Robert Fisk: An urge to smash history into tiny pieces

Published: 08 September 2007
What is it about graven images? Why are we humanoids so prone to destroy our own faces, smash our own human history, erase the memory of language? I’ve covered the rape of Bosnian and Serb and Croatian culture in ex-Yugoslavia – the deliberate demolition of churches, libraries, graveyards, even the wonderful Ottoman Mostar Bridge – and I’ve heard the excuses. “There’s no place for these old things,” the Croat gunner reportedly said as he fired his artillery battery towards that graceful Ottoman arch over the Neretva. The videotape of its collapse was itself an image of cultural genocide – until the Taliban exploded the giant Buddhas of Bamian.

And yet there I was earlier this week, staring at another massive Buddha – this time in the Tajiki capital of Dushanbe, only a few hundred miles from the Afghan border. So gently was it sleeping, giant head on spread right hand, that I tiptoed down its almost 40ft length, talking in whispers in case I woke this creature with its Modigliani features, its firmly closed eyes and ski-slope nose. Saved from the ravages of iconoclasts, I thought, until I realised that this karma-inducing god had itself been assaulted.

The top of its head, eyes and nose are intact, but the lower half of its face has been subtly restored by a more modern hand, its long body, perhaps three-quarters new, where the undamaged left hand, palm on hip, lies gently on its upper left leg above the pleats of its original robes. So what happened to this Buddha? Surely the Taliban never reached Dushanbe.

A young curator at Dush-ambe’s wonderful museum of antiquities explained in careful, bleak English. “When the Arabs came, they smashed all these things as idolatrous,” she said. Ah yes, of course they did. The forces of Islam arrived in modern-day Tajikistan in around AD645 – the Taliban of their day, as bearded as their 20th-century successors, with no television sets to hang, but plenty of Buddhas to smash. How on earth did the Bamian Buddhas escape this original depredation?

The Buddhist temple at Vakhsh, east of Qurghonteppa was itself new (given a hundred years or two) when the Arabs arrived, and the museum contains the “work” of these idol-smashers in desperate, carefully preserved profusion. Buddha’s throne appears to have been attacked with swords and the statue of Shiva and his wife Parvati (sixth to eighth centuries) has been so severely damaged by these ancient Talibans that only their feet and the sacred cow beneath them are left.

Originally discovered in 1969 30ft beneath the soil, the statue of “Buddha in Nirvana” was brought up to Dushanbe as a direct result of the destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan. Taliban excess, in other words, inspired post-Soviet preservation. If we can no longer gaze at the faces of those mighty deities in Bamian because the Department for the Suppression of Vice and Preservation of Virtue in Kabul deemed them worthy of annihilation, we can still look upon this divinity in the posture of the “sleeping lion” now that it has been freighted up to Dushanbe by the local inheritors of Stalin’s monstrous empire. A sobering thought.

A certain B A Litvinsky was responsible for this first act of architectural mercy. Eventually the statue was brought to the Tajiki capital in 92 parts. Not that long ago, a fraternal Chinese delegation arrived and asked to take the sleeping Buddha home with them; they were told that they could only photograph this masterpiece – which may be the genesis of the “new” Buddha in the People’s Republic.

Needless to say, there are many other fragments – animals, birds, demons – that made their way from the monastery to the museum. And I had to reflect that the Arabs behaved no worse than Henry VIII’s lads when they set to work on the great abbeys of England. Did not even the little church of East Sutton above the Kentish Weald have a few graven images desecrated during the great age of English history? Are our cathedrals not filled with hacked faces, the remaining witness to our very own brand of Protestant Talibans?

Besides, the arrival of the Arabic script allowed a new Tajiki poetry to flourish – Ferdowsi was a Tajik and wrote Shanameh in Arabic – and in Dushanbe, you can see the most exquisite tomb-markers from the era of King Babar, Arabic verse carved with Koranic care into the smooth black surface of the stone. Yet when Stalin absorbed Tajikistan into the Soviet empire – cruelly handing the historic Tajiki cities of Tashkent and Samarkand to the new republic of Uzbekistan, just to keep ethnic hatreds alive – his commissars banned Arabic. All children would henceforth be taught Russian and, even if they were writing Tajiki, it must be in Cyrillic, not in Arabic.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was similarly “modernising” Turkey at this time by forcing Turks to move from Arabic to Latin script (which is one reason, I suspect, why modern Turkish scholars have such difficulty in studying vital Ottoman texts on the 1915 Armenian Holocaust). Get rid of the written language and history seems less dangerous. Didn’t we try to do the same thing in Ireland, forcing the Catholic clergy to become hedge-preachers so that the Irish language would remain in spoken rather than written form?

And so the Tajiki couples and the children who come to look at their past in Dushanbe cannot read the Shahnameh as it was written – and cannot decipher the elegant Persian poetry carved on those extraordinary tomb-stones. So here is a tiny victory against iconoclasm, perhaps the first English translation of one of those ancient stones which few Tajiks can now understand:

“I heard that mighty Jamshed the King/ Carved on a stone near a spring of water these words:/ Many – like us – sat here by this spring/ And left this life in the blink of an eye./ We captured the whole world through our courage and strength,/ Yet could take nothing with us to our grave.”

Beside that same East Sutton church in Kent, there still stands an English tombstone which I would read each time I panted past it in my Sutton Valence school running shorts on wintry Saturday afternoons. I don’t remember whose body it immortalises, but I remember the carved verse above the name: “Remember me as you pass by,/ As you are now, so once was I./ As I am now, so you will be./ Remember Death will follow thee.”

And I do recall, exhausted and frozen into my thin running clothes, that I came to hate this eternal message so much that sometimes I wanted to take a hammer and smash the whole bloody thing to pieces. Yes, somewhere in our dark hearts, perhaps we are all Talibans.

© The Independent
* http://news.independent.co.uk/fisk/article2941871.ece

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Robert Fisk: An urge to smash history into tiny pieces

  1. Nahid

    Dear Editor,

    Regarding the article in titled by “An urge to smash history into tiny pieces“, dated Sep. 20, 07, Obviously, writer’s note about Ferdowsi in the paragraph 9th is completely wrong. A quick search about Ferdowsi’s biography in Internet, by any website, can disapprove of the information, which the writer calls Ferdowsi as Tajiki poet who has written his famous book, Shaahnaameh, in Arabic! I wonder what his reference was while in every reference, you can find the truth about Ferdowsi as the following:

    Ferdowsi is the most famous Persian poet with his famous book: Shaahnaameh (the Epic of Kings). Absolutely, he was Iranian, where you can find at the first lines of his book he wrote: “Cho Iran nabaashad Tane man mabaad”/ “چو ایران نباشد تن من مباد”. It means “If there would not be Iran, I would prefer not to be”.

    Also, his entire book, Shaahnaameh, is in Farsi/Parsi/Persian, and not Arabic. At the first pages in his book, he explained about his goal of writing Shaahnaameh. In era when Arab attacked to Iran and destroyed everything and pushed people to speak in Arabic, He tried to write a book completely in Farsi, without even one word in Arabic. At that era, Arabs called Persian “Ajam”, it means “non concept”. Because Arabs didn’t understand Persian, they tried to push people to speak in Arabic. But the Ferdowsi’s braveness was creation of a completely Persian book in 30 years. Appropriately, he wrote “Basi ranj bordam dar in saal si, Ajam zendeh kardam bedin Parsi”/”بسی رنج بردم در این سال سی ; عجم زنده کردم بدین پارسی ”. It means: “I have suffered much in 30 years, to keep alive Persian language”

    With spending a little time, you can find the facts about the most famous Persian poet: Ferdowsi, which is completely different from the information in this article. Just a question is remained: Why the writer has written such wrong information? Writers are responsible about what they write. Certainly, it is expected that they should research about what they want to write. However, it is common to write ideas, correctly or wrongly, about controversal today’s unproved topics, it is clamity to write wrongly about obvious historical subject. As you mentioned: “we believe our word make difference when it comes to change the world”, but I am afraid of publishing wrong words which can make different history!

    Sincerely,
    Nahid

  2. Nahid

    Dear Editor,

    Regarding the article in titled by “An urge to smash history into tiny pieces“, dated Sep. 20, 07, Obviously, writer’s note about Ferdowsi in the paragraph 9th is completely wrong. A quick search about Ferdowsi’s biography in Internet, by any website, can disapprove of the information, which the writer calls Ferdowsi as Tajiki poet who has written his famous book, Shaahnaameh, in Arabic! I wonder what his reference was while in every reference, you can find the truth about Ferdowsi (who was an Iranian poet and wrote his book completely in
    Persian) as the following:

    Ferdowsi is the most famous Persian poet with his famous book: Shaahnaameh (the Epic of Kings). Absolutely, he was Iranian, where you can find at the first lines of his book he wrote: “Cho Iran nabaashad Tane man mabaad”/ “چو ایران نباشد تن من مباد”. It means “If there would not be Iran, I would prefer not to be”.

    Also, his entire book, Shaahnaameh, is in Farsi/Parsi/Persian, and not Arabic. At the first pages in his book, he explained about his goal of writing Shaahnaameh. In era when Arab attacked to Iran and destroyed everything and pushed people to speak in Arabic, He tried to write a book completely in Farsi, without even one word in Arabic. At that era, Arabs called Persian “Ajam”, it means “non concept”. Because Arabs didn’t understand Persian, they tried to push people to speak in Arabic. But the Ferdowsi’s braveness was creation of a completely Persian book in 30 years. Appropriately, he wrote “Basi ranj bordam dar in saal si, Ajam zendeh kardam bedin Parsi”/”بسی رنج بردم در این سال سی ; عجم زنده کردم بدین پارسی ”. It means: “I have suffered much in 30 years, to keep alive Persian language”

    With spending a little time, you can find the facts about the most famous Persian poet: Ferdowsi, which is completely different from the information in this article. Just a question is remained: Why the writer has written such wrong information? Writers are responsible about what they write. Certainly, it is expected that they should research about what they want to write. However, it is common to write ideas, correctly or wrongly, about controversal today’s unproved topics, it is clamity to write wrongly about obvious historical subject. As you mentioned: “we believe our word make difference when it comes to change the world”, but I am afraid of publishing wrong words which can make different history!

    to prove please visit: Britannica Online Encyclopedia:
    http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9034029/Ferdowsi

    or,

    Wikipedia Encyclopedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdowsi

    Sincerely,
    Nahid

  3. I’m very sorry Nahid, for delaying your reply. It was this editor’s birthday so we haven’t checked our comments in the last few days. Allow me to read your comment and the references carefully, and I’ll be sure to send you a reply as soon asI can.

    Best regards
    Clitemnistra

  4. Hamed

    I’m sorry for the writer of this article …if you say ferdowsi is not persian then maybe alcohol is also created by arabs ..heh.. or maybe molana is turkish … or you might say the history of spartans fighting with 300 people against persia is true…heheheh … you people are funny when u dont know anything about history but you act like you know ..educate your self

  5. maz

    hey guys,
    Ferdowsi was born in tus, old and modern day iran. I believe the writer assumed that he was tajiki because the people there speak persian, because tajikistan was always part of iran before the soviet conquest.
    Anyways if you wanna go to his tomb where he died, go to tehran by an airplane. Then go to mashad by plane or train and then get a bus or something and go to tus. Its pretty nice

  6. San

    This is such a BIG error on you side. Everybody makes mistakes from time to time but this is not just any mistake, this is embarrassing. I feel sorry for you.

  7. SaadiShirazi

    The writer did not make any mistake here. Ferdowsi was indeed a Tajik, which was a terms used to refer to any speaker of Persian at the time of his writing (used as a distinction from a Turk as in “Turk o Tajik”). Until modern times Tajikistan and Iran were both parts of Persia, and their people are both descendants of Ferdowsi and his cultural legacy. In that sense Ferdowsi is neither Tajik nor Iranian, but rather Persian. But none of these three is really incorrect.

    Also, the writer never claims that the Shahnameh is written in the Arabic language, (s)he instead writes that it is written in the Arabic script. Perhaps the people who have commented do not read English perfectly, but otherwise I can’t think of any reason why this would have been misunderstood.

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