It is 5 a.m. and Zahi Hawass is sitting in his SUV, freshly showered, about to drive out to the Bahariya Oasis for a press appearance. The streets are still empty as Cairo shimmers in the rose-colored morning sun. Hawass must hurry to avoid the morning traffic.
He has already had a heart attack, and since then he only smokes water pipes. Referring to his driver, he says: "If he slows down I'll fire him." He likes to call his opponents "assholes."
But no one here is troubled by his behavior. In fact, Hawass has a license to be loud and angry. He sets his own rules. As Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), he is the ultimate protector of all monuments in the country.
Some 30,000 people report to Hawass, whose organization is responsible for hundreds of dilapidated temples, gloomy tombs and treasure chambers fragrant with the scent of resin, once filled with gold jewelry and papyrus documents, stretching from the delta to the fourth Nile cataract.
Hawass can open them all.
Even looking like Indiana Jones in his jeans shirt and floppy, the master of the keys to Egypt's antiquities has made umpteen TV appearances dangling from a rope in a grave shaft or bending over coffins, constantly repeating the same tried-and-true mantra: "mummy, sand, secret, miracle, exceptional."
He is now "world-renowned," at least in his own assessment of himself. The pyramid whisperer drinks $300 (€242) bottles of wine, and his best friend is actor Omar Sharif. Sometimes he puts on an expensive tuxedo and drives to a party at the villa of President Hosni Mubarak.
He even met with US President Barack Obama in June, and the two men stood at the base of the Pyramid of Cheops with their hands in their pockets, looking cool as could be.
"We were friends right off the bat," says Hawass. "I told him that George Lucas came here to find out why my hat became more famous than Harrison Ford's." When he was shown the layout for his latest book, he had only one comment: "OK, but you have to print my name in bigger letters."
"I'm not just famous in the United States, but also in Japan and, in fact, everywhere," the narcissistic Egyptian explains without hesitation.
But Hawass is probably best known in his native Egypt, where he writes a column in the government daily al-Ahram. He often appears on television, chatting with official guests and ambassadors, or opening dance competitions in front of the Sphinx.
People like Hawass' approach and his ability to converse on equal terms with the West. He has liberated Egypt from a posture of humility.
He also happens to be a gifted speaker. He loves anecdotes, which usually revolve around him and contain minor untruths.
But this outgoing man isn't overly interested in details. "Jalla, let's go," he calls out testily when his Jeep gets stuck in heavy traffic in Cairo's urban canyons. His chauffeur has already run over several chickens.
But Hawass, who the German newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt dubbed the "fighting elephant of Egyptology," has no patience for delays. He is a restless and driven man.
He says he would need thousands of arms and legs to wipe out all the disgrace that have been inflicted on his country. He is vexed by the daily grind of his fellow Egyptians, the filth, the poverty, the lack of organization and his agency's poor technical facilities.