Pakistan’s Ainy Jaffri Rahman called for the separation of art and politics after signing the Indian film

‘I made archeology an adventure’: Dr discusses. Egypt’s Zahi Hawass hits Netflix, finds his passion

DUBAI: Dr. Zahi Hawass, the world’s most famous (non-fictional) archaeologist, has long been called ‘the real-life Indiana Jones.’ In the summer of 2023, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

After all, in his new movie, “The Dial of Destiny,” Indy is shown ready for retirement at age 70, his adventures finally behind him. The 76-year-old Hawass, meanwhile, is just on the precipice of perhaps his greatest discovery, with his legendary passion on full display in a new Netflix documentary that once again made him a worldwide phenomenon.

A still from Netflix’s ‘Unknown – The Lost Pyramid.’ (Given)

The movie is “Unknown: The Lost Pyramid” and its title isn’t just a tease. After a lifetime of searching, Hawass finds what appears to be a forgotten pyramid built 1,000 years before King Tutankhamun was buried in the Egyptian desert. Audiences were enthralled, and just days after its release, the film became the No. 1 film across Netflix worldwide, an unprecedented feat for a regional film.

“I was surprised, to be honest. I never thought this movie would be number one in the world, but I knew it was something special. I’ve had people tell me they cried after watching it because, unlike ‘Indiana Jones,’ it’s an adventure that’s really real,” Hawass told Arab News.

While the central mystery is obviously compelling enough to draw audiences in, part of what makes the film so compelling is Dr. Hawass himself. In one memorable scene, Hawass lifts the lid from an ancient coffin to discover a mummy unlike anything he’s seen before, and the sparkle in his eye seems powerful enough to inspire a new generation of archaeologists on its own. It was a moment like that that inspired Hawass’ career in the first place.

Dr. Hawass on an archaeological dig early in his career. (Given)

“I didn’t want to be an archaeologist. I wanted to be a lawyer, but as soon as I came to the dorms and looked at all the boring law books, I realized that I hated it,” said Hawass. “I transferred to the Faculty of Arts, and there they told me about a new department called archaeology. I said, ‘What are you going to do when you graduate?’ They said, ‘Be a translator.’ There was no other desire then for the Egyptians.”

Hawass did not immediately take up archaeology. He received mediocre grades in his classes, graduated without honors, and took a job in the government’s antiquities department upon graduation – a position then guaranteed to all graduates in the new field.

“I didn’t like any of my co-workers. I didn’t like any of it. I said, ‘No, I don’t want to be an archaeologist, it’s a bad job.’ I tried to be a diplomat. I failed to be a diplomat. I crawled back to the antiquities department, and the head ordered me to work on an excavation, threatening to dock me with 15 days’ salary if I refused,” said Hawass.

“One day, the workers found a grave, and they called me. I sat down, and they gave me a brush to clean the detritus, and there I saw a statue of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. At that moment I found my love. I found my passion. And from that passion came everything,” he continued.

Dr. Hawass with his friend, actor Omar Sharif, in Egypt. (Given)

In the following decades, Hawass became a towering figure not only in the field of archaeology, but in Egyptian culture in general. Driven by the same larger-than-life personality and tireless desire to understand the roots of Middle Eastern civilization that fuel him today, Hawass grew into a folk hero — sometimes a controversial one. In a battle that spanned decades, he successfully wrestled the keys to Egypt’s history away from an international community notorious for stealing some of his country’s greatest treasures.

“I’m not fighting. I defend myself. And I defend Egypt – good,” said Hawass.

As he likes to remind us, his work has inspired generations across Egypt to pursue a field that was once a dead end, building a thriving community that now follows him into the desert in search of the next discovery. He transformed Egyptology from a field dominated by Westerners into one completely dominated by Arabs. Although he remained steadfast, that did not mean, of course, that there were not moments when things became personally difficult.

“In 2011, at the height of the revolution, many people were attacking me. The New Yorker magazine wrote 17 pages about me, half of it bad. I was traveling with Omar Sharif in the Dominican Republic when this came out. He said, ‘Why are you angry?’ I said, ‘Why are these people attacking me?’ Omar read the article, and came back and said, ‘I want The New Yorker to write 100 bad pages about me, because if they do that means you’re great,’” Hawass recalls.

“Omar told me, ‘You have written more than 50 books. Stack your books and they will be taller than the person attacking you.’ And so I was not angry. That was the key to my continued success — I just kept working, teaching, and working, until everyone acknowledged that I had done archeology in my country. I walk the streets, and people want to take pictures with me because I made archeology an adventure in their hearts,” he continued.

Hawass isn’t afraid of controversy — that’s part of the reason he wanted this film on Netflix in the first place, coming out right after Egypt was embroiled in a global firestorm over the Netflix documentary “Queen Cleopatra,” which posited that the legendary Egyptian queen was a Black woman — a claim Hawass himself publicly denied in an Arab News guest column in April.

“Through it all, I have defended Netflix in my country. Netflix is ​​a platform, and platforms can present both bad and good things. The best thing to do on a platform is to make something better than the thing you’re up against. That’s what we did. Very few people have seen the movie Cleopatra, but today this movie is watched by millions and millions around the world. Now all we have to do is convince Netflix to do the two parts,” Hawass said.

Even at age 76, and just back from a 23-city lecture tour across the United States, the only thing Hawass can think about is what’s next: the next project, the next discovery. While they paused the excavation during the hot summer months, he eagerly awaited September 1, when he could once again put on his trademark Indiana Jones hat and continue what they had started on “The Lost Pyramid,” knowing how close he was to greater treasures, and the many mysteries they could solve about the historic ancient civilizations of Egypt.

“I am not satisfied with what I am doing. Every year, I want to do more than I did last time. And it’s funny, because I’m not a person who ‘lives for now.’ I live in the past. My mind is always there. The only scene I liked in the new Indiana Jones movie was when he traveled (in time) to ancient Syracuse, because that happens to me all the time. My mind always goes back to ancient times.”

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