The Special Report

27th May 2001


Saddam - the romantic novelist 

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  • Renovation of archaeological sites: Is it a question of preserving or perishing?
  • It's a hard day's work
  • Vandalism by treasure hunters continues
  • Renovation of archaeological sites: Is it a question of preserving or perishing?

    By Chandani Kirinde and Sunil Jayathilake
    Hundreds of millions of rupees have been poured into work on two of Sri Lanka's most important archaeological and religious sites during the past 20 years but questions are being asked as to whether there has been more deterioration than conservation.

    Understandably, archaeological work is gruelling and time consuming. But what has led to the delays in the conservation work in the Jetavanaramaya and Abhayagiriya projects in Anuradhapura, appears to have more to do with poor planning and management in executing the two projects which come under the Central Cultural Fund(CCF).

    Since February this year, the CCF was brought under the Presidential Secretariat by a special gazette notification although it continues to be administered by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs under which it operated since its inception .

    It is learnt that a total of Rs 600 million each has been spent on the restoration and conservation work on the two sites since 1981. 

    Now the projects are funded by the income from ticket sales, mainly to foreign tourists to the three cultural triangle sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. Ticket sales fetched Rs. 275 million last year but income at Anuradhapura has been on the decline in recent years due to terrorist problems that have resulted in high security in the sacred city area, officials in the CCF said.

    UNESCO which declared the three sites as world heritage and secured funding for the projects through UN organisations and the Japanese and Chinese governments among others has also stopped funding since 1998. 

    Work on the Jetavanarama project has been at a standstill for more than a month because of a shortage of bricks. The problem has come about as a result of failure to operate a kiln specially built to burn bricks for work on the Jetavanaramaya restoration and conservation project.

    The kiln was built by the CCF at Galkadawala nearly ten years ago. The kiln has the capacity to burn upto 100,000 bricks but failure to get maximum use out of it has also resulted in the delay of the work on the project. The kiln has not been used for nearly three years despite a directive by the Cultural Affairs Minister Monty Gopallawa that it be made operational , CCF sources said.

    The minister's directive came while arrangements were allegedly being made by some officials involved in the project to call for tenders to buy bricks at Rs18 each even though a brick can be burnt at the CCF owned kiln at half that rate. 

    The delay in completing the Jetavanarama project has been blamed on many factors. One was the stoppage of work for nearly three years in 1993 when 400,000 bricks brought for the work on the Jatavanarama were taken for the restoration work at the "Mirisavatiya Chaitya" during the time of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. 

    Two years ago, officials in charge of the project said the restoration work would be completed in time for Poson in 1999 but recent projections show that work would not be completed for at least another two years.

    However, the Jetawana project manager R.M.P. Ratnayake said the delays have been mainly due to the nature of the work that is involved and that in another one and a half years, the conservation work on the Jetavanaramaya would be completed.

    "We have started to buy the untreated bricks at five rupees each and are burning them in the CCF run kiln. The work on the project will resume soon," he asserted.

    According to CCF sources, there has been a lot of waste in the funds that were meant to expedite the conservation work on the two projects. One example is the setting up of street lights within the Abayagiriya area at a cost of Rs1.4 million.

    Progress on the Abhayagiriya project has been even slower than on the Jetawanarama. It is now projected that the conservation work on this dagoba would take at least another 22 years although looking at the magnitude of the work involved, it would seem that it would take even longer. 

    As no new materials are being used for its reconstruction each brick is being painstakingly removed and fitted back with the same kind of mixture that was used by the builders of the original dagoba.

    Abhayagiriya project's acting director Kusum Dissana-yake said,"the workers put in many hours of hard work facing many odds but it is difficult to see big changes for many years as progress cannot be achieved overnight like when putting up a new building." The big question is whether the Rs. 1,200 million spent on the two projects has been well spent or were the finances mismanaged in a manner that has put these two projects at further risk of deterioration instead of conservation.

    It's a hard day's work 

    They toil and sweat in the scorching sun, day after day to restore past glory to some of the country's most remarkable archeological sites. These men and women not only work against the forces of nature but also risk their lives in the process of their work. But the income they get for their hard work is meagre. There are over 1,200 casual and skilled workers working on the Jetavanarama and Abhayagiriya restoration projects in Anuradhapura. The daily wages of a casual worker is Rs 147.12 while a skilled worker is paid Rs 170 and while those categorized as special grade employees are paid Rs 189.12. Since they have only 20-25 days of work for a month, their salaries are less than Rs4,000 a month.

    Vandalism by treasure hunters continues

    The spate of vandalism of Buddhist archaeological sites during the past two weeks has become a serious concern to archaeologists in the country. 

    Within the past two weeks, at least four ancient temples have been vandalized by treasure hunters looking for hidden gold and gems embedded in the Buddha statues. 

    Among the statues destroyed were those in the Gadaladeniya Raja Maha Viharaya in Kandy and the Alagauwa Raja Maha Viharaya in Kekirawa. 

    There are at least 15,000 known archeological sites in the country but the number of undiscovered sites are believed to exceed 100,000. 

    Similarly the reported number of vandalized sites are far less than the actual incidents that take place an official of the Archaeology Department said. The highest number of cases reported between 1991 and 2000 was in 1997 standing at 88. In 2000 only 24 cases were reported. 

    The downward trend may have been partly due to the amendments to the Antiquities Ordinance which made vandalism of archaeological sites a non bailable offense. 

    The fines were also increased from Rs5,000 to Rs50,000 along with prison terms of upto two years, the official said. 

    However, the recent destruction show even these steps are inadequate to deal with the treasure hunters. 

    An exploration officer of the Archaeology Department said that false beliefs that treasures were embedded in Buddha statues have led to such incidents 

    He said that most Buddha statues of the Kandyan era (17 and 18th century) were made of wooden frames with the exterior done in bronze and then plated in gold. Hence it was clear that there were no valuables hidden inside them. 

    Meanwhile the Department held an exhibition entitled "Stop Vandalism of Archaeological Sites" last Monday to commemorate World Culture Day. The theme was chosen to educate people on the futility of seeking treasures by destroying items that are priceless in archaeological terms but have little financial value.

    Saddam - the romantic novelist

    By Brian Whitaker
    A tragic novel of loveless marriage, rape and death is causing a stir in Iraq and at the CIA. Could its unnamed author be the Butcher of Baghdad? 

    The 160-page paperback, Zabibah wal Malik ("Zabibah and the King"), has - apparently - become every Iraqi's favourite read. All the public libraries stock copies and, if newspaper reports are to be believed, it's the talk of the intelligentsia. 

    Despite its rambling, overblown prose and its gaudy, pre-Raphaelite influenced illustrations, the Iraqi media have hailed it as an "innovation in the history of novels" and given it rave reviews. Indeed, nobody in Iraq appears to have whispered so much as a word of criticism against it. 

    Couple that with a little-noticed remark by Saddam Hussein early last year that he intended to write a novel, and you have the makings of a tale more intriguing than the book's own storyline. 

    The cover gives no clue to the writer's identity, saying cryptically that it is "a novel by its author". A note inside explains that the author "did not wish to put his name on it out of humility, like the sons of Iraq who sacrifice their lives and their valuables and never talk about their great deeds". 

    After finding a copy in a London bookshop, the CIA spent three months analysing its text. "Saddam's style, sentence structure and expressions are clearly present in the novel," the New York Times reports. With an opening paragraph that reads: "What is more wondrous and delightful than heroines and the level of great deeds, and even miracles in Iraq!" we can be reasonably certain that the author was not Shakespeare. 

    But the CIA doubts that Saddam wrote the entire book. More likely, he supervised its creation by one or more professional writers. 

    This echoes the process a few months ago when Saddam demanded a new national anthem. Summoning a group of leading poets, he gave them a few lines of his own - "Glory to martyrs... glory to mothers... down with hesitation and defeatism... glory to our nation and homeland" - and told them to get on with the rest. Saddam Hussein is the second Arab leader to develop a sideline in literary, as opposed to political, fiction. In 1998, Colonel Muammar Gadafy of Libya published a book of short stories called Escape to Hell. President John Kennedy's former press secretary, Pierre Salinger, wrote the best part, an introduction that is a tour de force in sounding complimentary without have anything very complimentary to say. 

    The excitement at the CIA is that Zabibah wal Malik, even if ghostwritten by people trying to please Saddam, may offer a rare insight into the Iraqi leader's deepest thoughts.

    The story is heavily allegorical and the beautiful heroine, Zabibah, is identified by the CIA as representing the Iraqi people. The mighty king is you-know-who and Zabibah, cruelly treated by her husband, falls in love with him. 

    In a series of long but chaste encounters, the king pours out his heart of Zabibah and - interestingly for the spooks in Langley - reveals his feelings of insecurity. One night, returning from the palace, Zabibah is dragged off to the forest and raped. She and her estranged husband are killed on January 17 - the anniversary of Desert Storm. 

    The king establishes a parliament, only to find that all its members are disreputable characters. One, an aristocrat named Nouri Chalabi, is a prime example of decadence and kowtowing to foreigners. He is thought to be a caricature of Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the exiled opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress. 

    As the parliamentarians squabble, a messenger announces that the king has died. This brings the novel to a puzzling conclusion. After a funeral befitting Saddam, the MPs declare: "Long live Zabibah! Long live the people! Long live the army!" But nobody mentions a new king. 

    - The Guardian

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