Looting Palestine’s cultural heritage

Looting Palestine’s cultural heritage

Arab obituary writers had a field day recently composing retrospectives about Ariel Sharon’s long and brutal career as a war criminal. But the man had done more than massacre Palestinians and encourage Jewish colonization of their land. He was also a ruthless plunderer who was behind the looting of their archival heritage; an act intended to rob an exiled and occupied people of their past, their culture and their national identity. And to rob a people of their heritage is to reduce them to a fragment of their humanity.
Let’s backtrack to Sept. 14, 1982, when Sharon’s troops entered Beirut (after a long siege and after PLO fighters had evacuated the city) with calculatedly specific orders to loot the Palestine Research Institute. The orders he had given were clear: Haul away and truck to Israel the entire archives to be found there. I was in Beirut at the time — ironically, there to draw on the resources of the Institute for a book that year — and can attest, if only after the fact, to the devastation inflicted on the place.
The Palestine Research Institute had 25,000 priceless volumes in several languages, the world’s largest collection of ancient manuscripts on Palestine, maps dating back to the 12th century, calligraphic compositions, microfilms and other irreplaceable items.
Israeli soldiers busied themselves in the seven-story building for a whole week — and not just carting away, and effectively obliterating, the recorded memory of Palestine. They smashed filing cabinets, desks and other furniture and, as if in a display of mean-spiritedness, even made off with telephones, heating equipment and stationery. For good measure, they also blew up the office safe, presumably to inspect its contents.
They left the place littered with broken bookcases, twisted metal shelves and other office debris. And since the non-profit Institute was partially funded by the PLO, these soldiers made sure that, before finally leaving with the last of their booty, they removed the word “Palestine” from a sign carrying the PLO name that was mounted outside the building. (Does our name scare these folks that much?)
The whole episode was crushing for the Institute’s director, Sabri Jiryis, then 46, an academic who had grown up as an “Israeli-Arab,” to whom this repository of Palestinian culture was all he dedicated his life to. But it was equally crushing for all of us at the time — for all Palestinians, for all Arabs, indeed for all men and men around the world who cared about the life of the mind, men and women who knew that to preserve and protect other people’s archival history is to preserve and protect all humanity’s archival history. Ever since the dawn of man, there has been a global dialogue of cultures, with people everywhere lending and borrowing ideas from each other, whether these ideas related to literature or science, mathematics or technology, astronomy or architecture, storytelling or music.
True, no one — certainly no one in our part of the world — will ever forgive or forget the savageries Ariel Sharon has committed against Arabs in his long, despicable career as a war criminal, but I for one, carrying still, after all these years, the memory of what he had his soldiers so vindictively do to the Palestine Research Institute in Beirut over three decades ago, will never, ever forgive and forget.
The theft of another people’s heritage, including their art and antiquities, is often tolerated because it is considered a victimless crime. After all, the argument goes, we’re not talking here about, say, 254 bodies thrown in the well in Deir Yassein in April 1948, or about hand grenades lobbed by soldiers from Unit 101 into homes in Qibya that killed 69 villagers in October 1953, or about hundreds (perhaps thousands) of unarmed refugees in Sabra and Shatila massacred in cold blood in September 1982, are we?
But wait. The effusions of our culture are of monumental significance to us, whatever society we belong to. These effusions never fail to strike a visceral chord in all of us. They document our collective being, our inherited archetype and our shared memories. Thus what these Israeli soldiers did that day was to steal from us more than books and manuscripts and beautiful calligraphy and resonant poetry composed by our ancestors. They stole our identity. They stole our history.
Sharon did that to us in 1982. So when I damn the man in my prayers, wishing him an exalted place in everlasting hell, I will do so because he was not satisfied to just kill Palestinians in body, ravaging their home and homeland. He wanted to kill their soul as well. A more evil man has never lived in the second half of the 20th century.
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