What Is Left of History

It is said that one doesn’t fully appreciate what one has until it is gone.  But what happens if that priced possession is history itself?

A story reread throughout the ages. A memory inherited to younger generations.  A piece of solid rock defying the ruthlessness of nature.  Traditions withstanding the test of time.  These are the building blocks of our past, our history, which interwoven with the history of others, blends into becoming the history of humankind.  A story not only to be passed along, but a tale used as a guide for the future.

But when the stories are no longer to be found in books, memories slowly fading away, structures brought crumbling down and traditions forgotten, what is left of history?

When our past is altered and disfigured, torn apart beyond recognition, prevented from living on in our books and thus dying with the people who took part in its making, no matter how beautiful, how shameful, how disturbing it may be.  When our history becomes a canvas on which anyone may paint and repaint over to their heart’s content, ignoring the sanctity of those who first took the brush of sacrifices to paint their hopes and dreams.  When our history becomes a tale gossiped around coffee tables, where poetic license allows each story-teller to add along to the tale as they please.  Then, nothing is left of our history.

There was a time when the world was divided into the Old World and the New World.  An Old World whose history was already set in stone, jealous of the discovery of a New World whose story was only then being written. What was then the New World has been and will always be jealous of that Old World whose long and entrenched history the New World will never be able to make for itself.  Yet today, parts of that ancient Old World sometimes seems on a mission to reinvent itself into the newer, forged and artificial world that some, for a variety of reasons, want it to be.

I see this when I revisit the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001. Altering history by destroying one of the oldest examples of Buddhist art, pretending they were never there, erasing their existence.  The Taleban destroying traces of pre-Islamic heritage they believe is of no value to further their narrow and anachronistic goals, representing an inconvenient reminder that their country’s history is more tolerant than they make it to be.  As if history is a matter of convenience. What is left of history if the only history they have is the one the fundamentalists allow to survive?

I see this when I walk the streets of Beirut.  Altering history by physically rebuilding a battered capital but destroying its very essence, a city losing its character as a melting pot of people, of sights, sounds, smells and tastes, only to cater to the rich and the famous [1]. The political class, often colluding with the business class, exploiting the city’s treasures to further their own narrow interests, the riches of the Old World of no added value to their already ill-gotten wealth.  As if it weren’t enough that Lebanon is unable to write a history book, where at least some of its past mistakes would be recorded to avoid committing them again.  What is left of history if the only history they have is the one the wild capitalist greed and corrupt and murderous politicians allow to survive?

I feel this when reading anecdotal evidence of events in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Altering history by destroying pre-Islamic Christian vestiges and churches in Iran and suppressing history by denying the existence of any such ruins or prohibiting their investigation in Saudi Arabia. The interests of those in power attempting to erase heritage belonging to the heritage of humanity, regardless of what creed it belongs to, that is of no value to further their narrow and anachronistic goals, representing an inconvenient reminder that their country’s history is more diverse than they make it to be.  As if history is a matter of convenience. What is left of their history if the only history they have is the one the fundamentalists allow to survive?

Forging individual histories leads to the altering of the history of the world itself. And there are many reasons to do so, ranging from the political, financial, religious, or a lethal mix of all three, condoned by those who have the means to enforce and see the forging through.

It is those who do not understand that history is more than a story but a bond amongst people…or maybe they do not want to keep this bond alive.  Those who fail to realize that a country with no history is sad, but a country with an altered history is nothing but a stage for an impending battle…or they are indifferent to the illusive peace they are living in so long as their worldly interests are met.  Those who haven’t learned from history and the lessons it imparts…or they simply refuse to learn and acknowledge that there can be a history different to their own.  Those who think that their actions will prevent history from judging them because there will be no other history than their own, which may sadly happen if they carry on with what they are doing.

Whether appreciated or not, when part of history is gone, part of it replaced, part of it destroyed, there is no use in crying over its loss; because it is gone never to be replaced again. Once they, we, learn to live with our history, embrace it as part of our own, use it as a lesson to be learned, not an excuse to cause further damage, then we will truly be worth our history and our place in the chronicle of human existence.  Otherwise, it may well be just forgotten, kept under ground for someone else to unearth and appreciate, or better yet, simply destroyed, for those who destroy are not worthy of learning the lessons that history has left behind for them…

[1] Solidere, a private company founded by late PM Rafik Hariri, was officially tasked to rebuild downtown Beirut after the 1975-1990 war. Solidere’s political backing provided it with the ability to evict owners without proper compensation, encroach on public property and destroy or build over archaeological ruins dating thousands of years.

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