In his new historical novel titled The Egyptian Museum, Nasser Iraq tackles the looting of Ancient Egyptian antiquities by European excavators.
Iraq attributes the looting to two main reasons: foreigners' abuse of Khedive Ismail's blind trust and the indifference that the majority of Egyptians showed towards those antiquities.
The novel is divided into 11 chapters that employ the names of the main characters as titles. Throughout the novel Iraq employs first-person narration.
The novel starts with Ramadan Al-Mohammedy, a talented carpenter who is soon revealed to be an antiquities’ thief and a Lothario. Ramadan's lover Mastoora – whom he kills after she insists that he marries her after getting her pregnant – used to steal antiquities from the house of her employer, the German Egyptologist Heinrich “Henry” Brugsch.
Iraq then makes a smooth transition to other characters. These are Brugsch, the School of Egyptology director; Auguste Mariette Pasha, the founder of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities; Joséphine Diori, the young French archeologist; and Ahmed Effendi Kamal, assistant of Mariette Pasha and Brugsch’s most brilliant student.
Throughout the novel, Mariette Pasha and Brugsch are always engaged in a discussion about the Egyptians’ indifference towards the Pharaohs’ entire heritage. Mariette Pasha firmly believes that Muslim Egyptians are inclined by virtue of their religious faith to overlook ancient Egyptian history, viewing statues as idols. He mentions the shutting down of the School of Egyptology – due to the meagre number of students – as proof of Egyptians' apathy towards their ancient Egyptian heritage.
Brugsch, on the other hand, cannot believe that among so many Egyptians no one is interested in studying ancient Egyptian history. He cites Ahmed Effendi as an example of Egyptians who are willing to study such a subject and expresses his hope that in time other Egyptians will follow suit.
The novel, however, portrays all its main characters as involved one way or another in smuggling antiquities and selling them to foreigners abroad. Ramadan Al-Mohammedy, Mariette Pasha, Brugsch, Benjamin Jacob, even Ahmed Effendi – who returns the statue he stole – are all involved with stealing and smuggling antiquities.
Ahmed Effendi, who is married and has two children, is portrayed as deeply in love with her. Her love drives Ahmed to steal the statue of Seti I to sell it to provide Joséphine with a decent life. He has, however, a sudden pang of conscience and returns the statue just before being appointed head of an inventory commission responsible for conducting a census of the stolen statues.
Ahmed Effendi is flabbergasted when Joséphine leaves a farewell letter describing their relationship as withered roses. The note comes only two days after she had hugged him intimately. Jospehine, who turns out to be an emotionally disturbed woman, breaks off with Ahmed just as she had broken off with her fiancée back in France one week before her wedding. She runs after the French Consul’s brother André whose profession as a photographer had been unknown in Egypt at the time.
Mariette Pasha, another character involved in smuggling antiquities, gives Brugsch Pharaonic statues to sell them at an auction hall in London.
Brugsch himself has so many statues at his house as if they were personal property. In one of the more heart-wrenching scenes, an Egyptian mummy is torn in half while Brugsch and his brother Emile carried it to the museum after discovering it and getting rid of its sarcophagus in the desert due to its heavy weight.
Benjamin Jacob, the French Jew who poses as a grain merchant in public but who is an antiquities smuggler behind the scenes, scolds Ramadan when he asks him about Thutmose III. When Ramadan proves ignorant, Jacob shouts at him saying “You, people of Egypt have a chronic flaw, a flaw that hinders your progress and development. A flaw that is similar to an epidemic that destroys and decimates and that is your horrible ignorance of the great heritage of your genius ancestors. You are oblivious of the fact that the dust you are treading on hides the most precious treasures and the greatest of civilizations.” He concludes by saying, “Anyway, that’s good for the ignorance of some people is the key to wealth for others”.
The novel also portrays how foreigners in general viewed Egypt at that time. In a letter to her friend Marie, Joséphine says that only the parts of Cairo that are inhabited by the Khedive and foreigners are radiating with light, while the rest of Cairo is surrounded by poverty and piles of garbage. She describes Egypt as a nice-looking apple on the outside that is rotten at the core. She even believes Oriental music to be poor and slow.
In addition to the European Egyptologists, the novel also portrayed other famous historical figures in cameo roles. Among these characters are Ahmed Orabi, the Egyptian revolutionary, Karl Marx, the renowned German philosopher and Khedive Ismail.
The double standards of Europeans are also portrayed in the novel by Iraq. Europeans generally described the Khedive as the despot of the Orient who doesn’t accept any advice. When the Khedive responded positively to the Egyptian Army officers’ demands and dismissed the government that included a British and a French minister, a European newspaper described him as the outcast ruler who doesn’t keep promises. Clearly, big powers in Europe were pushing the Ottoman Sultan to issue a firman deposing him, which exactly what happened.
Despite the important projects that Khedive Ismail carried out, there was always in the backdrop of the novel his penchant for squandering money and also his trust, preference and favouring of foreigners both in posts and salaries. For instance, Ahmed Effendi felt severe injustice when he knew that Joséphine, who had just arrived from Paris, earned twice his salary while he spent six years to earn his. At the same time, the Egyptian Army was boiling with anger for not receiving their salaries for months on end.
Although the novel is basically historical, it is also in part a thriller in which the murderer is known from the very beginning.
As for Ramadan the killer, Ahmed Effendi had been suspicious of him and consequently followed Nabawiyya, one of the Egyptian Museum cleaners and Ramamdan’s new lover, only to find that she gave him a wrapping and entered his home at night and didn’t leave. After climbing the house wall, Ahmed, his Army officer cousin and a group of soldiers found Ramadan dead, Nabawiyya wounded and a number of statues along with Mastoora’s and Sabha’s corpses in the house's backyard.
The novel discusses a number of themes such as the self and the other, the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, and the absence of any form of overseeing of foreign officials (who smuggle antiquities so easily and who are almost never inspected by customs officials on leaving the country).
There is also an underlying theme, namely the relationship between men and women. This theme can be seen in Ramadan’s seduction of poor girls, luring them with promises of marriage then killing some of them . It can also be seen in Brugsch’s relationship with his German wife, and in Ahmed Effendi’s relationship with both Zeinab, his Egyptian wife, and his French fiancée Joséphine.
In addition, throughout the novel the reader can feel that white European features are almost always contrasted with dark Egyptian ones, to the extent that Sabha, the Upper Egyptian maid and one of Ramadan's victims, couldn’t believe that Ramadan, who inherited his mother's Turkish complexion, sees her beautiful.
Iraq demonstrates in his 11th novel maturity in style and suppleness of prose unmatched in any of his pervious works. His characterisation is brilliant and he makes excellent use of history and historical resources and events.