Opinionista Kalim Rajab 11 March 2014

The poetry of place

Who has a claim on cultural artifacts and treasures? And can they be used for national reconciliation and healing? As the recent experiences of Iraqi Jews trying to answer such questions show, art may be universal - but it is also benefits from being contextual.

As I marvelled at it, it glinted back at me – a curious amalgam of opulence and emasculated power set within its finely filigreed detail. In its extraordinarily rich and varied setting gold, turquoise, rubies, diamonds, pearls, emeralds, feathers and even velvet had each been magnificently used. But from behind the glass frame which separated us, the crown of Bahadur Shah Zafar seemed strangely impotent, despite its splendour.

Perhaps it was because of its setting; robbed as it was of most of its context. For the crown was not in a state of repose somewhere on the Indian subcontinent where it was created and where it once stood as a symbol of something, but rather in the neutral surrounds of the British Library’s St Pancras campus. A firengee* land.

Bahadur Shah Zafar, the tragic king, was the last in the line of Mughal kings and emperors who ruled India for 350 years. The dynasty had been responsible for the Taj Mahal, the Shalimar Pleasure Gardens and for introducing the first syncretic elements of inter-religious harmony to an area larger than any of the European empires of the day. Bahadur Shah’s ancestors had been great. He was not. By the time he ascended the throne in 1837, the empire had experienced a dramatic reversal in its fortunes and his dominion extended little further than the city of Delhi. While he still nominally remained king, the British were the de facto ruthless rulers of India.

The crown which I saw was a central display of the British Library’s extensive exhibition featuring the best of Mughal artifacts. Many of the finest Indian miniatures and royal collections had been assembled from around the world. But the crown itself had resided in England for over a century and a half.

In 1857, following a mutiny by Indians, the British finally – and incredibly brutally – put paid to the charade of propping up a local king and had turned on Bahadur Shah and the local populace. The king fled the royal palace ignominiously. A period of savage reprisals unique in British colonial annals soon followed. During that period, a Major Tytler of the British army had been among the first to get to the abandoned royal chambers in the Red Fort in Delhi. There, amidst the bedlam, he found the crown as well as two throne chairs. Without a further thought, he simply commandeered it – and that was that. No conscience was pricked as it was removed to England, where Tytler sought to present it to Queen Victoria. It has remained in the Crown’s hands ever since.

Coming from the colonial outpost of Natal, and having been schooled in a system in which the basis of our education was that of a colonial, European viewpoint, growing up I probably wouldn’t have questioned the legitimacy of Tytler and the Crown’s actions. The British controlled India, and surely they were free to do with the spoils of their victory as they saw fit? Didn’t such artifacts stand a better chance of being preserved in a safe, stable location such as the British Library or the British Museum rather than in the chaotic, underfunded museums of the subcontinent? Besides, often the local populace didn’t appreciate their cultural treasures, and would have allowed them to rot were it not for the foresight of European colonials. As a case in point, a few feet away from Bahadur Shah’s crown at the exhibition stood a most extraordinary life-size sculpture of a giant tortoise which had resided in the Emperor Jehangir’s private garden. It had been made entirely from a single block of jade, and was in all likelihood priceless. Centuries after being commissioned by the Emperor it had been found by a British army general, abandoned and at the bottom of an unused well. Without his foresight, a piece of history may well not have been preserved.

Such viewpoints have held sway for many years, as European legitimacy had previously been considered sacrosanct. But the twenty first century promises to be the century of the previously marginalised; the previously derisively named Third World. From Asia to Latin America to Africa, our societies seem, to paraphrase Jawaharlal Nehru, to be on the verge of stepping out from the old to the new, as the soul of our nations, long suppressed, finds utterance.

And being able to reassert one’s rights to one’s own cultural history is an important part of that. Against this backdrop, the often-cited defence of “art being universal” and belonging to all humanity – a claim often used to defend cultural works not being returned from the West – certainly seems quaint and Eurocentric. For the previously colonised, it certainly seems like an irresistible surge of confidence and legitimacy; an idea whose time has finally come.

As evidence of this shift, we are currently witnessing a fascinating struggle for the reclamation of cultural artifacts from European capitals by previously colonised countries. A previous column of mine referred to Turkey’s growing geopolitical importance and confidence, and in line with this it has led an aggressive campaign for the return of antiquities from its golden past which it believes were stolen, and which now sit in Western museums. In 2012 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts bowed to public pressure and returned the top half of a 1,800-year-old statue called Weary Hercules, which came from southern Turkey and which had a dubious provenance. Recently Turkey scored a coup by having Germany’s Pergamon Museum return a 3,000-year-old sphinx from the Hittite Empire. The University of Pennsylvania also announced that it had agreed to “indefinitely lend” 24 artifacts to Turkey from ancient Troy. And other famous European institutions are in its sights – from the V&A Museum, to the British Museum, to the Louvre.

As an African, I hope such precedents are able to positively influence the return of many of our continent’s stolen treasures. Already some victories have emerged, such as the return by French authorities of five Nok Terracotta statuettes to Nigeria – but these are few and far between. Cameroon’s famous “Bangwa Queen” has not been returned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum despite very vague documents of provenance. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts still houses works from the Benin Kingdom, which were seized by Britain in the nineteenth century. Time will tell whether the surge of history is on Africa’s side, as it seems to be with countries such as Turkey.

But my mind turned to such questions, and to my interaction with Bahadur Shah’s crown, because of the recent furore about the imminent return of Jewish artifacts to Iraq. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, American forces discovered a large and diverse collection of Judaica secreted away in the Iraqi Ministry basement. The basement had been flooded and to prevent them rotting in the desert sun, conservationists and Iraqi representatives agreed that the materials should be flown to America, where they could be nursed back to life. As the BBC reported, “they were a record of Iraq’s vanished Jewish community, including religious texts and public records – some of the last tangible evidence of a 2,500-year-old culture that no longer exists in Iraq.” The repository was seemingly kept to bring some kind of perverse pleasure to the dictator Saddam Hussein – why else would one keep such a rich mosaic of your vanquished victims?

The modern history of Jews in Iraq, like much of the Middle East, is incredibly sad. For centuries – millennia, actually – Jews were the cultural and economic bedrock of the region, and contributed to the wonderful mosaic of harmonious communal living that was the pre-Second World War Middle East. They were the Near and Middle East. All that was to change in a calamitous period, which saw them becoming victims of pogroms in the newly formed Iraq. The emergence of Saddam’s Baathist party in 1968 was the final nail in their coffin, as they were forced into exile. Today, the New York Times estimates that scarcely 5 Jews remain in Iraq.

Those who left under duress now have a powerful claim on this repository of Jewish artifacts. In many ways, the legacy housed within these documents is their legacy, not Iraq’s. Even though the newly elected Iraqi government has no links to Saddam’s murderous Baathists who carried out such atrocities on Iraqi Jews, Cynthia Shamash of the World Organisation of Jews From Iraq is of the view that “returning such a vast trove to a place where there will soon be no Jews would be perverse – and a failure to acknowledge the devastation caused by anti-Semitism in the Arab world.”

This view may be correct – and may ultimately hold sway, as a final decision by the US State Department to return or retain will only be made in May. But as much as the modern history of Jews in the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris is incredibly sad, it is equally important not to forget. We are perilously close to current generations of Iraqis, Syrians and Iranians being completely ignorant of the Jewish legacy which was bequeathed to them. And once these footprints in the sand have been lost, it is often very difficult to trace them again.

As much as I take hope from Turks, Indians and hopefully Africans now seeking to reclaim and honour their cultural traditions and history as their own, I believe it equally important for the same to be done by all Middle Easterners. The Jews who helped create the Middle East did not only do so for the sake of their own Jewish descendents – they did it with a profound sense that they were benefitting the entire regions which they inhabited. The best chance to ensure Saddam’s brutal vindictiveness against Jews doesn’t endure is not by spiriting away all traces of them away from Iraq, but in reminding all Iraqis of their communal mosaic of history – in which all religions contributed.

To be sure, the issues of whether Bahadur Shah’s crown should be returned to India and whether the Iraqi Jewish artifacts should be returned to Iraq are foundationally different – but much stands to be gained from them returning home. Art may be universal – but it is also benefits from being contextual. DM

firengee* – foreign (Urdu)

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