What the world’s only active Somali archaeologist has in common with the Iraqi-British winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize

Zaha Hadid, Iraqi-British winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize (image courtesy of hughpearman.com)

You can work in a McDonald’s and survive. But who are we? What is our heritage? S a d a M i r e

They are both women leaders born to the predominately Muslim nations. Forced to leave for the Western world, where they received education, Dr Sada Mire of Somaliland and Zaha Hadid of Iraq traveled back to their home countries to do creative projects and uplift the lives of the local communities by re-branding their motherlands.

Dr Sada Mire posing for the “Discover Magazine” (photo by Graham Trott, Grooming: Claire Hanson)

Having a background in journalism, Sada has produced films on Somali cultural heritage and management for Somaliland TV. She also produced a short film report for Channel Four UK about the young single Somali refugees who are susceptible to terrorist groups in the UK.

The world’s only active Somali archaeologist, Sada lived the first fifteen years of her life in Mogadishu, until 1991, when she settled in Sweden, as a result of the conflict in the Horn of Africa. She studied at the School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London, for her B.A., and then at University College London for her M.A. and Ph.D., conducting field research in Somaliland.

Sada is currently advisor to and former Director of the Republic of Somaliland’s Department of Tourism & Archaeology, which she founded in 2007. Mohamed Abdi Ali, who works for the department, estimated that since, for example, the Lass Geel site was opened in 2002, between 50 and 60 tourists come to the area each month.

Dr Sada Mire is founder and executive director of the Horn Heritage Organization that assists the mapping of all monuments and sites of Somaliland and the creation of Somaliland National Heritage Law. In pursuit to preserve the Somali heritage, HHO plans to build a centre in Hargeysa for scientific research facility, storage and education. At the moment, the Somaliland government and delegates from the Paul-Valéry Universityin France are collaborating on a project to develop archaeological sites in Somaliland. (See How culture contributes to development: an UNESCO indicator suite)

Sada has worked as a technical assistant for the UNDP in Somalilandon cultural resource management and capacity building. Sada has conducted fieldwork in several European and African countries – from the UK and Denmark to Kenya and Egypt. She is a TED-Speaker. (See The Creator Of TED reinvents conferencing again) Sada believes that cultural heritage is a basic human need.

When she first came back to Somalia as a PhD student, Sada discovered that no one was funding culture in Somaliland, not even the government. “So after four years of giving talks and screaming and running all over the world and telling everyone what is happening, the UN decided to fund my position with the government.”

In an interview with a blogger Belinda Otas, Sada explained the ideas behind her work:

In Somaliland, there is poverty after the war. This is a country that has been totally destroyed. In Somalia, we still have a war. (See The worst music with the best intentions? Insights on a Zimbabwean fundraising tune for Somalia) I went to Somaliland because that is the only place where I can actually do my work. There is peace there. Since it’s not a recognised country, it does not have support and humanitarian assistance that a country, which is part of the UN would have. [Somalia, the recognized state never ratified the World Heritage Convention, by the way] (See Whose premise: UNESCO-Harare or UNESCO-Paris?)

I’m trying to get people to realise the importance of heritage and guide them in that context. I go to the rural areas where the sites are based. When they see my work, they realise the discovered sites are important and could become potential world heritage sites that can help them to develop economically, educationally and help them in their identity building.

The explanation on Somaliheritage.org sheds more light on the paralysis caused by the absence of international mechanisms within the UN system to protect the heritage of  non-member states:

The UN member nation-state of Somalia consists today of a war-torn society made of three new regions, these are Somaliland, Puntland and south-central Somalia. Somaliland is a break-away state with its own government which seeks an international recognition as an independent nation-state. Puntland is a semiautonomous region. Puntland and south-central Somalia are still facing instabilities due to ongoing war and piracy.

Furthermore, severe poverty and prolonged droughts threaten all Somali regions. The archaeology of Somalia, Puntland and Somaliland is disappearing systematically. Some people are destroying the archaeological heritage by looting and clandestine excavations. Archaeology has become a source to feed upon. Since severe poverty mostly triggers the destruction the solution to the problem needs to be multiple. The potentials of cultural heritage resources must be highlighted to the current looters and it must be made explicit how future possibilities for education, job opportunities and tourism can benefit them in the long term.

Most of the archaeological sites suffer also the environmental changes; parts of the country have undergone desertification, particularly in north-eastern part of the country.

Talking to the Discover Magazine, Sada explained her interest in archeology as career:

The world’s only active Somali archaeologist, Sada Mire (photo courtesy of BBC)

When I was a refugee, I studied Scandinavian archaeology because I wanted to understand my new surroundings. After learning about European culture, I became interested in my own past.

When she came across a book by Basil Davidson, Africa: The Story of A Continent and saw the images of Ashanti people holding and wearing gold, the sculptures of Ife, Nok and Ethiopia, she soon realised there wasn’t much study about African archaeology or history. “Its like there were all these previous civilisations, which colonialism has taken away from us and one of the passages I read was that in order to understand African history, there needs to be archaeologists who excavate the history of Africa. There is what the English wrote, what the Arabs wrote but where is what the Africans wrote? And that made me want to study it.”

Even though, her work has been limited to Somaliland which, unlike the rest of Somalia, remains relatively peaceful, travelling between towns Sada employs guards armed with AK-47s. The roads themselves are treacherous, and landmines and deadly snakes litter the countryside where many of the archaeological sites are found. Some sites are also now secured by armed guards, to prevent looters. The country as yet has no museums. (See Steppes In Figures #4: Southern Africa trivia from last year)

Says Dr Andrew Reid of University College London – Sada’s PhD supervisor:

One of the problems Sada has had to deal with is how to define mobile, nomadic heritage. In Somalia they carry cultural heritage in their heads. It’s not something you can point to and say, ‘Isn’t this a fantastic building?’ Their cultural heritage is much more difficult to define.

This is the reason why Sada makes emphasis on the preservation of intangible cultural heritage of Somalia. (See UNESCO partners with NHK to produce World Heritage videos) ICH encompasses living expressions and the traditions that countless groups and communities worldwide have inherited from their ancestors and transmit to their descendants, in most cases orally. According to Wikipedia, Japan was the first nation state to introduce legislation to protect and promote its intangible heritage.

Intangible Cultural Heritage means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.

For Somalia, ICH includes knowledge of the (nomadic) landscape, oral culture, portable houses, city life, survival during the civil war–what Sada calls a knowledge-centered approach.

Sada regards national heritage as a human right, crucial to a nation’s sense of itself even during a time of conflict and famine. Speaking to Outlook from the BBC World Service, she further explains the effect of her attempts at re-branding Somalia on her people’s lives, “When we find sites and I am able to tell local people about the importance of the site and the potential that can come from it – its significance for world heritage – it gives them dignity and pride. Our culture is very oral, so people need to hear from somebody and they repeat it. People immediately feel that they have something, a resource. They can say, ‘We may not have a lot but if we can take care of this site, we have something.'”

Inside of a “tower house” in Old Sana’a (image courtesy of the Saudi Aramco World)

Dr Sada Mire is not the first promoter of  heritage preservation in an Islamic nation that used the media to draw
attention of the international community and change UN policies. One doesn’t need to swim far in search for examples. Just across the Gulf of Aden. As was reminded to us by Eric Hansenthe author of Motoring with Mohammed – Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea and a frequent contributor to Saudi Aramco World,  in 1970, the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini produced a 15-minute documentary, The Walls of Sana‘a, which he sent to the UNESCO as an appeal for international help to save the old city of the Yemeni capital. Back then, Pasolini visited Sana‘a for a few days to film his famous The Decameron and was struck by Sana’a and shocked at the prospect of ‘modernization,’ a ‘development’ wave that two decades later swept through Beijing and characterized Pasolisini’s native Italy after the Second World War. Now the Old City of Sana’a is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When Zaha Hadid (who was born on the opposite side of the Arabian desert twenty years before Pasolini set his camera on the Yemeni soil to film The Walls of Sana‘a) won the $100,000 Pritzker Prize in 2004 – the first female ever to win America’s most prestigious architecture award – the judges said she would have been famous if she’d never built a thing. (In 2010, she was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize for MAXXI – National Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome. Hadid got this prize again last year).

You can go almost anywhere — Azerbaijan (where Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center officially opened on 10 May 2012. Located close to the city center, the site plays a pivotal role in the redevelopment of Baku.), Singapore, Abu Dhabi, South Korea, Italy, China, Libya or Turkey — and expect to find a building designed by Hadid, a project for one under way, or a master plan in progress. Last year in Libya, Hadid’s new conference center outside of Tripoli was “put on hold.”  As a result of the unforseen Arab Spring events in North Africa, Zaha Hadid Architects made a quarter of its staff redundant, laying off more than 90 employees.

MAXXI – National Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome by Zaha Hadid

One of the Pritzker judges, the veteran American architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, said that Hadid “has changed the way we see and experience space.”  Hadid takes space in her hands and kneads it like dough, or slices it up like freshly prepared vegetables. Floors swoop, walls lean, ceilings fly away, outside and inside get all mixed up. Your expectations are confounded.

Hallway of Guangzhou Opera House in China by Zaha hadid (image courtesy of Roy Zhuang)

Hadid’s father Mohammed, a leading businessman and social democrat, was involved in industrialising Iraq during the period when oil revenues were pouring into the country’s coffers. After the rise of Saddam Hussein and the Iran-Iraq war, most of the professional classes, including her family, quit the country.

Hadid has lived in London since 1972, when she arrived from her native Baghdad, by way of a mathematics degree at the American University in Beirut. “I always loved London. My father went to school in England in the 1930s. I went to an English boarding school for a while. My brothers were at school in England, so I spent my summers in London while I was growing up,” explained Hadid in an interview for the British Airways High Life in-flight magazine.

Reflecting on her teachers, she said, “You had to be smart enough to chase them, and make them teach you. You had to learn what you wanted to learn.” Her mentor at the architectural association was the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who is now also a global superstar. (“Rem can sleep on planes,” says Zaha enviously. He likes flying. I don’t.”)  (See Why I am excited about flying through Dubai or Why I am excited not to fly through OR Tambo in Jozi)

Since 2004, Rem Koolhaas spent four years with a team of students of The Harvard Project on the City, regularly coming to Lagos to research the type of urbanity that is produced by uncontrolled, explosive population growth. Fascinated by the energy of Lagos, and driven by the desire to understand modernity in all its aspects, Koolhaas set out to learn from Lagos, rather than planning, building or changing anything. (See ArchiAfrika 2011 conference: discussing the future of African citiesNavigating African cities through our own unique and diverse mental maps)

Baghdad, the second largest city in Western Asia (after Tehran) first introduced Zaha Hadid to the idea of architecture

Notwithstanding its notoriety, Lagos continues to have enormous appeal for vast numbers of people. Every hour, 21 new inhabitants set out to start a life in the city, a life that is highly unpredictable and requires risk-taking, networking and improvisation as essential strategies for survival.

A documentary Lagos/Koolhaas follows Rem Koolhaas during his research in Lagos over a period of two years. Using small digital cameras, film-makers documented Koolhaas documenting Lagos. They tried to grasp and convey a sense of the new urban life that is being invented in this Nigerian megapolis.

Interestingly, early in his life, Koolhaas studied scriptwriting at the Netherlands Film and Television Academy in Amsterdam. He co-wrote The White Slave, a 1969 Dutch film noir, and later wrote an unproduced script for American soft-porn king Russ Meyer.

Koolhaas’ father was a novelist, critic, and screenwriter. Two documentary films by Bert Haanstra for which his father wrote the scenarios were nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary Feature, one won a Golden Bear for Short Film.

His father strongly supported the Indonesian cause for autonomy from the colonial Dutch in his writing. When the war of independence was won, he was invited over to run a cultural programme for three years and the family moved to Jakarta in 1952. “It was a very important age for me,” Koolhaas recalls, “and I really lived as an Asian.”

CCTV Headquarters by Rem Koolhaas in Beijing

It was Zaha Hadid’s native Baghdad (the second largest city in Western Asia, after Tehran) that first introduced Koolhaas’ trainee to the idea of architecture. “I had thought about being an architect ever since I was 11,” she says. “There was a period in Iraq in the 1960s, when identity and architecture were connected. There was a new philosophy in the country, and new buildings expressed it. I can remember going to an exhibition about Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in Baghdad. He was designing an opera house and I was intrigued.”

Due to the 1958 collapse of the Hashemite monarchy, development of the project stopped, and it was never built. (What would the late Frank Lloyd Wright say of today’s Baghdad, after sanctions, and after war? To learn)

Baghdad Tower and communication center in downtown Baghdad

Iraq’s central bank was targeted by car bombers three years ago, and Hadid was commissioned to design a replacement.

Hadid lives in Clerkenwell (in the London Borough of Islington), but spends her summers in Istanbul, a city which she loves. (See Biosphere Connections by Star Alliance+UNESCO+National Geographic) Her work shows the same passionate intensity at every scale. Her ideas for the waterfront in Istanbul and Singapore will reshape entire cities, but she is also ready to design pavilions for Dior, shoes, cutlery, bags and door handles. It is possible, in short, to live entirely in a world designed by Zaha.

Women do not get to build skyscrapers and opera houses by being shy and retiring. Don’t call her a diva: “Nobody calls Norman Foster or Frank Gehry a diva.”

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