By Zahi Hawass
Several years ago I went to the Egyptian Museum and met its then director, Mamdouh El-Damati. I met a man in his office, a short man with dark skin named Refaat who spoke English with a saidi (Upper Egyptian) accent. After several minutes of conversation, I realised that he was super smart. I understood he had spent most of his life in Cambridge, England, and had married a charming English lady, Ashley, with whom he has a daughter and a son. El-Damati told me that Refaat supplied the museum with computers and other essentials needed for day-to-day activities. He had even sponsored the visits of several curators to the British Museum. I was very happy to meet him, but wondered what he wanted because I always believe there is no such thing as a free lunch. Refaat later came to my office with El-Damati and explained his entire programme, as well as his support for the museum.
I later received an invitation from Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, to deliver a talk at the museum on the occasion of its 250th anniversary. I arrived at Heathrow Airport and found Refaat waiting for me with his driver. He stayed with me for most of my visit to London. I found out that the Egyptian Section of the British Museum depended on him to sponsor events. I also found out during this visit, for the first time, that sometimes there is a free meal.
Refaat is very kind, and offers help to everyone without waiting for anything in return. He came with me to the dinner party that MacGregor and Vivian Davies, head of the Egyptian Section, held for me. The lecture was sold out and they had to accommodate the overflow with closed-circuit TV. Refaat teases me all the time about this. At the dinner he was at my table with many others, among them Adel El-Gazar, the Egyptian ambassador. MacGregor, Vivian and I were surrounded by Egyptian statues.
I gave a talk at the dinner to thank MacGregor and Refaat for their continuous support for the archaeology of Egypt. I also told my audience that the statues were asking me to take the Rosetta Stone back to Egypt for the Egyptians to see, because it is an icon of our Egyptian identity. The next day, Refaat brought me copies of newspapers attacking me for this speech. Even after I left London, the media wrote that I was a Muslim fanatic and wanted to stop the work of all foreigners in Egypt. Refaat began to collect these stories, and wrote letters to defend me. He even arranged for me to meet some of the reporters who had written these articles so that I could tell them in person that we were open to talk.
It is a fact that some foreigners believe that Egypt belongs to them, and that we Egyptians cannot say anything about what they do. They think they do not need to abide by the rules. One English newspaper reporter wrote a story attacking me badly; but didn't tell the story behind it, which was that we had stopped the work of one scholar who did not follow the rules. Refaat was very upset about this, but also said that he was very proud. For the first time, he can see that there is the respect for Egypt and its monuments.
I was invited to England a second time, to the house of Lord John Poid, who is the head of Board of Trustees of the British Museum. I laughed that night more than any day in my life, especially when Refaat pronounced John's name in his saidi accent and it came out "Goan".
Refaat plans to spend more time in Egypt and help us to develop our websites, and also to continue helping young curators. He has bought a villa in the North Coast so he and his wife can come in the summer. He even plans to make a project in Egypt with his company providing GPS points as guides for people who drive in Egypt. However, that project is encountering many problems, so we have not seen him in Egypt for a long time. When he calls me I feel there is pain in his voice: he is in love with his wife and children first and his country, Egypt, second. Sometimes I say to myself that if I did believe in reincarnation, I would say that this man was a pharaoh, but a kind one.