Window on our past: a 19th-century poem from al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem. Photo: British Library EAP, photoshopped by Matthew Ward
Show Hide image

"The memory of the world": British attempts to save endangered Middle Eastern artefacts

Rescuing and preserving Middle Eastern texts and artefacts in the "post-custodial" age.

How much history did Isis burn in Mosul’s central library earlier this year? It seems grimly appropriate that it is difficult to find evidence to verify the worst estimates of 1,500 manuscripts and 100,000 books destroyed.

We are perhaps more used to states marking their territory by taking custody of the archives of weaker powers, even when that, in effect, amounts to kidnap. The British Library has material from all over the world collected during the days of empire; by 1979, however, Philip Larkin, a librarian as well as a poet, was trying to stop the flow of British literary manuscripts to the US.

Taking custody isn’t always a protective measure. Israel holds 6,000 Palestinian books and manuscripts collected from western Jerusalem after its victory in the 1948 war, but destroyed 24,000 it considered irrelevant or hostile.

According to the book From Dust to Digital, edited by Maja Kominko and published in February to mark the tenth anniversary of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), we now live in a “post-custodial” age. The programme removes nothing from its original location, so communities retain the ability to tell their own histories. Instead, money from the charitable Arcadia Fund is used to give grants to help people digitise at-risk or inaccessible material; the scanned images then go to the nearest possible institution and on to the Endangered Archives website (eap.bl.uk). The 19th-century copy of an Islamic poem printed above is one of “four million individual windows into the human past” gathered over the past decade: a photoshopping together of two of the 87,658 individual photographs of manuscripts taken in the library of al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

If the numbers are difficult to comprehend, so is the history they reflect. Because the origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam overlay it at different angles, the land around the library is perhaps the most fought over in the world. In 2000, Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, a few metres away, triggered the five-year-long Second Intifada, which killed as many as 4,000 people.

Al-Aqsa’s collection of Islamic manuscripts is one of the most important in the world, according to Unesco. Its newspaper archives also show the Palestinian perspective on the rising numbers of Jewish settlers, the 1917 Balfour Declaration in support of a Jewish state, British control between 1917 and 1948 and what Palestinians call al-Naqba (“the catastrophe”): the 1948 conflict that passed most of the area into Israeli control. Now they can browse its library from anywhere with an internet connection. Although the mosque is administered by a Jordanian trust, Palestinians can gain access to it only with a permit – or, during one of the many outbreaks of violence, not at all.

So far, the EAP has given out £6m in 244 grants and has received images of a vast compendium of medieval Jewish life known as the Cairo Genizah, beautiful illuminated manuscripts by Ethiopian Christians, ethnographic photographs of Soviet Siberia and scrolls that survived the annihilation of the northern Chinese Tangut people in the 13th century. There has been nothing, as yet, from Iraq. For much of the world, the “British” in the project’s title contradicts the “post-custodial” ideal.

“If this is the memory of the world,” the EAP argues, “the world needs [to be able] to access it.” Accordingly, all of the material is freely available, and captioned in five languages. It’s easy to get carried away: the UN estimates that only 40 per cent of the world’s population has access to the internet, and, whatever the precautions, we have no way of knowing how long these images will outlast their physical counterparts. Yet, for the foreseeable future, the EAP represents a new kind of archive – a utopian monument to curiosity.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.