The destruction of Mosul’s past, present and future

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

With ISIS’s destruction of Mosul’s heritage, it is no longer the “Pear of the North”. But it’s people will rise up and reclaim their ancient city.

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The leaning minaret of Mosul which stands at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri.

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Wednesday 24 December 2014

In my previous article, I focused on the social and ethnic changes that have been forced on Mosul by the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), which will undoubtedly have long-term repercussions on the whole of Iraq and not just Mosul. ISIS has sought to radically reconstruct Mosul in every respect, razing, in the process, the previous social, political and economic structure.

The destruction of churches, mosques and other holy sites understandably received huge media attention internationally due to their symbolic importance. However, ISIS has also been systematically destroying much of Mosul’s cultural heritage but this has not received the same amount of coverage.

Nineveh was the largest city in the world and the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire under King Sennacherib (705-681BC). Its ruins are located near the banks of the Tigris, where it once blossomed as an important trading city between East and West. It is believed to have first been settled in 6000 BC. Various conquerors — Persians, Arabs, Turks and others — have come and gone, each leaving an imprint that remained for centuries until the day ISIS chose to launch their operation of  “cultural and historical cleansing” in Mosul.

Major historical sites that stretch back millennia are being systematically wiped away. The determination to destroy the cultural and religious heritage is not enough for ISIS. There are also reports of looting of archaeological sites and the imposition of a “tax” on smugglers moving stolen artefacts. According to the head of the Baghdad Museum, Qais Hussein Rasheed, who was speaking at a UNESCO conference in Paris last September,  the largest example of looting so far took place at grand palace of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II which dates back to the 9th century BC. “Assyrian tablets were stolen and found in European cities,” he said. “Some of these items are cut up and sold piecemeal,” he added, in references to a tablet of a winged bull.  ISIS took over Mosul’s Monuments Museum which fell under their full control and has been shut to the public. Some locals have claimed that ISIS militants destroyed archaeological monuments at Mosul (Nineveh) Museum, including the famous winged Assyrian bull.

It is a frightful thought that such an ignorant and violent group are in charge of one of the world’s richest archaeological treasures. With at least 8,000 years of continuous habitation, Mosul is considered a jewel that embraces many heritage sites belonging to numerous religions and sects, with almost 2,000 of Iraq’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites being located there. In the first month of their invasion of Mosul, ISIS arrested the head of the Archaeology Department, Musa’ab Muhammed Jasim, for unknown reasons, though sources claim that he tried to defend the department from looting while some local residents have said that he was only detained for questioning and was released a few weeks later. These acts are clearly part of the same strategy of redefining Mosul’s cultural identity whilst profiting from its rich heritage. How ironic it is that ISIS, which demolishes historical and archaeological sites and artefacts for being heretical and supposedly against Islam, have no qualms about profiting from them.

ISIS has a unit called Katayib Taswiya (the Demolition Battalion) whose job is to identify what they view as ‘heretical’ mosques and sites for destruction. The battalion razes to the ground any mosques or churches built on tombs. If a graveyard has been built after the mosque’s construction, then they will destroy the graves. Even this was not enough for ISIS. Graves that have headstones that are not level with the ground have all been bulldozed, and even the dead did not escape these atrocities. The demolition battalion unit drew up a list of sites and statues that were deemed unsuitable for an ‘Islamic state’ and were to be destroyed. Among them were the much-loved statue of a figure representing an old Mosul profession: a man selling a liquorice drink, for which the city is famous. Until a few months ago, men walked the streets with a pouch of the drink slung over their shoulders and clanged copper goblets to advertise their presence, and sell the drink to people. This was soon stopped by ISIS as they forbade the practice of selling the drink, declaring the consumption of liquorice a sin. Naturally, the statue also had to go. The sculptor who made the statue in 1973, Talal Safawi, was distraught to see the liquorice seller statue, whom he regards as part of his body, destroyed.  This statue had survived four decades during which there had been three wars, a US invasion and wide-scale looting, yet it finally succumbed to the brutality of ISIS.

Other statues destroyed by ISIS included Mullah Othman al-Musili, a beloved 19th-century musician and poet, and the famous statue of a woman carrying a urn. Another was Abu Tammam, the famous Abbasid-era Arab poet, born in Syria who then lived and died in Mosul in the year 845AD, who ironically was a Muslim convert born to Christian parents. Another important shrine which was levelled to the ground is the much-talked-about ‘Girl’s Grave’ or ‘Ibn al-Atheer’s grave’. The ‘girl’s grave’ again is a very important feature of Mosul and for centuries it has been the subject of widespread speculation concerning the story behind it, as no one can be certain of the events that led to its creation. There are claims that the grave is that of the famous historian Ibn al-Atheer who died in Mosul in 630AD. However folktales say that centuries ago a pious girl in Mosul would go out caring for her goats and lambs, and one day she was surrounded by thieves and street bandits who wanted to rape her. After resisting their advances and calling out to God to take her and save her honour from being tarnished, the ground suddenly opened to swallow the girl as happy tears rolled down her face. People tried to pull her out but failed and she died instantly. The ‘girl’s grave’ became a symbol of God’s miracle and the piety of Mosul’s women. Perhaps ISIS did not want a monument that symbolised resistance, especially that of women. But no matter what they do or how far their brutality reaches, the people of Mosul will revolt and fight their tyrannical leaders.

The signs of resistance are slowly emerging. When ISIS indicated that it would be toppling the city’s ancient leaning minaret, which is older than the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy and is pictured on Iraq’s 10,000-dinar bank note, the people of Mosul were outraged. “The leaning minaret has no religious significance and is not a statue to be regarded as a heretical idol, so why are these foreign militants determined to wipe away Mosul’s cultural identity?” asked a local medical student who cannot be named for his own safety.  Residents gathered at the minaret and confronted ISIS, which has put a stop to the demolition of the minaret, at least for the time being.

Many have wondered why it took the people of Mosul so long to finally reject ISIS’s orders and why they defended the Leaning Minaret yet failed to do so with all the other mosques and churches. It is puzzling but I think the speculative climate of swirling rumours that Mosul has been living under for the past four months prevents them from knowing what is fact and what is fiction. Furthermore, they never would have imagined that a group that calls itself “Islamic” would ever destroy places of worship.

The biggest shock to the people of Mosul which signified a turning point in their attitude was the day ISIS destroyed the Prophet Jonah mosque (Jonah’s tomb). The imam of the mosque pleaded with ISIS to give him time to donate the rugs, fans and refrigerators to the poor people of the city rather than have blown up but he was met with firm refusal.  Residents treading through the ruins of the building found torn and burnt pages of the holy books, which they had been unable to save, scattered amongst the rubble. “They claim that having graves inside mosques is heretical but what about the Quran, why did they not remove the Quran from the mosque before destroying it?” a local resident asked.

What international media failed to understand is that the Prophet Jonah mosque is of vast value to all the people of Mosul and not just Muslims. It is more than a mosque but a place visited by all sects and religions. A Christian man who had to flee Mosul was in tears when he heard that ISIS had demolished the mosque: “When my wife and I were trying for a baby and failed, we visited Prophet Jonah’s tomb and prayed for a child. A few years later, we were granted a son. They have destroyed a place that gave me hope when I was at my lowest.”  The mosque was a place that almost every resident of Mosul had visited or contributed to. It was like a grand house which gathered everyone, regardless of their differences.  My own family had donated rugs to the mosque, as well as regular financial donations to help maintain it.

One of the names that are given to Mosul is ‘the city of the whale’ in reference to the Prophet Jonah, whose tomb has now been destroyed. Other names given to Mosul are al-Faiha (“the Paradise”), but now it has become a hell on Earth, and al-Hadbah (“the Humped”) due to the leaning Minaret. It is also known  al-Khaḍrah (“the Green”) in association with al-Khidr , a mystical figure (possibly St George) who is described in the Quran as a righteous servant of God possessing great wisdom or mystic knowledge and is  believed to have been last seen in Mosul.  It is sometimes described as “The Pearl of the North”, which helps explain why ISIS invaded the city in order to exploit its riches.

All these names are no longer indicative of the city’s reality. Sadly, it seems that ISIS have succeeded in redefining Mosul to the loss of its inhabitants and the world.

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

____

*The author’s name is a pseudonym.

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The art of Palestinian resistance

 
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Can art help the Palestinian struggle or is it a preoccupation those living under occupation can ill-afford?

Monday 3 December 2012

Although the Palestinians have a rich and varied cultural heritage, art and culture has fallen victim to the conflict. For example, in East Jerusalem, where I live, Israeli clampdowns since the second intifada, the construction of the separation wall, as well as a lack of resources, have led to such a decline in what was once the Palestinians’ cultural capital that it no longer even had a functioning cinema until earlier this year.

“We have a cultural vacuum and it is because the occupation has erased our identities,” believes Rima Essa, a Palestinian film director and the curator of the new cinema at the Yabous Centre, which is located in the former premises of the al-Quds cinema.

However, in recent years, the artistic and cultural communities have been finding new ways to regroup and reclaim their fragmented creative space. Palestine’s physical and political fragmentation is mirrored in the cultural scene, where artists and institutions often work in isolation. To address this, seven Palestinian cultural organisations have joined forces to organise a new festival, Qalandiya International, which ran across the West Bank for the first half of November.

Qalandiya is the point where three physical realities of the plight of Palestinians converge: a massive military checkpoint-cum-de-facto-border-crossing, a monstrous concrete wall, and a decades-old refugee camp which has evolved into a poor slum area where disillusioned and disgruntled youth clash regularly with Israeli forces.

But it wasn’t always this way. Qalandiya was once just a sleepy Palestinian village (which still exists) perched between Jerusalem and Ramallah. It was also home to mandate Palestine’s first international airport, its portal to the outside world.

This conflicting symbolism – despair and hope, freedom and subjugation, escape and imprisonment – made Qalandiya the ideal name for the biennial festival. “It represents our history and suffering,” says Jack Persekian, the artistic director of the festival and the founder of the al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art.

The festival features a wide range of art – from video and installation to painting and literature – and architecture, including walks and talks, organised by Riwaq, an NGO that seeks to document and conserve Palestine’s architectural heritage, which has incorporated its own biennial into Qalandiya International.

Houses under renovation in the old town of Dhariyya. Photo:@Khaled Diab.

I joined a tour to Dhahariya, where Riwaq has implemented an ambitious project to restore and conserve this small town’s historic centre, constructed around an ancient Byzantine fort.

It is said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. But the locals proved to us that “dancing about architecture” is not such a bizarre concept, when schoolchildren put on a performance of the traditional Palestinian dabke dance in honour of the revival of their old town, which had previously lay crumbling and almost entirely abandoned.

With a court house, a community centre, and even a local, grassroots radio station, the first of its kind in southern Palestine, life has returned to the Dhahariya’s historic centre. People I encountered on the streets appeared to be very proud of the architectural and cultural renaissance which has visited their village, including the new broadcaster, manned almost entirely by young volunteers, set up entirely for them. “Dhahariya is a marginalised community and we give it a voice,” said a young male presenter.

Dancing about architecture. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

“Everywhere you walk on the streets, you hear our station playing,” added his female colleague proudly.

Dhahariya is one of the poster villages for Riwaq’s project to restore 50 historic town and village centres which together represent 50% of Palestine’s built heritage, explained Riwaq’s co-director Khaldun Bishara. This novel approach, which I feel can be employed in other places where resources are tight, seeks to arrest the decline in Palestine’s cultural heritage, which has been accelerated by the Israeli occupation, inadequate legislation, overcrowding and a culture that still tends to value the new over the old, Bishara elaborates.

Although Riwaq’s work is not overtly political, against the bitter backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, architectural heritage and archaeology are, at least implicitly, highly politicised. But there is far more to it than politics.

Suad Amiry – the founder of Riwaq who has become a well-known writer around the world since publishing her acclaimed humorous diary of daily life under siege in Ramallah during the second intifada, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law – says that what inspired her to enter conservation was the “organic connection” she felt with traditional Palestinian architecture, which she believes blends seamlessly into the landscape and is more in tune with nature, the climate and people’s needs than modern building styles.

But it is not just about aesthetics, it is about communities, Bishara insists, outlining how Riwaq pursues a holistic approach to their restoration projects – which takes into account cultural and economic factors – to ensure that the restored centres become living spaces and not open air museums.

He adds that the Riwaq approach transforms restoration and conservation into a highly effective job creation and skills building mechanism. “Per dollar, our projects create more work than most comparable development activities,” he told me, “and we equip people with useful skills they can then exploit elsewhere.”

On touring other parts of the Qalandiya International festival, I was genuinely impressed by some of the art and a few of the venues. One new venue in the troubled old city of Jerusalem was a derelict tile factory which, through creativity, has been reinvented and reborn as a haunting and evocative exhibition space.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Inside are installations about the “parallel time” experienced by a Palestinian prisoner of conscience who has spent most of his adult life in Israeli prisons, a Muslim father and son in Bethlehem who make crowns of thorns for Christian pilgrims, and two “incidental insurgents” who go on a road trip through the West Bank ghetto.

Creative as such endeavours are, sceptics might wonder what difference art can make to change the reality on the ground and whether it is a preoccupation that Palestinians can ill afford amid the realities of occupation. “If art were only concerned with aesthetics, I would say this was right,” asserts Persekian. “By giving young artists and innovators the chance, they can present new ideas for exiting this impasse.”

Personally, I have been impressed by the active role young artists are playing at the grassroots level, from the street art on the separation wall to the highly successful graphics of blindfolded Palestinian prisoners in brown smocks which were used as profile pictures by many Facebook users to express solidarity for hunger strikers in Israeli prisoners. That is not to mention the pop artists, such as the hip hop group Dam who have just released a song against honour killings, and stand-up comics.

For his part, Persekian is convinced that Palestinian art, which he says once sat on the sidelines and sufficed itself with observing, interpreting and expressing the Palestinian demise, now stands at the very heart of the Palestinian struggle. “Young artists have become an inseparable component of much of what is going on in the country,” he says.

Persekian may well be right about the mainstreaming of art and culture, but I feel this is somewhat unfair to previous generations. Take Ghassan Kanafani. Not only did his stories have a profound influence in shaping modern Palestinian consciousness, he was also politically active with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, something he paid for with his life.

But there are those, even among Palestinians, who believe that art and politics should not mix. “Art is art. I try to do art for art’s sake,” Nasser Zalloum, an expatriate Palestinian artist exhibiting at the festival, told me.

Regardless of whether or not art can really be divorced from politics, Palestinian art is intimately and inseparably linked to the Palestinian cause. Once the Palestinian people gain their freedom, then their art too can be liberated from politics. I look forward to that day.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 16 November 2012.

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Minority voices in Upper Egypt

 
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By Josephine Littlejohn

A publisher in Luxor who happens to be Christian shows how Egypt’s majority and minorities, despite growing tension, share similar dreams and fears.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Mena Melad floating on the Nile.

In Luxor, I caught up with Mena Melad, the editor-in-chief and owner of Luxor Times, a glossy magazine and newspaper for Luxor’s English-speaking community. The publication is targeted at expats and tourists, and covers local issues, archaeology, the arts and current events. Melad is also from the Catholic community, a minority among Egyptian Christians, with the majority being Copts. I had not realised there was an Egyptian Catholic community, and so my curiosity was piqued.

I arranged to meet Melad and another member of the Catholic community, a local bus driver, to get their thoughts on post-revolution Egypt. Melad is young, sharp, educated and very much reflects the new generation in Egypt: hungry for change and desperate to modernise his country.

His frustration at the system, and the slow pace of change since the revolution began. “Laws area not being implemented. Rubbish is piling up everywhere and no one does anything about it. The crime rates are going up but the police don’t want to upset anyone and cause another riot. People expect things to be done for them,” complains Melad. “A group of us went out into the villages and helped with trash collection, showing the villagers how to recycle, what to separate out, and how to bag up their trash for collection. We did that for a couple for weeks to get it going but when we went back a few weeks later, it was back to being strewn everywhere and just tossed out of windows.”

His despair and frustration were obvious. The mountain that stands before him and before Egypt is not just a matter of voting in a new government, it is the massive process of slowly turning around how a population thinks. People are used to paternalistic rule. Individual and communal responsibility had been ruthlessly engineered out of society’s grassroots in the past in order to dis-empower the population, so it will take a long time for the people to recover.

Melad talked at length about local resources, unregulated construction and the fragility of the Nile itself. To illustrate, he took us out onto the west bank so that I could see for myself. Business people and some expats had taken advantage of the political turmoil and the subsequent lull in law enforcement to throw up apartment buildings to sell at inflated prices (by Egyptian standards) to foreigners looking for a cheap holiday home. I was appalled at what he showed me.

Gaps of land in between the regular buildings had been filled with new apartment blocks, pushed cheek to jowl against existing homes, cutting off any views or privacy the existing residents may have had. The roving editor also showed me how precious agricultural land, necessary for growing food crops, had been built on indiscriminately.

“There are available building plots further inland, and that is where any expansion should be. This land, close to the Nile, is needed for growing food; this land is precious and is already under strain. We could have sustainable housing 5km away from the Nile, we should not build near the Nile,” he pointed out.

We then moved on to Luxor, and the political and communal uncertainties brought about by the revolution.  The bus driver expressed his worries: “As a Catholic, I am already a minority within a minority, and it worries me. Will my community suffer discrimination? Will we get fair [treatment from] the authorities if they are run by an Islamic group? Will we get fair justice? Will we get fair arbitration with local conflicts? Or will we become second class citizens?”

I could see his fears really troubled him. He was a quiet, gentle man struggling to provide for his family. He told me how his income had dropped considerably as work dried up. No one had money to spend, and now because of the relative lawlessness, he was afraid to work late at night in case his bus was stolen from him or his earnings robbed. He was very concerned for the future of his young children and his ability to provide for them.

“We need order restored, we need the police to [serve] us, not just the tourists, and we need local government to start doing its job,” the bus driver urged.

I asked Melad about the future of the governorship of Luxor under the new government as there was an impending reshuffle. What did he think would be a good way forward in the future? What qualities did he think a future governor would need?  Melad thought it important that a future governor would be “an outsider to Luxor. ” I asked him why? I would have thought someone local who knew the community well, who knew its needs and its problems intimately, would be more helpful.

“Yes, that is a good point,” he said. “But we are worried about the issue of tribal allegiance. If we get a local, there will be the risk of getting someone who gives more attention to his extended family and community rather than the whole of Luxor.”

That was a good point and one I had not thought of.

Melad went on to tell me about a local organisation that had grown in Luxor, The Love of Egypt. This group of young people of all different faiths and backgrounds come together to discuss the community’s problems and try to find joint solutions. It sounded like the younger generation in Luxor were really on the ball and taking an active role in birthing a new Egypt.

I asked him what he thought the most pressing problems were that faced the communities in Luxor. He was very clear: “Clean water, proper sewage processing, decent education and proper medical facilities. We need people to do their jobs in these areas too. Often these days, people do not want to put in a hard days work, they all want to work in offices, come into work at 11am and leave at 2pm.”*

I then asked him about what he’d like to see develop in Egypt as a whole: “Decent quality education. We have quantity but not quality. In the state schools, the supplies that children have to buy are expensive for them, and the method of teaching used is not that good. Then they can leave school at 11 or 12, which is not enough. But they want to leave at that age, they want to be grown up. We need to encourage them to stay on to high school.”

Melad also wished to see greater transparency and freedom. “I want freedom of information, like you have in the UK, freedom of speech and no corruption in authority. The internet has enabled us to see what other countries have and we want those things too,” the young journalist added.

This highlighted something that I had previously been unaware of. There is an image in the minds of young Egyptians who had not travelled much or at all of places like the UK being bastions of real free speech, of no corruption, and of fair wealth distribution. Although the UK is not suffering the problems of Egypt, it certainly has its own skeletons rattling away in the cupboard.

I came away from the meetings with Mena Melad with a sense of real hope: there was a bright energy in young Egyptians like him, a drive for a better world, and an intelligent awareness of their own community. It struck me that the opinions, aspirations and fears that Melad, as a Catholic, had shared with me were the same as those that members of the Muslim community had also shared. Let’s hope they work together towards them, with respect and the mutual admiration that each part of Luxor’s rich communal tapestry deserves.

 

This is part of a series of articles on Egypt’s political transformation as seen from the rural and provincial grassroots. Below is the full list of articles in the series:

1. Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

2. Egypt needs are human, social and educational, not religious, says Islamist MP

3. Minority voices in Upper Egypt

 

* This paragraph was amended on 24 September 2012 to remove a factual error.

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Egypt’s Nubians: damned by the dam

 
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By Khaled Diab

Half a century after the inundation, Nubians may finally gain recognition and redress for the loss of their homeland.

Monday 23 April 2012

Lower Nubia is modern Egypt’s very own lost Atlantis. This ancient land today lies mostly under the waters of Lake Nasser, a massive reservoir created by the Aswan High Dam.

Now, half a century after the inundation, Egyptian Nubians are finally being offered the prospect of decent compensation for the loss of their homeland in the 1960s. Following years of concerted campaigning by Nubian campaigners, and their active role in the revolution, Fayza Abul Naga, the minister for planning and international co-operation, announced that Nubians would soon be compensated with new farmland and villages.

Ever since Egypt’s controversial decision, taken soon after the 1952 revolution, to construct the High Dam, questions have persisted as to why Cairo was so cavalier with both the Nubian people and the priceless archaeology in which the region abounded.

Defenders and apologists insist that Nubia had to be dammed so that Egypt, one of the driest places on the planet and almost wholly dependent on the Nile for its water, would not be damned.

And despite its severe environmental impacts, which were foreseen long before its construction, the dam saved Egypt, in the 1980s, from the severe drought upstream in Ethiopia, where most of Egypt’s water originates. It has also played a major role in the modernisation, electrification and industrialisation of the country.

It has also been suggested that racism played a role too. However, I am not convinced that racial discrimination was a conscious factor in the decision to flood Nubia. As far as I understand it, the Nile had only one cataract in Egypt and this happened to lie near the ancestral lands of the Nubians.

Then, there is the question of regionalism and class. Egypt has long been run centrally from Cairo and the urban centres of the north, while the south, in general, has had little say in its own or the country’s future. That would explain why Upper Egyptian peasants were also uprooted by the dam. The sacredness of “national unity” has also played a role, with Nubia’s distinct culture and language often seen as a threat by the Cairo elites.

In addition, as elsewhere in the developing world at the time, development and modernity were a far more pressing imperative in the minds of Egypt’s central planners of the time than cultural preservation and tradition. That helps explain why the Egyptian government had not given much thought to the preservation of the unique archaeological heritage of the region, home to the ‘Black Pharaohs‘, until an international furor erupted.

The international community managed, under the auspices of UNESCO, to pull off perhaps the largest and most impressive archaeological rescue operation in human history which rehoused Nubia’s most significant monuments, such as the temple of Abu Simbel.

The Nubians themselves were not as fortunate, and no massive international aid was forthcoming to help them relocate. Some 50,000 Egyptian Nubians were forced to move from 45 villages and relocated to Aswan, which has become a Little Nubia renowned for its hospitality and the warmth of its people, and to the ill-thought out  New Nubia, near Kom Ombo.

Though New Nubia was supposed to mirror old Nubia, preserving its culture while introducing modern utilities, it was in reality a charmless development of small concrete housing which, unlike the lush Nubia they left behind, lay in the desert.

Dissatisfied with their new homes, a large proportion the inhabitants of New Nubia migrated to other parts of Egypt, though many dreamed of returning as near as possible to their ancestral homeland.

The reality of discrimination is reflected in the marginalisation that Nubians still endure. For instance, a disproportionate number of Nubians are employed in menial work, such as bawabs (janitors). In fact, in some parts of downtown Cairo, a cluster of poor Nubian communities exist on the rooftops.

Despite that, a few Nubians have made it to the very top of Egyptian society. Culturally, the Nubian singer Ahmed Mounib was the first to introduce mainstream Egypt to the mellow sounds of Nubia. His protege, Mohamed Mounir – himself a refugee from the Aswan dam – has managed not only to put Nubian music on the map, with his funky fusion of traditional Nubian with jazzy western sounds, but was also one of the very few mainstream artists to sing socially conscious lyrics before the revolution.

Interestingly, in spite of their general underrepresentation, Nubians have fared markedly better in the highest echelons of Egyptian political life, perhaps due to the fact that the army has been one of the few routes open for the advancement of the marginalised.

The country’s third president Anwar Sadat, although he grew up in the north of Egypt, was the son of Nubian parents, while the country’s current de facto leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is also of Nubian origin.

In recent years, attitudes towards Nubians have been changing, and there is a growing recognition that the Nubian people were wronged. This process has gathered pace since the revolution erupted, and one can only hope that Nubians will be allowed to resettle in what’s left of their homeland and be treated as full equals elsewhere in the country.

 

This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free on 21 April 2012.

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Indiana Hawass and the pharaoh’s curse

 
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By Osama Diab

Zahi Hawass may liken himself to Indiana Jones, but the minister of antiquities is one artifact of the old regime Egyptians want to live without.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Zahi Hawass, one of Egypt’s top archaeologists, symbolises the point where our proud and glorious past intersects with a bleak and uncertain present. In the minds of many Egyptians, he is associated with Egypt’s modern corrupt rulers rather than the great pharaohs of ancient times.

In Arabic, the word ‘pharaoh’ always has positive connotations except when it’s used to describe an absolute and ruthless ruler or manager. This is exactly the kind of pharaoh Hawass was in the eyes of many of his compatriots.

Since Hosni Mubarak’s departure from office, protests that demanded the removal of Hawass from his position as minister of antiquities were uninterrupted. These were held by fellow archaeologists, the guards of heritage sites, or simply Tahrir Square protesters who see him as an antiquity that they have no interest in embalming from the era of Egypt’s most recent pharaoh, Mubarak.

This pressure has yielded results and Hawass did lose the job he was offered during the 18-day revolution in a cabinet shuffle that aimed, but failed, to calm down angry anti-Mubarak protesters.

If Egyptian archaeology was a country, then certainly Hawass would be its Mubarak. Just like his former boss, he is besieged by allegations about his business interests, accusations of turning Egypt’s archaeology into a one-man show by claiming credit for scientific findings and being the sole speaker about Egyptology in the local and international media. Of course, he’s also committed the unforgivable sin of being one of Mubarak’s favourite men.

Hawass is the epitome of the kind of self-centred, egocentric and possibly charismatic figure that the revolution has risen against, along with the kind of Mubarak-era politics he used to symbolise. Even though he’s been called Egypt’s Indiana Jones, the name that probably describes him best is his very own, Zahi, which means vain or conceited in Arabic.

Evidence of his narcissistic personality is not difficult to find. In April, he launched a clothing line named after himself in Harrods, and his latest book, A Secret Voyage, is Egypt’s most expensive book ever, carrying a price tag of 22,000 Egyptian pounds (about £2,300) with only 750 copies printed, and all signed by Egyptian archaeologists.

With his rock-star attitude, Hawass might have managed to bring archaeology more into the headlines – not necessarily because of his fine discoveries or first-class research, but mainly because of his rather eccentric behaviour. Even though the man was, or made himself, synonymous with Egyptian archaeology in the minds of many, whoever succeeds Hawass is certainly not going to be the media sensation he managed to be. Hawass will be missed by journalists searching for colourful and amusing stories, but unlike his ancestors, this pharaoh’s mystique might be short-lived as a symbol of an unpopular bygone era in Egypt’s history.

The sacking of Hawass, Egypt’s latest victim of the revolution, shows that the 18-day revolution was only the mother of numerous baby revolutions against little pharaohs or mini-Mubaraks in ministries, universities, factories, political parties and so on, and his departure marks another victory for those trying to clear the country of its deep-rooted authoritarianism.

This article first appeared in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian on 22 July 2011. Discussion of this article is available here. Republished with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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Inverting the pyramids

 
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By Khaled Diab

The world isn’t short on wacky theories about Egypt’s greatest monuments. The reality is less fun, but more illuminating.

August 2008

Who built the pyramids?

Who built the pyramids? Was it these two?

The quack theories about my country’s history can be very entertaining, with the all-time classic being that only aliens could have constructed something as magnificent and precise as the pyramids. Astoundingly, up to 45% of people who took part in a recent survey believed that the pyramids (and Stonehenge) were physical evidence of alien life. Of course, this poll appeared in the Sun, the same newspaper which reported on an ‘alien army’ that had been spotted over England and Wales. Some UFOlogists even claim that civilisation itself was an alien import

One man of the cloth has come up with an ingenious solution to the mystery of the pyramids which also ‘disproves’ evolution. Maltese evangelist pastor Vince Fenech believes that dinosaurs helped build the pyramids, presumably after being domesticated. There is a certain eccentric beauty to this ‘Flintstones’ theory: the ancient Egyptians didn’t have any mechanical heavy-lifting equipment that we know of, so let’s give them a biological variety. 

But even when human agency behind the pyramids is acknowledged, the credit for them is disputed. The most famous alternative theory is that Israelite slaves built these colossal structures. The late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin stirred up a furore in Egypt when he claimed, prior to arriving for the first official visit by an Israeli leader to Cairo, that his ancestors built the pyramids. 

Of course, no archaeologist takes this theory seriously, since the pyramids were already pretty ancient when the Israelites are presumed to have been in Egypt and it is now generally accepted that slaves did not work on the project.

There is also no biblical evidence that the Israelites worked on the pyramids. Baruch Brandel, the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority library, notes that: “The Torah only mentions that the Israelites built Pithom and Ramses during the New Kingdom period.” 

So, where does this legend come from? Scotland, actually. Charles Piazzi Smyth believed that the mysterious Hyksos – who may have invaded, or simply migrated, to Egypt nearly a millennium after the pyramids were built – were the Hebrew people, and that they built the Great Pyramid. 

Some Jews began to prescribe to this far-fetched theory to draw pride amid discrimination, just as the 19th century Afrocentric movement in the United States extended the period of Kushite (modern-day Nubia) rule for two centuries during the Third Intermediate Period to all of Egyptian history in order to claim that ancient Egypt was “black African”. 

This flies in the face of all the evidence that points to the fact that Egypt – an integral part of the Fertile Crescent and sitting on the northeastern edge of Africa – was always a multiracial society but that the basic make-up of the population has not changed much since ancient times. Besides, skin colour did not mean anything beyond the physical to the Egyptians, who were more interested in whether you were culturally Egyptian or not. This is reflected in the fact that both free people and slaves in Egyptian wall paintings were of various colours and races. 

This includes the Biblical Israelites. But identifying who exactly this wandering people were is fraught with difficulty, as no non-biblical evidence exists that identifies their presence in Egypt conclusively. 

Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog says that the available evidence points to the fact that: “The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom.” 

So, why create these myths? Egypt was the mega-power of the region and the Levant was part of the Egyptian empire for centuries. Perhaps once a group of vassal rulers managed to shake off Egyptian hegemony, they needed to create a heroic back-story which, at once, demonised the Egyptians and borrowed from their grandeur. In addition, there is plenty of historical evidence of Canaanite tribes settling in Egypt in times of famine and some became slaves, and the stories of their sporadic return could have been amalgamated into one epic legend. 

In addition, the idea that the Israelites were originally not monotheists, but practised monolatry, i.e. the worship of a local god as the top god while recognising the existence of other gods, does not sit comfortably with the Abrahamic traditions.

Despite Egypt’s polytheistic reputation, monotheism was actually invented in Egypt, as far as historians can ascertain. Amenhotep IV (renamed Akhenaten) began the worship of Aten as the one god, probably for political reasons, because he wanted to clip the wings of the powerful priesthood of the supreme god Amun-Ra. Akhenaten’s iconoclasm did not survive him, and the old priesthoods re-formed after his mysterious death. 

Moreover, Egyptian themes are found throughout the Abrahamic faiths, and not just in the explicit mentions of Egypt in the holy scriptures. The idea of the ‘messiah’, which means the anointed one, bears a striking resemblance to the identity of pharaoh, who was also the anointed one and god’s representative on earth, while the Virgin and Child story seems to be a rehashing of the Osiris-Isis-Horus myth. In some ways, a rationalised form of polytheism is actually alive and well, if we consider God as Osiris and the devil as a sort of Seth, while the angels are equivalent to the legion of minor deities. 

Naturally, the Middle East is not ready for this shock to the system: not only are these biblical legends crucial to Zionism’s historic claim, they also form the bedrock of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths in a highly religious region of the world. 

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 18 August 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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