Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Arab Heritage Preservation

The April 2014 issue of Perspectives on History includes a report of a Smithsonian conference on Arab heritage preservation.  Some interesting sections:
Heghnar Watenpaugh, an associate professor of art history at the University of California, Davis, talked about the history of Palmyra, an ancient city now used for military purposes in Syria. It had been continuously inhabited since the antique period, but when the French colonized Syria, they forcibly removed the people who lived in and around the ruins of the ancient city, and demolished their centuries-old mud-and-brick houses. Palmyra was transformed from a living city into an ancient ruin and a popular filming location for French directors. Watenpaugh addressed questions that many other speakers raised: For whom is heritage, and to whom does it belong?
Kareem Ibrahim, an Egyptian architect and urban planner who works to revitalize historic neighborhoods in Cairo, stressed that historic sites were often seen by governments as being for tourists and tourism, which resulted in attempts to evict Egyptians living near historic sites. Some parts of thriving cities were demolished in order to “sanitize” the area and provide unobstructed views of monuments. Ibrahim also pointed out that governments tend to define heritage differently from individuals. Following the fall of Mubarak’s ­government, protester graffiti was painted over by the new government. Ibrahim pointed to the irony of the new government erecting a new monument commemorating the protesters of Tahrir Square, while erasing the memory already there on the walls. Heritage and cultural memory became the center of a constant fight in Tahrir Square, with one side creating its own symbols and the other erasing them. The government’s monument, with names of members of the new government on it, did not last long. 
The removal of living populations from historic sites was also attempted by Jordan with the Bdoul Bedouin of Petra, though they kept moving back in.  On the other theme, contested historical memories of revolutions have also come up a lot in a course I am teaching this semester on Revolution in Middle Eastern History.  The same thing happens in American politics, from an unpopular John Adams's attempts to claim the mantle of George Washington through promotion of the song "Hail, Columbia!" to today's Tea Party and its opponents.  The reason is that successful revolutions become legitimizing events, and so claiming to act in its spirit is an important, sometimes even necessary way to build support for a regime or agenda.

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