With a body count of more than 600 in the two-month-old Marawi crisis, the bombed-out homes and buildings, a city laid to waste, and half a million civilians chased off to cramped evacuation centers, should anyone bother at all with lost brass ware, storage chests, and other pusaka (heirloom) objects?
Compared to human life and misery, aren’t they mere acquisitions, objects of desire that can be replaced when lost?
Not so, according to Bai Marites Maguindra, head of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao’s Bureau of Cultural Heritage, who described these objects as part of Marawi’s rich cultural heritage.
Along with these pusaka objects, also lost are ancient documents written in Jawi, a pre-Spanish form of writing derived from the Arabic alphabet then prevalent in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Islamic areas of the Philippines.
Kept by leading Muslim families in Marawi, the documents record important events and occasions in the life of the Maranao people: marriages, intermarriages, contracts, clan-to-clan agreements and dispute settlements. Kirims (family genealogies or documents of royal heritage, also called tarsila), which are unique to Muslims, were also written in Jawi.
The documents, according to Maguindra, are part of the Maranao’s cultural heritage and history. They are knowledge-based information that give the Maranao a glimpse of their ancestors and family tree.
Because the lost or damaged documents can no longer be recovered, Maguindra said, she would push for the digital conversion of the remaining documents to ensure their preservation. She would also inventory the extent of the lost or missing heritage items that she described as “priceless.”
“When we rebuild Marawi, we need to also look at the damage to our cultural heritage,” she said. “We don’t want to build just buildings, roads and bridges.”
Indeed, retrieving and conserving one’s cultural identity is part of keeping the community intact. Beyond physical proximity, shared beliefs, customs and traditions are the ties that bind neighbors despite their diverse backgrounds.
The Islamic State and other terrorist groups know as much and seek to destroy such common ties as a way to divide and conquer. By destroying heritage sites and artifacts, extremists seek to erase the cultural identity of conquered people and cut the link that brings them together.
Unesco director general Irina Bokovahas described this “cultural cleansing” by extremist groups as their way of imposing their own version of the world. Rather than preserve and honor proof of centuries-old civilization, “they want to tell us that there was no memory [of these sites], no culture, no heritage” before they came in.
Said Bokovahas: Destroying cultural sites is like “depriving people of their identity. It’s as if they never existed.” She added: “(Cultural cleansing) is about uprooting people from their living communities, from their shared memories, and about destroying the incredible cultural diversity of countries.”
Like the Nazis before them, these terrorist groups have maximized the propaganda value of destroying items that they think contradict their own beliefs, a way of warning the vanquished that nonconformity and resistance would be similarly dealt with.
But while the desecration and looting of cultural and religious sites is a brutal and deliberate war strategy among terrorist groups — even a fund-raiser, as the groups cash in on looted artifacts in the black market — the loss of heirloom items in Marawi and other conflict areas may be the result of ignorance and apathy.
Now that the issue is out there, will a responsible government agency — the Islamic Studies, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, or the Heritage Conservation Society — step up to the plate? Can an inventory of Marawi’s missing and existing heritage items be done after the fighting is over?
And yes, aside from the P20-billion fund to rebuild and rehabilitate the devastated city, can a budget be earmarked for the conservation of the Maranao’s heirloom items and cultural artifacts?
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