Their Vandalism and Ours!
By Shoaib Hashmi


In the honored tradition of inventing impressive terminology, they have begun calling it the 'Built Heritage'. And being 'heritage' it is, by definition, not to be mucked around with. The trouble is that the other tradition of vandalizing what the ancestors have put together, is even older. At least as old as the pyramids! All of them were mucked around with within years of being built. The Greek and Roman visitors carved graffiti which is still there, and eventually when the caliph Mamoon Al Rashid came, he started digging into the Great Pyramid of 'Khufu' to get at the treasure there. He didn't find any, but the handiwork is still called 'Mamoon's Hole'!
Before you start beating your breast at us unfeeling Orientals, with no respect for patrimony, let me put your mind at rest and tell you that the civilized Westerners have been as prone to vandalism as the next man. The great museums of the West, the repositories of history, and ceaseless lecturers on the lack of conservative spirit in the East, are chock-full of treasures stolen, filched, pilfered or thieved from the same East!
Not only does the British Royal Family, and Government, still hang on to the Koh-i-Noor diamond, but the venerable British Museum sits on its propriety when confronted with the fact that Lord Elgin simply plucked the wonderful sculptures from off the frieze of the Parthenon, and carted them home. They are only beginning to even admit that the revered Howard Carter, and his mentor Lord Carnarvon -- makers of the greatest discovery in Egyptology, the intact tomb of Tutankhamun -- also sneaked into the same tomb at night to steal choice pieces and take them home!
If you are going to quibble that these were artifacts and we were talking of the 'Built Heritage', let me remind you that the Brits pulled down the wonderful 'Taxali Gate' of Lahore, then their local resident vandalized and razed buildings inside the Fort to make a tennis court for himself. Meantime their viceroy was renting out the Taj Mahal in Agra to newly married nephews and nieces for their honeymoon!
In Germany Schlieman put them on to a good thing by discovering the treasures of Troy and Knossos, and they took it to heart. Eventually they uprooted first the Altar, then the whole temple of Pergamon and took it home to house in a museum in Berlin. And then there is the venerable Springer! His name is famous for the 'Springer Manuscript' which is the only copy of the Urdu verses of Amir Khusrau that had never been published until Gopi Chand Narang managed it recently -- because the venerable Springer simply pocketed the papers and went home, although that is hardly mentioned!
And hard on the heels of Carter and Carnarvon came the Americans, who dug up a whole Egyptian temple and took it to New York. The usual rejoinder to such accusations is that at least the stuff was preserved and cherished, and now sits in the weather-controlled and air-conditioned luxury of London and New York. That does not change the fact that the cherishing came later, and what came first was the shameless thievery and pilferage and vandalism!
All this has been on the mind because of a peculiar thing which has been happening. As you know some time ago the PHA took a good thing one step further and created a third 'Food Street', namely the street that runs from the site of Taxali Gate, past the Badshahi Mosque and the street of the courtesans. They paved it and lit it and spruced it up despite the fact that there was only one eating-place. That seems to have generated a new and peculiar inspiration.
First our friendly World Banker from Islamabad bought up the house next to 'Cuckoo's'. It was four rooms stacked one on top of another with a narrow staircase squeezed into the neighbor's wall. Now half a dozen others are wanting to buy up more houses; and another friendly hotel chain has its eyes on five or six 'havelis'. They are all being encouraged and lauded and lionized by conservationists because all have piously promised to conserve the places. I do not doubt their intentions for a moment. I have other things on the mind!
When we say, 'Lahore, Lahore Aye' we are not talking of the hovels which jostle each other inside the Walled City -- we are talking of the people! It is the people of Lahore, friendly and hospitable and full of life who fill the place with muck and garbage, but also with vibrancy and with joy, who make it what it is! And if well-meaning people buy up all their houses and 'conserve' them, the people will have gone elsewhere!
I hate to be a killjoy, but I have been thinking of something someone once said about the Romans in their quest for bringing the Roman Peace to the world, "They make a desert, and call it Peace"!!!


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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