Everyone knows the story of King Solomon’s Judgment of the Two Mothers who both claimed the same baby. Knowing that the true mother would prefer to give up the infant rather than see it harmed, he awarded its custody to the woman who did not want to see the baby cut in half.
Philip Roth, in his brilliantly hilarious novelized biography of King David, God Knows, has a slightly different take on the incident. Picturing King David as a Mel-Brooks-type wisecracking old cynic, and his son Solomon as nothing more than a self-centered dummy pushed ahead in life by a doting mother, Roth has David quip about that famous Solomonic ruling:
“I’ll let you in on a secret about my son Solomon: he was dead serious when he proposed cutting the baby in half, that putz. I swear to God. That dumb son of a bitch was trying to be fair, not shrewd…”
And so it also seems to be in cultural heritage, where cutting the baby in half is the preferred means of settling disputes between conflicting narratives. First it was the idea of the Israeli-Palestinian Working Group that partitioning archaeological sites according to territorial distribution would aid, not hinder, the effort for Israeli-Palestinian peace. ( see my op-ed and theirs)
Well that proposal was a non-starter. The cultural heritage tail could never wag the diplomatic and military dog. Besides, the possession of or sovereignty over old heaps of stones makes absolutely no impression on people who don’t accept the owner’s narrative.
And in the world of heritage today, it’s all about narrative, not possession. It’s a shame that we have inherited laws and concepts that make heritage (read: collective memory) just another national resource, subject to exclusive claims of sovereignty and the victim of total control by state authorities.
Of course there need to be some centralized professional bodies to deal with issues of protection and conservation, but the idea that a heritage site belongs legally and exclusively to any one state, group, body, or pressure group is asking for trouble– and as much as inviting counter-narratives and continuing strife.
If you don’t believe me, check out this other, similar cultural heritage trainwreck about to happen:
From the New York Times September 30, 2010
by Jim Yardley
NEW DELHI — In a case that spanned centuries of religious history and languished in the legal system for six decades, an Indian court issued a historic ruling Thursday on the ownership of the country’s most disputed religious site by effectively handing down a split decision: granting part of the land to Hindus and another part to Muslims.
The unorthodox decision by a three-judge panel in the state of Uttar Pradesh provided a Solomonic resolution — if one likely to be appealed to India’s Supreme Court — to a case the authorities had feared might unleash religious violence across India.
Nearly 200,000 state and federal officers were deployed across Uttar Pradesh as a precaution, as almost every major political figure in the nation, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, appealed for calm and harmony.
The case was considered especially combustible because the contested site, in the city of Ayodhya, was the scene of a searing act of religious violence in 1992 when Hindu extremists tore down an ancient mosque known as the Babri Masjid on the property. The destruction sparked riots that spilled into the following year and have been blamed for about 2,000 deaths.
For full article, click here.
From Al-Jazeera TV: