“The Hill is Home” – A Student of History in Washington D.C.

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In his book “The Pakistani Historian: Pride and Prejudice in the Writing of History”, Mr. K.K. Aziz (a standout Pakistani Historian) complains about Pakistani public’s general neglect towards preservation of their history:

“[…] The yesterday is gone and matters not. The tomorrow is yet not here, and who knows whether there will be a tomorrow. A society which clings to the present so desperately can have no awareness of, not to speak of an interest in, the past. Thus, socially and morally, we do not recognize or acknowledge the past. History does not exist. Nobody can write about a thing that is non-existent.

Intellectually, too, we are chary in acknowledging the past (respecting it is out of question). Some minor things (but producing major consequences) which we fail to do point to this desideratum. We could have put plaques on buildings and houses associated with historical personages and significant events. We have not done it. The historian of today or tomorrow might like to identify the building where Justice Shah Din lived, or The Inqilab was published, or Akbar Shirani issued his Ruman, or Professor Ahmad Shah Bukhari stayed as a young lecturer and wrote Patras ky Mazamin, or Sir Abdul Qadir spent his last days, or Jinnah put up during his visits to Lahore, or The Civil and Military Gazette was published, or Iqbal had his law chamber, or the All India Khilafat Conference held its 1929 annual session, or Chaudhri Rahmat Ali set up his household, or the Khaksar Movement was established, or the Government College opened its first classes, or the Indian National Congress held its 1930 annual session, or Sir Sikandar Hayat lived, or the first Punjab Lagislative [sic] Council met, and so on. For a national or provincial or local historian there are a hundred such landmarks in Lahore alone (and many more throughout the country) which he would like to locate, visit, stare at and contemplate to get the “feel of history”. All these places should have been given identification plates, preserved, renovated and photographed. Nothing was done. Most of them are now gone forever and replaced by new buildings and commercial markets. The past is beyond visual recall. History has been destroyed – deliberately, effectively, irretrievably.”

As part of ELP[Emerging Leaders of Pakistan] program, I got to spend a week in Washington, DC, where we held meetings with U.S. political leadership and witnessed the U.S. election fever. In our free time, we went out and roamed around on random streets in the Capital, and at every step, the words of K.K. Aziz echoed in my mind. Washington, D.C, is a testament of America’s pride in their history. Saunter down any street in D.C. area, and you will see tens of historic landmarks and monuments which instantly take you back to the past.

I was staying at a hotel near Thomas Circle – home to the statue of General George Henry Thomas. The statue is one of seventeen Civil War Monuments located in Washington, D.C. area. Across the statue, one could see the white building of National City Christian Church, which is another living historical monument itself.

On a short walk’s distance on 14th Street, where race riots took place after Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder in 1968, I found the Oscar Straus Memorial and the National Museum of History.  Oscar Straus was the first Jew to serve in the cabinet of United States. The inscriptions read, “Our Liberty of Worship Is Not A Concession Nor a Privilege But An Inherent Right.” The second inscription read, “The Voice of Reason Is More To Be Regarded Than The Light Of Any Present Inclination.” It instantly resurrected the past for me; a connection with historical memory was established right away.

DuPont Circle was one of the places I visited most frequently during my stay in the city – sometimes to have dinner in one of the many hip restaurants of the neighborhood, often to buy books at Book-A-Million, Kramers, and Barnes & Nobles, and sometimes for just a random stroll. The walk from Thomas Circle to DuPont Circle was an experience itself. There were beautiful autumn colors on both sides of the street, and nestled among those thick trees I found plaques and statuaries erected to commemorate the memory of those who helped shape the history – a testimony of locals’ ownership of their past.

In addition to these little tributes to past, Washington City is also home to several national memorials including Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Marine “Iwo Jima” memorial, Washington Monument, among many others. Each monument presented visual images of episodes of history.

Washington is replete with museums. I wish I had the time to visit them all. But I could only manage to visit the Holocaust Museum, the National Museum of American History, and International Spy Museum. All three museums that I visited were carefully designed and were very well-maintained. Historical photos and maps and newspapers were preserved carefully. Lahore, a city whose name and rich historical background invokes awe, has only one public museum. The museum itself is a sorry tale. With its ill-maintained, subpar collection, the museum fails to attract many visitors.

The Library of Congress

Washington’s visit cannot be complete without visiting the Library of Congress. Before entering the library, take a moment to look at the massive structure – I mean really look at the building — which is home to millions of books and rare archives. Try to soak in its architectural beauty. Now, step inside and look at the ceiling. Pay attention to every little detail of the artwork. Gaze at the walls and the various statues you will get to see while strolling down the massive halls of the library building. Take a tour of Thomas Jefferson Library.  And when you get to the main reading room gallery, take a pause. Breathe. Gaze at the heavy wooden desks, roof-high book shelves, semi-circle reading tables, and the array of ceiling lights.

“Old volumes shake their vellum heads

And tantalize, just so.”2

Then visit the exhibitions. Ah, the exhibitions! First, I visited America’s Civil War exhibit. Each shelf was designated to a particular year, and with a wide collection of newspaper cutouts, photos, oral accounts of the events, each of them offered a virtual tour to the past. “Words Like Sapphires: 100 Years of Hebraica” was the next exhibit that I visited. For an hour, I kept looking at the various displays of ancient copies of Torahs, a large collection of Jewish prayer books, and tens of ancient Hebrew books. It demystified and challenged my knowledge. Lastly, I visited Early Americas exhibition. I strolled through hundreds of exhibits which were spread in three big halls. Ancient maps were hung on the walls of the halls, big globes with oldest maps of the American continent and Spanish colonies painted on them were placed inside glass cabinets. Manuscripts and books were placed inside the glass shelves along with a number of ancient artifacts and paintings. The exhibit made use of an amalgam of art, literature and historical maps to narrate past to its visitors. With the use of interactive media, the exhibition successfully managed to invoke visitors’ curiosity.

Muslims Pride Found in DC!

I was roaming around 17th street after lunch one day when I passed through this exhibition titled, “1001 Inventions: Discover the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization”. I succumbed to my curiosity and went inside the building to visit the exhibit. This was not an ordinary exhibit – it made use a variety of interactive tools to educate its visitors. The organizers employed a brilliant mix of technology and art. I was blown away by the stories of Al-Shiffa bint Abdullah, who was appointed by Caliph Umer bin Khatab to oversee important matters like health and safety in the city of Madina in the 7th century; of Merriam Al-Ijliya, an astrolobe maker in 10th century Syria; and of Fatima Al-Fihri, who commissioned the construction of Al-Qarawiyin, a university which is now known as the world’s oldest university to grant degrees to students. These symbols and glimpses of Muslim Civilization’s Golden Age are rarely found in Islamic Republic of Pakistan, much to my disappointment.

Wherever I went in Washington, DC, I kept asking questions and kept wondering: Why are our historical sites decaying and dying away? Why aren’t we preserving the paintings inside Delhi gate’s walls? Why have not we built a memorial around Malik Ayaz’s tomb in Rang Mahal? Why have we let Qutb-ud-Din Aibak’s tomb become a part of an abandoned, down alley in Anarkali? Why there is no cultural museum in Lahore which could educate us about (dying) regional sports like pehlwani and of local art forms like film poster making? Where are the maps of Old Lahore? Why are not we paying any attention to crumbling  hawelis in the streets of Old Lahore?3

K.K. Aziz’s words echoed in my head:

“This has been allowed to happen because all our attention is so exclusively focused on present that the past, recent or remote, signifies nothing; it has no message, remembrance or lesson for us.”

  1. I visited NYC before arriving in Washington. Naturally, I started comparing the two cities the moment I arrived in the city. I had impressions about Washington. And I must admit that I wasn’t too excited about visiting the city. I thought I wouldn’t like it and that I would find it dull, lifeless (the kind of feeling Lahoris feel when they are in Islamabad). First night in Washington was hard on me. After  10 pm, the roads became empty. Occasionally, a taxi would pass by. The street lights of Thomas Circle haunted me. I started missing NYC terribly. But after a couple of days, the streets of Washington started growing on me. I felt welcomed by the shops and restaurants at Dupont Circle and by the pulsing beats of Downtown area bars and clubs. I found warmth in its distinctive architecture, diverse neighborhoods, colorful foliage, and rich treasure of historical memorials and statuaries. The Hill started feeling like a home to me.
  2. Emily Dickinson, “In a Library”.
  3. “When you see an older building, terror-stricken and shaky, you pray for its quick release. Let the past just vanish – this lingering is another long death.”

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About Samreen Shahbaz

Samreen is a Lahore-based independent researcher, activist and a student of history. She is an advocate for internet freedom and is very interested in the use of social media as a tool for activism.
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