A countrys heritage should be the tradition people kept in their lives and in their hearts [Archives:2000/35/Focus]

August 28 2000

Mr. On. Vittorio Sgarbi to Yemen Times:
A countrys heritage should be the tradition people kept in their lives and in their hearts
Italy and Yemen have always enjoyed a distinguished relationship. Having so many issues in common, such as cultural richness, and architectural beauty that have even made it easier for each other to have yet a stronger relationship.
Italy ranks the first in the world in terms of number of tourists to Yemen. Why do Italians love coming to Yemen? What makes Italians admire the Yemeni culture and heritage more than any other Arab country? To answer these questions, YT interviewed Mr. On Vittorio Sgarbi, a prominent politician in Italy, and among the favorites to winning the portfolio of Minister of Culture in the coming elections in Italy.
Q: First of all, we would like to know the reason of visiting Yemen, and whether it is your first visit.
A: I always thought of coming to Yemen, and today, I am happy to have succeeded in paying my first ever visit to Yemen, a country which I feel we in Italy have many common aspects with. I felt that I had to arrange for a visit to Yemen because of its natural beauty and archeological sites that I hope I will be able to convince authorities to preserve. Italy has gone through similar circumstances and have conditions similar to Yemen. An example of that is the distinction in a way or another among the different traditions, populations between the southern and northern sectors of the country. For example, we in Italy suffer from a gap between southern and northern provinces, a thing that we cannot ignore and is similar to Yemen, not politically, but rather traditionally. It even seems somewhat like Sicily in geographic sense.
One of the common aspects between the two countries is the richness in tourist attractions in both countries. I do believe that we have a lot in common, and should work together on maintaining our excellent relationship.
Q: You mentioned the preservation of natural and archeological sites in Yemen. Could you explain that further?
A: Throughout history, Yemen was known for its beautiful natural charm and noninterference of modernization and industrialization in it. Pasolini, a famous Italian personality visited Yemen 30 years ago and got the best impressions of Yemen, a country where life is so simple and people are so kind. He realized that he found in Yemen what he lost in the west and in his country, Italy. Your country for him was heaven on earth, a place where one can easily adapt himself to, and live peacefully and happily without any stress at all.
However, frankly speaking, if Pasolini comes to Yemen today, he would definitely feel sorry for what happened to the countrys heritage. He would feel dismayed because of the unorganized constructions of buildings, which do not have any personality or character. I would like to say that these buildings reflect a very bad copy of the beautiful Yemen architecture. The destruction of natural beauty – especially beautiful valleys and spectacular coastal lines would also cause Pasolini to be sad. It is the sluggishness of the government in preserving the extremely old archaeological sites that has always been a reason behind this. The Ramlat Al-Sabatain desert and the Jouf area for example with more than 100 archaelogicial sites, including Baraqhish, Maeen, Al-Mydah, Al-Soudah, Mareb, Shabwah, and many others -could be one of the seven wonders of the world in direct competition with the temples valley in Egypt, which is now one of the best tourist attractions in the world. This area (Ramlat Al-Sabatain desert and Jouf) alone could easily attract thousands of tourists and even millions and generate more income than oil if taken good care of. But unfortunately, everyday, an average of 10 sq. meters of these archaelogicial sites are disappearing every year.
Yemen, unfortunately repeated the mistake of Italy, when it started ignoring its cultural and archeological values and pushed for modernization. In the last 50 years, Italy continued to lose much of its ancient sites and beauty. On the other hand, we can realize that in the last 20 or 30 years, Yemen lost much of its glory and beauty. It has bluntly started a modernization program that destroyed many beautiful sites, and neglected many ancient cultural values.
Today, it is impossible for Yemen to revert to where it used to be. It is impossible for it to prevent the mistakes Italy committed, especially that Yemen’s situation is even more fragile than Italy’s. I do feel sorry for Italy and for the great loss of its heritage and natural beauty. But for Yemen, I feel even more sorry, and worried about the future of its glorious heritage and tourist attractions, which are still neglected today.
Q: But economic development and modernization is more important than looking after old buildings and natural sites? Shouldn’t Yemen sacrifice in some way to develop?
A: I completely disagree with you. I know that Yemen needs to develop, and should do its best to enhance its economy and raise the income of its people. However, this should never be a reason for destroying national ancient sites and natural beauties. Look at Sanaa, it is a massive city without any sense of organizational housing constructions. Everyone is building everywhere. Is this modernization? Is this going to develop Yemen’s economy? This is only a destruction of Sanaa’s beauty and natural sites, and on the other hand it serves no modernization purpose.
We should realize that for more progress and for building a prosperous future for Yemen, Yemenis should learn from the past and realize how history could help provide solutions for the future so that the nation could adequately improve. Yemen is a country known for its wisdom and fine architectural styles. They used to implement very wise methodologies in rain harnessing for providing sufficient water, for agriculture, and in many different traditional values. Hence, they always lived in peace and harmony. Today, you can see that wells are dug everywhere, there is virtually no rain harnessing, and no wise consumption of water and no wise use of agricultural land.
This gives the impression that nations sometimes should learn from the past, and see how their ancestors used to make good use of their lands and resources. This unfortunately is not what I see in the Yemen of today.
All I want to say is that modernization and preserving culture and heritage and natural beauty could always go hand in hand. It is stupid to say that one should alter the other. Look at the example of how Prince Charles of the UK worked intensively to preserve many English towns to have magical natural sites and at the same time equipped them with the most modern infrastructure one could think of. Look at how the natural beauty and the ancient heritage of the region called Chianti near Florence is maintained along with modern facilities wherever you go. The project of the Chianti region is the master piece in the modern world on how the entire region can be protected and maintained. The combination of landscape and cultural heritage under modern facilities live together in harmony. of course, this project was done in cooperation and help of Europeans in love with Italy and today, thanks to the multil-millionaire British, Scandinavians, Germans, the Chiantishire is a beautiful place to stay and visit, done by people who like to live surrounded by natural beauty. The masterpiece of the region called Castel Gridolfo of the size of Shibam in Hadramout, dating back to 8th century AD, entirely restored and upgraded by an Italian Stylist who made it as a perfect example of how an old site can be preserved, protected and used nowadays. Nowadays Chiantishire near Florence is one of the most visited regions in Italy by international tourists, while 20 years ago, it was out of the international tourist map, visited only by amateurs.
Unfortunately, some governments all over the world think that preserving culture and natural beauty is always an obstacle in front of development and progress, and that it costs a lot in financial terms to do so. This is absolutely wrong. Preserving natural sites has never been a source of worries to the government budget. You do not need to spend money on issuing rules that prohibit random construction of buildings. You only need a strong legal system and a strong will to do so. However, this is what we lack in both Yemen and Italy. The weakness of implementing rules in some areas always causes random construction, and hence the ruining of tourist destinations which otherwise if taken care of would be among the most profitable sites for the government. Think of the natural forests, mountains, valleys, and how they would attract tourism from inside and outside the country. Think of the archeological sites in Zabid, in Marib, in Hadramout, and in Sanaa. If they are preserved and dealt with appropriately, they would be among the most important sources of revenue for the state. It is a pity that governments do not take this into consideration.
Q: You have a good probability of becoming the next minister of culture and tourism in Italy. Once you are in that position, what are you going to do to resolve all the problems you mentioned?
A: First of all, I will concentrate on how to clean the environment form the industrial wastes used in the business community. Among these wastes are the plastic bags. I will be banning the use of plastic bags, which contribute to the destruction of the environment in my country. Then , I will be implementing measures of preserving what is left of our traditional and archeological sites. This should be done without ignoring science and technology of course. Even though we do have laws that prohibit random construction of building, sometimes these rules are broken because of corruption, etc. I will work intensively on having these laws enacted strictly. Apart form plastic bags, there are also hundreds of materials that harm the natural environment, and are sometimes considered poisonous. I will prohibit the use of these materials in populated areas and strict them in conditions that would secure the safety of people and environment.
Here I would also assert on the importance of furiously fighting to keep archeological historic sites without the disruption of the housing complex constructors. I remember an area in Hodeidah in Yemen, where there were only 3 buildings built with Turkish-Yemeni style left from the Ottoman era, which have a fabulous look of heritage and traditional value on them. The rest of the homes are no more than boxes of cement and new houses built in no cultural sense at all. They were only built to occupy villagers without any sense of art. I do not blame the people who built for them houses for their families. I only would blame local bodies in Hodeidah or its Governorate who should have given them reasonable amount of money to build in a less sensitive area, and hence preserve the ruins of the Ottomans.
Q: You mentioned that the government should pay compensations, etc. How can you imagine the government having enough funds, under the population explosion taking place in Yemen?
A: Indeed, the population problem is a major obstacle, not only for the environment, or for the modernization attempts of the government, but for even preserving the level of income of today. This is a tragic crisis that Yemen needs to address as quickly as possible. Unless something serious is done, Sanaa will probably one day turn to another Cairo. I feel that it is the sole responsibility of the government to have major awareness programs, develop the economy, and at the same time try to put into account how to invest in tourism to get more revenue from this valuable sector. However, it cannot get tourists if it cannot invest and put more funds into tourist projects, of which preserving archeological and natural site should be a priority. I do sometimes wonder why the government is concentrating on less significant issues rather than the main issues. It amazed me how the Chinese thought of building a bridge, which is more of a luxury in the current conditions instead of repair the devastated sewage system in very important neighborhoods in the capital, Sanaa.
Q: Don’t you feel that the government is still doing its best -with the little resources it has- in preserving sites, such as Old Sanaa, by renewing the Bab Al-Yemen wall, and roads, etc.?
A: I hope that the Minister of Tourism understands this. First of all, a countrys heritage should be protected not only for the sake of tourism – let us forget about the tourists – while the countrys heritage should be protected because first of all, nobody can live without a root and a past and that a country without a root or a past is very close to madness. A man without a father and mother, without an origin, without a history, without a past is a lost man and maybe you cannot consider him as a human being any more. For a country also, the case is the same. A county without a history and without a past and especially, without heritage, may lose its role on earth and might end to be very weak and ready to be adopted by any other civilization. The Yemeni civilization is one of the strongest and oldest in the world. That is why Yemenis have to fight and do their best to preserve it in competition with other civilizations.
As for Old Sanaa, one could mistakenly mix up between building a wall, and renovating an ancient one. Even if the government is doing something in Sanaa, it totally ignores Zabid, where the traditional market which once was a focal and significant part of the town, is today totally empty. Tourists do not care of the new renovations etc, they care about the ancient places, where archeological sites are truly ancient, and were not subject to rebuilding or renovation anytime in the last hundred years. Tourists want to see what is truly old, not what is different or renovated. I hope that the Ministry of Tourism understands this.
On the other hand, we understand the economic difficulties Yemen goes through, and depends on its oil revenues as the main source of income. Once upon a time, Italians thought of oil as their cultural heritage. For Yemen, the issue may be similar. However, oil will not last forever. A country’s heritage should be the tradition people kept in their lives and in their hearts, it’s the unique nature of the country, and of course archeological wonders their ancestors left for them. These are what the country should take good care of, and should understand their value.
On this occasion, I would like to urge the government to take more measures to protect the real heritage of the country, in Zabid, and other ancient sites all over the country. Architects and scientists should always be granted permission to investigate the wonders of your country’s heritage and study how they evolved.
Q: Any closing words you may have?
A: As a closing statement, I want to assure the Yemeni government that it is of great importance for Yemen’s heritage to be preserved and taken good care of. It should realize the great importance of the heritage and work extensively on maintaining them so that they would last forever. It is a tough responsibility, and requires a lot of funding. This is why I propose that developed countries play a major role in funding projects of preserving and exploring ancient sites in Yemen. They should be generous in providing funds for keeping one of the old sites in the world.
I am glad that there are many Yemen businessmen who came from exile in an attempt to invest in their country. This is a good signal. However, while doing this, many things should be taken into account, especially preserving the country’s natural and traditional beauty, which makes it unique in the world. I hope the day when Yemen’s building turn into western style never come. But if it comes, I know that it will be the major loss of a wonderful country’s great heritage. Yemen cannot go through the current economic conditions with maintaining and preserving their heritage unless they get all the help and guidance they can from developed countries, and I promise once I am in the position of Minister of Culture in Italy, I will do my best in this regard.
Finally, I would like to point out that the position of Yemen in the Middle East is nearly like the position of Italy in Europe. We in Italy are the cradle of the European civilization and Yemen is the cradle of the Arabian civilization.
This means that even other Arab countries should help Yemen protect and preserve its rich heritage, which eventually results in preserving the Arabian heritage as well.