‘Pluralism is on the retreat’

October 19, 2019

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One of the presentations under way at the AKU on Friday.—White Star
One of the presentations under way at the AKU on Friday.—White Star

KARACHI: Well thought-out presentations in the first session of a seminar titled ‘The Future of Heritage’ brought to light some thought-provoking points for conservationists on Friday morning at the Aga Khan University auditorium.

Shiraz Allibhai set the bar high for the speakers to come –– who did not disappoint –– by choosing to speak on the topic ‘Culture and identity: memory and rupture’ –– the session’s rubric was The Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme.

Emphasising the need for having a connection with the past, he raised the question, “Who is writing history?” He mentioned the name of Peter Handke, the latest recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature, saying people call him a genocide apologist. “Who are our writers?” he asked, arguing why we should look 600 years back to underline “we were great”.

History is being wiped out and markers of pluralism are being destroyed, say experts at moot

Mr Allibhai said heritage sites piece the narratives of who we are, where we are going. History is being wiped out and markers of pluralism are being destroyed. “Cultural heritage is a source of pride for many communities,” he remarked.

Architect Masood Khan gave a detailed account of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s (AKTC) Historic Cities Programme in Pakistan. He started off by talking about the Baltit Fort on which work began in 1990. He called the structure and its setting ‘important’. It led him to discuss the Gilgit-Baltistan project whose framework of development included heritage and development-enhancing tourism, mitigating impacts of externalities and bringing the heritage sites and monuments into the public domain.

Mr Khan then shifted his focus to Lahore, which was once known as the city of gardens. Within it is the Walled City that has a place of its own. In 2007 the AKTC in partnership with the Punjab government commenced working on a programme of rehabilitating the Walled City. Subsequently, after doing the hard work they were able to have the government come up with the Walled City of Lahore Act (2012).

Egyptian architectural historian Seif El Rashidi gave the most insightful presentation via video link from London.

Historic Cairo

With reference to the southern part of “historic Cairo” he spoke on the subject ‘Making historic cities work for their local communities’. He said it [the area he worked in] has a dense urban environment with hundreds of medieval monuments. Egypt has a long tradition of preserving monuments since the 19th century but people were never at the centre of such plans. They were seen as secondary or even detrimental to the efforts. Our [Rashidi’s] historic city programme sought to change that considering people as assets.

He said Cairo is a huge city. The historic corner is small but a very important part of it. It has spiritual and religious significance with many monuments with complexity of uses. So the aim was to bring all that back together.

The zone that they focused on had mainly crafts’ shops and workshops with a city wall. There was a rubbish dump near it which they tried to turn into a public park [successfully]. The idea was to upgrade the area for residents. The poorest people lived on the periphery. There was a strong tradition of carpentry and shoe-making there, so one of the things they did was to invest in improving the quality of local skills to enable them to present their stuff to the city of Cairo at large rather than producing low-end items. Doing all of that they [his team] realised that the physical decline of the historic city had socioeconomic factors.

“We need to address socioeconomic issues first. Therefore their approach was participatory. How can we make sense of our intervention if we don’t know what people want?” he said, adding: “Preserving the past is important but we also have to think about our communities today.”

Mr Rashidi said during the process of preservation of the area “we became part of [the] community and they became part of us”.

A panel discussion moderated by Prof Yudhishthir Raj Isar followed the speeches. Apart from the three speakers, Yasmeen Cheema, Arif Hasan and Gulzar Haider were also requested to be on stage.

Answering a question, architect Arif Hasan said: “People have immense love for their neighbourhoods. What’s missing [from the process of conservation] is affordable interventions. People’s culture, which is not a static thing, needs to be understood sympathetically.”

Responding to another query, Mr Allibhai, who is a deputy director of AKTC, said: “Pluralism is on the retreat, especially in places like Pakistan. The strength of these [conservation] projects is to show that different communities have worked together over time. When pluralism retreats we let the best of ourselves slip away.”

The moot was organised by Architecture Design Art (ADA) and the AKTC.

Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2019