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Overplaying Egyptomania

2010. 6 July

Egypt’s pavilion at Shanghai’s Expo 2010 misses the mark of modernity Lured by Pharaonic antiquities at the Egyptian Pavilion, Expo 2010 visitors stand in line for up to an hour.

by Osama Diab

( It is a promoter’s wildest dream: Access to some 500,000 people every day, representing all ages, nationalities and backgrounds. An opportunity to reach 70 million visitors in just six months. And thousands of journalists producing thousands of news
reports to media outlets all over the world, all in the same place. Does this sound too good to be true? This is Expo 2010, running May 1 to October 31 in Shanghai, China.

Since the first world exposition was held in London in 1851, countries have gathered every few years to raise their international profiles, show off their accomplishments and educate the world about what they have to offer. This year, more than 190 countries are represented in the Shanghai event, themed “Better City, Better World.” Set up over more than five square kilometers, pavilions for individual nations, regions, and some industries and corporations, vie for the visitor’s attention. I spent a week at Expo 2010 in May, invited by the telecom company Ericsson to attend their business innovation forum held at the Swedish pavilion, a 3,000-square-meter space with the theme “Spirit of Innovation.” Through its exhibits, Sweden focuses on technological advancement, overcoming environmental challenges, promoting sustainability and possible solutions to the world’s problems.

Impressed by what I had seen in the Swedish pavilion and at the expo in general, I couldn’t wait to see what the Egyptian pavilion would be like. Would we be able to compete with all these new heights of innovation, technology, architecture and development?

History Meets... History

Egypt’s 1,000-square-meter pavilion was designed as a gift by internationally renowned Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. A bit stark with swirling black and white swooshes, it is apparently meant to combine modernity with antiquity, represented by the constellation-like graphic of three pyramids above the arched entrance. Indeed, the building looks like some lost spaceship which had landed in Shanghai by mistake and was now trying to avoid notice by disguising itself as a pavilion.

While I am not a big fan of our pavilion’s design, I do think anything that is not Ancient Egyptian kitsch is huge progress. I was excited to see there was no Tutankhamun or other notable pharaohs outside to welcome visitors. The excitement was short-lived.

Despite cloudy weather and rain, thousands of Chinese people were standing in line for nearly an hour to visit our pavilion. The security guard spotted us and knew we were Egyptian even before he shouted, “Masreyeen?” Excited to see Egyptians in China other than his boss, the guard ushered us to the head of the line: “Were you thinking of, standing in line or what?” he chided us, “Etfadalo, etfadalo [Come in, come in].”

Inside, the swooshes have gone wild, with a veritable hurricane of white circling the black interior. “The flying ribbons are meant to embody modernity represented by the design, and history represented by the pavilion’s content,” Mohamed Gomaa, the manager of Egypt’s pavilion, explains. “So the idea is to link the present to the past and the ribbons are that link.”

Amid this maelstrom of ‘ribbon’ are arranged a sparse eight Ancient Egyptian artifacts, including a large statue of Amenhotep IV. So much for my hopes of a pharaoh-free pavilion.

Egyptomania is apparently a strong selling point. Despite its moderate size, Egypt’s pavilion receives a fair share of visitors, averaging 14,000 per day and up to 18,000 during the first few weekends, according to Gomaa. He says that the line gets so long some days that it blocks the exit of Tunisia’s pavilion nearby.

“The police came a few times to ask us to try to get more people into the pavilion,” says Gomaa. “There’s a limit to the people that can go inside at once because we need to keep everything under control to protect the original pieces we have.”

Other than the antiquities, the pavilion’s major attraction was the gift shop sponsored by the Luxor governorate. Ahmed Eid, a fine arts graduate and Luxor native, says that they have had a high turnout. Eid’s job at the pavilion is to write visitor’s names in hieroglyphs on papyrus; he says he does at least 40 drawings a day. “Chinese visitors are passionate about the Ancient Egyptian civilization,” he says, “and [they] love the idea of writing their names in the Ancient Egyptian language.”

If the ‘ribbons’ are meant to connect Egypt’s past with the present, then I guess it makes sense that they are swirling aimlessly: The pavilion’s content represents nothing of modern Egypt.

“The point of the expo is to promote Egypt’s name rather than a certain product or service,” Gomaa explains. To hear his take on the visitors’ reaction, you would think little promotion needs to be done. “When we tell people here that we like China, they say ‘we love Egypt’ back. They always tell us that China and Egypt are the oldest two civilizations in the world and have a lot in common,” Gomaa says. “We are happy to be here in a country that is an example of an ancient history and a bright future.”

This is all very nice, but what about our present? Our Pharaonic past has no need for further promotion. I was hoping that Egypt would promote something future-oriented that would fit better with the expo’s theme, such as opportunities for clean energy, medical tourism, the nation’s growing economy and investment opportunities, or its booming ICT industry.

After seeing the future in China, an equally ancient civilization that is fast growing in international prominence, I can’t help but wonder when Egypt will find something newer than a few thousand years old to be proud of.