Zabid Heritage City at risk [Archives:2007/1100/Culture]

November 5 2007
DR Abdullah zid ayssa Chairman of general organization for the preservation of historic cities.
DR Abdullah zid ayssa Chairman of general organization for the preservation of historic cities.
Ismail Al-Ghabri
Much attention has been neglected toward Zabid's heritage since its registry on the World Heritage List in 1993. Ismail Al-Ghabri interviews with Dr Abdullah Zaid Issa, chairman of Yemen's General Organization for the Preservation of Historic Cities, to shed more light on the problem.

The historic city of Zabid's problems began to become aggravated four years ago and eventually have worsened. Although the city has been on the World Heritage List since 1993, it has been neglected since that time.

Issa admits that, like any community, social and economic change constantly pressure Zabid. “Citizens own property, including land and houses, within city borders and its surrounding areas. However, development and defamation haven't matched up with Zabid's significance in recent times. As the organization in charge of the city site, we found the situation problematic, so we paid several visits. We attempted to spare no effort to support the city,” he explains.

According to him, the situation involves two main problems, the first of which is lack of funding preventing the preservation organization from being able to secure competent personnel required to deal with Zabid's problems.

“We desire support, as well as qualified and experienced individuals working round the clock, but such people demand high salaries, automobiles and accommodations and our organization has a limited budget. We sought to compel the Ministry of Finance to provide us a sufficient budget, but our attempts were futile,” Issa laments.

The second major problem is that there's no cooperation on the ground. “Citizens think our organization is responsible for preserving the city, while they as onlookers commit violations, for which our organization is accountable. This is a daunting problem,” he notes.

“We attempted to establish a local council to preserve the city, chaired by the district's director, as well as executive officers. It was activated but unfortunately, it was unsuccessful due to lack of support in addition to the personal interests of narrow-minded individuals. Unfortunately, some powerful figures turn a blind eye toward new developments constructed of blocks and concrete.”

He continues, “I don't deny that there are pressures from the public. People have become desperate as 10 years have slipped by without doing anything to preserve the city. Preservation is simply talk for consumption. Officials visit the city and release statements, but they don't follow up or do anything for it.”

Issa maintains that over the past three years, he personally has spared no effort in order to do something for the city. “We did very simple things, but we didn't find anything done on the ground by executive parties within Zabid. There were some difficulties controlling new developments occurring within the city.”

He continued, “I considered inviting an international organization to make a loan or a grant to Yemen. I had two approaches: either find an international organization to fund the city sufficiently to eliminate its financial problems or report the situation to higher authorities, so that's what I did, reporting to the Yemeni Cabinet.

“However, I discovered that even if the minister of culture wanted to cooperate with me, he wouldn't do anything because he's in charge of a ministry with its own problems. I told them that the situation is critical. I also informed them about the last meeting of the World Heritage Council, as well as that of the committee deployed by UNESCO. I reported on the findings of that committee, which granted us two years to prove that there is serious action on the ground,” he explained.

The preservation organization now is controlling violations and preventing new developments from being built, as well as removing previous violations. “For the past two or three years, we've been working to prepare an area for future development based on necessary conditions. We now have a layout and are awaiting its implementation. We received directives from the prime minister, but they haven't been implemented yet.

“This is our real problem. Our laws and regulations are the best in the world but unfortunately, far from executive reality. Yemeni laws don't scare anyone; rather, they are a method to extort and a justification for parasitic individuals,” he asserts.

Furthermore, he continued, “We face a real problem, which is following up land and applying laws. This is the pivotal key. I reported to the Cabinet on this issue and now the minister of culture is preparing a report on tasks appointed to every ministry to do their role based on the idea that responsibility is mutual.”

Political action may solve the problem

Issa believes there must be political action regarding preserving cultural heritage. “Unfortunately, our organization receives the lowest budget. Of course, there are priorities, but cultural heritage is as important as oil – the point is how to exploit it. If we want to preserve our heritage, the preservation organization should have a stronger position than the current situation,” he maintains.

“When the organization was an executive office to protect the Old City of Sana'a, it was connected to the prime minister. However, when it was appointed to preserve historic cities, it became more important. It was connected to the minister of culture through whom we can reach the prime minister,” he adds.

Issa says international support is very important for Zabid. “When a site is listed on the World Heritage List, the World Heritage Center, UNESCO and the World Heritage Organization all support it. It also encourages donors to fund and contribute to preserving that site. I depend on this in conducting a campaign for Zabid.”

He continued, “I pressured [German development group] GTZ and Yemen's Social Fund for Development through several meetings, telling them that if they want to preserve something, they should head to Zabid because it faces many problems. Subsequently, GTZ has opened a regional office in Zabid similar to the office in Shibam Hadramout.”

Issa further explains, “What we want now is to take control of the land because the money and technical staff already are there. We request the governor and the executive officers to cooperate with us to control the situation. If these two parties are able to do this, the battle is won.

“Local residents also should have a vital role in this regard followed by the state, which makes decisions.

“Outsiders don't care about the city as much as local residents and the state. They won't help us when owners themselves commit acts of sabotage. The authority should take severe action against such violators, who are local residents and powerful figures in the area. They have a vested interest. We also should take a strong stand to resolve such problems,” he concludes.

According to Issa, his preservation organization needs researchers, economists and social experts to offer their help. “It's not easy dealing with an existing city where people live and suffer daily problems such as population growth and other social and economic problems,” he notes.

“We're now on the right track, but we need more interaction from higher leadership to control the situation. We also need sufficient financial resources because that bodes well,” he adds.

Islamic architecture awards

Every three years, two prizes are awarded for Islamic architecture. Yemen submitted two projects: the restoration of Al-Amariah School and the rehabilitation of the city of Shibam Hadramout.

Issa explains, “As I've already said, international support plays a vital role in this regard; political action was strong as well. There's a very clear indication that we've succeeded in restoring Shibam Hadramout. With all obstacles removed, it has come to fruition. GTZ was there for seven years.

“Political action also played a major role in restoring Al-Amariah School, which took second prize. They started restoring the school 20 years ago. The situation was taken seriously and was financially supported. When technical teams and other workers receive sufficient salaries suitable to their living standards, they spare no effort in doing their work. We don't want to spend money without receiving any benefit in restoring historic cities and sites,” he points out.

Yemen won two of the nine prizes. “This was something special received from the Inman Khan Corporation, which has internationally famed consultants. Additionally, it pays all costs for those attending symposium and it has no bias toward any country. The consultants don't grant the prize for any project until they're satisfied with what's been done. We're very proud of these prizes,” Issa adds.

Old City of Sana'a may lose its attraction

When asked if the preservation organization still experiences problems resulting from destroying some old homes in the Old City of Sana'a, Issa replied, “There's some control, but we still lack operational capabilities, such as monitoring, inspecting and supervising personnel.

“With approximately 9,000 homes in the Old City, developments come into existence if you don't have a supervising team to follow them up. There will be some violations if you don't control the situation and the area will lose its awe. However, we control as much as we can according to our abilities.”

Issa hopes social and powerful figures will assist the organization and understand that this is a preservation of Yemen's heritage. “Preserving heritage doesn't mean building homes using blocks and stone. This is a misunderstanding. Rather, we preserve historic value. You can't restore the value of a destroyed home. We want to restore these houses without missing their historic importance.”

He continues, “Awareness campaigns should be conducted to educate citizens about the importance of such heritage. People must realize that everyone is responsible for its preservation. If homeowners and local councils don't care about this heritage, difficulties will arise and we won't be able to achieve the goals we want. People should have respect for rules and regulations that bring about public interests.”

More cities registered on the World Heritage List

With other Yemeni historic cities, such as Jibla, registered on the World Heritage List, Issa mentions the difficulties his organization faces in managing them. “We have three branches in Sa'ada, Amran and Mahwit, but our budget hardly covers our employees. It's futile to pay employees when we're unable to do anything for the city. It's up to the political decision makers.”

He concludes, “If you want to preserve a historic city, you'll face operational burdens including projects, studies and personnel. If political action doesn't accompany financial and administrative capabilities, there's no advantage. We should preserve historic cities and sites with the appropriate budget so that we can do it well.”