Zahi Hawass

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.

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