On Palmyra and pre-Islamic history

Friday 17/07/2015

Adding insult to injury, terrorists, acting as judges and executioners, selected the magnificent ancient theatre of Palmyra to serve as the backdrop for a mass execution. A marvel of architec­ture and culture, the theatre was defaced in the name of Islam by the black and white banner of these pseudo-judges and executioners. What a joke! What blasphemy! What an unforgiv­able outrage!
The theatre of Palmyra stands witness to the splendours produced by Syrian humanity in pursuit of a pure and glorious future. At Palmyra, one comes across the ghosts of Queen Zenobia and her husband Odaenathus and of all those who, by the sweat of their brows and their genius, developed a rich and nourishing culture.
The designers and builders of Palmyra’s magnificent theatre in the second century of the Christian era wanted it to be a sanctuary filled with hymns to life. And here it is now being desecrated by idolaters of death and soiled by the blood of innocent victims.
Of course, I have not forgotten the cruelty from another barbarous era when fanatic emperors ordered those who did not share their creeds be thrown to the lions in arenas all over the empire. But as I contemplated with great sadness the picture of the recent execution by Islamic State (ISIS) fanatics of 25 Syrian soldiers, I could not help thinking of our own Tunisian environment as a Muslim country that had seen flourish a multitude of materially and culturally rich civilisations.
Of these eras, we have only a few fossilised souvenirs. The populations of those countries that share the Arabic characteristic, without really knowing what it is and therefore unable to enrich it, live in environments adverse to knowing the other in general and especially knowing the details about him/her.
But let us stay within the confines of Tunisia. In our schools, we do not lift a finger to come to terms with our pre- Islamic past. Our history manuals do indeed cover Carthage and the Romans but in terms without soul or taste to make an impact. The Tunisian citizen has yet to own his/her history and heritage from pre-Islamic times.
Clinging to an established orthodoxy, our historians gladly apply the term “conquest” to the Roman period, for example, but will shun using it when it comes to the Arab period. The arrival of Arab conquerors in Tunisia is often seen as liberation. Referring to it as a conquest will often expose you to protest in the strongest terms. No wonder then that we are sluggish in protecting a part of our heritage that remains distant on the intellectual level as well as the affective dimension.
In our elementary and secondary schools, nothing is done to make our youth feel materially and emotionally connected to their country’s pre-Islamic past. The great civilisations of Mesopotamia, of Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Egypt and the Maghreb countries are the loci of interest and study by the “other” so that it ends up the other’s civilisations being enriched and fertilised.
Struck with amnesia and carelessness, the people of the Arab countries could care not less, and, in this domain, their contribution remains negligible if not totally absent.
For them, pre-Islamic civilisations are “pagan cultures” unworthy of attention. The remains of ancient cities are inhabited by demons and attract only infidels.
We hear of fatwas for lifting the protection and even for the desecration and pillaging of pre-Islamic historical sites. The sites of Carthage have long suffered, and continue to suffer, from such attitudes and acts, which prompted UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, to, once again, raise the alarm flag.
For some, archaeological sites are no more than physical assets to be used for profit by the lucrative tourist industry.
So long as the peoples of Arab and Muslim countries remain indifferent or even, frankly, negative towards their pre-Islamic heritage, the way to durable development and constructive modernity will forever elude them. The monstrosity that soiled the theatre at Palmyra is frightening and painfully raises the question of culture in the whole of the Arab world.
Bringing down icons and wiping out the past are being legitimised in our schools and media. We must remain vigilant and act to reverse the trend.