Need to take action nowZabid symposium just a start [Archives:2005/813/Culture]

February 3 2005

Ismail Al-Ghabiri
The holding of the national symposiums for the safeguarding of the historic town of Zabid mid December at Hodeidah University made clear that Yemen's urban cultural heritage is in danger.

The fact that the symposium focused on Zabid was because the town is enlisted in the world heritage list of UNESCO as one of three Yemeni cities which have made it to the list, Sana'a, Shibam and Zabid.

The symposium, however, was held to signal the danger that the town of Zabid, in particular, could be withdrawn from such list if no action to conserve it is taken by all the stakeholders in the town.

Many people in Yemen are not aware of this fact and the convening of this symposium was intended to announce that out loud, so that people specially the residents of the town of Zabid should know that the recognition of the historical aspect of their town is about to be withdrawn if they don't do something to protect it.

Both the government and the World Heritage Center (WHC) are of the view that the residents have a major art to play to safeguard their own town. WHC, in particular points out that the reason why the town stands to be withdrawn from the world heritage list because its historical landmarks and urban fabric are disappearing due to destruction of landmark buildings, illegal occupation of open spaces and illegal construction on such spaces as well as inaction by both the central and local governments and the residents.

The governments actions to safeguard the town seems to be to little to late and the real basis for the conservation effort, the Conservation Plan, has yet to materialize compounding the atmosphere of uncertainty which has had a severe impact on the towns economy.

However, the residents, who were represented by the local NGO which is working to protect the historical part, also made clear their grievances and voiced the problems rather eloquently to all those present. They made it clear that the residents of the town can't be expected to restore their own homes or buildings because of their economic condition, let a lone making any type of contribution to the conservation of the whole town.

This is not all; they also made it clear that traditional building materials which are essential to restore the town to its original state no longer exist or are prohibitively expensive. But the most striking comment which I heard during the symposium was that the government was the biggest violator in the town.

They pointed out that new government buildings in the town were built using concrete structures and stones used a style of architecture which, although is a traditional Yemeni style, but looks so foreign in this town which has its own character and architectural style so different from that found in the highlands.

During our visit to the town of Zabid, this argument was strikingly clear. Nevertheless, this constitutes a major learning for conservationists and planners who are well aware of this problem and have come up with proposals to remedy it.( see recommendations of the symposium).

The government was not the only violator with a number of buildings which looked strikingly foreign but also the residents who have adopted concrete structures and cement blocks to make additions to or to fence their home. They argue that cement blocks are far more cheaper and therefore, more affordable.

The problem

For many years, Yemenis took their urban cultural heritage for granted. They neither recognized the historical value of such heritage and didn't see that it can become a major economic asset which can play a major role through economic revitalization and renewal and integration into the overall urban fabric of a city or town.

The Symposium on Zabid not only recognized this fact, but showed that that concerned government bodies are now aware of the need to conserve the Historic cities and towns of Yemen not only to preserve one of the elements of the Yemeni identity but also as an economic asset. It was clear that the planners were aware of the special consideration for planning of historic parts of a city or town and that it required sensitivity to these concepts.

Although up till now not even a single conservation plan has been made for any town or city in Yemen which incorporates these concept, the planned Conservation Plan for Zabid which is under preparation seems to recognize the need for economic growth and integration of the historic part to the urban fabric of Zabid. During the proceedings of the Symposium, the planners announced that they have completed the first step of the plan.

The land use plan which forms the basis for the conservation plan and said that it is ready for approval by the planning committee at the Ministry of Public Works and Roads (MPWR) GOPHCY is working closely with the MPWR to develop the conservation plan which takes into consideration, the integration of the historic town, revitalization criteria, conservation of historic monuments and landmarks and an infrastructure that is sensitive to the traditional aspects of the historical part, seem to complain about the lack of sufficiently trained staff who can later on supervise and quantify the implementation process.

The plan which seems to be long due needs to materialize as soon as possible in order to bring back confidence so that the residents would be allowed to interact freely to bring about an economic revival of the town of Zabid. As for other cities and towns, plans such as this should be produced quickly to prevent any further destruction of historic parts of the cities which seem to be the victims of an attitude that prefers the new over the old and equates the historic parts of cities to the detested past blamed for all, the backwardness that people have been suffering from.

The experience in the old city of Sana'a has proven this attitude wrong and showed that not only we, Yemenis, can be proud of or built heritage, but it could serve us well and help bring economic prosperity.

National and international concern

The fact that director of the World Heritage Center, Mr. Francisco Bandrin paid attended the symposium was a clear signal that the center is serious about the state of affairs in Zabid.

WHC wants to see real action on the ground by all stakeholders., The government, the Local Council and the residents of the town; and by the fact that its director attended the symposium, it also made a committeemen to help in any future plans to safeguard the city.

The symbolic handshake between the Minister of Culture and Tourism, Mr. Khaled Al-Roweishan and Mr. Bandrin in Zabid signaled a new era of cooperation and a real commitment to work together to conserve Yemen's cultural heritage.

The symposium was therefore, very successful in that it brought together all the stakeholders and all concerned officials at the central and local level and allow them to hold a discourse on what has to be done while defining the roles and functions of all parties concerned.

The visit to Zabid by all those who attended the symposium gave them a close encounter with magnificent landmarks and a unique architectural heritage and immersed them into the many intricacies involved in the conservation process for Zabid and other historical towns and cities of Yemen.

The meeting echoed both the national and international concern of the need to put a lot of emphasis on the conservation of the town of Zabid and other urban heritage centers of Yemen and to go about it in a systemic and scientific way which incorporates all the economic, environmental as well as cultural aspects.

Concerns now seems to be on how to start on good footing in Zabid which requires immediate attention before it becomes too late to do anything. The recommendations of the symposiums see to present a sound beginning and if adopted, we stand to see real action in the ground very soon.