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Why Egyptians never cared about that Chinese graffiti

July 16, 2013

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“Chinese Graffiti in Egypt Causes a Stir in China,” reads the title of one article concerning the defacement recently discovered in Egypt’s Luxor Temple: a Chinese boy wrote, atop a millennial carving, that he “was here”. The story was broken not by Egyptians, but rather by a Chinese Weibo user who posted the photo.

Read that article title again. It might seem more logical for the “stir” to be in Egypt — after all it is an Egyptian monument that was defaced, but the story has barely even registered. The utter lack of interest on the side of Egyptians is puzzling but not surprising. According to BBC News, Ding Jinhao, now a teenager, committed the act when he was much younger. And yet, it was only cleaned up last week, after the story exploded in China. In a bizarre twist, the handful of Egyptian articles concerning the matter did so primarily through secondhand reporting from foreign sources.

Ding’s mother has issued an apology to “the Egyptian people and to people who have paid attention to this case across China.” The sentiment is both nice and superfluous.

Mrs. Ding, there is no need to apologize for your son drawing graffiti on an Egyptian temple. It’s not like we even noticed: Egyptians never cared enough about their own monuments to get outraged about graffiti. In fact, no one likes to carve names into our own monuments more than we do. We are happy to use the most aggressive flash on fragile wall paintings, even when it’s expressly forbidden. Guards will even offer to take you to sections of temples that are closed for restoration in exchange for a few pounds.

Seriously though. I think it’s hard to find a nation as nonchalant about its own history or as cavalier about safeguarding its heritage as Egyptians are. While Luxor alone boasts 30 percent of the world’s monuments, we do surprisingly little to maintain them, save for a few highlights – the pyramids, the Cairo museum, and so on — and even those are done half-heartedly.

And yet, it is constantly disheartening to see Egyptian monuments showcased abroad. Far too many artifacts from the Pharaonic, Islamic, Coptic, and Contemporary eras were smuggled out of the country during colonial times by European wide-brim-hatted explorers or by less-than-scrupulous diplomats. In other cases, most famously with the Luxor Obelisk that now stands tall at Place de la Concorde in Paris, ancient Egyptian artifacts were gifted — gifted! — by Egypt’s rulers.

But that’s not the only reason why it’s disheartening. Seeing the bust of Queen Nefertiti, which currently commands its own room in the Neues museum in Berlin, is a bitter reminder that oftentimes our stolen artifacts receive better care — and generate more interest and income — than they would if they were crammed alongside other equally beautiful artifacts in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

And those are the lucky ones. Egypt has a multitude of smaller museums, which, thanks to the immutable force of complacency and government bureaucracy, are completely off the tourist circuit for locals and foreigners, and have become repositories of dust that no one cares to wipe anymore. When visitors wander in, they are sometimes met with the surprised eyes of the museum staff, unacquainted with the presence of outsiders.

Besides, dear Mrs. Ding, I still have a photo of one “Nabila” who loved “Maged” so much so that she felt the need to write it on one of the towers under restoration on the Great Wall of China. The names sound Egyptian enough for me to issue an apology. Or at least tell you we’re even.

I deeply admire the feeling of collective responsibility that emerged from the Chinese public debate around that issue, in which many Chinese netizens felt responsible and ashamed for the actions of one of their young citizens, and emphasized the need for better public education and responsibility. And this is the crux of the difference between the Chinese and the Egyptian attitudes. The latter, I hate to say, are probably the world champions of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, a concept that describes that a shared resource can be promptly overconsumed if all people who use it behave egoistically, rather than in a collaborative manner to ensure its subsistence. Their interest is only spiked when a transgression has the potential to embarrass them – and their reaction, rather than attempt to right the wrong, would be to hide it. Anyone who has tried to report on poverty, street children, or even snap a photo of a pile of garbage in Egypt has probably had someone come up to them to stop them from reporting or taking a photo – more or less politely or violently.

If Egyptians were to follow this debate and understand that concept of collective responsibility, at home as well as abroad, that we so direly miss, then this graffiti incident would have ended on a positive note. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen.


Originally published at Tahrir Squared.


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