The Destruction of Memory

Destroying a shrine in Timbuktu, 2012.

Destroying a shrine in Timbuktu, 2012. Photo via The Telegraph, India.

The rebels had fled, but before they left they had destroyed a precious archive. The world gasped in dismay as the mayor of Timbuktu announced that a library recently built to hold Timbuktu’s historic manuscripts had burnt to the ground.

At the time the Mayor did not know that while some historic manuscripts were now a pile of ashes, most had been saved. Yet these manuscripts were not the only physical reminders of a rich culture that were destroyed.  During their ten months ruling Timbuktu the rebels destroyed most of the city’s Sufi shrines. It was no accident.

The deliberate targeting and destruction of culturally significant items occurs too often. In our life time we have witnessed the detonation of the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001. In 1992 the heart of the cultural heritage of Bosnia was destroyed when the library in Sarajevo was subjected to the artillery fire of Serbian troops who were encircling the city. The deliberate nature of the attack was evident when snipers shot at firemen trying to save the library.

Director of 'The Destruction of Memory', Tim Slade.

Director of ‘The Destruction of Memory’, Tim Slade.

Director, Tim Slade is working on a documentary which he hopes will help people understand the serious nature of this ‘war against culture’.

“The killing of people and the killing of books and buildings are intimately and inextricably related”, states Slade. Referring to Raphael Lemkin, the man who helped to create the UN Convention Against Genocide, Slade observes, “Lemkin saw that it can be difficult to wipe out an entire people, but a group can be annihilated if their identity and culture has been erased.”

Slade has conducted interviews of people who have spent their lives seeking justice for the cultural destruction in Mali, Bosnia, Syria and Iraq. A bibliographer, a prosecutor, a heritage officer and many others in his documentary share their experiences and the importance of this work.

Robert Bevan’s book, The Destruction of Memory, inspired Slade to make the documentary. His passion about this issue is evident in his email to me:

“The book was a wake-up call”, Slade wrote. “I was riveted, and horrified, and energized all at the same time. I knew that the message the book carried had to be transmitted more broadly, to wider audiences, and that making a documentary film based on the book would take Robert’s words into a visual realm, and allow people to SEE and to HEAR and to FEEL the issue.”

A post on the website of the Australian Society of Archivists alerted me to this documentary. Archivists, librarians, historians and curators at museums by the nature of their work are naturally passionate about this issue. We see the consequences of cultural destruction in the past and the terrible consequences it has for people today who are robbed of their cultural moorings.

I also have a more personal reason behind my concern about this issue. Back in 2004 I was working as a public information officer for the Australian Baha’i Community. The Baha’is in Iran are the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the country but they are banned from entering university, from government employment and are vilified in government-sanctioned media.

Under destruction...the houselike structure marking the resting place of Quddus, Babol, Iran, April 2004. Photo from Baha'i World News Service.

Under destruction…the houselike structure marking the resting place of Quddus, Babol, Iran, April 2004. Photo from Baha’i World News Service.

My task was to keep Australians informed about the seriousness of the situation. In 2004 historic buildings associated with the Baha’i Faith were being destroyed.  These acts were clearly part of a systematic effort to expunge the religion and its culture from Iran. The Baha’is in the west placed full-page advertisements in national newspapers to alert as many people as possible about the seriousness of the situation. The statement in the newspapers read in part:

In their determination to rid Iran of the Baha’i community and obliterate its very memory, the fundamentalists in power are prepared even to destroy the cultural heritage of their own country, which they appear not to realize they hold in trust for humankind…”

Quoted in ‘Baha’is Decry Cultural Cleansing in Iran’,
Baha’i World News Service, 12/9/2004

Sadly, this pattern continues in Iran today with the widespread desecration of Baha’i cemeteries.

The destruction of precious Islamic documents in Mali, the detonation of the statues of Buddha in Afghanistan, and the burning of synagogues on Kristallnacht is a loss to everyone in the world, even though they may not have the same beliefs or ethnic background as the communities who produced these artefacts.

It diminishes all of us, but those communities who are the target of this destruction are at great risk of something worse. Violence against property can easily lead to physical harm to people. Back in 2004 I did not have any reports of physical attacks on Baha’is to report. Ten years later I look at the latest summary of the persecution and see reports of stabbings and the murder of a Baha’i that still has not been investigated by the Iranian authorities.

‘The Destruction of Memory’ documentary addresses a very important issue. Archivists, historians, librarians, curators and anyone who understands history will immediately grasp the enormity of this issue. We need to do everything we can to support the completion of this documentary.

Please support ‘The Destruction of Memory’ project in the final stages of filming by donating money to the Indiegogo fundraising campaign. It ends at 7pm AEDST on Sunday 18th January (or 11:59pm PT on 17 January 17, 2015 for those on the US west coast).

Spread the word about ‘The Destruction of Memory’ on Twitter. Tim Slade’s handle is @sladetimnyc. Check out ‘The Destruction of Memory’ Facebook page and keep an eye on ‘The Destruction of Memory’ website for the release date of the documentary and screenings.


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