By Fakhri al-Arashi
Marco Livadiotti is one of the best experts in tourism in Yemen . H is an activist on the cultural heritage conversation field a designer and architect. He works in several projects like the restoration of the National Museum complex, al-Hawta Hotel palace project in Wadi Hadhramout. He was involved in several restorations of private old house and palaces in the old city and other old house within Yemen.
Your heart is firmly set on Yemen heritage, particularly the Old City of Sam Bin Noah Sana’a. Where does the Old City stand on the map of global heritage? Also, what value does the city have?
I came to Sana’a when I was just 5 years old in 1960. It was the most beautiful city a kid of my age could dream of or even imagine. It was a city of fairy tales – just built at human size. Throughout the years the city has remained intact with no damage of modernization like any other city in the world well into the 80’s when the city was still fairly untouched and beautiful. Thanks to our Pasolini Pier Paolo, an Italian writer, movie director, poet, journalist, the Old City became known to the world and was entered into the World Heritage List. After the first 5 years of being listed, the projects and visions for the city were great. Suddenly in the 90’s however, things started to go wrong and city began to dismantle itself through demolitions, violations, new construction, traffic, chaos and poor projects like the sewage and stone paving projects. Sana’a is still considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world deserving comparison to Venice, Bruges, Florence, Paris, and Fez. However, Sana’a belongs to the Arabs as well as Arab civilization and heritage. Accordingly, Arabs should take care of it like a special jewel of their history. It’s architecture is unique, organic, an architecture of dreams that takes you through centuries of history.
So in a few words, Yemen owns a jewel of human history and civilization and they should take care of it as a precious gift from God. Yemen is a gold mine of treasures that must be preserved, from Sana’a to Wadi Doan, Jiblah, Zabid, Amran, Sa’ada, Haraz, Jabal Bura’a, Soqatra, and many.
NY: If the country is collapsing, why do you pay more attention to the old city in particular?
When your father dies, you don’t destroy his house. Instead, you keep it as a memory of his life. Our history is simply our memories. Humans come and go, but human work and its creations remain for our children and our grand children. This is history and civilizations. A man with no road is like a country with not history.
The Old City inhabitants have the right to modern conveniences, so how do you balance this with the extinction of historic places?
This is everywhere, not only in Yemen. It is human history – you keep and build, rebuild and destroy. Our life is collection of old and new. Again, if your father dies you don’t destroy his house and build a new one. There are examples of areas that make this balance work: Rome, Paris, Istanbul; places where history is preserved and people can live with all modern comforts. Interesting examples are in Venice, Bruges, and Fez, where you can live in old housing, or you can simply move to the new part of the city. The old house can be adjusted and tailored so people can live in it as a modern home; it’s just a matter of effort. In Yemen, people don’t destroy their homes because they are old but mainly because they simply don’t like them anymore and want change.
From your point of view, what does the Old City need to maintain its history and whom do you blame for the continued new construction in the old city?
I blame everyone; UNESCO, Yemen, time, donors, and nobody, all at the same time. Sana’a lost 40% of its heritage in the last 30 years because of laziness, superficiality, ignorance and blindness. This happens everywhere in the world, too. This happened in Italy and many other countries. But in Europe, there were people who understood that what was happening was a crime. In Sana’a, it’s not that easy. The Middle East as a whole lost a great part of its heritage in India too in the same way that India.
What is your company involved with in Yemen?
I was in tourism for many years but decided to change and go on to the other side of tourism that is based on: saving the heritage. My company, Arabian Heritage Company, is now fighting to save Yemeni heritage through consultancies and my restorations projects throughout the country.
Why do you bother to raise the awareness of preventing the old city if its indigenous do not bother?
This is not only in Yemen but everywhere else in the world, too. It is always the willing of one at the beginning. Unfortunately, all of Yemen heritage is unique and astonished and Sana’a is the most beautiful example.
What has been the change you have seen in the Old City in the past five decades? How do people in Europe and others see the Old City’s future?
A lot has changed as I told you before. And globally, everyone is worried for the future of the old city, but we always hope for a miracle. I am working on a large, world-wide awareness campaign to help the city once we get the funding. So let’s see what happens.
Given Yemen’s current situation, how can one prioritize heritage while there are crises of food, security, and survival? When you compare these problems to heritage, it doesn’t seem like a priority. Do you agree, if not, why?
Yemen heritage is a gold mine. Yemen still has to understands the value of this as it is the richest Arab country in term of cultural heritage. As such, Yemen heritage has to be a priority and if protected properly, it can give work to many Yemenis and make the country very rich. Dubai had to build its heritage and create it from nothing, using plenty of money and time. Yemen already has this, and always will. Now they just have to preserve it and sell it. The whole world would love to come to Yemen and enjoy visiting it if they could. Yemeni heritage is the only sure economy Yemen has and it is simply the bread of the country’s future. Look at Morocco as cultural destination with over 10 million tourists a year. They primarily live on tourism and invested heavily in their heritage. Yemen heritage is far richer than Morocco’s — so let’s get to work.
What is your appeal to the international community who are injecting billions of dollars to security, stability, and politics, rather than heritage?
I’d ask that they just allocate 2-4% of such budgets to a special fund to save the Yemeni cultural heritage in order to finance a master plan on this issue, and to start an inventory to evaluate all the cultural heritage all over the country.
What is your reaction to the responses of the Yemen Government toward your ideas and plans to protecting the Old City?
Mixed. Plenty of yeses and positive answers – but that is the extent of that. Everyone is busy with the country’s problems. No one understands that Yemen’s cultural heritage could keep the country united and take it to a better future where tourism and other related industries and business could bring happiness, money and wealth.
If there is no tourism, then does the heritage and Sana’a’s Old City mean nothing to the people of Yemen?
No. You have to preserve your heritage for you and your sons. This is a matter of pride. No one should destroy their past. Especially in Yemen as its past is glorious! Yemen is famous worldwide for its ancient history, certainly not for the present.
What is the future of the Old City in the next 20 years?
First we need a conservation plan. It was promised but it never happened. The greater Sana’a area also needs a new urban plan. The existing one is so old and outdated as it was drawn up in the 80’s. If they worked on this, the city could be restored and become one of the best and most beautiful cities in the world. You have to be proud of this, no? All of the world would dream to visit Sana’a; just as we all dream to visit New York, Rome, Paris or Venice. Second, we need to establish the Great Old Sana’a area as protected site which will include the old city of Sana’a, Bair Elazab quarter, al-Qa’a, al-Rawda, wadi Dhar, Hadah, Bait Zabatan and Bait Bous.
From your experiences, do you know any foreigners who own houses in the Old City and why do they buy there?
Yes. Because it is so nice to own a house and live in one of the most beautiful oldest place in the world.
What would you like to see in the Old City in the near future?
The end of the souq-ization of the city. There are many things I would like to see. There are too many shops and the city is quickly becoming just one big souq. Also, cars, except for those living in the city, should be banned. And of course, the end of the city’s destruction. Most importantly however, the conservation plan that we are all still waiting for.
How does the escalating tension in Yemen of the past year made an impact on UNESCO’s activities in Yemen?
UNESCO has not been very active in the last two years in Yemen for many reasons. The reality is that it’s Yemen that needs to be active first, not UNESCO.
What is your message to the public, government, and donors toward preserving what is left in the Old City?
Destroying the Old City of Sana’a is a crime. Do we really want this? I don’t think so. The donors have to understand that cultural and natural heritage in Yemen is its best asset so they must invest the right resources into it. The public has to know that Yemen is considered one of the most beautiful countries in the world and everyone wants to come and visit it. To the government, they have to work hard to save it and create an economy that can use its heritage to bring wealth into the country.
There is still time left to save the country, but we have to work hard and take the work serious. Saving Sana’a could be a good start to save Yemen’s entire heritage. Saving the Old City will contribute a lot towards preserving Yemen heritage and help take Yemen into the future.
Most importantly, we can wait no longer for a proper conservation and do not have another 30 years to wait. Without a conservation plan the city will die and a new city will be built on the ashes of the old city. A conservation plan might cost between $2-3 million US. Is this too much to ask for one of the most beautiful cities in the world? For that matter, we have submitted with UNSCO a proposal for a conversation plan for the old city of Sana’a since past years, but so far we did not get any fund as they look to conservation plan which would cost between $2-3 million US did not get the final direction for implementing work plan.
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