days: A Recent Visit to the States
By Zahi Hawass
Just a week after the 11 September attacks on Washington and New York,
I travelled to the United States. I visited about six cities, where I gave
lectures on my recent discoveries. As an Egyptian passport holder, However
I have become a target for the increased security shown in American
airports. I never complain about this. I never complain about being
searched, and in fact I volunteer to take off my shoes and always empty my
pockets and remove my jacket to help the US security officers do their job
in a fast and orderly manner. I believe that the extra security is for the
benefit of all of us.
I lived in Philadelphia for seven years while I was working on my
doctorate in Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania. Since then, I
have travelled to America several times a year to give lectures about my
discoveries around the Pyramids and throughout Egypt. About a year ago, I
gave a lecture at the Seattle Opera House in Washington. About 2,700
Americans attended my lecture.
A few months ago I was invited by Nasser Biadon to give the keynote
lecture for the association he heads, the Arab-American Chamber of
Commerce in Detroit.
I consequently flew to the US. When the plane landed in Detroit, the
flight attendant approached me and said, "Dr Hawass, you have to leave the
airplane first because if you don't, US Customs will not let anyone depart
the plane." I left the plane and two nice and polite officers met me. They
took me quickly through immigration and treated me with respect.
Farouk Hosni, the minister of culture, recently had his paintings
exhibited by National Geographic in Washington DC. It was a great honour
for a respected organisation to choose the paintings of an Egyptian artist
to be shown in the capital, and for the exhibition to be opened in the
presence of ambassadors and dignitaries.
A week before the opening the minister said, "I am not going to the
States because I cannot accept that one of Egypt's ministers should be
searched. I am keeping the respect of Egypt's cabinet." I called Nabil
Fahmi, our ambassador in Washington, and he said that it was the law and
nobody can change this.
I personally have heard that many of the Egyptian ministers were taking
off their shoes and being searched by security. They were being treated
like any ordinary person.
Last month I went to the US for a lecture tour organised by National
Geographic, publishers of my new book The Curse of the Pharaohs and
Hidden Treasures of Ancient Egypt. I was also to give a lecture at the
White House at 3pm on 7 May. I was carrying my detailed itinerary when I
arrived at Dulles Airport, but when I stood in front of the customs
officer he took one look at my passport and immediately escorted me to a
room called "the red room". He then put my passport through a window to
another officer. I sat down and could not believe that beside me were
Russians and Mexicans who did not speak English. After half an hour
another officer came over to me, scowled and asked impolitely, "why are
you visiting this country?" I answered politely: "I am here to give a
lecture tour arranged by National Geographic." After an hour they called
my name and I brought my schedule for my tour and gave it to the officer
pointing out that I am speaking at the White House. On my way to my seat,
I heard one officer saying, "that is the famous guy with the hat on the
Discovery channel." An hour and half later, they called me and returned my
passport. I asked, "why did you do this to me?" The officer answered, "we
cannot explain, you have to write a letter to US Customs."
I was furious, and asked myself why they were changing their friends
into enemies. I have lived in America and have many friends all over the
country, and have always considered America my second home. After being
treated like this, I considered cancelling my talk at the White House and
returning immediately to Egypt. However, when I told Terry Garcia at
National Geographic how I had been treated he wrote letters to the White
House and US Customs explaining National Geographic's objection to the
treatment I received. David Welch, the American ambassador in Egypt, also
called me to apologise, and his words brought peace to my heart. Even the
deputy of the chief of protocol at the White House apologised to me. I do
understand their security concern; however, they should have a better way
to distinguish between people. It is unfair to take everyone who holds an
Egyptian passport and treat them as a criminal. But the most interesting
point is that the American Embassy in Cairo said that the reason this
happened was because my name was similar to a terrorist's name. This must
be a joke because I have never met anyone with a name like mine.