Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 June 2019

Desecration of Yemen's collective memory must not succeed

By destroying thousands of years of cultural heritage, the Houthis are attempting to erase history

Yemenis walking through a gateway in the ancient city of Zabid, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. AFP
Yemenis walking through a gateway in the ancient city of Zabid, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. AFP

The Houthi coup in Yemen and the war that ensued have claimed significant casualties that often go unreported. Added to devastating reports of human suffering, the coup and war have taken a toll on the resources and infrastructure of Yemen. Government documents obtained by The National last week revealed the impact on Yemen’s archaeological sites and artefacts, a travesty described by Yemeni rights group Mwatana as “a degradation of history”. In the course of the violent occupation of Sanaa and Hodeidah since 2014, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels have ridden roughshod over thousands of years of Yemen’s cultural heritage. The trail of destruction includes the pillaged and looted ancient library in Zabid and the Taiz museum, consumed by fire in 2016 after Houthi anti-aircraft guns struck it. There are worrying reports that indicate the looting of precious artefacts to fund the Houthi insurgency, with antiquities smuggled out of Yemen and into international markets. More insidiously, the disregard for millennia of history is a bid to erase whole chapters of national collective memory to legitimise the control they have taken by force. Yemen, says Mwatana, has long been “a crucible of cultural diversity” but such a rich and layered heritage is at odds with the ideology of a ragtag militia which operates outside the boundaries of law or international convention. Other sites have become collateral damage, appropriated by Houthis as outposts or weapons caches and therefore targeted by the Saudi-led coalition fighting to reinstate the UN-recognised government of president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.

A tragic by-product of war is the wanton destruction of cultural emblems to batter the collective consciousness. Yemeni artefacts and ancient sites that have survived thus far require urgent protection from all sides in the conflict. There is a concerted campaign from the likes of Unesco and the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, whose head described the Houthi pillaging of Zabid library as a crime against Yemeni civilisations.

That is not to eclipse the human cost; artefacts cannot be measured against lives lost but the stories they tell of culture and history bind diverse communities together. They are simple reminders that there is more that unites than divides us. As Mwatana head Radhya Al Mutawakel says: “It is not only a loss for Yemenis but also for the cultural heritage of all peoples”. Destroying them is a betrayal of the millions of Yemenis who are weary, starving and battered after years of Houthi misrule. Among them is Mohammed Al Qaoud, the distinguished Sanaa writer forced to sell his 8,000-strong book collection to feed his family, who told The National: “We are dying behind a wall of silence”. Ultimately, those responsible for the destruction and facilitating the smuggling of national treasures must face up to the reality that artefacts can be stolen, history books rewritten and heritage sites destroyed, but the collective memory of Yemenis will live on.

Across the region, from Syria to Libya, cultural sites have been targeted. And the ongoing challenge of rebuilding Iraqi monuments speaks to the mountain that must be climbed once fighting has ended. The war in Yemen is not yet over but we must remain hopeful that the cultural legacy of Yemenis will endure, once the Houthis’ violent insurgency is brought to an end and a political settlement reached to protect all Yemenis.

Updated: February 23, 2019 06:07 PM

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