A recent online panel staged by the British Council and Shubbak confronts the idea of preserving collective memory in the face of tangible and intangible destruction. By Rebecca Anne Proctor

The greatest threat to our existence—perhaps even greater than a pandemic— is the disappearance of our past. The revered ancient Roman scholar Marcus Tullius Cicero believed that historiography, the act of recording history and the events that make up our collective memory, is a weapon against oblivion. 

“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”

To echo Cicero, who are we without our past? What becomes of our identity? Our nature of existence and our raison d'être

Over one thousand years later and we are confronted with the same problematic paradigm, particularly in the Middle East. In a region where the last fifty years of conflicts and historical revisionism, carried out by warring political factions, has destroyed cultural heritage and memory—both of the recent modern and ancient past—we are at a point where we can accurately call this period The Age of Disappearance. That was the title of the first in a series of online discussions about cultural heritage and contemporary culture staged jointly by the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund and Shubbak, London’s Festival of Contemporary Arab Culture. The panel brought together experienced artists and professionals from the Middle East and North Africa, including Abu Dhabi-based Baghdad-born artist Rand Abdul Jabbar. Her project on the Minaret of ‘Anah reflects on the tragic history of the minaret in Western Iraq when it was dismantled and relocated to a new site during the 1980’s due to the construction of a dam. In 2006 the minaret was destroyed by an explosion as part of a terrorist campaign targeting several Iraqi cultural heritage sites. It was then rebuilt again in 2012 by a team of local archaeologists only to be destroyed again in 2016 by ISIS militias who detonated the structure. Also on the panel was Hatem Imam from Samandal or Salamander in Arabic, a quarterly tri-lingual magazine based in Lebanon that collects and publishes comics from the Middle East with the intent of fostering a platform for the alternative expression of cultural and social issues for youths and adults. Iman discusses how regional artists created new comic strips based on archival photographs from the Arab Image Foundation. Lastly, American musician and composer Amir ElSaffar of Iraqi heritage shares how he incorporates elements from jazz, Arabic maqam and other forms in his work. 

The artists were joined by host Jumana Al-Yasiri and a range of speakers: architect and co-founder of Daw’an Mud Brick Architecture Foundation, Iraqi architect Salma Samar Damluji discussing post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation work in Hadramut, a region in South Arabia in present-day eastern Yemen, with Prince Claus Fund. Reflecting on the restoration of The Khalidi Library, curator and director of Al-Ma’mal Foundation in Jerusalem, Jack Persekian. Musician and assistant artistic supervisor at Action for Hope in Lebanon, Farah Kaddour highlights how the music school is one example for bringing wellbeing and healing to refugee children.

As the panel underlines, human beings today have a complex history with cultural heritage, namely because it is so crucial to the understanding of our identity and our history. There are also many ways in which cultural heritage can be preserved. There are the archaeologists and the conservationists that have developed inventive methods to preserve historical material from literally and figuratively disappearing from the earth, and the contemporary artists who analyse and interrogate personal narratives, archives and historical sites, offering a fresh perspective on past and present histories. 

The panel showcased six examples of artworks in the form of fine art and the performing arts—three from the Cultural Protection Foundation and three from artists who have worked with Shubbak—that capture an interest, a scepticism and a risk-taking with heritage and ultimately, how we can look into the past in order to invent something new. Al-Yasiri began the discussion by posing several crucial questions regarding three Cultural Protection Funds' projects. “From Syrian musical heritage to Yemeni architectural heritage and Palestinian archival heritage, these are initiatives are undeniably acts of resistance against violence and the dangers of disappearance,” she said. “What role in your opinion does the preservation of tangible and intangible heritage play in the political landscape of a tormented territory? How do we negotiate with official dominant narratives and even give hope when the future seems so dark and obstructed?”

There is great hope for mankind when it comes to the preservation of cultural heritage.  “It’s not about reconstruction, restoration or rehabilitation,” said Dr Damluji. “The importance of the type of architecture and work that we are doing [in Yemen] is rather about consolidating the importance of the community and the inhabitants attached to their own culture and to their own spiritual beliefs in the case of our buildings related to ancient Wali tombs.” As she emphasizes, “once you resuscitate buildings, you are resuscitating lives. You give people hope and aspiration.”

Music has a similar effect on refugee children at Action for Hope in Lebanon, explained Kaddour. Their goal is to find and foster talent in children, mostly refugees, living in distressed conditions, who usually do have access to learn about art or practice art. Action for Hope provides the opportunity for young children from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine to aspire to become professional musicians in the future and also connect these children to their traditional heritage and music. “Due to everything they are living, these children are disconnected from their history, heritage and traditions,” said Kaddour. 

Yet what is the political importance and role in the preservation of cultural heritage? Persekian agreed with Dr Damluji that “resuscitating a building, means resuscitating life.” For him, the confrontation with the Israelis on the ground in Jerusalem where he is located, is about the buildings, the place, the land and heritage. “It’s about who gets to control what and ultimately, life,” he said. The The Khalidi Library is there as a monument to preserve the collection of manuscripts and books and is there as a monument for the presence of Palestinian-Arab culture and heritage in the city,” he continued. “But it’s also important that this library becomes something useful from where we can draw knowledge and learn from and this is why it needs these interpretations—interpretations that are taking place more now in contemporary art where artists are able to bridge, connecting different fields be it architecture, education, politics or science and somehow mold their work into projects and tools for us to learn from and for us to use.” 

Acts of resistance through art and architecture, agreed Persekian and Damluji, are not enough in order to preserve cultural heritage. “It needs to be coupled with clear ideas of what can be done to eventually improve the situation, how can it infiltrate the education system and use it in schools where children will learn more about their culture and their heritage,” said Persekian. The Al’Mamal Foundation emphasizes the importance of visual literacy that he believes is paramount in bridging various disciplines, whether they be art, science, architecture or politics. 

While these are all intellectual and figurative means by which to extract hope in the preservation of cultural heritage in the face of destruction in the Middle East, the fear of the disappearance of the past still persists and plagues many. “In Lebanon we have this burning need to understand why and how some people call it amnesia or this active act to erase and overcome certain events in the past such as the civil war and even the recent explosions,” explained Imam. “But it’s not the act of archiving or preservation that matters but it is what you do with the archive.”

Clearly, traumatic events often challenge an individual or a collective on how to remember a horrific moment. There’s usually an unconscious need to forget and escape the pain of reliving the horror. Yet they are part of the past as much as the joyous moments in history. Thus, the archive, as Imam rightly notes, is not so much about just preserving the documentation of the past but about learning from it, as Persekian also notes, and creating from it. 

Through her work Abdul Jabbar revisits destroyed and reconstructed monuments in her homeland of Iraq and gives them new life through her work. “In the case of Iraq there’s also the issue of erasure of history with every subsequent political move—an archive is of course a very political tool and it is one that serves a purpose, particularly if it is coming from the state level.” As with her Minaret of Anah project, Abdul Jabbar is also interested in documenting personal narrative and oral histories and having them become part of the larger collective narrative of Iraq. 

Abdul Jabbar is presently working on a project for the next Shubbak festival titled Every Act of Recognition Alters What Survives that engages women of the Iraqi and Arab diaspora in a project in London in dialogue and discourse around perceptions of identity related to history, place and memory. “How do you feel if you’ve been erased from the history or the representations of the place that you’re from don’t match at all with your own experience of it?” she asks, emphasising her focus on memory and personal archives and to try to formulate ways that they can be given a form and a medium. “This way they might be able to serve as a documentation of personal histories and narratives,” she added. 

Yet maybe, as the panel suggests, the power of history and memory is that they are not static forces—they can adapt and innovate with the present times. The past can be used as a base to create in the present for the future. That’s true innovation. For how can we move forward, how can we innovate, as Cicero stated one thousand years ago, if we do not know our past, our identity and where we came from? History, like life and like art, is constantly evolving. It is disrupted at times, knotted up and tied, and then forced open, carrying with it remnants from a former time, a former self, while embedded in the realities and influences of the present moment, which itself is constantly changing.

Iraqi New York-based musician ElSaffar’s work with Maqam Iraqi, Iraq’s predominant classical musical tradition, is a case in point. “The way I view Iraqi maqam is that it is a repertoire of music that is both hundreds and thousands of years old and some parts of it are very recent. It is a constantly evolving form of music. The Maqam Iraqi is itself an archive. It is an oral archive of Iraq’s history. You have these melodies that represent different phases in the country’s history.” In essence, Maqam Iraqi is an example of the relationship between preservation and innovation and how the arts, through creative means, document and archive the changing nature of history and memory. The arts, via the thread of innovation, ensure that cultural heritage, even in the face of oblivion, never entirely disappears.

You can watch the first in our series of talks Against Disappearance here. The next talk will take place in March and the contributors will be discussing the impact of trade, migration, colonialism and imperialism.

This series is presented by the Cultural Protection Fund and Shubbak Festival. The Cultural Protection Fund is led by the British Council in partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.