Conserve THIS part of Egyptian heritage from destruction too!

For all the outcry and self-righteousness over the vandalism in the Egyptian Museum and its antiquities, there is another part of the cultural identity of its people that is no less significant– and far more entwined in the daily lives or memories of its many peoples and communities.

In 2008, the vanishing art, musical instruments, and storytellers if the al-Sirah al-Hilaliyyah Epic was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and its careful documentation provided a way to conserve an element of culture that– unlike the distant golden excesses of the megalomaniac pharaohs– represented a form of cultural creativity no less endangered than buried temples and tombs.

I would direct you to CULNAT, the newer Egyptian organization for inventorying the full range of Egypt’s tangible and intangible heritage– from prehistory to the present, but its webpage about folklore ( has gone silent, a victim of the Mubarak government’s effort to “protect” the nation from thugs and troublemakers. Maybe you will read this and be able to click on it after he is gone.

And there are countless other expressions of Egyptian culture that are no less fragile than the carved figures and jewelry in the Cairo Museum– like his one, from the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage site:

Enhancing Women’s Role as Custodians and Artisans of Egyptian Handicrafts — For over centuries, women have used their innovative and artistic talents to create artefacts passing them from mother to daughter. The “Tally” embroidery, famous in Upper Egypt, and the cross-stitches embroidery of both Siwa and Sinai are unique forms of art dating back to the 19th century. This heritage is under threat because of the permeation of advanced and easier technologies, and a lack of market awareness.

In response to the threat of industrial standardization, the Egyptian National Council for Women (NCW) has taken initiatives with UNESCO to safeguard Egyptian intangible heritage manifested in the domains of traditional craftsmanship, oral traditions and expressions, proverbs and performing arts. This project included documentation in combination with the collection of all forms and patterns of the Tally. It also aimed at training young women artists, craftsmen, documentalists and teachers in recording and documenting the work and in accessing and retrieving historical artistic records. Furthermore, small-scale enterprises were developed to create gainful employment to women living in underserved regions and villages.

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There are different ways to preserve a country’s memory and creativity than selecting a certain Golden Age and using it as the metaphor and embodiment of an essentialized civilization and authoritarian regime.  Certainly the material remains of Ancient Egypt are fascinating and valuable.  But they, like the fabulously wealthy and well-connected families of the Cairo elite are not the only ones who deserve dignity, respect, and cries of outrage from the academy and from museum professionals when they are damaged or destroyed.

Paired Photos that Speak Far More Than 2000 Words

If you ever wanted to see what sudden cultural change looks like up close and personal– in high resolution and in the world we all live in– you must look at this piece from the New York Times Lens Section…

Ayonga in February 2008 and July 2010. Photo: A Yin

December 20, 2010

Mongolian Diptychs Tell of Profound Change


A Yin is documenting his home province of Inner Mongolia. He is a self-taught anthropologist-photographer who has made it his mission to record the last of the nomads there. The phenomenal changes he captures tell the broader story of China’s transformation. A Yin was cited by the National Geographic All Roads Film Project in 2007. Sim Chi Yin, a photographer and writer based in Beijing, interviewed A Yin for Lens. Their conversation has been translated from Mandarin.

Q.  Why have you persisted in shooting Inner Mongolia’s nomads?
A.  Because their way of life is disappearing. Chinese society is developing very quickly and traditions are changing, diminishing, disappearing. I just want to document, help preserve and propagate the great traditions of my ancestors. I feel a pain in my heart as I see it all change. These traditions belong to an old world. I am documenting the way of life of the descendants of Genghis Khan.

I come from a family of farmers. We are Mongolian but have became very Han Chinese over time and through interaction with them. My own family had given up on the nomadic life for over 200 years now. We had lost our traditions.

For full interview and slideshow, click here.

So Cut the Baby in Half Already!

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

Indian Court Divides Disputed Ayodhya Holy Site

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:

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.     

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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.     

No European Heritage Label for You!

The announcement of the “European Heritage Label” is, I believe, an ill-conceived exercise.  It is either a cynical tourist marketing campaign or the shaping of an entirely artificial pan-European identity (see my post of  March 10).  In either case it will show (once again) that meaningful heritage should be remembered, not dictated or made.

Heritage should help shape a productive future (which in Europe’s case is clearly multicultural), not fossilize or set in stone an idealized myth of a pure or homogenized past. 

But maybe the worst thing about that negative, exclusionary kind of “official” heritage is that it can also be used to delineate what is NOT mainstream, official, or legitimate.

The gathering reported below is, I know, populated by some of Europe’s nastiest racists and motivated by some of its most unpleasant, xenophobic attitudes.  But it does embody clearly– in its own way– the natural corollary to the European Heritage label:  namely, the establishment and publication of a proscribed UN-EUROPEAN HERITAGE LIST

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From Der Speigel Online:

03/26/2010 06:35 PM

Following in Switzerland’s Footsteps

International Right-Wingers Gather for EU-Wide Minaret Ban

By Charles Hawley in Berlin

Delegates from right-wing populist parties from across Europe are descending on Germany this weekend for a conference looking into the possibility of an EU-wide minaret ban. The hosts, an anti-Muslim German group, hope to use the gathering as a springboard to success in local elections.

What could be more European than a castle? The Continent is dotted with them, often menacingly perched on forested hilltops overlooking rivers or ancient trading routes — important bastions necessary for the defense of what developed into Europe’s long and rich cultural tradition.

These days, of course, European castles tend to be little more than bucolic tourist attractions. But it is perhaps no accident that a small palace in western Germany’s former industrial heart has been chosen to host a convention ostensibly aimed at defending European culture. The castle in question is the centuries-old Horst Palace, a Renaissance structure in the Ruhr Valley city of Gelsenkirchen. The gathering is called, pointedly, the Anti-Minaret Conference.

This Saturday, politicians representing right-wing conservative parties from across Europe will descend on the Horst Palace to discuss the dangers of Islam. Delegates from the Belgian nationalists Vlaams Belang will be there as will politicians from Geert Wilders’s Dutch Party for Freedom, Pia Kjaersgaard’s Danish People’s Party and the Front National of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Others from Sweden, Austria and Eastern Europe are also on the invite list.

‘Symbols of Radical Islam’

The hosts are a relatively new group of German right-wing conservatives called Pro-NRW (an abbreviation of the German state North Rhine-Westphalia) and the goal of the conference is clear: to follow in Switzerland’s footsteps and ban minarets across Europe. And they want to use a provision of the European Union’s new Lisbon Treaty to do it.

“I don’t think that minarets are part of our heritage,” conference attendee Filip Dewinter, floor leader for Vlaams Belang in the Flemish parliament, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. “They are symbols of radical Islam. The question is whether Islam is a religion like Protestantism and Catholicism and for me it is not. It is a political system, it is a way of life and it is one that is not compatible with ours.”

Pro-NRW and the other right-wing parties were galvanized when Swiss voters last November passed a ban on the construction of new minarets in the country. Since then, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which launched the referendum, have become the darlings of the European right. Indeed, the SVP has loaned their controversial campaign poster, which depicts missile-like minarets jutting out of a Swiss flag behind an ominous, niqab-wearing Muslim woman, to Pro-NRW for its campaign in Germany. And anti-minaret movements on the Swiss model have sprung up around Europe.

Dewinter has recently taken a closer look at whether a provision in the new Lisbon Treaty allowing for citizens’ initiatives could be used to push through a Europe-wide ban on the construction of minarets. On Saturday, delegates at the Anti-Minaret Conference will discuss whether to begin collecting the 1 million signatures such a path would require…

For full article, click here

The March of Heritage Folly Continues

No one should impugn the genuine emotional and spiritual attachment of Jews, Christians, an Muslims to Jerusalem’s monuments and heritage places.  But when heritage becomes a public zero-sum game between hostile communities, waged with raucous demonstrations and intentional muscle-flexing in a small, already-tense city, needless violence can be the only outcome.  

Are there no cool heads, no wise leaders who can stop this latest cycle of heritage-based hostility in Jerusalem?  

Jerusalem: Rebuilt Hurva Synagogue (white dome, above; al-Aqsa Mosque (silver dome, below). Detail of a photo by Berthold Werner


From Ynet News:  

Old City synagogue opened amid heightened tensions

After PA urges Muslims to barricade themselves in Al-Aqsa Mosque, hundreds of Jews take part in ceremony bringing new Torah scroll to restored shul in Jewish Quarter. ‘If this angers Obama, Netanyahu should choose a different partner,’ celebrator says.  

Shmulik Grossman

Published: 03.14.10, 20:38

Hundreds of people took part in a ceremony bringing a new Torah scroll into the restored Hurva Synagogue in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter on Sunday. The ceremony in east Jerusalem was held under heavy security after the Palestinian Authority joined the Islamic Movement in its calls for Muslims to flock to the al-Aqsa Mosque in response to extremist Jews’ plans to lay a cornerstone at the Temple Mount.  

Among the celebrators was Knesset Member Michael Ben-Ari (National Union), who criticized the prime minister, saying, “(Benjamin) Netanyahu, who crushed his own national backbone and is leading to the division of Jerusalem, should have come here to draw strength from Hurva’s restoration and display power instead of compromising Jerusalem’s unity.”  


Earlier Sunday, Hatem Abdel Kader, the Fatah official in charge of the Jerusalem portfolio, urged Palestinians in Jerusalem and Israel to declare their plans to travel to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City and barricade themselves there starting Monday.  

Meanwhile, police have declared they will not allow the Israeli rightists to go through with their plans to lay a cornerstone at the site.  

To read complete story, click here.

Who Ever Said Heritage is About the Past?

Zahi Hawass inspecting the restoration of Moses Ibn Maymoun (Maimonides) synagogue in Cairo in calmer times (photo: AFP)


 A return volley in the Israeli-Arab battle over “heritage lists.”  

After a series of highly publicized announcements last year by Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities chief Zahi Hawass that        

“Egypt deals with Jewish synagogues and monuments as an integral part of the country’s antiquities  

and that Jewish heritage is “part of our history,”          

we see that it may not be such a central and unalienable part of Egyptian cultural inheritance after all:         

From AFP 14 March:         

Egypt scraps synagogue ceremony after ‘provocative’ acts

CAIRO — Egypt cancelled the formal opening on Sunday of a renovated 19th-century synagogue in Cairo in protest at what antiquities chief Zahi Hawass called “provocative” Jewish and Israeli actions.           

Both Hawass and Culture Minister Faruq Hosni had been due to attend the event a week to the day after 150 people, including rabbis and the US and Israeli ambassadors, attended the rededication of the Maimonides synagogue.           

Citing press reports, Hawass said in a statement that the cancellation comes after “provocative” acts during the March 7 ceremony in Cairo’s ancient Jewish quarter.           

He referred to “dancing and drinking alcohol in the synagogue, as reported by several newspapers,” and said such acts “were seen to provoke the feelings of millions of Muslims in Egypt and across the world.”           

The decision was also taken at “a time when Muslim holy sites in occupied Palestine face assaults from Israeli occupation forces and settlers,” Hawass said…           

For full story, click here.        


Hey! What is SHE doing here?

UPDATE  to post of February 14 on recent archaeological discoveries in Mongolia and Italy

Seems like people are turning up in the strangest places these days. 

This time it is the physical anthropological re-analysis of a skeleton of the Roman period dug up in the British city of York in 1901.  The results have enormous modern relevance.  But is this archaeological progress, or just a reduction of our own cultural blindness? 

This time it’s a woman.

And this time she’s African.

And this time, though the archaeologists again have to resort to an elaborate story of exotic, high status contact between distant populations, they stress that the population of Roman Britain was far more multi-ethnic than our school textbooks might suggest– and that populations in antiquity were always a lot more heterogeneous than the mythmakers of racial purity (ancient and modern) would have us believe.

Click here for more information on the University of Reading’s intriguing “Diaspora Communities in Roman Britain” archaeological project.