Newspaper publishedMiddle East EyeThe British published an article by writer and historian “Rosie Bashir”, in which she talked about a summary of research work that included frequent visits to Saudi Arabia.
Bashir concluded that the Saudi state is working “seriously” to shed itself from the historical heritage that is inconsistent with the image it wants to paint for itself.
Bashir talked about exciting, rich, but muffled, restricted, and possibly destructive aspects of Saudi Arabia’s rich cultural history, including the heritage of Mecca and the Hijaz region, which over centuries has attracted cultures from all over the world.
Recently, the author published a book entitled: “Archival Wars: The Politics of History in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” in which she reviews the most prominent features.
The full text of the article follows, as translated by “Arabi 21”:
In late 2009 I started traveling regularly from Riyadh to Makkah. I was in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to conduct research in archival, ethnographic and oral history on the production of history and memorial places in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during the twentieth century.
In addition to my research, I was visually documenting the spatial transformations that were taking place at the time in the center of the city of Mecca. With my small camera, I moved from one neighborhood to another, starting from the immediate vicinity of the Grand Mosque and ending in its suburbs, a few kilometers from the center.
Over the next three years, as I gained a good knowledge of the city full of people, I became passionate about the fragrant history of its various neighborhoods, its multilingual residents and the architecture that distinguishes it from others.
On one of my photography tours, I passed by a painting of a school that I had come across years ago, and only in passing, it is called the Solitary School. At the time, not much had been written about the school, especially in the Arab press. I soon learned that it was founded by a man from India, who was a scholar of religion and a fighter against colonialism, whose name was Rahmatullah Kernawi. This is because Al-Kernawi was forced to seek refuge in Mecca after he called in 1857 to break the British rule in India. In Makkah it had contact with many people and affected an entire generation of residents of the city, both socially and politically.
The research that was conducted later contributed to recording and documenting forgotten histories, or perhaps concealed, of activists and thinkers of non-Arab origins who came from South Asia and Indonesia and influenced various aspects of social, cultural and intellectual life in the late Ottoman and early Saudi era in Mecca.
The alumni of the Sawlaty school and other schools founded by thinkers and who responded to Mecca from Asia and Africa have contributed to the formation of intellectual, cultural, social and political life in the Arabian Peninsula and in other regions of the world.
As economists and literary critics, some of these graduates participated in the dialogue with the scholars of the Arab renaissance and entered into debates with them, and then later became involved in the tasks of state building after the First World War. Thanks to their hailing from different parts of the world, they also participated in drawing the features of Wahhabism as they are familiar to us today.
And some of them founded a number of the most prominent and famous schools, newspapers and political parties in the peninsula at the beginning of the twentieth century and participated in social and political life there for several decades. Among those considered to be students of Kernawi are Sharif Hussein bin Ali and the Mufti of Mecca Al-Hanafi Sheikh Abdullah Siraj, both of whom are credited with launching the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in 1916.
Although these various histories have recently begun to surface, they are too weak to represent a notch in the official (nationalist) historical narrative of the peninsula, let alone the modern Middle East.
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My book “Archives Wars: The Politics of History in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” begins with a historical review of a aspect of social, political and cultural life in Mecca at the end of the Ottoman period, with the aim of drawing features of a possible future that could have been realized but was not written for it. However, that history has left its mark on many aspects of life in our contemporary time.
A traveler in Mecca until the end of the first decade of the current millennium could still see faint traces of that possible future past. However, hardly any of these traces remain today, as they have all been erased. The book “Archive Wars” presents the organized methods adopted by the Saudi Arabian state, which was established in 1932, to close the door in educational curricula, museums, and archives to the narrative that the state does not endorse the history of this region.
The book goes on to explain how in the 1990s this lockdown gained new political and material significance. After the Gulf War in 1990-1991, history became an arena for conflict between competing cultural, political and economic claims, whether within the ruling elites or between them and the general population in the kingdom.
Then, after the war, the top of the hierarchy of power, despite the differences between them, went to the farthest reaches in order to produce, archive, immortalize and exploit a more secular narrative of the history of the House of Saud after they subjected it to review and revision.
And the most obvious thing is in Riyadh, where the state worked hard to establish a heritage industry that cost several billions of dollars, and included museums, archiving centers and historical sites.
The post-war plan also focused on the effective destruction, as well as the willful neglect, of certain historical sites and places as they contradict the official version of the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. These were mostly outside the capital, and mainly, though not exceptional, inside Mecca. Surveying the diverse and interconnected historical facts in the Arabian Peninsula has been an integral part of the cultural management of urban space. Visually, during my visits, I documented some of the massive destruction that the heart of Makkah was subjected to.
The first decade of the current millennium witnessed an accelerated demolition of sacred and historical sites in the heart of Makkah and the replacement of its over a thousand-year-old terrain with dominant steel and glass skyscrapers. By the end of that decade, the town center was like a continuous construction site.
Dozens of mixed-use buildings were under construction in the vicinity of the mosque, and urban and environmental chaos descended on the place. Cranes nearly blocked the horizon in the sky of the cradle of Islam, as smog clamped in his hands on the Grand Mosque, which is covered by millions of Muslim pilgrims every year.
Construction sites and heavy excavation equipment have become part of the general landscape of the city, and they themselves specify for pilgrims the narrow lanes that they have to walk through, as if it were a complex puzzle, in which pedestrians crowded with vehicles and buses, until traffic became a test of one’s ability to control one’s nerves (and to stick to the honor Moral). In these places it is impossible to find a place to park your car, not to mention the pollution and unbearable noise plaguing it.
The King Abdul Aziz Endowment Project, which overlooks the Grand Mosque, was still under construction, and it seemed clear that with the clock tower standing in its center blocking the sun from the south-west side from the mosque, so its rays would not reach it.
On the southern side is a deep pit extending over an area of three square kilometers. It is the site where the Shamiya project will be built. And this is precisely the site where the original Soultic school was first built.
Besides the Jabal Omar project, which was under construction to the west of the mosque, these huge projects acquired their names from the historical neighborhoods that were built on their ruins, which, since the Ottoman era, were home to some of the most important schools and cultural and political monuments in the region.
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These huge construction projects are also being built on the ruins of homes and shops where tens of thousands of residents of Mecca, from various social and economic classes, lived or worked, who were forced in the post-war years to evacuate their homes and leave. They were awarded meager compensation for the displacement, but they were left without legal basis to rely on.
Some of these people were re-settled in new settlements that were built on the far outskirts of the city, so that it became difficult for them to go to the center of Mecca to visit regularly. Some of them ended up in slums about a kilometer from the Grand Mosque, in a forest of skyscrapers. Behind the shiny facade and the promises made, lives a vibrant city with a very diverse urban composition, yet it is threatened with uprooting and dismemberment.
Therefore, it was not surprising that in 2010 – after most of the neighborhoods in the city center were removed – the Emir of Mecca, Prince Khalid bin Faisal, subjected Medina to an Arabization process, removing from all the streets and buildings the non-Arab names they had.
The features of Mecca that are not Arab (as well as non-Saudi) threaten the Saudi rulers, so they have erased it in parallel with the destruction of the material life of the city and the evidence of its diverse past and international history, whether religious or secular.
Together, these stand in the lookout for the historical allegations of the Al Saud family, allegations that justify the invasion of the Saudi family to various parts of the Arabian Peninsula under the pretext that the Ottomans as well as the local powers failed to modernize the peninsula and to save it from the “era of ignorance” in which they were so mired.
Pillars of the Modern State
These efforts to demolish the various histories of the peninsula are in stark contrast to the processes that are carried out meticulously to produce and preserve the history and legacy of the House of Saud in Riyadh. Yet, as I explain in my book, these everyday forms of bureaucratic violence are nothing but the pillars of the modern state and the self-claiming sovereignty.
Contemplating this allows us to grasp the volatile alliances and contradictions among members of the ruling elite, the countless battles they are waging, and the ways in which Saudi citizens resist, or find themselves against their will, in the midst of these conflicts, at a very high cost.
Like all modern countries, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is making great efforts to get rid of dates that do not conform to the national image that it wants to paint for itself, but rather it is leading others in that. There is no doubt that focusing on the context of these practices highlights the formation of the state and the competing forces at its core.
We cannot fully understand the manufacture of history and the establishment of the state in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – not to mention the social, cultural and political life in the peninsula – without realizing the various ways through which dates have been obliterated and then repackaged and produced in the service of the modern state.
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