First published at BIKYAMASR
In 1971, during a brief stay in Yemen to film scenes from his already classic “Arabian Nights”, the controversial filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed a short and little known documentary about the astonishing beauty of Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, under the title of “The Walls of Sana’a”. Even though it has been rarely screened, this documentary was Pasolini’s appeal to the UNESCO to help save the incredible architecture of the almost 3000-year-old city.
The curious film ended with a passionate speech of Pasolini himself saying:
“For Italy, it is all over. But Yemen can still be saved entirely.
We appeal to UNESCO – Help Yemen save itself from destruction, begun with the destruction of the Walls of Sana’a.
We appeal to UNESCO – Help Yemen to become aware of its identity and of what a precious country it is.
We appeal to UNESCO – Help stop this pitiful destruction of national patrimony in a country where no one denounces it.
We appeal to UNESCO – Find the possibility of giving this nation the awareness of being a common good for mankind, one which must protect itself to remain so.
We appeal to UNESCO – Intervene, while there is time, to convince an ingenuous ruling class that Yemen’s only wealth is its beauty, and that preserving that beauty means possessing an economic resource that costs nothing. Yemen still has time to avoid the errors of other countries.
We appeal to UNESCO – In the name of the true, unexpressed wish of the Yemeni people, in the name of simple men whom poverty has kept pure, in the name of the grace of obscure centuries, in the name of the scandalous, revolutionary force of the past.”
Pasolini’s appeal resonated through and through in Europe and in 1986 the city of Sana’a was declared by UNESCO a world heritage site. It seems however that his appeal, followed by the decision of the international body, did little to rescue the ancient buildings from their disastrous condition.
In 2006, photojournalist Eric Hansen published in Saudi Aramco World an impressive travel photo-log of his journeys to Sana’a between 1978 and 2006, concluding that even though many significant changes had been made, roughly 40 percent of the ancient city was gone or in a very bad state.
In his reportage Hansen further added that Sana’a “has survived flash floods, earthquakes, massacres, repeated looting by tribesmen, civil wars and even, in 1991, Scud missile attacks. The city’s architecture has been demolished, damaged and rebuilt innumerable times, but in every instance, Sana’a has risen from the debris and survived”. It is unclear whether Sana’a this time will be able to survive Arab Spring on its own.
As a part of the collective movement sweeping through the entire Middle East, protests erupted everywhere in Yemen around mid-January, demanding the resignation of long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh, desiring to bring to an end his 33-years-old dictatorial rule. As it has become commonplace, the protests were met with increasing violence and especially with a very polite silence on the part of the international community. Even though protests continued for months, no other country engulfed by the Arab Spring has received less attention than Yemen.
Cultural destruction is already the norm rather than the exception in the Middle East and can be seen live everywhere from Morocco to Bahrain: Luxury hotels, skyscrapers and office buildings take the place of ancient shrines, cemeteries and centuries-old living quarters.
Many examples come to mind: The area surrounding the old city of Jerusalem known as Mamilla, where in intolerant fashion many ancient Muslim and Jewish graveyards are being desecrated and turned into a modern tolerance museum; in Beirut the legendary neighborhood Wadi Abu Jameel – the old Jewish quarters – is being transformed into sleek condominium complexes with staggered rooftops and hanging gardens, and lastly – the most prominent example – the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia is famous not only for the annual hajj pilgrimages but also for having destroyed nearly everything Islamic and otherwise to make space for comfortable hotels and other luxury residences.
The American occupation of Iraq unleashed an unprecedented destruction of many ancient sites and actively promoted looting of hundreds of Babylonian and Islamic treasures that were stolen from their rightful heirs and found their way to museums and private collections all over the world.
The destruction of Sana’a however has been seldom reported anywhere. According to eye-witnesses writing for an American newspaper in November, nowadays the tanks, mortar and firefights rumbling and cracking through the ancient city of Sana’a are endangering not only the future of the country but also its magnificent architecture.
The Old City of Sana´a has been inhabited for at least 2500 years and contains dozens of mosques, baths, gardens, orchards and markets, some of which date back to pre-Islamic times, among thousands of houses estimated to be between 6000 and 12000.
The particular style of architecture seen in Sana’a is thought to have existed already in the 10th century when Persian geographer Ibn Rustah – who travelled extensively in Arabia – wrote that “It is the city of Yemen – there not being found in the highland of the Tihama or the Hijaz a city greater, more populous or more prosperous, of more noble origin or more delicious food than it. Sana’a is a populous city with fine dwellings, some above others, but most of them are decorated with plaster, burned bricks, and dressed stones.”
Despite the urban sprawl, the city has managed to remain more or less intact and the architectural style that Ibn Rustah described has been preserved well into the 21st century. After the end of the civil war in 1969 traditional life in Yemen began to change radically as many expatriate workers returned and began to fuel an uncontrolled modernization of the city. In line with this development – a pattern in many cities – many wealthy families fled the historical downtown looking for homes with better public services; this of course contributed to further deterioration when working-class families moved into the buildings at the same time that the tax base shrank – bearing in mind Yemen is one of the world’s poorest countries.
After Sana’a was declared world heritage site many conservation plans were put in action in a combination of public and private initiatives, international organization and foreign investors – all of which has been put to a halt since around 2007.
Even though efforts were underway to preserve the old city itself, right outside, both Bir al-Azab – the historic Turkish residential and garden quarter – and al-Qaa’ – the Jewish, Christian and Persian neighborhood – lie neglected because in the words of a government official “there is no money to preserve them – and little interest”.
The UNESCO has urged the government of Saleh to protect the architectural character of the old city, and they have expressed their “deep concern” about the state of preservation; the same polite “deep concern” expressed by the UN security council on October 21 when they passed a resolution urging Saleh to sign a power transfer deal proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council. That the signature of this deal will be translated into any real transfer of power or that the government will lend an ear to the concerns of the UNESCO remains easier said than done.
Residents and shopkeepers in the old city are increasingly anxious about the unrest since the inflation and sense of insecurity have driven out all tourism and radically ruined the local economy. In the meantime Yemen remains a question mark in the cultural geography of the world:
The Western imagination cannot make up its mind whether it is the unlimited trope of Oriental charms that bewitched Pasolini and the earthly home of the Arabian Nights or if it is the home base of the United States number one ghost enemy – Al Qaeda and a thick forest of tribal, political and religious alliances for which the most prominent analysts always fall and remain proudly trapped in the cage of Madison avenue political discourse, concluding almost universally that Yemen is impossible, unfit for democracy and a lost case.
The vision of Pasolini might seem to us today a little charged with Romanticism; however the appeals that he made to the UNESCO remain today as valid as they were in 1971 and should include not only Sana’a but so many other secrets of “Arabia Felix”: Marib, Serwah, Quernow, Barakish, Djiblah and Shabwa, to mention only a few and whose history dates back as far as 11th century BC. To save buildings alone however, without the diversity of cultures and peoples that live in them, is nothing but a futile and merely aesthetic enterprise.
Many cities in the world have “preserved” their historical heritage by driving away their own working-class population from historical centers and then turning them into lavish palaces for the wealthy, depriving these centers from all the sounds and smells of traditional cultures and turning them into museums that are only open for distant observation through postcards and travel books showing immaculate clean streets next to chain stores and souvenir shops that rather than offering a window into the past, offer nothing but a sad remembrance of its complete extermination.
Yemeni cities and antiquities – abundant as they are, have been threatened and despoiled for centuries, ruined, demolished, burnt. Early in 2011 Ahmed Ali Moharram, founder of the National Musem (Yemen) expressed his concern on how nearly every form of heritage in Yemen is threatened not only by history but by poverty and poor education, and he tried to raise awareness about the necessity to preserve them.
In the same way that Pasolini appealed to the UNESCO, I would like to appeal not to international bodies but to the people of Yemen and to recent Nobel laureate Tawakol Karman to not let their country be ransacked and destroyed by the imperatives of the present, to use their recently gained influence on the international stage to save the old city of Sana’a and other places in Yemen from ultimate destruction.
The preservation of Yemen’s antiquity is not only a matter of aesthetic comfort but rather represents an ideal of political life: The ability to be able to educate the coming generations in the light of a history far greater than the illusions of tyranny to enslave a people on the blind assumptions of a dark present. Of course this ideal – revolutionary as it is – requires not only good intentions but tolerance, not of the liberal kind practiced and preached by the same West that turned a blind eye on Yemen. The tolerance that is needed to rescue the Middle East from the abyss of history is not a political reform or a signature on a piece of paper; it is nothing but a change of heart.
Let us hear the warning of Pasolini in 1974 after he had been in Yemen and reflected about the direction the modern world had taken: “To reach the standards of living of the West, the peoples of the Middle East will abdicate their ancient tolerance and will become horribly intolerant”.
His words, poetic as they are, wouldn’t resound so strong today if they hadn’t become the living reality of the Middle East for several decades now. It is this predicament that a cultural revolution should envision as its struggle and not merely the practical pursuit of politics in which most of us, play no part.