Workshop Heritage politics and calamities: cases from the Middle East

Destroyed city in Syria
Syria's City of Homs
Ali Wannous

On December 12th and 13nd Dick Douwes and Mohamad Meqdad organised a workshop on Heritage Politics and Calamities in the Middle East. In countries of the Middle East, heritage in all its forms have experienced calamities, whether man-made or natural. 

Religious historical sites, such as mosques, churches and shrines, were targeted due to the state and civil violence. Entire old neighbourhoods were, and continue to be, severely damaged, if not obliterated, like in Gaza. Natural disasters, such as the massive earthquakes earlier this year in Turkey and Syria, wiped out ancient buildings that play a vital role for local communities and their diasporas. Hence, violence and displacement of people erupt, often in large numbers, forming new diasporas that subsequently join the previous waves of immigration in traditional refuge destinations such as Europe and the Americas. Although these diasporas remain highly influential economic players in their home countries, their participation and input as stakeholders in their homeland’s heritage are often overlooked.

Under the shock of every disaster, heritage conferences, meetings, and programmes held and mainly focused on emergency responses and capacity building. However, little room is often left to critically reflect on heritage as one of the sociocultural components of its modern communities, similar to identity, gender, class, religious orientation and citizenship, that may affect the methods of mitigating these disasters.

The two-day conference aimed to critically problematise the connections between heritage and its stakeholders by examining the dichotomy of preservation/destruction in the context of calamities, tensions between local communities, refugees, cross-border communities, states and international organisations, such as UNESCO, and the frequently clashing notions of formal and non-formal heritage. Participants in the workshop were either scholars from the region or had family connections in the Middle East, including the large Brazilian diaspora. Gladly, we were joined by academics and researchers who specialised in the area and conducted extensive studies about its communities. A considerable room was left to invite the younger generation of researchers and PhD candidates to share their works and exchange knowledge about their innovative approaches and methods of studying and preserving the heritage of Middle Eastern communities. A few colleagues of the EUR were invited as guests to join us and share their knowledge and experiences.  

Dick Douwes: "To promote cross-generational collegiality and encourage freedom of speech in a secure and safe environment, we opted for a closed workshop style. We learned a great deal about the challenges that face the heritage sector in this region, we saw first-hand experiences of the calamities witnessed by the local communities, and we agreed to collectively work towards turning our scholarly endeavours into actions to help. Our next step will be to formulate innovative research proposals to be discussed in a later meeting in the region and to explore how we can create a bigger social impact. We promise to keep you posted!"


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