The Middle East Galleries at the venerable Penn Museum are full of light now after extensive renovation. The collection on view of 1,200 artifacts from civilizations spanning millennia can now be seen like never before.
Cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, ceramics from ancient Persia, all manner of funerary objects, and decorative royal gold and jewelry are arrayed to dazzle visitors.
But these objects, as wondrous as they might be, may seem inscrutable to many, and their antiquity lends a remoteness to them. What relevance could a 4,000-year-old clay tablet have in the zippy, evanescent world of the 21st century?
A lot, said Abdulhadi Al-Karfawi, who grew up in Iraq.
“This clay tablet was retelling an argument between a father and his son thousands of years ago,” Al-Karfawi said recently as he enthusiastically crossed the gallery and pointed to a tablet about the size of a small paperback book. “When I saw this, I went back home and called my father and told him, ‘I’m sorry I gave you a hard time!’ ”
That call was to Baghdad, where Al-Karfawi’s family still lives, and his response to the tablet is exactly why the Penn Museum hired him to lead tours of the Middle East Galleries.
What may be ancient and remote to most museum visitors is, for Al-Karfawi and three other museum Global Guides (two others born in Iraq and one in Syria) a transporting journey back to their families and homelands, and a testament to the persistence of daily culture through millennia. Empires come and go, but arguments between fathers and sons persist.
Al-Karfawi, 40, grew up in Iraq, largely in Baghdad, but he often summered in the south near the great ancient city of Ur. He immigrated to the United States last year.
“This [Global Guides] program builds on the history at the museum of hiring people from other countries,” said Ellen Owens, museum director of learning programs. She characterized the effort as “cross-cultural communication and breaking down stereotypes.”
“We’re seeking to promote empathy and greater understanding,” she said.
Kevin Schott, the museum’s educational programs manager, said the museum perceived a big need for Global Guides.
“People are always asking us, ‘Well, what is it like today?’ ” he said. “We wanted to give a fuller picture of that.”
Al-Karfawi, who worked as a translator in Iraq, joined Global Guides after arriving in the U.S. with his wife and children last year.
“When I moved here, I felt so isolated,” he said. He was overjoyed when the opportunity at the Penn Museum opened up.
“Everything in this gallery is so personal,” he said. “I feel this is my life. This is what I’ve been through.”
Al-Karfawi demonstrated the point to about two dozen visitors who signed up for his tour on a recent Saturday.
He paused by the installation focusing on the ancient town of Tepe Gawra, a small settlement that flourished in northern Iraq 7,000 years ago. He told the visitors about the heat of the country and how people sleep on rooftops, how, as a boy, he lay on his back and studied the beauty of the stars. He showed pictures. This is what Tepe Gawra was like, he said. This is what nighttime is like in the heat of the summer to this day, he said.
When Al-Karfawi and his group approached the gold-bedecked headdress of Queen Puabi, who ruled in the royal city of Ur 4,600 years ago, he became even more personal.
“Every time I stand next to Queen Puabi, I feel like I’m standing next to my grandma,” he said. “My grandma arranged her scarf similar to this, the same thing.”
Al-Karfawi pointed to the 20-foot-long black scarf elaborately wrapped around and around the manikin head of Puabi. He showed pictures on his iPad of Iraqi women wearing the same kind of headdress today. Once the scarf is in place, it can be decorated with ornamentation — exactly in the manner of Puabi.
“To me, it’s not just an object,” he said. “It reminds me of something I was born and raised with. My grandma was not an educated person, but she arranged the scarf similar to Puabi, and then they roll it over and tie it with a golden clip.”
When Al-Karfawi got to the clay tablet, he connected his childhood to 4,000 years of arguing between father and son. What does the tablet say? According to a translation, it is a dialog. The father asks his son, “Where are you going?” The boy says, “Nowhere.” To which the father says, “If you aren’t going anywhere, why are you wasting time? Get to school! Apply yourself at school!”
It’s an argument about homework.
“I was amazed!” Al-Karfawi tells his group. “It’s an argument that happened thousands of years ago. I was so annoyed as a child — I thought I was the only one going through this. Now I’m going through the same process. I have a son. He gives me the same exact answers. That’s why, to me, these are not just objects sitting in the Middle East gallery. These are my life. It is amazing to be close to all these pieces.”
Al-Karfawi has held the attention of his group through the entire tour.
Laura Foose, 19, a second-year archaeology student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said she “enjoyed that he was relating it to his own experience and bringing it into today.”
“It’s not just what happened thousands of years ago,” she said. “A lot of the culture is translated over time and is still very present. You can learn anything from a textbook; it’s very different when you’ve learned it from someone firsthand.”