This is an OPINION page. Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! Restoring Old Monuments Means Facing Ignorance [Archives:1997/51/Focus]

December 22 1997

By Martin Dansky / Yemen Times
Sitting in front of the Bab Al Yemen sipping tea with architect friend Dr. Abdullah Hadrami I wondered what would be the point of continuing restoration for monuments such as this while having to deal with the blatant ignorance that surrounds us all. This monument has been completely restored for an official inauguration in mid February of the coming year. I was curious about the effort that was made given the fact that there are few people who deal in Yemeni restoration and people in general do not see an immediate benefit at such tasks. I’m referring to the ordinary man who has carried his wares to the door for decades vying for a toe hold within the entrance itself; does he really care about the thousands of dollars it takes to restore a monument like that? Given the slightest possibility of interest wouldn’t that interest just be commercial? Not so, the door also figures important symbolically as well as commercially. Bab Yemen has survived the centuries”, and even if the trader wouldn’t admit it; there are those funeral processions out of the gate from the south side which wouldn’t occur if the door were left to fall to ruin. The foreigner, in this case myself, has been to other lands where monuments have not only proven the test of history is has also been kept up as a landmark of the country’s cultural past and window onto the future. How could I possibility teach that to a trader who just thinks of his daily needs? Probably by teaching him that those daily needs are linked to a cultural heritage and that if he loses that heritage he might not know which road to take for the future. He could also end up as his brothers have in Kuwait and other modern Arab states where there is no clue left to the early market places and old entrances to ancient towns. Well the present structure of the gate restored after the turn of the century construction by a German architect, stands as a model of strength. The local is not only unaware of the cost involved, he hasn’t a clue as to its vastness: he only wants a sure place to sell and the door has to remain open! Little does he know about the space set aside inside, exhibition space in each turret has been worked on while he has been shouting down the next trader for a business sale. But what’s more of a problem than the commoner who at least has a practical reason for the door is the new university graduate who has had a taste of western values and sees the restoration of monuments as superfluous, better to live well and forget the past, he thinks. Space is set aside for exhibiting photos and models of ‘suqs’ or old world markets , mosques, the doors of Yemen, the “Samsaras” and Caravansaries, the gardens and the types of houses of Sanaa. And the trader keeps working making his daily bread while the foreigner is thinking that the struggle between the educated and uneducated masses will continue without end. Who will win this struggle? Since the masses greatly outnumber the educated, and the tendency today is for immediate benefits from the workplace, fewer people will ever become sensitized as to the importance of keeping up a country’s heritage. More university graduates will opt for work in foreign countries especially when they see that change is slow, efficiency is missing and the future here holds little promise for them. Then there are those who after being educated abroad like Abdullah, come back to his country with a message:” if you show concern for your national monuments then you’ll have something to teach the next generation”, he comments. But he wants people to be aware of the fact that only if you teach your children to regard monuments with a certain respect will they they be proud of their past. Otherwise restoration of the other gates and monuments will be futile.
Fortunately, however restoration goes on and GOPHCY, the organization that started the rebuilding of the southern gate is the gem in the crown. Citizen groups could take up the cause by private funding, Dr. Abdullah suggests. The state doesn’t have to forward a penny. And it has every reason to benefit: there is the tourist value of the Bab. No foreigner comes to the city without looking at these major gates as reference points. That means jobs for the people standing by the archway of the main gate, from the women squatting near there baskets of green henna to the garment dealers with their racks of clothes inside the gate and to the back of the square there. So the Bab isn’t just a wall broken up into turrets, with a metal clad door that was found to be copper, it is the people who unconsciously make the door a vibrant meeting place for the tourist and the local looking for a good deal. It is a symbol of the revolution and a marker for the people who defended the old city and ousted the Imam. A canon blast scar remains on a copper section of the door as proof of the struggle. Would it have the same effect if it were bulldozed to the ground with a fake entrance in its place? Why not then invite the McDonald’s group to build a nice M archway across ? This is where the country is headed unless more concern will be shown. Leaving the turreted structure to ruin you loose the ability to explain how and why there was such an important structure for the city. The impressive thickness of the structure, the narrow ventilation windows and diagonally placed, rifles shot holes would all disappear. People would have the least understanding as to how defenses were kept before their grandfathers were born and why care? Why care about the ability for carts to be pushed along the wall between the turrets; people drive the expensive Mercedes and there are a good number of four wheel drives wherever you go! Why because its too easy to import and slap on a new technology and call it your own and its more difficult to wipe out a past and then try to recreate a new identity and at the same time try to convince the youth of what their heritage was. Cultural landmarks will be lost unless people act now. that is exactly what the country will be faced with unless they involve themselves in educating the public about the importance of cultural, historical landmarks. Most likely, children will be taught only from some imprecise foreign drawn map of what the Bab “used to be,” when they could benefit from what they have. And people will complain about the upkeep of restorations and the number of other monuments that also have to be restored. Well, some structures like the Turkish government building on the road to Taiz looking south from the gate is testimony to a structure that is still useful. And if kept up it will still be useful, rather than tearing it down to build a modern skyscraper or a parking lot with no historical reference. Buildings like these can be kept functional by modernizing the inside while keeping the outside facade and at the same time the Yemeni will be reminded that the Turks played a role in introducing institutions into the region, even though they became unpopular with the advent of the first world war the building is evidence of that contribution. Besides technology is not culture but the means to transform culture into something modern. The paradox is that technology has been likened to culture, there is really never a moment when man can sit back and say that he technology cannot influence his future. So what has this got to do with a structure originally built in the 9th to 10th century for defense purposes and to protect a city’s inhabitants? The roof of the turrets or “nobahs” being guarded by soldiers who fought for the dwellers within the walls. Maybe just to say that in spite of all the technological change there are symbolic values that remain ingrained. Its something to illustrate, at least figuratively that the modern Yemeni state should protect the rights of its citizens as the gate protected the entrance of the city. And the Bab was part of eight babs that surrounded the old There was Bab Al-Balakah, and the Bab Yehud which enter into the Jewish quarter of the city. Bab Shu’b which once guarded the north and the Bab Yemen were the oldest. Some suggest that these could be built on the idea executed in Rabat, from old diagrams. This would show the limits of the ancient city as it once was. Critics will shout you can’t prevent wars, look at what happened at the Bab at Tahreer square where the canon which fired the first shot of the revolution is proudly exhibited. These monuments will be blown to bits, they argues. Unfortunately history teaches that wars cannot be prevented at best they are delayed. All man can do is to be optimistic, positive that what restoration he does will carry onto the future. Least of all, should he work under the atmosphere that his fight to maintain a cultural heritage is futile because there will be a war in fifty years. At that point one might just as well debate on the meaning of life and the reason why its important to plan for the future even though we all know that our lives on this earth are all temporary.