There’s a rather predictable trope concerning the destruction of cultural artefacts, which essentially asks why it is that we labour and mourn over stones, when human flesh is at risk. To my mind, the clearest symbolic answer to that is given by the death in 2015 of Palmyra’s 82-year old Director of Antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad, who spent a lifetime working on, and writing about, the ruins of Palmyra and, having hidden from Daech as many of the city’s treasures as he could, died rather than reveal their whereabouts, hanged by barbarians from a pillar in the forum of his ancient city. Here was a man who needed no convincing of the centrality of symbolic cultural artefacts in the humane biosphere.
There’s something seductive but also silly in the ‘why-worry-about-buildings-when-people-are-dying’ argument. Of course, on the one hand, it’s true (a truism indeed): people, as all our mothers said to us as young children, are more important than things and faced with one of those artificial philosophical choices of the ‘Shall-I-shoot-this-child-or–smash-this-statue’ sort, few of us would answer ‘Waste the kid. ’ But the silliness comes from the false binary, the assumption that the world can indeed be divided into ‘people’ and ‘things.’ Good enough for children, it won’t do for grown-ups, who understand, sometimes with pain and reluctance, that the two categories are inter-penetrating; that things draw their meaning from people, and people place some of their deepest collective feelings in things. Think of the intense emotional investment in regimental colours or a Roman Eagle; the Ark of the Covenant or the Kaaba; the relics of saints, the Stars-and-Stripes, the Crown of St Stephen or the tombs of ancestors. In all of these, people, blood and manufacture, not to mention God, are blended to make what we call material culture. It is this intense blending, this kneading of emotion, identity and history into the dough of creation that makes things with special power.
And these things are the things that those who wish to destroy whole peoples also destroy, because of the power that they have absorbed from the feelings invested in them, and the feelings they in turn catalyse, often over long periods of time. Destroy them, and you destroy the heart, perhaps even the coherent reality, of a people. Christopher de Bellaigue writes, when travelling in Iran, of a visit to Yazd. He asked a Zoroastrian priest, charged with keeping alight the eternal sacred flame, “what happens if the flame at Yazd goes out?” The priest replies: “Nothing. Except that the endeavours, toil and devotion of our forefathers will have come to naught.” George Clooney, in his otherwise embarrassingly schlocky film Monuments Men, puts it like this, and rather well: “You can wipe out a generation of people, you can burn their homes to the ground, but somehow they still come back. But if you destroy their achievements, their history, it’s like they never existed, just ash, floating.”
This is one of the reasons why seeing unexplained objects in the abstract is so strange and disturbing: they are without their meaning. We can dig up quantities of Neolithic art, some of it clearly of vital symbolic importance, but we can only guess what these objects meant to their makers, because there is no one to tell us, and no one left whose sense of self and of the universe is wrapped up in it. The destruction of such objects is tragedy enough, but it is of a different order from the destruction of ‘living’ cultural objects – those whose meaning is still alive, supple and real, seeping across the permeable membrane between people and things.
As Robert Bevan has pointed out, this is why the original draft of the Genocide Convention, drafted by Raphael Lemkin, the tormented and eccentric Jew from Lemburg, wrapped the destruction of a people up, so urgently, with the destruction of their culture: they aren’t separable. It isn’t sufficient to say that without the people the stones have no meaning. Precisely the opposite is just as true: without the stones, the people have no meaning. This is uncomfortable, in an age fixated by the primacy of the individual, but true.
And loss of meaning is more than just a cultural loss, in the superficial usage of that word. The Chicago philosopher Jonathan Lear, in a wonderful book called Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, starts from the extraordinary remark of an Indian chief, Plenty Coups of the Crow tribe, looking back on the signing of the treaty which confined the Crow to their reservation in the 1880s. Looking back, decades later, on a long life, he said of that moment, apocalyptically, “After this, nothing happened,” by which he meant not that no events had taken place (he himself was busy and successful), but that they were without meaning – the meaning that is theirs in the society from which they sprang. The loss of this kind of meaning destroys the whole subjective world in which a people live, which Lear compares to the fate of a sentient chess-piece which he imagines as reflecting, “humans get bored with playing this game, and the game of chess goes out of existence. My problem is not simply that my way of life has come to an end. I no longer have the concepts with which to understand myself or the world … the concepts with which I would otherwise have understood myself – indeed the concepts with which I would otherwise have shaped my identity – have gone out of existence.”
This destruction of significance is what cultural obliteration is all about. When Daech set about destroying the Yazidi temples and people of Sinjar, its black myrmidons knew what they were doing: they aimed to obliterate a people in the way that it was done in ancient Mesopotamia, by destroying every physical trace, killing its menfolk and enslaving its women. And when the tatterdemalion jihadis invaded Timbuktu in November 2011, they quickly began to do the same. In particular, they attacked the shrines of sufi saints, bulldozing and obliterating these ancient religious buildings as a way not just of imposing their iconoclastic, primitivist puritanism on the people of Timbuktu, but as a way of extirpating, as they thought, the cultural memory that they embodied. Attacks on sufi shrines are a widespread manifestation of salafi-jihadism, seen in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt as well as northern Mali. Sheer venom apart, they represent a desire to cut a people off from its religious roots, the more easily to bully them into the bizarre Year Zero devotional habits of their new masters. To knock over the chess board and scatter the pieces.
What marks out Mali is that the commissar responsible for demolishing shrines and sites of more public importance like the 16th century Sidi Yahia mosque, was not only captured but has been put on trial in the Hague. The International Criminal Court’s very first prosecution for the destruction of cultural heritage saw in the dock ‘Abou Tourab,’ the jihadist kunya of Mohamed Ag Mahmoud Al Faqi, a local salafi quickly drawn into the occupying government in which his own father was a beating-shooting-and-amputating judge of the sharia court. In one sense the trial was a bit of a let-down. Abou Tourab pleaded guilty and apologized. But the principle was established, publicly and declaratively: cultural destruction is a war crime.
The interesting thing is how much anger the trial has aroused. Some say and with justice that more important jihadists got away, some released to facilitate ‘reconciliation.’ That Abou T was by no means the worst. That anyway Abou T should be being prosecuted for the awful things he did to people, not to old brick and pisé walls. All this is no doubt true, but misses the point. The current trial of Mohamed Ag Mahmoud Al Faqi is the first great, public acknowledgement that cultural destruction is as much a war crime as killing. His old teacher wrote recently a rather sad defence of him as a ‘little fish,’ and ended by saying:
The cutting off of people’s hands and the executions that took place during Ansar Dine’s “new style” sharia for almost a year appear to be lesser crimes than the destruction, in which Al Faqi played a part, of Unesco World Heritage sites.
No: apples and pears, M le prof. This is a point that needed making, and better to do it with a repentant little fish than a sly and unrepentant great shark. But just as important is the fundamental misunderstanding of why it is important. Not because what were destroyed were “UNESCO World Heritage sites,” though those sites are an inexact attempt to record and preserve what is important. What Abou T and his morality brigade did was not an attack on UNESCO, or Western priorities: it was an attempt to derail a set of values and religious practices that were integral to the people of the city – to destroy the embodiments of a collective memory and an ancestral religiosity. To knock the chess-pieces off the board and abolish the rules of the game.
So it is important and splendid that Abou T, a sad little man with unruly hair and a shallowly simplistic understanding even of his own religion, be condemned for this crime. And it’s very important too, that he publicly recognized his guilt. This is what the prosecutor said in her opening statement:
[Timbuktu] was, to be sure, the cradle of education, where enlightenment was nurtured for the benefit of generations of students, attracting scholars from far and wide. Some of these sages would be venerated as Muslim saints, and mausoleums would be erected on their graves to honour their memory as well as the notable contributions they made to the lives of the people of Timbuktu, and beyond. These mausoleums, which survived the ravages of time, have continued to play a fundamental, even foundational, role in both the life within the city’s gates and beyond the city’s borders. These monuments were living testimony to Timbuktu’s glorious past … But above all, they were the embodiment of Malian history, captured in tangible form, from an era long gone yet still very much vivid in the memory and pride of the people who so dearly cherished them. The mausoleums also testify to the historical role Timbuktu played in the spread of Islam in Africa and in the history of Africa itself. They are relics of a great chapter in humankind’s intellectual and spiritual development on the continent, which gave Timbuktu its standing in the world. This is particularly important in a society that is partly rooted in oral tradition. And it is notably for these reasons that they are so precious, and were inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1988. What’s more, the mausoleums of Timbuktu played and continue to play an important religious role in the daily lives of the city’s inhabitants. Mausoleums are sacred places of worship. They are frequently visited by the city’s residents. Pilgrims would also come from distant places to pay their respects and to pray. Going to the mausoleums was and still is an expression of one’s faith and religious piety. It is specifically these deeply rooted religious practices and beliefs that Ansar Dine and AQIM wanted to annihilate by destroying these mausoleums. Through their brutal and callous acts, they made it impossible for the inhabitants of Timbuktu to devote themselves to their religious practices during the ten-month occupation of their city.
And the lawyer for this scraggly, banal little vandal, crammed into a suit and tie for the occasion said, in pleading:
He wants to be truthful to himself and he wants to admit the acts that he has committed. And he wants to ask at the same time for pardon from the people of Timbuktu and the Malian people. He regrets all the actions that he has committed.
This is progress.