I won’t be mourning its loss, hear me out.
I can’t be bothered to care about the Notre Dame fire. It exhausts me the way white people mourn the loss of white cultural artifacts while destroying those of black and brown people. A part of me wishes it had burned to the ground and was reduced entirely to memory.
I visited the place back in 2015. Inside, I remember a portrait of the Madonna with black skin. Her hands were painted dark but her face had been intentionally lightened a significant amount. The church itself was wide open. The intricate artistry of the stonework and the imagination of the architecture was truly breathtaking.
Now that the cathedral is in the news, white supremacist and far right (but still mainstream) pundits lament its loss. One American in particular, who I won’t name but you can easily Google, stated that “If we wish to uphold the beauty and profundity of the Notre Dame cathedral, that means re-familiarizing ourselves with the philosophy and religious principles that built it.” He is of course referring to the achievements of Western Christian heritage, also known as white people. He is most likely ignorant of the fact that Notre Dame’s architectural design comes directly from Syria in the 5th century, the ideas were brought back by European crusaders in the 12th. The United States has joined other Western powers in bombing Syria until its historic sites are turned to dust, thousands of lives lost, but no comparable uproar.
In nearby Yemen, a similar story plays out. US backed forces have been bombing the highlands in an attempt to oust the Houthi militant groups in the region. What they’re doing in the process, is focusing their bombs on culturally significant sites. According to a report by the Antiquities Coalition, the Asia Society, and the Middle East Institute, “culture has become a weapon of war”. More than 80 historic sites have been targeted and destroyed but according to Nabil Monassar, the vice director of the General Organization for the Preservation of the Historic Cities of Yemen, “If we consider individual historic buildings in both Sanaa and Saada, which is still being bombed now, the number of destroyed historic sites is in the hundreds.” (Deknatel)
In my research, I found that Yemen is home to the best example of preserved historical fabric that exists in the Arabian Peninsula today. Michele Lamprakos, an architectural historian at the University of Maryland said of the country: “Cultural heritage is unique in Yemen in the sense that it’s still a living heritage. It’s not antiquities or ancient history. It’s about everyday environments that still have meaning” (Deknatel). This intentional demolition of tangible Yemeni culture is supported by the United States.
We don’t have to leave the U.S. however to find an example of the way white people express their outrage and mourning selectively. Just last week, three Black churches in Louisiana were burned to the ground in a series of arsons. All three of the churches were historic, over 100 years old, and the media covered it like an afterthought. Those churches have seen an increase in donations as people see the blatant disparity in public grief. Black and brown life itself is deemed less important. The Boston Marathon bombing years ago killed three people and we’ll never hear the end of it, while the civilian death toll from US drone programs gets crammed into a few seconds at the end of the hour on NPR every day.
As I type this, international crowdfunding for repairs to the cathedral tops 600 million euros. That’s enough money to end homelessness in France. I imagine folks in Flint and Puerto Rico could use some rebuilding cash like that too.
Am I happy when bad things happen? No. Am I saying people can’t mourn the loss of historic Notre Dame? No. But I am saying, have a little perspective.
- Deknatel, F. (2017, February 21). Tearing the Historic Fabric: The Destruction of Yemen's Cultural Heritage. Retrieved April 16, 2019, from https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/tearing-the-historic-fabric-the-destruction-of-yemens-cultural-heritage/#!