> Can Sanaa
survive the Arab Spring?
Arie Amaya-Akkermans <http://bikyamasr.com/author/admin-2/
> | 10 December
2011 | 0 Comments
A view of Yemen's capital, Sana'a.
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
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
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 SanaŽa 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
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
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.
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Received on Sat Dec 10 2011 - 07:57:07 EST