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Let Them Eat Heritage

The rush to restore cultural monuments in Iraq and Syria has papered over the failure to rebuild houses, infrastructure, and people’s lives.

The ruined Great Mosque of Al-Nuri welcomes visitors for the cornerstone ceremony, December 17, 2018 (screenshot from AFP video)

On Monday, December 17, two very different news stories broke relating to Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq. One was the laying of the cornerstone for the rebuilding of the 800-year-old Al-Nuri mosque, destroyed by ISIS before they lost control of the city last year. The mosque — especially its distinctive leaning minaret, called al-Habda (“the hunchback”), now completely gone except for its base — has come to represent the entire city. The ceremony was attended by a number of visiting dignitaries from Iraq and abroad, as part of the UNESCO project “Revive the Spirit of Mosul.” In the news reports, the ceremony is presented as a powerful symbol of progress toward restoring Mosul as the thriving, pluralistic city it was before the war.

The minaret (Al-Habda) of Mosul’s Great Mosque of Al-Nuri, 2013 (photo by Faisal Jeber, via Wikimedia Commons)

The other Mosul story that broke on Monday was a harrowing long-form piece by Ben Taub in the New Yorker. The story threads together a series of alternatingly chilling, heartbreaking, and stomach-churning scenes from Mosul since ISIS was defeated there a year ago: show trials, confessions acquired by torture, lynchings, ethnic cleansing, rape, and the creation of an entire generation of alienated Sunnis in northern Iraq. Among the many tragedies Taub describes is the continued ruined state of so much of Mosul’s old city (which includes al-Nuri): “I had the impression that the Iraqi government has been content to leave it in ruins, as a kind of punishment [to presumed ISIS sympathizers].”

Given Taub’s story, the publicity for the cornerstone seems shallow, even perverse. It is empty ceremony. An event not for Moslawis (the people of Mosul) so much as regional, national, and foreign dignitaries — the UN representatives, Iraqi officials, and European diplomats sitting with plastic stools in front, as behind them looms the destroyed mosque with its missing minaret. And this in a city filled with ruined buildings and neighborhoods. The UN has estimated that, in Mosul’s old city alone, nearly 6,000 houses were damaged or destroyed in the battle to retake the city. NPR reported in August — a year after Mosul had been retaken from ISIS — that the Iraqi government claimed it had no money for reconstruction, and that it was relying on private donations, of which it had received enough to rebuild 250 houses. In other words, some 95% of the residents of Mosul’s old city are on their own in rebuilding their homes and their lives. Basic infrastructure is badly lacking. Perhaps 40% of the old city still has no water, and electricity is unreliable. And the social structure of the entire city has changed so drastically that it is essentially unrecognizable to its own residents.

Yet the focus of much media attention and international aid seems to be the important but often symbolic cultural heritage of the city. The UAE has pledged more than $50 million for a five-year reconstruction project for the mosque. The situation is especially puzzling given that the mosque and its minaret seem of greater importance to international media than to Moslawis themselves.

Visiting dignitaries inside the ruined Great Mosque of Al-Nuri, December 17, 2018 (screenshot from AFP video)

This scene of disturbing priorities in reconstruction and in media attention has replayed itself over and over again in Iraq and Syria over the last few years:

In Aleppo — also on Monday — the UN released a damage assessment showing the widespread devastation of the old city’s architecture: over 90% of the buildings evaluated were damaged or destroyed in the war. But the concern was with historic buildings, and the framing in terms of cultural heritage, not the housing and infrastructure of the city’s residents. On top of this is the UN’s odd publicity choice, suggesting that the study “raises recovery hopes.” This seems even more incongruous amid reports that militias are looting houses and displaced residents are selling homes as reconstruction and security remain undelivered, two years after government forces retook the city.

In Palmyra (known as Tadmur in Arabic), the Syrian government announced in August that the ancient ruins will open to tourists in 2019. There, most news stories failed to pay any attention to the modern town or its roughly 50,000 inhabitants at all. In rare cases where concern for civilians was voiced, it was for the safety of foreign tourists. Reconstruction assistance, for the ancient city at least, has been offered by museums in Russia as well as by experts from Poland (whose archaeologists have spent decades excavating the site). However, Western governments have refused all Russian calls for reconstruction money in Syria, apparently as part of sanctions on the Assad government.

At their best, these heritage reconstruction efforts offer not just symbolic progress but jobs to local residents. The UAE projects that the reconstruction of the al-Nuri mosque will employ 1,000 Iraqi graduates. The World Monuments Fund is training Syrian refugees in Jordan to assist in heritage reconstruction efforts when they return home. But even then, these projects suggest a skewed set of priorities.

All of this raises a basic question: Who is this reconstruction for, and for what purpose?

Reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Syria have been a top-down process, as several architectural experts have warned. Their agendas are set not by the needs of communities so much as the interests of national governments. And it is in the interests of those governments — not only the Iraqi and Syrian governments themselves, but also Russia, the UAE, and others — to promote the restoration of cultural heritage. Heritage tourism is very lucrative. Heritage also allows governments to burnish their image and questionable legitimacy, to consolidate their power after civil wars, and to project a false sense of normalcy. And funding heritage allows other countries to pose as the saviors of civilization. There is much less symbolic value, or money, in practical things.

And so we read feel-good stories of signs of the return of normalcy, in the form of rebuilt historic buildings or book fairs or music concerts. But not of the rebuilding of homes or of basic infrastructures, like water, electricity, and transportation. Culture is important, but it’s hard to enjoy it when you can’t find food to eat or a place to sleep … or a city to return home to.

Moslawi historian and journalist Omar Mohammed, who operates the celebrated blog Mosul Eye, has put it simply: “Rebuilding is easy. People can rebuild their city and go back to their lives. They just need some money.” Iraqis and Syrians know what they want to rebuild (notably, ruins like Palmyra do not top the list). Local architects are full of ideas of what they want their cities and towns and villages to look like in the future. We only need to start listening.

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