King Tut got me busted in the Egyptian Museum in 1989. My wife and I, recently married, were visiting Cairo. Romantic vacation — but I was also obsessed with an object I’ll call the Org.
I had first seen the Org in 1978 at the L.A. County Museum of Art, during Tut’s first visit. Gold-plated and as tall as a woman, it looked like a tree trunk around whose single branch coiled the tail of (maybe) a headless, limbless animal skin, which hung straight down. Its soft, unadorned lines resembled nothing else from pharaonic Egypt, with reason: The placard suggested that it may have been as remote to Tutankhamun as he was to us — over 6,000 years old. Archaeologists didn’t know what the hell it was. I had stood outside of time and stared at it. Fascinated.
Eleven years later, Cairo’s dim and dusty Egyptian Museum was empty of patrons and filled with marvels, but I could not rest until I re-connected with the Org. When at last it loomed before my hungry eyes, I worshipped it for only seconds before raising my camera to steal its image. The flash was set to automatic — pop, whirr.
An olive-uniformed guard (with sidearm) was at my elbow in an instant, pulling me into a quiet corridor to whisper that flash photography was a serious offense. Well, what then? His eyes darting around, the guard curled his fingers in the universal symbol of acquisition. I pulled out my wallet and handed him a medium-denomination bill. He curled his fingers again, and I produced a larger bill. His fingers spasmed one more time; I emptied my wallet. He turned and walked away.
Now I’ve returned to the County Museum with my wife and our daughter to experience the current Tut carnival. After receiving digital guide devices, we are stuffed like humans into the entrance hall.
“I’m Omar Sharif,” says the actorly foreign voice on the device. “I haven’t worked much lately. My country is poor, and we have few opportunities to punish Americans for their colonialist thuggery. Now, however, you will pay.”
Inside, I catch glimpses of gold and lapis lazuli on luxurious household furniture and stately sarcophagi. The stone head of Tut’s predecessor Akhenaten, the heretic king, gazes down with an expression of beatific contempt as the mob fights for position in a darkened maze studded with glowing lucite boxes. Reminded that we are in the old Art Deco building that once housed the May Co. department store, I flash back to belligerent Xmas sales I’d endured there 20 years previous. It’s like trying to watch American Idol during the sack of Constantinople. Women with baby strollers shove and sweat, their eyes blazing. A toddler shrieks from his father’s uplifted grasp. A huge man in a full suit of armor stomps from case to case, thrusting his face against the lucite as tourists cower back from the metal spikes that extrude from his shoulder plates.
I angle through the obstacle course as quickly as I can and stand trembling in the last room, where a video presentation wonders if Tut had been murdered. Conclusion: It’s an Unsolved Mystery. But now I have my own mystery to solve: I’ve been separated from my family. Perhaps they too have been slain — nothing I can do about that now.
Thanks be to Thoth, they finally appear. My wife is furious; she feels that longtime LACMA members such as ourselves should be offered an opportunity to view Tut’s bric-a-brac in a special location — that cute planet just found orbiting outside Pluto would be nice, if they could get the museum’s gift store and pleasant French bistro out there too. My daughter, having seen the way I blanched in the initial gas chamber and knowing how much this junk means to me, strokes my arm and tries to appear calm.
The man in the suit of armor clanks leisurely toward the exit. Spotting me as a vanquished rival, he raises his visor to reveal a satisfied face, and extends a blood-smeared gauntlet in which is pinched a business card from a Third Street armorer. It reads, “Attire for public spectacles a specialty.”
“Not as pricey as you’d think,” he smiles and moves onward, but I place a hand on his cuirass.
“Wait,” I say. “Did you see . . . ?” I describe the Org. He tilts his head and considers.
“Nope,” he replies. “Nothing like that.”