Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Cultural Heritage Or Infrastructure? Which Is More Important?

Hello Everyone:

Yours Truly here, enjoying a cold, soggy, all-American meal of Big Mac and fries with extra ketchup, washed down with a large chocolate shake, served only the very best White House dishes.  Blogge cheering the defeat of British Prime Minister Theresa May's latest and probably last Brexit deal.  Extra special shout out to Parliament's Speaker of the House John Bercow.  Rock star. While Blogger finishes this rather tasty hamberder um hamburger, let us talk about cultural heritage restoration.

Those of us who dedicate ourselves to the preservation of cultural heritage were horrified by the destruction of precious ancient monuments at the hands of ISIS, in Iraq and Syria.  As the Iraqis and Syrians begin to restore their lost cultural heritage properties, the question is what about the everyday buildings and infrastructure?  What priority do they in the rush to return to normalcy?  This is the subject of today's post. 

While the extent of damage, what artifacts were taken and sold to finance their activities, a week before Christmas Eve, December 17, 2018, two completely different news stories found their way into the media, both related to the city Mosul, Iraq. The first story was the laying of the cornerstone for the rebuilding of the Al-Nuri mosque (npr.org; Dec. 17, 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019), leveled by ISIS before they lost control of the city last year.  The mosque is known for its distinctive leaning minaret--al Habda ("the hunchback;" hyperallergic.com; Dec. 17, 2018), destroyed leaving the base--has become a symbol for the Mosul. The ceremony was attended by officials from Iraq and abroad, in conjunction with UNESCO's "Revive the Spirit of Mosul" (en.unesco.org; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019). News reports described the ceremony "as a powerful symbol of progress toward restoring Mosul as the thriving, pluralistic city it was before the war" (hyperallergic.com; Dec. 17, 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019).

The second, more harrowing story broke on Monday, December 24, 2018, by Ben Taub in he New Yorker (newyorker.com; Dec. 24 & 31, 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019). The story pieces together a series of alternatingly gruesome scenes from Mosul, since ISIS's defeat three years ago: "show trial, confessions acquired by torture, lynchings, ethnic cleansing, rape, and the creation of an entire generation of alienated Sunnis in northern Iraq" (hyperallergic.com; Dec. 17, 2018).   Among the many horrific scenes described by Mr. Taub was perpetual state of ruin of the Old City, where al-Nuri is located.  He reported:

I had the impression that he Iraqi government has been content to leave it in ruins, as a kind of punishment [to presumed ISIS sympathizers].  (newyorker.com; Dec 24 & 31, 2018)

MIchael Press observes in his post, "Let Them Eat Heritage," "Given Taub's story, the publicity for the cornerstone seem shallow, even perverse. It is [an] ceremony. An event not for Moslawis (the people of Mosul) so much as regional, national, and foreign dignitaries,..., as behind them looms the destroyed mosque with its missing minaret" (hyperallergic.com; Dec. 17, 2018). These stories unfold against the backdrop of a city filled with wrecked buildings and neighborhoods.  The United Nations estimates that almost 6,000 homes in Mosul's old city were either destroyed or damaged in the battle to retake the city (unhabitatiraq.net; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019). National Public Radio reported last August "the Iraqi government claimed it had no money for reconstruction, and that it was relying on private donations, of which it had received to rebuild 250 houses" (npr.org; Aug. 23, 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019). In essence, about 95 percent of Moslawis are on their own in rebuilding their home and reclaiming their lives.  Basic infrastructure is nearly non-existent.  "Perhaps 40% of her old city [amp.time.com; Dec. 17, 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019] still has no water, and electricity is unreliable" (hyperallergic.com; Dec. 17, 2018). Even the social structure has irrevocably changed, so much so that "it is essentially up recognizable to its own residents" (mosul-eye.org; Sept. 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019). 

Michael Press points out the painfully obvious, that it is usually the bold faced cultural heritage monuments that get all the media attention and international aid while the everyday buildings and infrastructure get ignored. For example, the United Arab Emirates pledged $50 million (thenational.ae; Apr. 23, 2018; date accessed Jan. 19, 2019) towards the mosque's five-year reconstruction.  Far be it from Blogger to disparage the restoration of damaged cultural heritage properties but it seems rather odd that the mosque and minaret have greater importance than the Moslawis themselves (the-american-interest.com; July 12, 2017; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019). 

You could try to argue that restoring cultural properties first will bring greater attention to the city and additional attention and aid to rebuild the everyday buildings and infrastructure.  However, this kind of trickle down theory does not hold because it runs counter to reality. Reality is that this re-prioritization--cultural properties first, then everything else--and the media attention has been on repeat throughout Iraq and Syria over the past few years.

The United Nations released a damage assessment for the ancient city of Aleppo, Syria (unitar.org; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019) "showing the widespread devastation of the old city's architecture: over 90% of the buildings evaluated were damaged or destroyed in the war" (hyperallergic.com; Dec. 17, 2018).  However, the damage assessment is framed in context to cultural heritage, not shelter or infrastructure.  Additionally, the UN strangely suggests that the study raises recovery hopes (news.un.org; Dec. 17, 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019). This almost feeble sense of optimism contradicts the reports that militias are looting houses (middleeasteye.net; Dec. 14, 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019) and displaced residents are selling their homes because reconstruction and security remain absent (syriadirect.org; Nov. 29, 2018; date accessed Jan 15, 2019) two years after government forces retook the city. 

The Syrian government announced in August 2018 that the city of Palmyra's historic ancient ruins would be open to tourists this year (sputniknews.com; Aug. 15, 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019). Again as great as this sounds, this story and other like it fail to past attention to the modern city around it and its approximately 50,000 residents. On those rare cases where concern for civilians was expressed, it was usually for the safety of foreign tourists (frieze.com; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019). 

Russian museums have offered reconstruction assistance (hermitagemuseum.org; Nov. 20, 2017; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019) as well as Polish experts (thefirstnews.com; Nov. 5, 2015; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019). However, Western governments have refused all Russian requests for reconstruction money in Syria (thenation.com; Sept. 5, 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019) because of sanctions on the Assad government.  You all can debate the wisdom of this--refusing to assist Russia in rebuilding Palmyra because of sanctions.

At best, restoration projects can offer much needed jobs to local residents.  Michael Press reports, "The UAE projects that the reconstruction of the al-Nuri mosque will employ 1,000 Iraqi graduates" (hyperallergic.com; Dec. 17, 2018). The World Monument Fund is preparing Syrian refugees in Jordan (wmf.org; June 20, 2017; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019) to help with cultural heritage properties reconstruction when they are finally able to come home. All these restoration and reconstruction intiatives sound fantastic but it raises the specter of misplaced priorities.  Basically, "Who is this reconstruction for, and for what purpose?"(hyperallergic.com; Dec. 17, 2018)

Architectural experts have cautioned that reconstruction iniatives in Iraq an Syria have been a top-down process (newsdeeply.com; Apr. 11, 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019). The agendas are not created with interests of the community in mind, rather, they are created with the interests of the national governments in mind as well as Russia and the UAE in order to promote the restoration of cultural heritage properties.  These kind of feel good projects allow governments with dubious legitimacy to put a happy face on their image (gatesofnineveh.wordpress.com; 2015; frieze.com; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019) and consolidate their power following civil wars, and create this phony sense of normalcy. Funding heritage allows other countries (talking to you Russia) to market themselves as the great saviors of civilization.  The practical things are not quite as sexy.

The media just loves these feel-good stories of returns to normalcy in the form of restored cultural heritage properties, book fairs (npr.org; Nov. 13, 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019), or concerts (washingtonpost.com; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019). Rebuilding infrastructure or home does not make quite as good copy.  Again, make no mistake, Yours Truly is a firm believer in the value of culture but it is hard to appreciate it when you are a refugee, have no food or a place to sleep. 

Mosul-based historian and journalist Omar Mohammed, the keeper of the famous blog Mosul Eye, succinctly put it,

Rebuilding is easy. People can rebuild their city and go back to their lives. They just need some money. (mosul-eye.org; Sept. 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019)

The average Iraqis and Syrians know what they want to rebuild (ruins like Palmyra are not a priority) (newstatesman.com; Aug. 24, 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019). Local architects have plenty of ideas (independent.co.uk; Oct. 27, 2018; date accessed Jan. 15, 2019) about what they want their cities, towns, and villages to look like. We only need to pay attention. 

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