Over the last few days, the decision of San Francisco School Board to destroy the mural at the George Washington High school on one hand, and objection of a group of university professors, artists and writers on the other, have reminded me of stories from my motherland, Iran. For the last forty years, a fanatical and oppressive government has been on a campaign of destroying art, history and culture which is not Islamic and/or is from pre-Islamic time in Iran. The Islamic regime while celebrating their brand of Islam, has attempted to destroy anything that is not religious and/or belongs to a different religion in different ways; destroying some while deliberately abandoning others and allowing them to be destroyed by nature, many times in a state of disrepair and exposed to wind and rain resulting in their destruction over time.
As advocates of preservation of cultural heritage, historical sites and art, my colleagues and I regularly make declarations and protest, and send letters to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) asking them not to let history of Iran to be destroyed. Through a not-for-profit organization, World Cultural Heritage Voices, I founded, we work on maintaining a cultural heritage record and focus on preservation of world heritage sites especially in the areas of the world suffering from war, poverty and conflict and especially in the hands of negligent governments.
I am an Iranian-American, who strongly believe in non-discrimination based on race, religion, and cultural background, I strongly object to the upcoming destruction of George Washington mural by San Francisco Education Board. According to the basic text of 1972 World Heritage Convention, “Considering that deterioration or disappearance of any item of the cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world”, therefore, cultural heritage of anywhere (any location) in the world is considered a universal heritage of all humans living on Earth, and destruction of any one heritage site or item would have universal adverse impact.
While I understand and recognize the suffering and anguish that African slaves (and ancestors of many today’s African Americans) and Native Americans experienced in our common history, I have to also acknowledge that history is not just full of positive and good experiences. We cannot just focus on preservation of “good” cultural heritage. If that was the case, then we should destroy half of our museums and many historical monuments of the world. Over the last few decades we have seen how the
so-called Islamic State destroyed “un-Islamic” monuments and world heritage sites in Syria and Iraq. We saw how Taliban destroyed the world heritage designated Buddha carved on the side of mountain in Afghanistan. We have seen how the Islamic government in Iran has even destroyed the cemeteries of people from other religions in addition to several thousands of Zoroastrian temples. While the founding fathers of our nation including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson lived during times that many land owners were also slave owners, we should not forget the sacrifices they made in order to create and build our country. Let’s remember history and learn from it.
Even if we were so naïve to think that our 21 st century children are so gullible and impressionable that seeing a mural on the wall could have a long lasting impact on their lives, would it not be better if these murals could be used as a way of teaching them about history, our country and the world? And suppose that instead of destroying the mural, we could add a large panel with the following text inscribed on it: “We Americans are proud that in the last two centuries we have made major progress towards equality that today, people of any color and background has equal rights under our constitution. And we will keep these paintings to be reminded every day of the courage and sacrifice that many have had to make so that we could live as free citizens of this country.”
First published in World Cultural Heritage Voices.