Isolated, Destroyed, and Forgotten

Beirut 1991 - Gabriele Basilico


At a time when the archaeo-scholarly world maintains its righteous indignation over the plunder of archaeological sites and against art collectors’ selfish vices; at a time when nationalists and zealots pounce upon uncertain archaeological fragments and declare them to be national treasures, there is a kind of material heritage that is being intentionally destroyed and forgotten, almost entirely lost to memory.     

It is the heritage of un-nationalism, of movement and mixture, of serrendipitous and often smile-producing cultural cocktails, that ironically laid the foundation for the national movements that would ignore them and stand aside as they were destroyed.     

In the Mediterranean and the Middle East, where archaeology is an industrial undertaking and where it must serve national masters first (non-establishment political opinions being an obvious obstacle to the granting of excavation permits), ancient nationalities are as simplistically and perniciously concretized as are modern ones:  Philistines, Israelites, Moabites, Edomites, Egyptians– Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians, Egyptians, Iraqis).  But there was a time, not so long ago that the human landscape  in port and capital cities was as diverse as it was uniformly scattered from Casablanca to Baghdad.  Urban colonies of intellectuals and merchants and artists and thinkers created a cosmopolitan ferment from which the individual liberating national movements would spring.  Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Italians, Turks, Syrians, and the odd ethnic renegade all contributed to a culture whose visual design was decidedly modern, attitude uncompromisingly idealistic, and whose fondness was for debating and thinking– preferably in favorite cafes and livingrooms filled with thick tobacco smoke.     

Of course the appeal of powerful new ideas for the future (not old grudges from the past) and effortless cross-fertilization of gthe region’s urban cultures is today frowned upon and indeed actively opposed by religious fundamentalists and militarized ethnic states.  Little wonder that the archaeology of a cosmopolitan world is a target for destruction.  Now I don’t count the repair of architectural facades or restored, reused building remains to be the only challenge here.  It’s the intangible aspects that are most important:  Reaching beyond the familiar and keeping the cultural bridges in use.      

Read these two tragic stories of the modern Middle East and you’ll see what I mean:     

From The New York Times May 21, 2010:     

In Baghdad Ruins, Remains of a Cultural Bridge

The home of the renowned Arab novelist, poet, painter and translator Jabra Ibrahim Jabra was destroyed in an April 4 car bomb attack that also killed 17 people in Baghdad.  Photo:  Holly Pickett for The New York Times     


BAGHDAD — Report No. 25, dated April 4 and written by Col. Qais Hussein, was clinical, the anonymous survey of an explosion in a city where explosions are ordinary.     

Books and papers in Arabic and English litter the floor in the home.  Holly Pickett for The New York Times     

“Material damage: significant,” it declared of the car bomb that was detonated last month near the Egyptian Embassy, killing 17 people. “The burning of 10 cars + the burning of a house, which was in front of the embassy, with moderate damage to 10 surrounding houses.”     

Colonel Hussein’s report didn’t mention the hundreds of books, from plays of Chekhov to novels of the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, stored in bags, boxes and a stairwell. It didn’t speak of the paintings there of Shaker Hassan, one of Iraq’s greatest, or the sculptures of his compatriot, Mohammed Ghani Hikmat. There was no note of the stone brought from an exile’s birthplace in Bethlehem that helped build the house as a cosmopolitan refuge bridging West and East.     

Nor did Colonel Hussein’s report mention that the home belonged to Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, a renowned Arab novelist, poet, painter, critic and translator who built it along the date palms and mulberry trees of Princesses’ Street nearly a half-century ago and lived there until his death in 1994.     

This is not a story about an outpouring of grief over its destruction. There were no commemorations, few tributes. As Fadhil Thamer, a critic, said, “People here have seen too much.”     

But in the whispers of friends and colleagues, who recalled Mr. Jabra’s listening to Bach as he wrote, the smoke of his pipe wafting through the room, the house represented something far greater that has been lost. To some of them, its destruction serves as an epitaph of sorts, the end of eras in Iraq and the Arab world and the eclipse, in war and strife, of the ideal he represented.     

For complete story, click here.     

*   *   *     

From the New York Times June 20, 2010:     

Alexandria Journal

A Draft of the Past Remains on Tap in Egypt


Like the city around it, the Cap d’Or’s better days are behind it. The bar was opened about 110 years ago by Greek residents.  Photo:  Scott Nelson for The New York Times    

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN                

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — These two women were veiled, true. They are religious, too, or at least as religious as their community expects them to be. But do not tell them they cannot stop into Sheik Ali’s bar and sit at a table and eat fried calamari and laugh over a glass of juice while surrounded by men drinking beer and whiskey.     

The women, Nelly Rafat, 52, and Magda el-Gindy, 52, are childhood friends who believe that while their religion prohibits alcohol, people are free to make their own choices. That is not the typical view here these days. But they sit, eat and enjoy, guilt-free amid the smoke-filled ambience of a hole-in-the-wall bar.

“If somebody else sitting here wants to drink, it’s none of my business,” Ms. Rafat said, as Ms. Gindy nodded in agreement.     

There is a lot of pressure out on the street, here and around Egypt, to at least appear pious. For women to wear a veil. For men to have a prayer bump, a dark callus in the middle of the forehead from bowing to the ground five times a day.     

And definitely, especially for women, to stay away from alcohol, and especially in a bar filled with men.     

“It’s not a Muslim tradition,” Muhammad Suleiman, 32, complained as he sat in a barbershop next door to the bar. “It should not be there. I don’t like it. It’s not our religion. I’d like it closed.”     

But that is not how everyone wants to live, not all the time, not even among people who agree to conform in appearance, like Ms. Rafat and Ms. Gindy.     

Especially not here, in Alexandria, a city built to look out to the world, not in on itself. The arc of history has been unkind to Alexandria, taking it on a long slow slide from the center of global learning in ancient times to a rundown, crowded metropolis on the Mediterranean.     

But no matter how the conservative social forces of modern Egypt press in, Alexandria cannot fully turn its back on a past so different from the present, when diversity and tolerance eclipsed conformity and tradition. The old Alexandria, the city built by Alexander the Great, set aside cemeteries in the 19th century for all its citizens, with separate ones designated for Muslims, Jews, Christians and “free thinkers.”     

Those days are gone, but are still embedded in the collective memory, and desires, of many people who live here, even people who are too young to remember when the tailors were French or Greek, the cooks Italian, and the Jews a large, vibrant part of the city.     

“We grew up in the hands of foreigners,” said Francis Zarif, 33. “That’s why I like it here. The feeling is the kindness of people in the past, the humanity.”     

For complete story, click here.     


One thought on “Isolated, Destroyed, and Forgotten

  1. The thing with forbiding alcohol in islam has not much to do with a free will, or its lack, while, I am not denying there are out there fanatics who push far too far, I do fully agree with 100% ban on selling alcohol.

    the reason for stopping people from this is rather obvious and was expressed in one of the hadiths: while alcohol has some advantages (like taste sometimes) it causes numberless problems and sufferings, and I know what I am talking about: my father was an alcoholic, my sister died from alcohol abuse and I, myself have strugglled with it for long years. This ban is for a greater good: for children, wives etc. I do appologize , but they good is far more important to me than very abstract idea of “free will”

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