DATE September 18, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Ben Stevenson, artistic director for the Houston
Ballet, discusses ballet dancer Lauren Anderson
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Ballerina Lauren Anderson has been described in The New York Times as
charismatic, dazzling and spellbinding. She's the Houston Ballet's first
African-American principal dancer and is one of the few African-American
ballerinas in the US to have danced all the great classical roles in such
ballets as "Swan Lake," "The Sleeping Beauty," "The Nutcracker" and "La
Sylphide." She's been with the Houston Ballet in one form or another since
the age of seven when she began training at the company's academy. The
company's artistic director, Ben Stevenson, has choreographed several ballets
for Anderson, including "Cleopatra." But when she was about 13, he gave her
some discouraging advice. So before we meet Lauren Anderson, let's ask
Stevenson about that advice he gave her.
Mr. BEN STEVENSON (Artistic Director, Houston Ballet): When Lauren was 13,
as she's always been, she was a dynamite, you know, a great personality, great
worker and great energy. But actually, she was a little heavy and muscular.
And so I suggested to her that, you know, she was such a talented girl, that
she--perhaps the ballet scene would not be for her physically, but more the
Broadway's thing. And this wasn't to say she wasn't talented, but a way that
I thought physically she could be more successful. And, of course, she worked
very hard and worked in many different ways to lengthen her muscles. And, of
course, lo and behold, she's a ballerina with the company now. So that proved
GROSS: What are the kinds of moves that won't work with a body that's too
muscular or, you know, isn't of the idealized ballet proportion?
Mr. STEVENSON: I think it's like looking at a fat giraffe, you know, or
something like that, or fat crane--the bird--or something. I mean, you
just--in ballet, the lines--the long lines of ballet, I think, are very
important. And somehow over the years, it's been something that the steps,
the aerobes, the different positions look so much better when it's not
performed by a fat person. I mean, I think it's...
GROSS: Well, I'm sure Lauren Anderson was never fat.
Mr. STEVENSON: No, she wasn't fat. But I mean, heavy then--heavy is--I
think even if you go and see a Broadway show, you know, you don't really see
fat people in it. You see some very, you know, dancing--just the exercise and
the amount of energy one uses keeps you trim. But then the way I think Lauren
was working in the beginning was a very thigh-building way, and so her legs
and that were heavier. And so when she stopped doing that, and she sort of
understood--and she's very smart--the legs and the muscles and everything
became longer and trim, which was more suited for the ballet.
GROSS: You've choreographed several works for Lauren Anderson. Are there
aspects of her body, her style of movement that you love taking advantage of
when you choreograph for her?
Mr. STEVENSON: Well, at the beginning, I found that Lauren had a lot of
energy. She has a great jump, for instance, and she turns very well. So
she's got strong technician. But then as I've gone on working with her, I
found that she's developed into really a very good actress, and so that gives
her more scope really. So the last ballet I did for her, "Cleopatra," was not
so much the great big technical ballet, but one that really relied more on her
as an artist, actress, dancer.
GROSS: When you took over the Houston Ballet, there were very few
African-Americans in ballet--I'm not sure there are exactly many
African-Americans in ballet now--but were you at all concerned that an
African-American dancer would stand out too much in the corps de ballet, where
there's a certain symmetry that's really emphasized. Did you have any
concerns at all about having, you know, a black dancer in the company?
Mr. STEVENSON: I suppose in the beginning, you think, `Well, I'm always used
to working with 18 white swans, you know, or something in "Swan Lake." And
now I'm going to have 17 white and one black,' you know. And then I thought,
`What am I going to do about that?' Then I thought, `Well, just get over it.
You've got to start somewhere, so just get over it and just go ahead and do
it.' And then, you know, in the end, you get two or three black swans in a
month or something, and somehow you just have to get over it and go ahead.
And so that's now my way of thinking about it. If the person can do it, then
I think, you know, they should. It's very exciting when you find someone
that's unusual who has talent, I think. And I think it's very exciting when
you find, you know, even if you've got white dancers, it's such a joy to find
one of them who's unique and has something to offer of themselves. That
they're not just 18 people the same, but you're looking for different
personalties. And then Lauren, to me, is one of those personalties that makes
up my company.
GROSS: Well, on that note, I think we should meet Lauren Anderson. Ben
Stevenson, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. STEVENSON: Thank you.
GROSS: Ben Stevenson is the artistic director of the Houston Ballet.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Lauren Anderson, principal dancer for the Houston
Ballet, discusses her dancing
TERRY GROSS, host:
I spoke with Lauren Anderson about her experiences as the company's first
African-American principal dancer.
So what's your version of the story. When Ben Stevenson, the artistic
director of the Houston Ballet, told you you think more about Broadway than
ballet, what was your reaction?
Ms. LAUREN ANDERSON (Principal Dancer, Houston Ballet): Well, at first, when
Ben said this to me, he said, you know, `I think you're very talented and I
think you have a great personality, but I think your body is more suited for
contemporary dance or--and you can sing, go on Broadway and, you know, jazz
it up and have fun,' and I thought, `Well, OK, maybe that's a good idea. But
I like ballet,' and I was still interested in taking ballet classes because I
enjoy the movement and I enjoy the way it feels, and it's a challenge and I
So all I did, actually, in essence, was what they teach at the Houston Ballet
Academy, which, I guess, created me and my body changed. Of course, you know,
one grows up, but--and I did things for my diet and changed the way I was
training. But when he said this to me, I wasn't disappointed or upset. I was
just, like, `Well, OK. Maybe I am suited for that, but I really want to do
classical ballet. So that's what I'm going to try to do. If I'm suited for
that, I can always do that. So why don't I try to be a ballerina?'
GROSS: So what did you do to try to reshape your body?
Ms. ANDERSON: Well, at that time--and you've got to remember, I was, like,
14, 15, 16. So, you know, you're kind of thickening out a bit. You're
becoming a woman. So I'm becoming more shapely. And I'm very muscular, also.
So I've got this muscle thing going on with this shapely woman thing trying to
happen. So, of course, I'm freaking out a bit. And as an adolescent, you
know, you eat stuff and you pig out on chips and all that kind of stuff. So
my diet wasn't that great.
But what I did was I became a vegetarian, but eat seafood because I still need
some kind of meat going. And I did a lot of Pilates work. It's like a body
conditioning so that I wouldn't lose the strength in my muscles, but I would
lengthen what I had. And I changed the way I was working because I was
working kind of pushed down and very muscular, and I was trying to think of
working light because I'm a strong athlete. You know, I'm like this
athletic--I have an athletic body. So I was trying to make it a little bit
more lithe, you know, just a little bit lighter.
GROSS: Now did you feel that any of the critique of your body had to do with
the fact that you were African-American and that your proportions might be
Ms. ANDERSON: No. It just had to do with--I was a thick chick, basically.
I was just thick, a little bit thicker in the legs, thicker--and actually,
genetically, African-Americans are--you know, the rounder bottoms and all
that. But there's a bunch of white chicks with round bottoms and all that.
So it wasn't really that.
And I think it was--I was just thicker and putting in a tutu wasn't just not
the ideal thing. And actually, what's funny about it is classical costumes
cover up that area that everyone talks about that's thick, because there's all
the tulle and the frilly stuff. It covers up your bottom. But in a tutu, it
would stick straight out because that thigh issue. So we had the thigh issue
because that was my big strong muscle because I had, like, these kind of like
horse legs, you know. These big--(makes noise). I can't--I'm making all
these motions, and I know you can't see me. But I was just a really muscular
GROSS: During that period when you were trying to reshape your body and make
it longer and sleeker, did you start to dislike your body or be angry at your
body? I mean, your body's your instrument. You're dancing in a studio where
you're looking at yourself in the mirror all the time. And this could have
led to a pretty combative, unhealthy relationship with your body.
Ms. ANDERSON: Right. But the--OK. The thing with the relationship between
the dancer and their body and it being your instrument, let me tell you
something. Every day, I look in that mirror and I don't like something.
There's still to this day something I don't like. We just had five weeks off
for in between seasons. And I thought, `You know, I haven't really taken any
real time off in about three or four years. My body needs a rest.' I came
back, probably, seven pounds heavier, which is, like, not that big a deal.
You go in there, you rehearse for two weeks, it's gone.
Well--but the way your body's shaped, you freak out because one wall of your
life, every day that you started ballet class, has been a mirror. And as a
woman, we're freaked out about the way we look anyway. You know, society
already says, `You're too fat. You're too short. You're too tall. You're
not blonde enough. You're not to'--whatever. Society does this to us
already, along with looking in a mirror since you were seven years old. And
I'm 35, so I've been looking at myself a long time. So every day, there's
some kind of battle with--I don't like something.
But one thing that saves me from being anorexic or bulimic or anything like
that is I like food. And I'm Southern girl, and we've got great food down
here. Blue Bell homemade vanilla is my weakness. Ice cream is a weakness of
mine. So, I mean, I'm not going to have that unhealthy of a relationship with
my body when it comes to how I want it to look. But that's one of the reasons
why I became a vegetarian.
GROSS: My guest is Lauren Anderson, a principal dancer with the Houston
Ballet. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Lauren Anderson, the Houston Ballet's first
African-American principal dancer.
What was your parents' attitude when you were young and really serious about
ballet? Did they try to discourage you, and were they afraid that you didn't
have a chance because you were African-American and because ballet, you know,
has traditionally been such a kind of white form?
Ms. ANDERSON: I have to tip my hat to my parents. They were very good at
shaping my personality. And actually, my parents divorced and my father
raised me, if you can believe that in the '70s. My dad raised us--me. And
he--I have a very healthy attitude about myself. I'm not egotistical or
self--I don't know how to say it. Well, I'm only child. So, of course, my
favorite subject is me. But he was very good about making sure that I was OK
with who I was, and in the environment that I was in, having this European art
form and being the only black chick in there, I mean, he wanted to make sure
my thoughts on everything were right and healthy and in the right direction.
My mom's a musician. She teaches music. And my dad was the assistant
principal of the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. So they were
very supportive of the ballet thing. And now they just sit proudly in the
audience and sit back and watch what they've helped create.
GROSS: Now I've been watching you dance on video where I see you in close-up.
And you have a beautiful body. Your arms--it looks to me like you must work
out 'cause your arms have a beautiful muscular definition. I don't mean like
bulging muscles like you're going to be in a lifting contest. But--I mean,
there's just a really nice muscular definition in your arms. Is that a kind
of muscularity that's not problematic?
Ms. ANDERSON: The thing is this. I have never lifted a weight in my life.
That's what I'm saying. That's how muscular my body is. My arms--I have
great arms. They're fabulous. I love my arms because I don't lift weights
and I've got--do you remember that movie--I think it was "How Stella Got
Her Groove Back"...
GROSS: "Groove Back."
Ms. ANDERSON: ...or Tina Turner, and you saw Angela Bassett with these
fabulous arms? Well, she obviously works out. My arms aren't that big, but
they're defined like that. And I think that's just a black thing, just
genetically. I'm genetic--I'm just muscular. Well, my legs were, like, eight
times that as legs. You know what I'm saying? You know, I'm just naturally
muscular. That's where--it's a harder--that's just one of my battles. Like
someone else that's--one of the--another white chick in the--I can jump and I
can turn. She can, like, whack her legs up. So my battle is trying to get
more extension, and her battle is trying to get jump and turn. There's going
to be something that you're going to--that you want that you don't have, or
someway that you look--that you want to look that you don't look. That's a
battle that everyone has.
The thing is I'm an African-American female in a European art form, and this
whole thing is, like, `Well, how did you do it? How did you do it?' Just
like everybody else did. I got up every morning, I went to school and then I
went to ballet class. And everyone has their battles to fight for whatever
their body looks like, you know. And I had the same. My battles were just
GROSS: Now how does it feel to have, really, such a strong body and sometimes
have to play such kind of, like, delicate creatures as, you know, as a snow
maiden or a fairy princess or...
Ms. ANDERSON: Actually, that's a good question because I was just rehearsing
Snow Maiden yesterday--or the day before yesterday. And Carmen Mathe, who's
the assistant to the director, was saying, `Now make that step smaller,
smaller arms, even smaller'--and I felt like I wasn't doing anything at all.
But it was perfect, I mean, like, nothing. It's like less is more. And at
this age of my career, I've done all of these huge roles where I have to be
the powerful and all-encompassing Cleopatra, and then I have to be the Sugar
Plum Fairy and then I have to be the Snow Maiden. And that's--I'm every
woman. I get to be all of these different people. I get to be Myrtha in
"Giselle," who is one of the most powerful roles a woman can have. And then
that next week, I have to be a little piece of chiffon, or something, you
know. It's great. It's great. I love it. That's the challenge. That's the
challenge of what we do. That's the art. Everyone has to do that.
GROSS: Now you've had ballets written for you, probably most notably
"Cleopatra." What's special about originating a role?
Ms. ANDERSON: Well, egowise, to have someone want to create something on you
or have them think of you as this person, I mean, you know, that just makes
you feel great anyway. It gives you little goose bumps. But then you've got
to get in the studio and actually work. And the studio process is what's
wonderful, because if I can inspire Ben Stevenson, who's a genius when it
comes choreography anyway, that's high on my priority list because I've known
him since I was 11. I admire him. He's like my uncle, you know. I admire
him as a person, a friend, a director, a teacher. And we don't know who
"Cleopatra" was going to be until we finished the ballet and got to the end of
the ballet. Neither one of us did. I mean, he had an idea more than I did of
what he wanted, but we didn't know how our personality was going turn out. We
didn't know what she was really going to be like as a woman until the ballet
was over. And going through that process, it was like having a baby, you
know, and watching it grow up in those two months we were rehearsing. And
that is neat. That is what this is all about, besides the performance, of
course, but that to me is one of the richest gifts, wonderful things I could
GROSS: Now you were exposed to dance when you were a girl and you fell in
love with it. Do you feel like a lot of children now see ballet and get
exposed to it?
Ms. ANDERSON: Yes, actually. And that's really good because the Houston
Ballet does a lot of student performances, and sometimes I get out in the
schools. I talk to some of the kids in the quote, unquote, "inner-city
schools." And I go in in, like, jeans and a baseball cap or whatever and I
bring a tutu and I bring, you know, a videotape of me dancing so they can see
the visual, so they get the, `I'm a person just like you,' and then they get
the, `But this is what I do and I worked really hard to get here,' but this is
what I do type thing. And we have some free shows at Miller Theatre, so I
know a lot of kids and there's always a lot of kids out there. There's
definitely more kids that are exposed to ballet now or to the arts. And it's
nice because at the Houston Ballet Academy, there's a lot of little black kids
running around there now. It's great. I love that. I love that. I feel
like I've kind of pushed a little door open. I hope they not all come in and
knock it down.
GROSS: Have you had any bad injuries during your career?
Ms. ANDERSON: No, I'm knocking on wood.
(Soundbite of knocking)
Ms. ANDERSON: I'm knocking on wood. That was me knocking. No, I have not
had any bad injuries and I don't want any. Oh, no, no.
GROSS: Are there things that you have to do to protect yourself against
injury at the age of 35 that you didn't have to worry about when you were in
Ms. ANDERSON: There are things--and I tell this to these 20-year-olds that
the things that I do every night they should do so that when they get to be my
age, they'll be used to doing them every night. After work, I go home and ice
my toes, I ice my knees. I take sea salt baths and, you know, stuff like
that. Yeah, I mean, you have to take care of it. This is it. I only get
this body once. And I do feel the 35 thing, though, in the morning when I
wake up. I have the symphony of bones. I call it creak, creak, you know,
just cracking all over the place, but I had to do that. I had to ice my knees
at 25. I had to ice my knees at 20. That's just part of the--comes with the
GROSS: What do your toes look like?
Ms. ANDERSON: My toes are hideous. And Charles Shadon(ph) came out with
these fabulous pumps, like, two, three years ago, these little strappy pumps.
And I was so upset 'cause I couldn't let my toes--I hide my toes in the sand
at the beach. My toes are hideous. They've got these, like, knobby things on
it. Oh, I'm looking at them. I'm sorry. They've got these knobby things on
them. My bunion is sticking out the side. Oh, they're hideous. But that's
why I have to be careful with my shoes, what kind of shoes I buy. But,
unfortunately, they have to just be expensive because, you know, they have
to--first of all, dancers are hard on shoes anyway. Like, my shoes are all
gnarly on the bottom, like the heel is always kind of worn on one side. Oh,
it's just awful. My feet are awful, awful.
GROSS: Why are dancers hard on shoes?
Ms. ANDERSON: Because of the way we stand and the way we work and point
shoes and ballet shoes. We tend to dance in our street shoes, too, sometimes,
you know. So we mess up a pair of shoes very quickly, unless they're, like,
dress shoes or something, but we have ugly feet and my feet are hideous. And
everyone at work tells me I have the worst feet, the ugliest, but that's OK.
It doesn't matter as long as they look good in the point shoe, it doesn't
GROSS: Exactly. Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. ANDERSON: Absolutely. This has been a pleasure.
GROSS: Lauren Anderson is a principal dancer with the Houston Ballet. I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Dr. Zahi Hawass discusses his work excavating mummies
in the Bahariya Oasis region of Egypt
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. There are an estimated 10,000 mummies
entombed is what is now known as the Valley of the Golden Mummies. My guest,
Zahi Hawass, is the director of excavations at this ancient Egyptian cemetery
in the Bahariya Oasis. Dr. Hawass overseas the pyramids in his capacity as
Egypt's undersecretary of state for the Giza monuments. And he directed the
final stage of conservation of the Great Sphinx. Nearby the pyramids, he
discovered the tomb of the pyramid builders. He's currently continuing to
excavate that site, as well as the Valley of the Golden Mummies.
The tombs in the Valley of the Golden Mummies are about 2,000 years old and
are from the period when Egypt was ruled by the Greeks and the Romans. The
first tomb was discovered in 1996. In 1999, when Zahi Hawass took over, 105
mummies were found in four tombs.
Dr. ZAHI HAWASS: When the site began to reveal its secrets with all these
mummies that we're excavating--mummy after mummy. All of them were encased
with gold, and you have scenes depicted on the mummies such as gods and
goddesses of mummification and judgment hall. And they you have, you know,
many love stories of a lady holding the hand of her husband. Another
lady--she's putting makeup because she's going to get married in the afterlife
because she died before she get married. And all of them were looking at us
as if they were alive.
GROSS: Well, when you say that these mummies appeared to be looking at you as
if they were alive, what do you mean by that?
Dr. HAWASS: What they mean is that under the sand, all these mummies were
hidden. With my brush, I take the sand away. I see the eyes of the mummies.
And they look at us. If you see these mummies--in my opinion, they were not
really mummies. They were live people, because we found they are beautifully
mummified; beautifully covered with linen; and the gold is wonderful. And
they put the scenes of Horus and Osiris and Isis and the four children of
Horus, the god of wisdom, Buff(ph), and all of that--with the eyes. They were
open, and opened, sometimes, as with a smile. And this is why, in my opinion,
they looked like alive.
GROSS: Now what you're saying, though, is a mask, isn't it? You're not
really saying the eyes?
Dr. HAWASS: No, there was no mask.
Dr. HAWASS: They covered the chest with gold, and they covered the face with
gold. And therefore, you see the nose and you see the eyes and you see the
hair and you see everything. And did make kind of a crown around the head.
Sometimes they put in the back of the head a shape of a hawk. It was made of
gold. And therefore, their eyes were looking at us. Can you believe in one
tomb last year we found 43 mummies?
But this year, in May, in one tomb we found 41 mummies. And in this tomb we
found--I cannot tell you--the most beautiful artifacts ever found in any
excavations. We found this beautiful wooden frame of a temple. And inside
the temple in bas-relief the deceased in the shape of the god Osiris,
surrounded by Anubis, who's the god of--guard of the cemetery, and the god
Horus--and in beautiful color. The coins that we discovered--in the hand of
each mummy you'll find a coin. And you know why they put this coins?
Dr. HAWASS: Because they thought it would be like a bribe to the ferryman
that will take them to the afterlife in a boat. And we found pottery vessels
for wine storage--to store the wine in it. And we found many bracelets and
necklaces made of different stones. And all of this, really, was surrounded
beside the mummy. And sometimes they were afraid that the mummy could be
deteriorated, and, therefore, they put near the mummy a mask. Then if the
mummy would be deteriorated, the mask will do the same function to help the
deceased to go to the afterlife. And that's really fascinating.
GROSS: One of the amazing things that you and your team has found is a tomb
that you believe houses the mummies of the pyramid builders--the people who
actually built the pyramids. What makes you think that the bodies here were
of the people who built the pyramids? Everybody used to say that they were
built by slaves.
Dr. HAWASS: No, this is completely wrong. First of all, this discovery--I'm
working in it until now. It's a major, important discovery. It is in the
shadow of the pyramids; next door to the pyramids. And the reason that I'm
telling you that those tombs for the pyramid builders is because of the
titles. We found names of--title of a man that was overseer of the west side
of the pyramid. Another one was the overseer of the east side of the pyramid.
We found titles like the director of the sculptors; the artisans' director of
All of the titles interconnecting with people who were building the pyramids.
And we did not find mummies. There were only skeletons underneath mud-brick
tombs. The lower cemetery for the workmen who moved the stones, and the upper
cemetery for the workmen who actually were the artisans--technicians like
draftsmen and craftsmen. Those people were buried in the shadow of the
pyramids. And if you can think--if they were slaves, they will never be
buried beside the pyramids.
And, number two, you have to know one thing--that the pyramid was a national
project of the whole nation. Every household in the north and the south of
Egypt used to participate in building the pyramids by sending salted fish or
grain, beer--because the national diet for a workman and a king in the time of
building the pyramids were drinking beer and eating bread--and, therefore,
sending, also, work force. It was like the army today. Everyone has to work
for building the pyramid, which will make the king to be a god. And that's,
really, a very impressive thinking because, today, if you think about building
a pyramid, you will never do it because you don't have the same dedication of
GROSS: You also did X-rays of some of the bodies that you found in the tomb
of the pyramid builders. And what did you find?
Dr. HAWASS: You know, each skeleton that were discovered in the tomb of the
pyramid builders, we do X-ray for that skeleton. And we found many
interesting things. First of all, we found the average height of an Egyptian
in that time was about five to six feet. And we found the average age of
death were 30 to 35. And we found that all the skeletons of men and women had
a stress on their back, because they were involved in moving heavy stuff.
Workmen moved stones and women participate in baking bread and--because near
this excavation, Mark Leaner(ph) from the University of Chicago discovered the
bakery for making bread and the area for salting salted fish. I discovered
the tombs and the settlement, the camp, that--the workmen actually lived in
GROSS: How does this information rewrite what we know of ancient Egyptian
Dr. HAWASS: You know, when Carter in November 4th, 1922, discovered the tomb
of King Tut, it was gold. It was advertising. It was curse mystery. But
King Tut was a very young man. The discovery of his tomb did not reconstruct
history. But the discovery of the pyramid builders rewrite history. The many
ideas about slavery, now--this public notion that everyone thought that the
pyramids built by slaves, it is not true. Slavery can build something--a huge
building, but it will never make anything ingenious like building the
GROSS: Is it possible that the skilled artists and artisans designed the
pyramids and then slave labor was used to actually remove the stones and
Dr. HAWASS: Not at all. I told you that the pyramid was a national project
of the whole nation. And therefore, every household in the delta and Upper
Egypt used--every three months--to send workmen to help the king. And we
discovered the tombs of those people who moved the stones. And they are
built in the shadow of the pyramids. And therefore, you have to think that
there is no word called `slave' in ancient Egypt by the meaning that--to own
someone. They--slaves means people who work for the workmen. And they were
paid. They were paid by the households. And the artisans were paid by the
king. And therefore, I believe, that there was no--actually, this
slavery--you know who told us about this?
Dr. HAWASS: Cecil DeMille in the--in his first movies. It's Hollywood. You
have really--any actual evidence at all of slaves building the pyramids. It
came only through Hollywood. But now, through this discovery that I made,
that--I'm proud of it. It tells everyone that the builder of the pyramids
were Egyptians. And people have to stop talking about lost civilization and
fingerprints of the gods. You know, the prints of the workmen who built the
pyramids is actually what we see now. And also, at the same time, it tells us
that the idea about slavery should be completely disregarded.
GROSS: My guest is Dr. Zahi Hawass, director of excavations at the Valley of
the Golden Mummies and Egypt's undersecretary of state for the Giza
monuments. His new book is called "Valley of the Golden Mummies." More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is archaeologist Dr. Zahi Hawass.
And he's Egypt's undersecretary of state for the pyramids of Giza. And he's
the field director of the Bihariya Oasis excavation, which holds an estimated
10,000 mummies in tombs that were sealed about 2,000 years ago. And Dr.
Hawass has written a new book called "Valley of the Golden Mummies."
Let's talk a little bit about what you've learned about mummies and the
beliefs 2,000 years ago in Egypt about death and the afterlife. Let's start
with this. Why did Egyptians believe that the body should be mummified and
Dr. HAWASS: You know, the Egyptians believe in the afterlife. And that was
a very important belief. And you have to know--thinking about the afterlife
means everyone will go to the Field of Yarrow(ph). The Field of Yarrow means
paradise. If you are a good man, you will go to paradise. And therefore, to
be in the afterlife, you need to preserve your body. And what the Egyptians
did--they did bring the body and they opened the body. And they take all the
viscera and all the things in the body that--and they put it in canopic
jars. They only leave the heart.
GROSS: So they put the viscera in jars...
Dr. HAWASS: In jars.
GROSS: ...but left the heart in the body.
Dr. HAWASS: And the heart--they leave it in the body because the heart was
the place of knowledge. And therefore, it's very important that the heart
should be in the body. They put the other stuff in four jars. They called
them canopic jars, because this is a place called Canopus in Alexandria. And
they were topped with the faces of the four children of Horus. And after that
they built an atrium, and they tried to dry the body. And they put some
material inside to preserve the body that we do not know. And after that,
they covered the body with linen. After that, the deceased will go for the
judgment hall, and, therefore, they have the heart in one side. And the
feather of Maat, goddess of justice in ancient Egypt, will be in the other
side. If it doesn't balance, there is a huge animal--is waiting to eat this
person. If it balances, he will meet the god Osiris, and he will go to the
afterlife to live happily. And therefore, he would put in his tomb all the
artifacts that he will use in the beyond. He would put in the scenes in his
tomb--this is the idealistic life that he would like to see.
GROSS: Well, let me get back to making sure that the two things were
balanced. Tell me again what they were trying to balance in order to...
Dr. HAWASS: You know, they...
GROSS: ...safely reach the afterlife.
Dr. HAWASS: They have a scale. In the scale in the right hand they would
put your heart. And in the left hand they will put the feather of a goddess
called the goddess Maat. She was the goddess of truth and justice in ancient
Egypt. And that is the balance between the heart and Maat. Then if it does
balance, the deceased will go to the afterlife. And that is why, always, the
deceased wanted his tomb to be protected.
I found one of the tombs of the workman. And the man is saying that, `I never
did anything wrong in my life. Everything I did was correct. And that's why
the gods like me.' And he says, `If anyone will touch my tomb, he will be
eaten by a crocodile, the hippo and the lion.' It's very interesting.
The tomb of the governor at Bihariya Oasis--when I entered this intact tomb
that dated to 500 BC--about 200 years before the mummies at Bihariya Oasis--I
looked at the entrance of the burial chamber, and I saw this huge sarcophagus
about 12 tons weight--have the face of a human being--surrounded by this
yellow powder. It smell--it gives a bad smell. And the smell can kill.
Would--I do not understand why they put this powder. I believe they put it
to protect the tomb from anyone to enter inside and just to show how the
Egyptians, throughout the ages, were really interested in trying to preserve
the tomb, because this is the place that they will live forever for it. This
is the place that will take them to the afterlife safely.
GROSS: Now if--what was believed if you didn't make it safely to the
afterlife, what happened to you?
Dr. HAWASS: There is a huge animal that will eat you. You will--finished.
You are--now go to hell.
Dr. HAWASS: This is like our belief today--when this animal will finish you.
Dr. HAWASS: And this person will never be going to the paradise. Then, it
was very important that every Egyptian from the beginning, whether he's a
king or a nobleman or an official or a common man, to start building the
tomb. And that's why these tombs are evidence that tells us about the life
of those people and their religious belief in the afterlife.
GROSS: Dr. Zahi Hawass is my guest, and he's Egypt's undersecretary of state
for the pyramids of Giza. And he's the field director of the Bihariya Oasis
excavation, which has an estimated 10,000 mummies in tombs sealed over 2,000
years ago. He's the author of the new book, "Valley of the Golden Mummies."
Now you're--the Bihariya Oasis has hundreds of tombs and perhaps as many as
10,000 mummies. What are your hopes? Do you want to take all these mummies
and put them in museums? Would you like to leave a lot of them intact in the
Dr. HAWASS: I did already. I do not believe that mummies should be shown to
the public. I believe that mummies should be completely protected because
do you like people to see your mummy after thousands of years? No. No one
really likes to do that. And therefore, I left all the mummies that I found
in sealed tombs, after preserving them, and then they can live more. And
I moved only six mummies that we will make a museum to the public because you
do not understand how this site became very famous.
It became the most important famous in Egypt. When I arrived Bihariya for the
first time and I met a man in a cafe. And he said, `Please, sir. When you
talk on the TV, mention our town.' His town, now, became the most important
and famous town in Egypt. And therefore, people will come not only to visit
the temples and the tombs that existed there, but they want to see the
mummies. And therefore, I moved only six mummies and will put them in a
museum for the people to see.
GROSS: So how--if you don't want people to see--tell me more about why you
don't want people to see mummies. I mean, it's...
Dr. HAWASS: I ask you a question.
Dr. HAWASS: Do you like your body--your mummy to be seen by people?
GROSS: Well, at some point it almost feels like it's not a personal concern
or a matter of discretion.
Dr. HAWASS: It is. It is, in my...
GROSS: It's a matter of history.
Dr. HAWASS: No, I--OK, as a matter of history, I give to them--I'm writing
about the information for the people. But why people will come and look at
them inside the tombs--what do you gain from this? This is why I took the six
mummies for people to see. But the rest should, really--should stay in peace;
should not be disturbed by the visitors who will come with their breathing and
their touching. They could destroy them.
Dr. HAWASS: And therefore, I completely--am completely against the idea of
opening these tombs to any visitors at all.
GROSS: I wonder if it's affected your religious or spiritual life to have
this kind of connection to bodies from the ancient past.
Dr. HAWASS: No, no, no, no, no. I am--first of all, I am not, in general, a
religious man. I am looking at the human being. How do--I am disturbing his
tomb, but I need to preserve him. I need to let him to live more for the
afterlife. I do not want to damage the spiritual value of this man. It is
also from the idea of a human being looking at my face. It is not--it has
nothing about religion. It's just the idea of looking at the face of a human
being. I mean, it's like--it's not--this is not a movie. This is someone
that went on to learn from him.
Dr. HAWASS: To understand our future.
GROSS: Is there a mummy that has made more of an impression on you than any
Dr. HAWASS: You know, I always work with pyramids, as I told you. I never
really liked mummies, in general. But the first mummy that I excavated in
the Valley of the Golden Mummies--when I was sitting and holding this brush
and began to clear the eyes of that mummy. That is the mummy that touched my
heart. And I tell people, after that, I thought that I have only one lover,
which is the pyramids. But now I have two lovers, the mummies.
GROSS: Well, I thank you so much for talking with us, and good luck with
Dr. HAWASS: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Dr. Zahi Hawass is the author of "Valley of the Golden Mummies."
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new collection of novellas by British
writer Jane Stevenson. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Review of four novellas by British writer Jane
Stevenson called "Several Deceptions"
TERRY GROSS, host:
A collection of four novellas by British writer Jane Stevenson, called
"Several Deceptions," was published in England last year to ecstatic reviews.
Now the book is out in paperback here, and book critic Maureen Corrigan has
lapped it up.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
"Several Deceptions" is the kind of book I'm always wishing were waiting for
me on the table beside my La-Z-Boy at home. It's my Platonic ideal of a
delicious reading experience realized in paperback form. Witty, witchy,
intellectually adroit, and, of course, British. These novellas are almost
architectural in their elegant design. Each one ends in an O'Henry-ish
surprise; a cleverly unforeseen narrative pop that leaves the reader--or at
least this reader--feeling simultaneously giddy and doltish.
Aside from their structural similarities, all four novellas also toy with the
theme of deceit, sometimes self inflicted. They're all set in atmospheric
locales; cloistered university towns in Italy and The Netherlands; an Indian
city at the foothills of the Himalayas; a rickety English country house. And
all of the stories are told by smooth-talking, first-person narrators, who
suffer from varying degrees of unreliability. In fact, the only dull,
uninventive aspect of "Several Deceptions" is its title. But don't be
deceived by it.
The first novella, "The Island of the Day Before Yesterday," takes its title
from a book by Umberto Eco, and, appropriately enough, it's a pin-pricking
romp through the puffed-chest world of academia and literary journalism. The
narrator is a Professor Strachey, an Englishman in luxurious exile in Italy,
where he teaches symbiotics and publishes books on topics like the social
significance of the spaghetti Western. Strachey is married to an Italian
noblewoman, and he's the son of a semi-famous couple who drank their way for
decades through London literary circles.
After his father dies, Strachey flies back to London to sort through his
father's voluminous library of letters and diaries, with an eye toward selling
the stuff to some rich American research library. He hires a plain-Jane
secretary to help him, a woman named Dora, who, he recalls to us, `chewed her
way through Daddy's library evening by evening, with the industry of a
When an English journalist rings up Strachey for an interview about his father
and his own minor career as a swinging '60s gadfly, Strachey arrogantly
decides, in his symbiotic way, that since all reminiscences are just
collections of signs and there's no such thing as `the truth,' he'll monkey
around with history. To give dumpy Dora a thrill, or so he thinks, Strachey
pretends to the journalist that Dora was his first wife, now turned into a
Marianne Faithful-type wreck of her former 1960s self.
Imagine Strachey's horror then when, a year later, safely back in Italy, he
picks up The London Review of Books(ph) and finds a review of a memoir about
the 1960s entitled: Look Back in Anguish, by the very same Dora, now fully
settled into the persona of Strachey's embittered ex-wife. Here, to give you
an idea of Stevenson's exuberant ingenuity, is a snippet of the review
Strachey reads: `Dora Strachey's book is a cup of cold poison. It makes
something of a virtue of being unauthorized, but Ms. Strachey makes the
perfectly valid point that women's recollections are subject to all kinds of
censorship from within and without. Her authentication is her own memory, her
Dora ascends to a career as a feminist icon. Professor Strachey's marriage
and reputation crumble apart faster than you can say Cornabee Street(ph), all
because of a simple, light-hearted act of deceit.
The third novella here, "The Colonel and Judy O'Grady," is also a romp. This
is the story set in India, and it features an Irish-born Buddhist nun and a
decaying community of British expatriates. Anyone who knows their Kipling
might just be able to guess from the title what the twist in the ending will
But Stevenson's two other novellas are much darker in tone. They're Patricia
Highsmith-type entertainments involving sexually ambiguous narrators,
long-distance murder, a diabolical academic, art fraud and perilously high
living. I wish I had but world enough in time to read vast chunks of these
stories out loud to you, so you could savor their smart, droll voices. But
maybe the best thing I can tell you about "Several Deceptions" is that even
though the four novellas' plots culminate in shockers, their literary value
isn't exhausted once you've read their endings. Like a good British mystery
by, say, P.D. James or Ruth Rendell, these novellas are so rich in
atmosphere, so acrobatic in their use of language, their endings are only the
last things you'll savor about them over and over again.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Several Deceptions," a collection of four novellas by Jane
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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