Is Zabid destined to lose its place among historical heritage cities?
Said Daoud Omari (28 years old) was gunned down while on his motorbike by security forces that were escorting a governmental committee. The committee is responsible for removing construction waste from the city of Zabid, which now faces the threat of being struck off the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
“My son was unlawfully killed,” says Said’s mother. “We did not build a house from cement, but he was there when the committee (responsible for removing cement waste) arrived. Some of the residents fought with the committee and so the soldiers opened fire.”
Some soldiers say they only fired in the air to disperse the crowds. According to the General Police Regulations of 2002, the police are allowed to fire in the air, after they issue three warnings to the crowds. But investigation records have revealed that the deceased was killed by a bullet from one of the soldiers. Security officials say the accused suffers mental problems, and is now in prison awaiting trial.
Omari died, leaving behind his mother and two younger sisters who relied on him as their sole breadwinner after his father died.
Zabid was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List of 10 cities in 1993. Then, in 2000, it was added to the list of endangered cities.
Modern cement constructions have now spread across the ancient city, and the government has been slow in issuing a law to protect the city’s heritage. It has also been unable to protect the traditional architectural character of the city. The residents are lacking in awareness of the historical importance of their city, which was built in 819 AD by Abdullah Ben Ziad as a capital for his rule after splitting from the Abbasids in Baghdad.
In addition, the ministers of Finance, Labour, Religious Affairs, Local Governance, Interior, Tourism and Electricity have all been boycotting meetings held by the Higher Committee for The Protection of Zabid.
The situation in Zabid has become complicated, as the residents are constantly violating regulations on construction, and officials have become less keen to protect the city – which is part of the Hadida Municipality in Western Yemen – in order to avoid similar confrontations. As a result, Zabid’s architectural treasures have been disfigured by concrete structures.
ABU MOUSSA AL ASH’ARI STREET
Abu Moussa Al Ash’ari Street, which runs from the Eastern Gate to the Old Souk, used to be a key touristic and commercial landmark of the city. It features 130 old homes with fences and some public squares.
The city was first threatened in 1993, when residents built 11 cement constructions in a square that used to be an off-loading dock for commercial convoys. The buildings, which ruined the site, were the first stab by the residents to their city, according to government official Arafat Hadrami.
The violations then continued. Eighty old homes were pulled down, and replaced with new buildings made with fortified cement. About 50 commercial outlets were also built along the old street with iron doors. Hadrami estimates that 65% of the new buildings on the street are in violation of the law. “These violations have affected the architectural integrity of the city’s entrance and have caused a great upset at UNESCO in 2000,” he explains.
A FINAL WARNING
In June 2010, The UNESCO issued yet another warning regarding the status of Zabid during the 36th World Heritage Committee Conference in St Petersburg. During the conference, Yemen was given one final chance to take serious measures in order to avoid being struck from the World Heritage List. The UNESCO’s representative in Yemen, Ahmad Mu’amari, says that striking Zabid off the list also means that Yemen will be banned from adding any other city to UNESCO’s list for 20 years.
“This city means a lot to world heritage, and its fate will be decided in the next (37th) World Heritage Committee Conference, which will be held on 22nd June 2013 in Cambodia,” Mu’amari says.
He also adds that Zabid’s position on the list will depend on the government’s efforts to protect its heritage and implement preservation plans and put a limit on violations; all of which will be discussed at the conference.
Mu’amari demands urgent solutions, including issuing a new law for the preservation of historical cities, and raising the city’s budget from $40,000 to $100,000 to enable the Cities and Local Council Committee to implement maintenance projects and preserve historical landmarks.
The UNESCO sends five international experts each year to the city to provide consultation and support. It also urges donors and other international organisations to support the city and promote it on the international sphere. Mu’amari says UNESCO does not provide financial support, but could contribute up to $25,000.
The Yemeni government has been moving diplomatically to freeze UNESCO’s decision, and has formed a government and parliamentary delegation to participate in the World Heritage Committee Conference. It also has hopes that Arab countries will support it and push to give Yemen a second chance.
CULTURE MINISTRY PASSES ON THE BLAME
The Ministry of Culture admitted in a report issued in January 2013 that it faces obstacles and difficulties that could lead to striking Zabid off the UNESCO list. The obstacles are mainly posed by random construction and the lack of laws to protect the cities, in addition to the fact there is no official body to deal with antiquities and historical cities. According to the General Coordinator for Zabid, Abdul Wahhab Yousefi, several ministers (finance, labour, religious affairs, local governance, interior, electricity and tourism) have boycotted meetings held by the Higher Committee for the Protection of Zabid in order to avoid their responsibilities.
The Ministry of Culture’s report also states that the government has not fulfilled its commitments towards the city. This includes; covering expenses for technical studies, renovation, compensating the affected families, allocating extra plots of land for expanding the city to solve the crowding issue, building extra housing units for low-income families, and recording 2400 construction violations (a %50 increase from 2009), in addition to 30 robberies on the streets of the city. The report accuses the city’s Local Council of issuing construction permits that were in violation of the law, as well as leasing public venues.
JUSTIFICATIONS BY THE RESIDENTS
The residents of Zabid are disaffected by the government committee for the protection of Zabid. They do not trust it, according to Mahdi (35 years), who is a resident of the city.
“The committee is abusive towards the citizens, and it took part in killing them without legal or constitutional basis, on the pretext of preserving the city.”
Many residents are not concerned with maintaining their city’s name on the UNESCO list, if it stops them from building on their land within their financial means. One resident, Jamal, asks: “how can they forcibly ban us from building on our land, or renovating or expanding our old homes, without a legal or constitutional decree? The committee is deliberately limiting the freedoms of the citizens and throwing them into jails.
Those conditions have led the residents to file complaints in court to revoke 14 government decisions related to Zabid. Three of those decisions were issued by the government this year, but the most important one was decision no. 437 of 2007, which sanctions the activities of the Committee for the Preservation of Cities, and obliges it to remove construction waste.
An administrative complaint was filed to courts in Zabid in January 2010 by 72 citizens, who demanded the cancellation of decision no. 437 and all administrative decisions related to controlling construction, renovation and maintenance. They also demanded compensation from the committee for financial and moral damages related to halting their construction.
Abdullah Al Mars, a lawyer from Zabid, says that “establishing the committee, in accordance with a decision from the ministers’ council, is no excuse for oppressing citizens and banning them from dealing with their private property, as sanctioned by the law.”
He adds: “The committee does not abide by regulations regarding filing complaints and summoning citizens, and that’s why they are complaining. We have a right to do as we wish with our property, according to article 1154 of the Civil Law, which grants property owners the right to use their property and benefit.”
Deforming the city by force
The attitude of the residents, coupled with the lack of any laws that grant the committee the authority to protect Zabid, have provided the grounds for people to deform the city. Some even use force if the committee attempts to prevent them from building randomly with cement, or if it attempts to appropriate their land for public benefit.
The former general manager of the committee, Nabil Munsir, holds both the residents and the local council responsible for this. He says that “preventing public servants from carrying out their duties in protecting the city, and inciting society against them, contributed to this deterioration.” He adds that social figures and dignitaries in the city need to be convinced of the importance of protecting it.
Munsir also complains that no protection is provided to public servants against what he described as “gangs” that operate with the knowledge of the security forces. He claims that security forces provide protection to people who violate the law and prevents inspectors from the committee from carrying out their duties.
Those with power, according to Munsir, do not pay attention to the committee’s demands for them to present documents that prove ownership of property and plazas, as there is no clear registry for public and private property.
LAW PENDING IN PARLIAMENT
The draft law, which would be considered by UNESCO as proof of Yemen’s credibility on the international stage, was presented to Parliament in 1997, but is yet pending although 97 articles out of 153 have already been debated.
Instead of pushing for the draft to be ratified, the Ministers’ Council ordered (in Feb 26th, 2013) both the ministers of culture and parliamentary affairs to withdraw the draft from parliament. This order is a violation of article 119 of the Parliamentary Guidelines, which only allows the government to withdraw draft legislation before parliament begins debating it.
Abdo Huthaifi, the head of the Culture and Media Committee in Parliament, confirmed that the government hasn’t yet officially withdrawn the bill. He accuses businessmen from Zabid and the capital, Sana’a, of blocking efforts to ratify it.
The committee’s rapporteur, Abdul Mu’iz Dabwan, says “MPs are under pressure from the residents of Zabid who have reservations against the law, and this is why Parliament has postponed completing the debate until now.”
In January 2013, some clergy in Zabid issued a declaration (which then turned into a “fatwa”) saying that passing the bill isn’t in accordance with Sharia, because it threatens citizens with eviction from their homes on the pretext of preserving antiquities.
A WEAK COMMITTEE
All the government decisions regarding the committee, which were preceded by a Presidential decree (no.2754 on 17/12/2012) ordering the government to take quick and serious measures to preserve the city, have not managed to save the city from the threats facing it. Other emergency projects have not prevented UNESCO from issuing its last warning.
The Committee for the Preservation of Historical Cities blames the government and local authorities and civil society in Zabid for this. The committee’s caretaker, Naji Thawabteh, says the cities has been pleading for 13 years. But successive governments only made plans on paper, while all projects designed to save the city have faltered since 2000.
Thawabteh also says the budget for preservation projects is low. “We have not received the 72 million Riyal ($450,000) to compensate those whose homes were appropriated, which would have alleviated the burden on the city,” he says, adding that “the committee has closed down its branch in Zabid because it was behind on payments to employees, and because they were attacked by the residents.”
He explains that “the committee cannot deliver on anything without help from the government,” and he is worried that the situation could also deteriorate because of the increase in violations, which sometimes amount up to 60 violations in 10 days, 30 of which are grave.
The local authority instructs the Works Department not to issue licences for construction in the city. But that is a cosmetic measure because violations continue. The manager of the Works Department, Abdul Raheem Mu’afi, confirms that 17 violations have been recorded in May 2013.
DISAPPEARANCE OF “MUD BRICK” FURNACES
Traditional mud bricks are made by mixing mud with animal stool, tree branches and fibers from agricultural crops. They are then shaped into rectangles (15 x 7 cm) and dried in furnaces dug up as underground tunnels. This process gives the brick its light red colour, and it deemed suitable for many climates because of it’s heat insulation qualities.
The head of the local council, Said Jarmeesh, says that due to the increasing prices of war materials for making traditional mud bricks, the locals cannot be blamed for turning to cheaper alternatives such as cement bricks that are manufactured in 15 workshops in the city. All manufacturers of traditional mud bricks have now closed now and Jarmeesh says the solution in the government’s hands.
One of the citizens, Abdo Othman (50 years), confirms that 4 furnaces have been shut down in Zabid shortly after they were opened. One of the furnaces belongs to the Committee for the Preservation of Zabid, which was shut down due to low revenues. Othman laments his loss saying: “I sold a plot of land to build a furnace that cost me 3 million Riyals ($15,000), but I had to close it down because there was no profit.”
POVERTY … ANOTHER FACTOR FOR DESTRUCTION AND DISFIGURATION
Poverty is increasing year after year, and obtaining housing for some residents has become almost impossible because land prices are increasing, as well as prices of mud bricks when compared to cement.
Jamal Hadrami, the honorary president of Zabid’s committee, says that solutions begin with developing the living standards for the local community, creating job opportunities, and supporting residents to build in the traditional method and providing basic services in the new city.
According to local statistics, the population of Zabid increased from 24,791 in 1993 to 49,582 in 2013, which required building 8,000 additional housing units. A study published in 2012 said that random construction within the open spaces of the city has ruined its unique architectural character.
When we asked the residents for the reason behind this, one of them said: “because of poverty and need… where can I live?”.
Wael Mukhtari, a young man with a degree in English literature, works today as motorbike driver, and earns a daily wage of 1500 Riyals ($7). He owns a small home made of cement by the western gate of the city.
“The poor and needy used to build in secret at night, and many of them ended up in jail. But those with money have built tall buildings in broad daylight because they can resist the state.”
Mukhtari knows his construction is against the law, but explains that his poor finances did not enable him to build in the traditional way. His home cost 700,000 Riyals ($3500) wheres building in the traditional way would have cost more than double that amount, and would have taken months to complete. Building with cement only took five days to finish.
Another resident, Abdullah Ahdal (40 years) agrees that building with traditional materials is expensive. “Twenty kilograms of that material costs 2,000 Riyals ($10), and you need thousands of kilograms to build one room of 24 square meters. It also takes 2-3 months to complete,” he expalins.
Ibrahim Hussein Jalal (50 years) says the government failed to deliver on its promise to provide 50% of the value of traditional construction material, in a bid to help the residents maintain the traditional character of the city. “Unfortunately, all agreements and promises are only delivered selectively to some people, and residents have lost confidence in the government,” he says.
THE GOVERNMENT IS THE MAIN VIOLATOR
The government has also been building randomly, and using cement. Many of the country’s senior officials have houses scattered around the city, such as the Mayor of Hudaida, Akram Atiyeh, and one of the ministers.
During our trip in the city, we entered a three-storey house, filled with elaborate decorations, that belonged to a senior figure in the judiciary (A.A.M). During our conversation, he said: “the government has no right to ban me from building, so long as the current preservation mechanism run by the government does not actually encourage people to build in the old traditional way.”
He adds that “the state itself pulled down the ancient wall of Zabid because it thought it was from the remnants of the Imami regime (before the revolution of September 1962) which should be removed. Meanwhile, citizens waited for 18 years, they complied with rules against building, but the government did not provide any solutions.”
Another citizen, Muhammed Wasel (62 years) also accuses the government of violating the law. He says that “in 1964, the government built Al Thawra School with cement and iron, over the ruins of the old wall.” he also points to public buildings inside the old city, such as the Zabid Rural Clinic, the police station and a telecommunications building, all of which are live evidence of government violations.
Residents also believe there is “political manipulation”, where state departments offer concessions during election time, in order to win votes for certain candidates.
“Zabid” takes its name from the valley in which it was built, 25 kilometers away from teh Red Sea. Ever since it was built by Bani Ziad in the 19th Century, Zabid was the center for many small states; the Najahi state (1040-1159), the Rassouli state (1229-1454), the Ayoubian state (1174-1229), as well as the Taheri and Mahdi states.
It is also the second most important historical city after Old San’aa (1400 years old). It contains 86 scientific schools and mosques, which formed its educational institutes through its Islamic history, and produced several scholars and imams whose books became references in Arabic and Islamic thought. French Orientalists described it as the “Oxford of the East” and a “City of Soul”. In 1993, UNESCO added the city to the list of the 10 most important human heritage sites in the world, due to its archaeological sites and given its status as a beacon of knowledge since the early decades of Islam.
The UNESCO list also includes Old San’a (since 1986), Shabam in Hadramout (since 1982). Yemen demands adding 10 more yemeni sites to the list.