Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Archaeology and the Arab Spring

An article in the Guardian featuring before and after pictures of Syrian monuments damaged by years of conflict has been making the rounds: on Sunday on Facebook, yesterday on the Agade mailing list (for scholars of the ancient Near Eastern and classical worlds).  It is simply the latest of a series of such articles published over the last couple of years; in fact, some of the pictures are recycled from a similar, much-circulated article from November 2013 (in PolicyMic, by Rachel Davidson).  These articles bring up a couple of significant issues.  One is the danger of sensationalism, present especially in the Davidson article.  From the title itself we are presented with exaggeration: “5 Historical Monuments Have Been Destroyed Forever During Syria’s Civil War”.  Upon reading the article, we discover that none of the monuments has been “destroyed”: while all have been damaged, some severely, they are all still standing (or, at least were at the time of writing) and could in theory be restored.  In fact, Davidson herself presents the problem in more sober terms within the text of the article (for instance, “five of the most significant sites and buildings that have been damaged or destroyed”).  We are also presented with slanted editorializing: “given Bashar al-Assad's willingness to ruthlessly slaughter tens of thousands of his own citizens, it's unlikely that he will show more respect for his country's historical monuments.”  In fact, given that the opposition forces have shown themselves to be just as willing to ruthlessly slaughter people, there is no need to lay the blame on one side only.  This is not meant as a defense of Assad, but simply as a statement of fact.  Even Davidson states elsewhere in the article that the two sides have been battling each other around some of these monuments.

But the circulation of a series of such articles by archaeologists and other academics leads to a more fundamental question: In all of these discussions of monuments and heritage, where are the people?

To let the question sink in, I’ll pause and ask it again: In all of these discussions of monuments and heritage, where are the people?  This is no frivolous question.  Syrian civilians continue to die daily at the hands of both sides.  The question particularly struck me since, on the same day as the Guardian article, various news reports also discussed the horrible and worsening situation in the Yarmouk camp/neighborhood of Damascus.  To some extent, we have seen the same lack of stated concern for ordinary citizens in Egypt, and earlier with the invasion of Iraq: dozens of stories on the destruction of heritage make the rounds on social media and academic mailing lists, with little counterbalance from discussion of the actual lives being lost.  I am proud to say that, with last year’s protests in Turkey, I noticed a different pattern among my academic friends: several in fact posted stories about the protests and expressed their solidarity with or sympathy for the people of the country.  

This difference in treatment may simply be due to the number of people I know who work in Turkey vs. Syria, but that does not excuse the difference. We are talking about living human beings; that concern should speak for itself.

But also as archaeologists, we must never lose sight of the fact that what we do is entirely dependent on our fellow human beings.  For one thing, archaeology is not simply the study of the past – it is the study of the human past.  We do not dig for dinosaurs, as we often insist with irritation.  Beyond this, a major part of archaeological ethics involves relating past finds to present peoples, especially for those of us working in foreign countries: How do our discoveries impact the local communities where they are made?

This second point in particular relates to a problem throughout academia: how to relate our technical work to a wider audience.  We in academia owe our very careers, our privilege to be able to conduct scholarship for a living, to our efforts as educators – both lecturing students and reaching out to the broader public.  Not only is this an essential component of our work, it is also the very justification for its existence.  The problem is especially acute for those of us (in Near Eastern Studies departments, for instance) who view archaeology as part of the humanities.  We have all bemoaned how the humanities are losing funding and being written off by university administration (at least when it affects our own careers).  Near Eastern Studies departments in particular, and humanities in general, are in danger of dying.  So how do we justify the continued relevance of our field, our continued existence as scholars, if we do not relate our work at every step to humanity past and present?

Even though archaeology is the study of the human past, we as its practitioners face the constant challenge of connecting material remains to people, people who lived and breathed and worked and played and died; of reconstructing how they lived and breathed and worked and played and died from those remains.  Sometimes this challenge is lost as, in our increased specialization, we focus so narrowly on the data that we ignore broader interpretation; other times it is lost as we fail to apply method and theory with sufficient rigor.   But we must never forget the challenge is there waiting for us.

All of this is to say: If we are ever forced to prioritize our objects of study (i.e., people of the past) or living people, we must without hesitation prioritize the living.  As tragic as the destruction of material heritage is, it is meaningless compared to actual human lives -- lives that in fact give that heritage its very meaning.  We must never choose the dead over the living.

This concern may seem exaggerated, but the dangers of forgetting the real-life costs to millions of people are ever-present.  Take an article by the archaeologist Alex Joffe from November 2013, “Are we willing to die to save the past?”  In this article, Joffe, like Davidson, attempts to blame one side or one faction (Islamists and their “empowerment” by the West).  The reality, as I noted above, is far more complicated; even several of Joffe’s own examples (Syria, Iraq, China) belie this generalization.  Again, though, the much more serious issue is the attitude towards the living, reflected in the very title of the piece.  If we ask “Are we willing to die to save the past,” then we do not have far to go to ask, “Are we willing to kill to save the past?”  And indeed, Joffe raises this question, twice, in the article.  To be fair, Joffe ultimately suggests that “[s]alvaging fragments in the future may be the only practical and moral options.”  But simply to ask the question suggests that Joffe entertains it as a serious thought, especially considering that he never clearly answers it in the negative.  Here we have a very real case of entertaining privileging the dead over the living.  And I find this viewpoint repellent.

I do not mean to suggest that archaeologists generally have no concern for the dying, the displaced, the suffering.  But our single-minded focus on material remains in our publications and communications means that – at best – we come off as callous assholes.  And, whether it is Syria, or Egypt, or Israel, or Gaza, or anywhere else in the world, the victims of these conflicts deserve better.


Anonymous said...

Helpful thoughts, Michael. I have wondered if these hopeless statements (e.g, look at all the horrid, bombed-out buildings & brutality) allow us to denigrate ever so slightly these worlds. We certainly don’t intend it. An Egyptian friend, living in the midst of the Arab Spring last year, grew weary of American academics critiquing the revolution, counter-revolution, and counter-counter-revolution. It seems that the critique became an intellectual ‘Thing’ academics had a right to & owned since they worked in the area. Yet they did not openly mourn with this person & the Egyptian people. (I suspect we don’t mourn well as Americans. Certainly not in more public settings.) After hearing the frustration, I did try to be silent more often.

I also wonder if the deeply personal stories which show our concern for the humanity of another are less easy to tell because they are so personal. Only last night it was mentioned that some archaeologists who had worked in Syria were meeting their Syrian co-workers on the border with Turkey to give cash & support, not knowing what else to do. I suspect these very stories are not something we openly publicize for other reasons & fears, yet they likely show that concern for humanity. Lots to think about, here.

Michael said...

Thanks very much for the comment. I appreciate the alternate perspectives, especially stories involving people actually in these places now. The problem of what to do, how to approach the situation as an outsider, is a very real one -- there's always the danger of acting or seeming like an "Orientalist". But I think that any sort of expression of support for the people living through these conflicts, simply discussing them even, is some sort of progress over simply lamenting damage to buildings because they happen to be historic or just old.

Alex Joffe said...

You misconstrue my comments. In my 2012 piece (actually entitled “Are we willing to die to save the past?”) I didn’t advocate intervening in Syria or anywhere on behalf of the past. I critiqued the endless handwringing (now much faded) on the part of archaeologists expressing concern about the fate of ‘the shared heritage of mankind’ or alternately, ‘Syrian patrimony,’ and noted how pointless and hypocritical these were. Passive aggressive whining of academics, demanding special consideration for their domain, demanding action without spelling it out, are precisely expressions of privilege, offered at no risk whatsoever. If one is concerned about saving the past, move from vague clucking to concrete policy; only recognize this would probably involve killing people (or even dying).

I also noted how no one then, or even now, will intervene on behalf of the living– something that necessarily involves killing the right people as well as the wrong people. I leave it to others to decide who is who. I am unhappy with the apparent US policy of having waited so long to help ‘moderate’ anti-Assad rebels that we now de facto support Assad and Hezbollah against even worse jihadi rebels, and that Syria policy is secondary to courting Iran. Folly compounds folly. We are now painted into a corner on all fronts.

My experiences in and out of academia (including the policy world) make me loath how intellectuals cry out to ‘do something’ but avert their eyes at the implications. They then immediately jump on everyone who does do something, decrying methods, goals and motives. This is especially true when that something inevitably creates collateral damage – people get killed (and archaeological sites get blown up). But ‘doing something’ about Syria, or myriad other human rights situations is not a matter of negotiating narratives, understanding perspectives, sharing ownership or being Orientalist. In the first instance it entails policymakers making hard decisions about interests and methods, creating consistent policies, brought into being by forceful politics backed up by military power. And killing people. Narratives and perspectives may come into play, although I doubt solipsistic concerns about Orientalism will.

For me, Iraq yielded many important lessons about unintended consequences, good deeds being punished, and the nature of failure. Destroying Saddam’s regime was justified on human rights bases alone. Outside of Kurdistan (the cause we should be supporting – or does that undermine the territorial integrity of Iraq, an imperial construct in the first place?) the results have been bad. Totalitarian caprice and systematic cruelty have been replaced by sectarian chaos. I see no reason to think intervention would be better in Syria. The catastrophic Libyan intervention that reduced it to tribalism, blind support of the Muslim Brotherhood’s election in Egypt then now cold relations with the Sisi regime (which pushed them closer to Russia), the Iran nuclear deal that isn’t a deal (except the super-secret part that no one can see) all show the US is out of its depth, playing weak cards badly. Perhaps a bloody, disgusting proxy war in Syria is the best the US can manage. Any better ideas? We need them.

Archaeology will some day thrive among the ruins, as it always does. In the meantime people will suffer and archaeologists will move to places where the killing is at a manageable level. Those interested in truly helping should develop new ideas and insights about the situations, deliver blankets and medical assistance to refugees or even guns to rebels (the right ones please, not the wrong ones). Or they should enter the government and be a full part of addressing these tortuous problems. It is entirely appropriate for scholars to point out their particular areas of concern during the course of war and destruction. But it should be done modestly and with recognition of practical and moral limitations.