As News grapevine has it the Regime is planning to destroy Abu-Salim Prison. The rumor-mill has it, also they’re in the process of dismantling the Tuesday-Market at Tripoli. The rusting bulldozer is itching to roll its claws and wipe clean, buildings and artifacts that may stand witnesses to the regime’s stained historical record. It’s no surprise coning from a regime that lacks the decorous minimum of cultural appreciation, if not sophistication. Indeed, this regime has all the time throughout its long duration a stubborn refusal to grow with the tasks and to learn from its mistakes as well as others’ how to be a graceful custodian nation’s heritage and safeguard its modest yet nonetheless what it must value most. From the get-go there was very little respect or appreciation to what is in there. In view of the lack of what some have called the sense off history, authorities have always felt free to define and then destroy what was deemed ‘infamous place’ or just an old market! In the absence of a national debate, and a consensus, on what constitutes a heritage -a historical link or a valuable teaching medium- thus a cloud of suspicions always will hang on the reasons and motivations that have prompted the regime to carry on one of its rapacious acts. The questions abound: Why do the so-called ‘nationalist’ regimes lack a sense of what constituted a nation? Why do dictators tend to act emotionally and take decisions that may affect generations to come on the spur of the moment without due thought and deliberations? And, wouldn’t be much prudent to let things cool off before taking an irreversible decision? Wouldn’t destroying buildings and altering districts, villages, etc., be equivalent to erasing people’s heritage and thus monkeying with historical evidences? And wouldn’t falsifying records constitute the meanest lie and the highest crime?
However, nothing happens in a vacuum. On putting things and events in their proper contest a blurred picture would emerge that may give some reason and rhyme to some of what’s happening. Upon reflection on the conditions of underdevelopment and backwardness, a common denominator among many in these cohorts would point out to the absence of awareness and appreciation to put to use their heritage, history, etc, as treasures to learn from and kernels to build on. The thread which passes through civilization and holds it from falling prey to its animus is very thin. Its main components are MEMORY, which in its turn would generate, THOUGHT, which would give rise to the WILL TO ACT. Absent any of this triad, savagery will take over. What makes Barbarians what they were is their askance from to history’s value and their carelessness about its verdict. This bunch wouldn’t hesitate from defacing enemies’ achievements. As the Mongols had done on attacking Baghdad, setting its treasures to fire, and destroying many of its monuments, to never recover from that trauma to these days. What is puzzling are some of those customs, traditions, and practices are still around.
It didn’t help what Islam had instituted perhaps indirectly as some of its practices. The Prophet upon entering Mecca victorious, the first thing he did, was hacking into bits and pieces, the idols in the great sanctuary of the Arab’s pantheon. Whereby a precedent and legacy had been cast ever since: works of art = to idols! This iconoclast gesture, came on top of another act which was just as harmful and as enduring as the destroying of works of art, that of entombing the pre- Islam heritage under the rubric of ‘Age of Ignorance!’ - shunning any comparison and to be ignored completely. Thereby guaranteeing a perfect combination of disregard to history and disrespect to works of art, for a new beginning. By sweeping the slate clean and making a tabula rasa from what had existed before, the Prophet singled to his followers a practice which endures to this day. Ever since a devaluing to material culture and its impact, had been actually gaining momentum as its products keep increasing. Since then, a disrespect to the pre-existed conditions, whether products or thought, was at work to feed the destructive attitude of Bedouin culture. This tendency can be still seen driving Arabs’ conception of history and its left-overs, that’s, its sediments. The consequences of such a mode of operating were to slow down, if not bring to a standstill, the otherwise continuous transformations and technical improvements any dynamic social and cultural realities must experience.
Material culture is an accumulative process. Once a kernel was planted, a germination process would start its weaving of layers upon layers to build the proverbial a mountain out of a molehill. This accruing and morphing, which accompanies it, don’t occur naturally and spontaneously without some human intervention. When and if consecutive generations wouldn’t choose to enact a legislation whereby the best of its achievements were added to what had been received to keep and preserve, to be passed on to the next generations, which would set the endless chain of reception, modification and transmission rolling in full gear. Without such a tradition there would be a break and a historical interruption. Thus, a society without history!
Even before the advent of capitalism and Joseph Schumpeter’s motto of "Creative Destruction," the Middle East and North Africa, with few exceptions, have kept very little of their original buildings or urban fabrics intact and still standing in their original forms. Even the Holy Sanctuary looks like it’s been plumbed over night not sometime recently! Very little from the melange of cultures which the successive waves of newcomers from the Phoenicians and on to the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Arabs, Spaniards, Maltese, Ottomans, Italians, British and French had brought still remain to this day. Somehow, a tradition was at work that gave the new rulers the power, if not the right, to raise to the ground what their predecessor(s) had painfully erected. Each generation would change what it had found without much regard to historical continuity. The net result was some sort of the New World mentality, in the heart of the Old World! The tragic irony is in one of the oldest regions on the globe, very little of historical accumulation and stratification can be found. Today’s Middle eastern buildings and cities differ very little from Midwest America! Where did all those Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, etc, and Egyptian antiquities, beside the pyramids, had gone? Where all the monuments built to the glory of this or the memory of that have ended up? Where did the remains of the greatest metropolises of their days, Baghdad and Cairo, with their throbbing millions -long before Paris and London had reached those numbers- have been entombed in? Et cetera, etc.
The news that some bearded bunch have been released from Abu-Salim Prison was a welcome reprieve to otherwise bleak couple of months. But the other part of the news has also mentioned preparations are underway to tear down the infamous prison and to erect a public garden in its place. It’s tempting to say: Yes! Go ahead and bring down this monument to torture, cruelty, and murder. Let a new page start! But social and cultural things are a bit more complex than the simple emotional drive that may justify some revengeful vandalism. It’s worth remembering what George Santana had said: Those who forget history are apt to repeat its mistakes. How those who are just born will know what went on before them? How future problem-solvers -architect, engineers, planners, and designers- will get inspired from; and where they supposed to set their solutions when there’s not a well-defined context?
Probably a good part of what humans spend their time and energy on is how to organize their records and how to transmit them to the next generations. Think of all the efforts spent on education, collection and filing of records and specimen and the rest. The physical environment, buildings, monuments, villages, towns, cities, and indeed the landscape at large, is perhaps the best synthesis to human activities, projected into three-dimensional space. These represent the record to achievements of generations: how they have lived, interacted with each other and their environment, how they modified it to meet their goals and with what know-how. Without the piles of bricks and mortar, there would be only the void, both physically and mentally. No amount of museums would substitute the experience gained in strolling in a well-kept and live monument or urban fabric.
A society stands on what it deems treasures to be kept constitutes the truest measure to not only its level of development but more importantly of its awareness to history’s ticking machine. Keeping a record, organizing and preserving of what its present and passing generations have worked hard on, is certainly a weighty burden and demand an enduring commitment. But, those small or big trinkets and piles embody in three-dimensions the force and spirit to whom we are! As the saying goes: First we build our houses and then our houses build us. It’s impossible to imagine Rome without the Forum Romanum, or Athens without the Acropolis, Paris without the Latin Quarter, or Baron Haussmann’s legacy, etc. A settlement, a city, a town or a village is nothing else but an open book to the stages of history, each stage had acted as a setting receptor and a nucleus to an ever expanding fabric which keeps growing and extending to our days. The old mixed with the new are a book whose vocabularies were made up of what Victor Hugo had called the frozen music: art and architecture. It takes one generation to recognize the value of pre-existences and their right to life, from then on they’ll always be conditioning what comes to sit next to them. The critical stage when society reaches the realization of, to add is to enrich what’s already in there rather than to subtract from it.