Sunday, February 10, 2013

Our own Orientalism: Why Medievalists are Complicit when Manuscripts Burn and Ruins Crumble

(Modern Medieval is pleased to host this guest post by Prof. Rabia Gregory, University of Missouri-Columbia)

Last month, as French ground forces moved into Mali at the request of Mali’s interim President, horrified whispers spread across the internet: Timbuktu’s manuscripts were in peril. On January 28, the French army moved to recapture Timbuktu amidst rumors that a retreating militia, perhaps the Salafist group Ansar Deine, had torched the Ahmad Baba Library. Later reports revealed that Ansar Deine had protected the Ahmad Baba Library, that the majority of manuscripts had been kept safe by African curators and local citizens, and that rumors of fire were stoked by a Sky News reporter embedded with the French army and confirmed by Hallè Ousmane, Timbuktu’s mayor, exiled 800 km away in Bamako. As images of scorched manuscripts on the tiled floors of the Ahmad Baba library began circulating, medievalists voiced a visceral outrage: to us, more than anyone, the destruction of books is an unfathomable act of barbarism. When fighting in Aleppo set the medieval souks aflame, threatened the Crac des Chevaliers, and endangered Palmyra and Old Damascus, and imperiled the manuscripts of Timbuktu, my friends and colleagues turned to Facebook and blogs to lament that they could never understand how anyone could so callously destroy their own cultural heritage. As if destroying manuscripts marked humans as dangerously different, or subhuman. As if our own armies had not destroyed vast collections of unique manuscript in Hamburg, Dresden, Baghdad, Mosul, Sarajevo, and elsewhere. As if we had forgotten how poor planning, corruption, war, and disaffected citizens had doomed  many of “our” libraries—the 2009 collapse in Cologne, the 1870 bombardment and fire which destroyed Strasbourg’s library and museum, the wholesale destruction and appropriation of books across Europe between 1914 and 1945, the floods which have permanently closed 12 libraries in Louisiana, damaged collections in Iowa, and endangered archives across the Eastern Seaboard. Arson has destroyed more books in the US and UK than in Africa: in 1986, an arsonist destroyed over 400,000 books and manuscripts in the Los Angeles County Library, and the sole surviving copy of the Beowulf manuscript, (BL Cotton Vitellius A. xv.) was damaged by fire in 1731; other unique manuscript copies,including the Life of Alfred, did not survive. Last year, a disgruntled alumnus vandalized and attempted to burn down our main research library last year sprinklers saved the building but water and smoke damaged many books and some of the Missouri State Historical Society’s collection.  Though we now find it quaint and amusing, the Bodleian’s famous oath recognizes the threat fire poses to libraries.

Western-educated medievalists are complicit in the ongoing destruction to medieval culture in Africa and the Near East, just as we passively allow the defunding and desecration of medieval archives and medieval studies programs in Europe and the Americas. There can be no apology for criminal actions under the guise of war, no excuses for the weak corrupt governments which cling to power exploiting the citizens of Africa and the Near East. But, as a medievalist who works with German manuscripts, and an Arab-American who follows the news from the Middle East closely, I must point out that many of the worst losses of medieval books and buildings have occurred in Western Europe. As we sit in our offices accusing them of barbarism, many Arabs and Muslims are mobilizing to protect medieval artifacts and memorializing ongoing tragedies through medieval poetry. The destruction of books, by fire or war, should not be an incomprehensible “act of barbarism” to medievalists, who habitually nuance the “barbaric” and often find our own western manuscripts have been lost to war or fire. My own research is hampered by the losses at libraries in Lübeck, Wroclaw, Dresden, and Strasbourg. Only a small portion of the 100 boxes of medieval manuscripts relocated by the Wroclaw City Library in 1943 under threat of bombardment have been recovered; those lost to fire will never resurface. I expect simplistic narrative of savage Muslim destroying priceless antiquities in incomprehensible acts of barbarism from reporters compiling stories from wire reports. Medievalists, many of whom are widely read in postcolonial theory, and invested in recovering evidence of marginal peoples, should know better.  


With each lament, we increase the threat to heritage sites and reaffirm our own deeply paternalistic assumption that the indigenous peoples of former British and French colonies are not trustworthy custodians of their own national heritage. Emily O’Dell, who studies Sufism in Africa, recently argued that naming Salafist groups as barbarous “frames heritage solely as a victim, instead of a weapon of war cleverly employed to attract media attention, garner support and legitimacy among regional and international Islamists, and provide potent religious symbolism.” As O’Dell recognizes, these acts of destruction are subject to competing narratives: heritage sites destroyed by NATO actions are written off as collateral damage while sites destroyed by Muslims are portrayed as incomprehensible barbarism. Destruction of heritage sites, whether by foreign or local forces, is a sacrificial act which solidifies “both national resistance and transnational solidarity with Islamists, [while] simultaneously demarcating religious difference and repudiating foreign intervention.” Thus cultural heritage sites make valuable hostages—for Western nations justifying military action, for Salafists advocating the restoration of what they perceive as a purer Islam, and for resistance movements. For instance, many Pakistanis linked a series of deadly attacks on Sufi tombs and Ahmadi mosques in Lahore to US involvement in the death of Muslim civilians in Afghanistan while a recent thread on the Timbuktu manuscripts on the Sociology of Islam listserv insinuates that the French government exploited threats to the Ahmed BabaInstitute to justify the return of French colonial rule. Last week, while on a visit to promotethe protection of cultural heritage sites in south Lebanon, the US Ambassador’s convoy drove over and destroyed a wall at Al-Bass; though the US embassy will be paying for repairs, the incident has already been incorporated into several competing politically-driven narratives. Among medievalists, the use of cultural sites to demarcate between “us” and “them” has taken a peculiar twist.

Our affective response to the loss of medieval heritage sites reveals a disinterest in the political nuances of local conflicts, which is exacerbated by our professional use reading postcolonial theory and selective appropriation of Muslim, Arab, and African historical narratives to understand the networks of cultural exchange which influenced medieval Europe. When the medieval souks in Aleppo burned, medievalists were rightly appalled by the scope of the damage. Few realized that efforts to extinguish the fire were hampered by siege tactics: the medieval citadel at Aleppo’s center, which is bordered by the medieval souk, remains a vital strategic site from which the Free Syrian Army defends their portion of the city. The Syrian Army has severely restricted water to Aleppo as part of a siege that is to this day a bloody war of attrition. Aleppo’s citadel is not the only medieval fortress reactivated and irreparably damaged during modern war: the crusader-era Beaufort Castle in southern Lebanon was first a command post for the Palestinian Liberation, then the Israeli Defense Force and is now a Hizbullah outpost.  Medievalists are far quieter about the destruction of other medieval artifacts ignored by the western press. In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, at least 34 shrines to Tunisian saints have been damaged, among them the thirteenth-century tomb of Sayeda Manoubia, an educated woman and Sufi who joined the circle of  Belhsan Chedly Shrines built around the tombs of Sufi saints or ‘friend of God,’ attract pilgrimage and devotion recognizable to western medievalists,  yet their destruction passes without comment. For local populations, however, the destruction of Sufi shrines and medieval mosques is cause for action: in Libya, a minister resigned over the destruction of Sufi shrines in Timbuktu, residents wept in the streets as Ansar Deine desecrated Sufi shrines and the fifteenth-century Sidi Yahya mosque.  For both the Western and the Arab press, reporting is about creating marketable narratives; we should know better than to react to such reports uncritically.

I suspect that I am not the only medievalist who knows almost nothing about the historical significance of Timbuku, or only recently learned that the city’s manuscripts are only a small portion of the surviving testimony to African and West African manuscript and book production. Even though I cannot read these manuscripts, I, and other medievalists, recognize them to be precious objects, their value enhanced by our own experiences of having touched, smelled, and transcribed medieval documents. Our reverence for manuscripts as objects has inspired some of my friends—both medievalists and Arab-Americans—to propose that imperiled manuscripts be relocated to European and American libraries. This is deeply colonialist idea. The Bibliothèque national de France (BNFr) holds extensive collections of manuscripts acquired from colonies and in Africa and by Napoleon’s army, which appropriated Flemish manuscripts and early printed books from religious houses. In the 1890s, Cambridge Solomon Schechter boxed up and rehomed The Cairo Geniza, a collection of over 210,000 medieval Jewish manuscript fragments . The bulk of the collection is now at Cambridge, with portions of the collection housed at Oxford and elsewhere in the UK. Another priceless African manuscript, the Codex Siniaticus, has been scattered in London, Leipzig, St Petersburg. Only a few fragments remain at St Catherine’s monastery in Egypt. In January of this year, the National Library of Israel acquired a collection of medieval manuscripts from Afghanistan:  as if there were never any possibility of those manuscripts more appropriately being kept in Afghanistan. 

Our own orientalism has significant consequences for the academic study of the medieval world and the preservation of medieval artifacts. Because we expect the destruction of medieval artifacts as an inevitable consequence of allowing “third-world” nations to maintain ownership of their cultural heritage, we do nothing to support the scholars and institutions which might best be able to protect these objects. Western academics rarely read the work of or show support for the Arab and African scholars who curate, edit, and publish their own medieval manuscripts, despite deplorable salaries  and little protection for academic freedom. A quick search of Speculum, the arbiter of what is enduringly important to medieval studies, reveals a superficial interest in the Islamicate world, evidenced by occasional book reviews and scattered articles addressing trade, cultural exchange, and Andalusia. In 1977, the historian of Renaissance Humanism, Paul Oskar Kristeller, warned Speculum’s readers that “our insistence on the Western tradition may easily be attacked as provincial, antiquated and even reactionary." In this millennium, leading western medievalists advocate studying a global medieval world (for a quick overview, see here), yet write mostly about medieval oreintalism—the depiction of muslims in western medieval literature-and rarely cite rigorous examinations of medieval Islamicate societies. Even Eileen Joy’s powerful critique of anglophone medievalists’ failure to appreciate the “so-called ‘minority fields’ of medieval studies” advances the decentering Europe as the locus of medieval studies through comparative work, but not the focused and respectful examination of non-European medieval cultures at the local level. These post-colonial impulses recognize the value of conversations about global routes, networks, and exchanges, but overwhelmingly treat the “east” as a tool for understanding Europe. I am fortunate to work alongside specialists interested in other regions of the medieval world whose work overcomes challenges posed by translation and historical reconstruction with real ingenuity. Until the Medieval Academy, Leeds, and Kalamazoo regularly host numerous sessions on medieval Japan, Cairo, and Timbuktu, until Speculum becomes the premier journal to publish on Mughal India, and we invite experts on Buddhist nuns and Taoist medicine to serve as plenary speakers for our conferences, we won’t be close to taking the medieval world seriously

 Our own orientalism makes us doubt that Arabs and Muslims care for their medieval past, allowed the French Army’s propagandistic use of Mali’s manuscripts, and allows us to accept the destruction of some medieval artifacts as inevitable. Last week, Beirut-based British journalist Robert Fisk catalogued the losses of manuscripts in Mali against the cultural destruction in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the iconoclasm of the Reformation. Fisk writes as if it is sufficient to understand the motivations behind these acts of destruction, as if he agrees with Richard Dawkins that religions—among them Islam and Christianity— are inherently barbarous and destructive. I disagree. It certainly is important to acknowledge the destruction of books by and in the west, but it is even more important to challenge the notion that Arabs and Muslims do not value the medieval past. For those living in the chaos and war which followed the Arab Spring, these acts of destruction are only one aspect of a humanitarian tragedy that must be stopped. Over 60,000 are dead and nearly ¼ million have been displaced in Syria, at least 100,000 are displaced in Mali, the deathtoll uncertain, and, according to UNESCO, many of the most-endangered world heritage sites are medieval. As the Arab press reports more massacres and scenes of destruction emerge, medieval poetry is the first form of lamentation, medieval history the framework for understanding carnage, and the proof that there is hope for peace and restoration. Zayde Antrim, a historian of medieval Syria, recently published a eulogy for Damascus framed through medieval poetry mourning the city’s destruction by Tamerlane:  “It is not the first time in its history that Damascus (or Hama or Aleppo) has been destroyed, but it is worth repeating al-Ghuzuli’s final prayer that it be the last: Wash with the water of security the face of our hope/ and by your grace keep away the advent of tyrants.” Ayman Wafai, an Arab-American engineer I have known since gradeschool, recently marked his sorrow on Facebook with a verse the 11th century polymath ibn Hazm wrote to lament civil war in Al-Andalus and the destruction of Cordoba: “I see before my eyes the destruction of that noble citadel which i had once known as beautiful and prosperous in a stable, well ordered atmosphere in which i had grown up; it's courtyard once full of people, now empty.” Citing Hamlet, Abdullah Al-Otaibi advocates looking at the instability across the near east “through the lens of history, particularly in terms of the historical relationship between doctrines and sects.” Following news of a massacre at Ma’aarat al Nu’man, my first act of mourning was to log in to Facebook and post verses and images I first used to discuss the infamous massacre and cannibalism there during the first crusade with my students. Just as the citizens of Timbuktu and the taxpayers of South Africa saved Mali’s manuscripts from war, Muslims and Arabs continue to grieve for, cling to, and recall our own medieval history. This is our world falling apart. These are our friends and family in danger or dying. These are our countrymen covered in blood and mourning in the sooty rubble. This is a perpetually unfolding tragedy which brings us to tears because we can find no way to make the killing stop. This is our history crumbled in the ashes

 Do anglophone medievalists really consider African books more important than African people, Syrian ruins abandoned for centuries more valuable than Syrian homes shelled into ruins in the last few weeks? Do they even know about the destruction of medieval and bronze-age sites in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and elsewhere? Press reports have warned that Timbuktu’s manuscripts were in peril since the city’s capture in 2011. Aside from a few touching editorials, nothing has been done. Nothing. No nation acted to save these books, or the cities of Aleppo and Palmyra and Antioch, just as few protest when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia bulldozes historical sites in Mecca and Medina to make way for more hotels and erases the rich Sufi heritage oftheir own landscape. And no national or international organization of medievalists, literary scholars, or historians has issued a statement demanding protection for these treasures. To be fair, budget-driven threats to western medieval studies usually elicit little more than ineffectual internet petitions. Online protests failed to halt the closure of center for Renaissance & Baroque studies at the University of Maryland in 2010, or reverse the University of London’s decision to fire David Ganz, the only chair of Paleography in the UK, but ended the sale of historical books from the Hanseatic City of Stralsund, a UNESCO world heritage site. The outcome is not yet known for petitions to protect the Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies and prevent the sale of their archive, to prevent the relocation of Old Master paintings in Berlin, or prevent further damage to the Armenian cathedral at Mren

 This is our own orientalism. When someone defecates in a library and then tries to burn it down, as happened at the University of Missouri last year, or floods and fires destroy libraries, we shrug and assume we could have done nothing to prevent these losses. Yet when men motivated by patriotism or piety sacrifice a library or a mausoleum in Africa or the Near East, we assume citizens should have acted, marking anyone who failed to stop this destruction as an incomprehensible other. Each affective response increases the likelihood of more manuscript losses in our own libraries, and on the shifting front lines of revolutionary wars in Africa and Asia. So weep and lament for the lost tomes of Timbuktu, the ruined fortress of Aleppo, the shrines effaced from the Hijaz, the medieval cities endangered in Yemen, but do not forget the thousands of books and manuscripts lost in Europe and North America. Medievalists must confront our own orientalism and then take action to protect what we all care about: human lives, human history, medieval heritage. At the very least, we should bring the same critical tools which inform our own academic work to our reading of current events. But our academic business is education and disputation. If you are moved by threats to medieval artifacts, then demand that your government and your professional organizations move to stop that destruction. Saving the manuscripts will not provide shelter for the homeless, medicine for the wounded, or heal the deep psychological trauma of war, but it may introduce political stability. Because we value the material remains of the medieval past, we must also seek to protect civilians who live alongside these “treasures.” Their destruction is only “inevitable” if we continue to assume that it is.

6 comments:

Eileen Joy said...

Amazing and much-needed post. I agree with all of it.

Historian on the Edge said...

Certainly amazing...

whatnot said...

what a rant!

Jennifer Lynn Jordan said...

Thank you for a wonderful guest post, and an incredibly important one.

Ibnu'l-Azad said...

If it weren't for double standards, many Americans--even highly educated ones--would have no standards at all.

Anna said...

This is so important and eloquent. Thank you!