Yemen proves it: in western eyes, not all ‘Notre Dames’ are created equal

Lamya Khalidi


Like everyone else the world over, I watched in horror last week as Notre Dame burned and its spire fell. I saw the stunned reactions of onlookers on the news, on social media and in front of television sets and phone screens on the streets of Nice, where I live. A part of France’s national identity and an international symbol of Paris was collapsing before our eyes.

This accidental burning of one of the most important French cultural and religious monuments struck a painful chord in just about everyone I know: I was getting messages of grief from friends in Sudan, Yemen, the US and South America. The unthinkable sight of Notre Dame burning evoked photographs of burning buildings during wartime, and nostalgia for all the valuable historical objects within them that had been turned to ash. One could not look at this sight without feeling grief.

And yet my mind couldn’t stop questioning why the horrified reaction to the destruction of Notre Dame, a Unesco world heritage site, isn’t the response we always see to the destruction of any historical monument, no matter its location and no matter your nationality, race or religion.

Even as we grieve for Notre Dame, hundreds of millions of dollars in arms are being sold by the US, the UK, France, Italy, Australia and other countries to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as they begin their fifth year of aerial and terrestrial assault on Yemen. While Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of GDP, it is immensely rich in cultural heritage. And today, this ancient and proud country of 25 million is being torn apart, along with its invaluable heritage.

As a result of this brutal military campaign, more than 85,000 children have died of malnutrition, there have been 18,000 civilian casualties, and several million people are internally displaced. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2015, hundreds of Yemeni religious and historical monuments, three of which are Unesco world heritage sites, as well as renowned archaeological sites and museums, have been bombarded or suffered collateral damage from aerial attacks by the coalition, using the planes, guidance systems, and bombs sold to them by western nations.

I have worked as an archaeologist on sites throughout the world, surveying, documenting, excavating and restoring our communal human past. This past holds so many keys to our future, and we archaeologists hold these truths in our hands. We are the discoverers and protectors of a universal history, and we uncover and transmit clues on our origins, our past innovations and conflicts, and the rise and fall of ancient empires and fabulous monuments. In these modern times, archaeologists have an ethical and legal duty to respect and protect this past. We also have a responsibility to build public awareness so that citizens of the world engage in protecting heritage on all levels, tangible and intangible.

During the 10 years of my career I spent working and living in Yemen and reconstructing its past, I discovered a country with a history so rich, a landscape so beautiful, and a population so generous that it was impossible not to fall in love with it. While many may be unfamiliar with Yemen, they will likely be familiar with its plethora of “Notre Dames” which, as well as being symbols of Yemen’s national identity, are an important part of our communal human history.

To Yemen we owe the Queen of Sheba and the palaces and temples of the Sabaean kingdoms, the incense trade, the Marib dam, some of the earliest Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities and the monuments they raised, and archives dating as far back as the 9th century BC. And to Yemen we also owe the oldest and most splendid mud and stone vernacular architecture in the world, and a unique protected ecosystem unknown elsewhere in the world, on the Uneso world heritage island of Socotra. The fragile natural heritage of the island of Socotra is being undermined by Emirati development, as they annex it and turn it into a deluxe tourist destination, all the while continuing to bomb civilians and Yemeni heritage.

Related: Trump’s veto over Yemen is a scandalous abuse of presidential power | Simon Tisdall

Every day I watch Yemen burn, and every day I hear only silence. Donald Trump has been very clear as to why he recently vetoed a bill passed by both houses of the US Congress to stop US arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Congress has seen overwhelming evidence that these arms are being used against a devastated civilian population under siege and suffering from famine and cholera. But the president of the United States expressed what all world leaders are hiding from their citizens: arms sales are more important than human lives and world heritage.

Arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its coalition are being criticised and investigated by parliamentarians, lawyers and human rights groups across the globe because the situation in Yemen is beyond dire, and continued violence, embargoes and forced starvation are simply unjustifiable. Let’s stand up and collectively rebuild Notre Dame; but let’s also stand up and stop our governments’ destruction of Yemen, its people, and its Notre Dames, where the source of the burning is clearly no accident. It is being carried out with the assent of our governments, funded by our taxes, and in our names.

• Lamya Khalidi is a researcher in archaeology at the French National Centre for Scientific Research