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Photo: Achilleas Zavallis
Will these ancient, mudbrick, high-rise buildings survive the war in Yemen?

When I read fantasies to grandchildren, I explain that although passing through a wardrobe into another reality is not true, the feelings of the characters and the challenges they confront are. In fact, sometimes the issues of our world are made clearer through a fantasy lens.

Some fantasies I read just for my own pleasure. Having just finished Book Two of Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust, I’m thinking about the way selfish monetary interests fuel the real world’s endless Middle East wars. In Pullman’s trilogy, a certain rose oil from the region of the old Silk Road has been found to have priceless properties, and behind-the-scenes power brokers are focused on trying to control it. Rose oil is a stand-in for whatever countries in the real world try to control, frequently another kind of oil.

One of the fiercest Middle East wars wars today is being fought in the small country of Yemen, and the report below is about amazing cultural sites we might not have heard about but for this disaster. I hope that spreading stories about the risks for civilians and cultural treasures will lead to more people demanding peace.

Bethan McKernan writes at the Guardian, “On the edge of the vast Empty Quarter desert that dominates the Arabian peninsula, white and brown towers rise together out of the valley floor like tall sandcastles. Once they welcomed weary caravans traversing the Silk Roads: now they stand as testimony to the ingenuity of a lost civilisation.

“This is the ancient walled city of Shibam, nicknamed the ‘Manhattan of the desert’ by the British explorer Freya Stark in the 1930s, in modern-day Yemen, a country also home to an untold number of other archeological treasures. The kingdom of Saba, ruled by the legendary Queen of Sheba, and many other dynasties of the ancient world rose and fell here, their fortunes linked to Yemen’s position at the crossroads of early frankincense and spice trades between Africa and Asia.

“Today, as a result of Yemen’s complex civil war – now in its fifth year – many of the country’s wonders have been damaged or are under threat. While the destruction pales in comparison to the human cost of the conflict, the country’s rich cultural heritage has also been ravaged. …

“Shibam, a 1,700-year-old settlement in the valley of Hadramawt, has largely escaped direct violence, but is still suffering from years of neglect, despite being a Unesco world heritage site.

“Named for King Shibam Bin Harith Ibn Saba, it is one of the oldest – and still one of the best – examples of vertical construction in the world. In the 16th century, Shibam’s inhabitants found they had run out of space to expand. To compensate, they began to build carefully on a rectangular street grid, and instead of spreading out, they built up …

“The city’s 3,000 residents still largely follow the traditional living pattern, with in some cases up to 40 family members in the same tower. Animals and tools are kept on the ground floor and food is stored on the second. Elderly people live on the third and the fourth is used for entertaining. Higher levels are occupied by more nimble families, with childless newlyweds on the roof. …

“Shibam is largely self-sustaining: its farmers and shopkeepers cater to the small population and many men are employed baking the straw and mud bricks used in construction. As in many Yemeni cities, goats and chickens roam the streets.

“ ‘Lots of young people have left,’ said Ali Abdullah, 28, who was looking after his family’s goats along with his 10-year-old brother, Majid.

‘Shibam is beautiful but there is no reliable money to make here unless they start preserving the buildings again.’ …

“Since Yemen’s Arab Spring revolt in 2011, funding to help preserve the city has dried up, as has the once steady flow of tourists, said Salim Rubiyah, the head of the local association responsible for looking after the public buildings inside Shibam’s walls. …

“Said Rubiyah, ‘I worry that this will be the last generation who are able to make a life here and appreciate the city’s beauty.’

“Elsewhere in Yemen, the story repeats itself. … In Sana’a, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, ancient sites have been razed by Saudi-led coalition bombing [paid for, sadly, by the US]. … Despite Unesco having provided the coalition with a no-strike list of historical sites when the campaign began in 2015, sites such as the Castle of Taiz have been targeted, as well as the Dhamar Museum.

“ ‘We are nervous about the politicisation of heritage and the militarisation of archaeology during the conflict,’ said Sama’a al-Hamdani, director of the Yemen Cultural Institute for Heritage and the Arts. … ‘You can’t be the destroyer and the saviour at the same time.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Catskill Mountain Foundation
Catskill Mountain Foundation’s Doctorow Center for the Arts provides cultural opportunities in a rural area.

The arts are important everywhere, not just in cities. But sometimes it’s a challenge to attract to rural areas the kind of philanthropy that keeps urban cultural institutions alive.

Through the lens of a rural New York foundation, Mike Scutari of Inside Philanthropy considers the issue.

“In 1998, [Peter and Sarah Finn] founded the Hunter, New York-based Catskill Mountain Foundation, an organization committed to transforming rural communities through the arts. …

“The genesis of the CMF dates back to the early 1990s, when the Finns took over a family property in the town of Hunter. ‘The community had gone through a long decline,’ Peter said, and ‘many buildings on Main Street were for sale, and some buildings were in a serious state of disrepair and collapsing.’ …

“Peter and Sarah grew up in families that were very involved with the arts and had read stories about communities that were transformed through arts-based economic revitalization. …

“In 2018, the CMF will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Its program offerings include over 20 performances and 200 films a year, artist residencies, education programs, a piano performance museum, gallery and bookstore, and, for good measure, an operating farm.

“Its success is all the more startling when you realize that Hunter, New York has 2,732 residents.

“The problems facing rural communities are deep and complex. Yet we generally don’t see rural areas receive a proportionate amount of support from large institutional funders. … Funders, quite understandably, want the most bang for their buck, and more people live in urban areas. …

“Finn’s smaller-is-more-impactful approach flips conventional wisdom on its head: Funders can move the dial more effectively by operating in more concentrated communities. …

“[One] important form of engagement is ‘attracting others to invest in the community. Others who have invested significant amounts into the community have stated outright that they were inspired to do so by the work of the Catskill Mountain Foundation.’ …

” ‘Historically,’ Finn said, ‘the Town of Hunter was once known as a bar town. Today, it is known as a family arts community.’ ”

Read more at Inside Philanthropy, here.

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