Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 October 2004
Issue No. 712
Region
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A cultural genocide

Kamil Mahdi writes about a development project which hits at the heart of Najaf's old quarters

Click to view caption
A US soldier mans a machine gun mounted atop a humvee as he drives past the golden mosque of Imam Hassan Al-Askari, Samaraa. The ancient cities of Iraq are deliberately demolished

The old city of Najaf is being demolished. Bulldozers are moving in to complete the work of the tanks, missiles and airborne machine guns. The promised help for reconstruction appears to be conditional on the population leaving their homes and businesses in order to allow what is left of the city's old seminaries ( madrasas ), historic homes, khans, markets, cellars, catacombs; its alleys and its beautiful but damaged and neglected architecture, to be swept away in a mad rush to create free fire zones that are accessible for humvees. United States Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage claims that, "the very next day [after the end of fighting with the Moqtada Al-Sadr forces last August] Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the Coalition brought reconstruction money to Najaf."

Armitage's statement came on the same day US Under- Secretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman announced a reduction of $3.4 billion in funds allocated for water, sewerage and electricity in Iraq and a shift of emphasis towards security-related expenditure and towards alleged job creation. Grossman pointed to "a very good example... in Najaf... where you regain control of a city and you want to make sure that as quickly as possible, reconstruction funds are going there, people are getting employed, so people have some hope that this is a change for the better."

For his part, another US official, Richard Boucher said that the US and Allawi's government are agreed on the high priority of "quick action projects like the cleanup in Najaf". In every case, they clearly state that their priority is "security", while respect for the aesthetic, cultural and historic value of Najaf gets no mention.

What those US officials do not say is that they are not embarking on a clean-up of decaying bodies, unexploded ordinance and physical hazards, and not a restoration of services, but implementing a programme of "accelerated employment" in the clean destruction of one of Islam's great historic cities. So distant is the promise of freedom for the Shia of Iraq, that the US-backed Allawi government, the US- appointed governor of Najaf and the US-appointed head of the Shia Waqf (religious endowments) Diwan, are together accelerating a plan for the destruction of the old city begun in the 1990s under the regime of Saddam Hussein in the 1990s.

Saddam, at that time was universally and rightly condemned for the murder and destruction in Karbala and in Najaf. The same genocide conducted by US forces is redefined as "security operations" and "redevelopment", and the rhetoric is voluble and glib.

The official British position as expressed by the Acting High Commissioner in Iraq during the war last year, is that the "United Kingdom is fully committed to the protection of cultural property [and that the]... UK takes very seriously its obligations under international, humanitarian and UN law [and in] times of armed conflict, we pay very careful attention to the preservation of civilian sites".

In reality, the occupation forces acted during the recent fighting with complete disregard to anything of historic and cultural or religious value in the city of Najaf, save for the shrine compound itself. Even there, there is silence from officials over rumours that following the takeover of the shrine area by the Iraqi interim government's forces, the shrine was broken into and priceless treasures were stolen.

It was surreptitiously announced last week that demolition has commenced in a radius of 60 metres around the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf. The pretext is to give the shrine a "breather" and to allow it to receive visitors in greater comfort. In fact, the shrine has been closed to visitors almost continuously since late August, and it appears that it is the control of visitors rather than their comfort that is the concern of the occupation and its local surrogates.

This is evidently only a first stage in the destruction of the old city. The pretext for the second stage is the provision of space for the expansion of the shrine by building a new outer wall that is 120 metres outside the present one. Plans of this kind had earlier also been aired for Karbala by Iraqi exiles with strong business connections, and they seem to have found their opportunity in the continuing terrible suffering of the people of Najaf who are in desperate need for help as the city remains blockaded and paralysed and the shrine remains mysteriously closed.

The difference between Karbala and Najaf is that much of the richer historic centre of the latter precariously survives, and is now the prime target for destruction.

The threat that is facing Najaf today also awaits Iraq's other remaining historic centres as US and possibly Kuwaiti "reconstruction" and "development" funds pave the way for private land speculators under the protection of the US-led military occupation forces. Indeed, the head of the Shia Waqf Diwan has already declared an intention to pursue the same destructive drive into the area around the Kadhimain shrines in Baghdad.

We all know the arguments about increasing visitor numbers, but this is neither the time nor the way to provide facilities. There has been no investigation of alternatives, nor are there any mechanisms for consultation of the population at large, let alone any structures of democratic decision-making. The motive for US funding of this activity is evident from official statements, and we can also legitimately ask why the Kuwaitis appear so generous with such a project at this very time, when they continue to demand a pound of Iraqi flesh in UN compensation and in Saddam's debts.

The destruction of Najaf which is now under way is drastic and irreversible. A statement by the head of the Shia Waqf Diwan dated on 8 September shows clearly that the whole matter was only an idea a month ago, yet a decision was quickly taken and demolition has begun. People should at least be allowed to discuss the rights and wrongs of such decisions.

No such discussion is taking place, not even in the sham, pliant and self-selected National Council. Is this the so-called democracy all these people have died and are dying for? If the destruction continues without open and meaningful public consultation that takes place in a rational atmosphere and in total transparency, it will be nothing short of a criminal assault on Iraq's heritage and on its history. All over the civilised world, historic cities are protected, preserved and developed in ways that retain the character and identity of the city and the integrity of its physical and social fabric.

We should ask the ministers of this interim government, many of whom have travelled or lived outside Iraq for decades. Have they not seen how the rest of the world tries to protect its heritage, and succeeds? Have they not seen services provided in old cities and extended to old houses, and have they not seen historic cities regenerated with modern amenities?

Other countries cherish their historic cities for their great cultural roles and also for the high economic value of their tourism. Such cities are a repository of the nation's memory and are symbols of the shared experiences of the people of the land.

Even after wars, people try to re-build them with painstaking attention to historic detail. With all the manifestations of civil conflict we witness in Iraq today, we Iraqis should be the first to realise the importance of national symbols that bring us together. The old city of Najaf is not the cause of the conflict that took place there. On the contrary, destroying it will encourage more militancy and extremism among the young who will lose cultural reference points.

Major "redevelopment" must not be allowed to go ahead Saddam-style. This action is motivated by security concerns and by highly questionable financial considerations. Economically, it is not in the interest of the people of Najaf to destroy the old city.

The old city can potentially be a magnate for tourists. There is plenty of space for commercial and industrial development elsewhere in Najaf. Rushed "development" of the kind being undertaken is frequently accompanied by scandalous financial corruption. It will benefit big contractors and absentee landowners, and the losers are usually the people who live in the city and those who value it, that is all Iraqis.

Where are those ministers who have allegedly been selected for their professionalism? Where is the minister of culture and the minister for human rights, respectively a returned Communist Party exile and a Kurdish nationalist one? Iraq is facing cultural genocide on their watch. It is not acceptable to allow this to go ahead under the dishonest pretexts of providing facilities to visitors and expanding the shrine.

Expanding the outer perimeters would not relieve pressure close to the tomb itself, where most visitors want to be. Besides, the expansion means that the space will only be used in a few major religious occasions each year, instead of being used all the year round if the old city is developed and its character retained. The need is for measures that might include regulation of visits, and improvement of services inside and outside the old city. All this must be based upon careful study, long-term planning and gradual implementation.

There has to be a clear rationale for any action, and development must be to the highest professional standards with plans that must be publicised beforehand and that must be open to the scrutiny of other professionals, with the involvement of UNESCO, ISESCO, ALESCO and all those who are concerned with world heritage and with Islamic culture. We condemned Saddam for destroying the centre of Karbala. How can we keep quiet about the same being done to Najaf?

Many people are seeking the guidance of Al-Sayed Ali Al- Sistani and the other ulemaa, or religious scholars, on this matter. Their rejection of this vandalism would go some way towards stopping it. Occupation forces may yet send their bombers, and the failure of Iraqis to work in unison may help them to do so. This, however, is no excuse for allowing bulldozers to do the work threatened by bombers. In the midst of the death and suffering in Najaf as well as in Samaraa, Baghdad, Tallafar, Falluja, Kut and elsewhere in Iraq and in Palestine, the assault on Najaf is an assault on the spirit of a wounded people.

History will never forgive the barbaric and wanton destruction of the old city of Najaf. Arab and Islamic governments as well as professional architects, historians, religious leaders, and literary and artistic figures must stand up for Najaf and its people. This is not only one of Islam's holiest places, but also one of the Arab world's leading historic centres of literature, culture and learning. Many Arabs downplayed the persecution of the people of Najaf during Saddam's rule. It is time to make amends.

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