April 6, 2006

Preserving Jeddha’s past

Posted at 9:26 pm in Similar cases

In recent years, the historic central district has fallen into a state of disrepair. Buildings are being torn down & replaced with little thought about preserving this part of the history of the city. At the end of the day a lot of the responsibility for the problem seems to rest with the municipality that is supposed to look after this district.
The author of this article puts forward the idea that possibly others appreciate the culture more than the people who see it every day – he highlights the issue discussed in the New York Times recently, where museums from other countries had worked together with local groups to protect cultures from damage. Unfortunately for Jeddah though, their case does not to me appear to require outside support in the way of those discussed in the article – for instance, it is not at risk through being in a war zone or occupied territory. Furthermore, while many countries cannot afford to preserve their own cultural remains, I find it hard to believe that such a problem could exist in a country as wealthy as Saudi Arabia.
The problem that exists here, while related to others that are discussed is one that needs to be dealt with from within. People must be made to think about how they would like this area to be preserved – why they would like to keep it & must have the motivation to do so. If they followed the path of getting others to help, there is likely to be more anguish in the future, when people decide that the want to re-manage the area themselves & have to fight to regain control of it once more. At the end of the day if someone wants to destroy their own culture, should they be stopped? Who is to say that in their mind the destruction of the culture is equally important to the preservation of it in the mind of others?

Arab News

Thursday, 6, April, 2006 (07, Rabi` al-Awwal, 1427)
It Is High Time We Thought of a Plan to Save Jeddah’s Old Buildings
Abeer Mishkhas

The Saudi newspaper, Al-Madinah, recently carried an interesting article on the problems facing Jeddah’s downtown historic district.

The article featured a range of opinions on how best to preserve the district’s old buildings. Many buildings in the area are several hundred years old, but one casual stroll will show that they may well not survive much longer given present conditions.

Jeddah’s historic district is possibly the only part of the district all of us are proud of. For our parents and grandparents the area naturally means a great deal — the houses they lived in, the alleys they played in, the schools they studied in and the mosques they prayed in are all part of collective memory and history.

The buildings now are in terrible condition and the blame is constantly being tossed from one department to another. Al-Madinah said that most of the buildings are lived in by foreigners who work in Bab Makkah; the others are used as storehouses or shops. One can imagine that under such circumstances safety measures are non-existent. First of all, for very old buildings that are poorly maintained, it is not right that they be used for commercial purposes.

The report adds that in some cases the owners tore old buildings down and built new ones in their places; in other cases, they simply built new structures on top of existing buildings. To be fair, the article does go on to say that some of the old buildings have been lucky and have been taken care of and preserved. This number, however, is a small one in comparison to the others.

One man who lives in the area said that he had been living there for 37 years and was very proud that the houses there were still strong and still accommodating people. Indeed! The houses are well built and strong — our ancestors knew about these things better than some builders today; We must ask how long any structure can last without regular and careful maintenance.

The man admits that some houses have collapsed and some have burned down — and this is exactly the problem. Things are being left to deteriorate while we stand idly looking on, doing nothing to save our architectural heritage.

Civil defense officials have their point; they say that houses that are beyond repair in hard-to-reach areas should be pulled down since they are a danger to the public. Well, why were they allowed to get in that condition without something being done? Who is in charge of preservation?

Sami Nawar, the man in charge of the historic district, says that none of the buildings collapsed simply because of old age; he maintains they were either deliberately knocked down or burned down. He is the first to point out that some owners do not take care of their property and that some do not follow the most basic rules of fire-prevention. At the same time, Nawar refuses outright to consider knocking down houses; he says that the number of houses that pose a danger are very few and that the municipality has taken care of them.

At this point, I stopped reading and I daresay most readers will understand why: We are being fed both contradiction and denial. If the municipality has taken care of the houses, then I am sure we won’t hear any other tales of problems in the district. The fact remains that this is simply not true and all we have to do to see that it is not true is to go and have a look. The municipality’s job is not only to preserve the houses that are on the point of collapse but also to make sure the people living in them do not endanger them and make their condition worse. It may be relatively easy to take care of bricks and mortar, but there is also the responsibility for maintaining order and safety and to leave the occupants of those buildings to their own devices is wrong. Allowing owners to add floors or convert the premises into shops or, as in one case, to install a heavy water tank on an old roof that resulted in the building’s collapsing is not right either. Something has to be done and done quickly; a good beginning would be to admit that everybody is involved and so all parties should sit and work out a solution. They should also make some laws and see that the mechanism exists for enforcing and implementing them.

A short time ago the New York Times carried a whole section on museums and antiquities.

One of the articles was a round-table discussion about the ownership of, and responsibility for, antiques and art. The article said that some countries had decided to lend pieces of their art for a specified time in return for help in cataloging and maintenance.

I do not know if that would be a solution for us but I hope that we can do our job without lending our antiques to other countries, even temporarily. Whatever we may feel, those countries at least understand what a piece of history is. Just look at all the Islamic and Arabic art in the British Museum. On a smaller scale, consider the pieces of the Hijaz Railway and the old wooden door that T.E. Lawrence took from Jeddah. Today they are well preserved and well looked after in England and many people can see and learn from them. Would the same be true if they were still in the Kingdom?

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