Last week, Notre Dame—the renowned Gothic cathedral of Paris—suffered a devastating fire that destroyed both the roof and spire of the building. “La flèche s’est effondrée” (“the spire has collapsed”), was the headline news. The catastrophe was live-streamed around the world; for a while, it was uncertain whether any part of the building would survive. Thanks to the efforts of the fire brigade, the damage was contained: most of the cathedral’s artifacts, relics, and stained glass evaded destruction.
There is also a tragic irony to the fire, seeing as it broke out on the scaffolding that was erected for ongoing restoration on Notre Dame—a hundred-and-fifty-million-Euro project to shore up the roof and its supporting structures, as well as replace and restore portions of the stone and woodwork.
In the aftermath of the fire, the question on many people’s minds was: what next? Within a week, over €1,000,000,000 was pledged to the restoration cause, primarily by French billionaires, with the nation’s richest families—the owners of Louis Vuitton, Kering, and L’Oreal—promising to donate $700 million alone.
Notre Dame has a long and complex history. Its Gothic style was not seen as favourable during the Renaissance or Enlightenment periods, with many of its original features deemed unworthy of conservation. Stained glass was replaced with clear glass to let in more light, and the original Thirteenth Century spire was taken down in the 1780’s as it was declared structurally unsound. During the French Revolution, the Church was taken over by the state—its bells were melted down and, for a time, the building was used as a warehouse for storing food.
Restoration occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, in part thanks to the writer Victor Hugo and his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc erected a new spire—the one destroyed by the fire last week—and repaired the adornments, often using great artistic liberty when it came to the gargoyles and grotesques. It survived the Haussmannisation of Paris—when much of the medieval city was razed and paved with wide boulevards and distinctive stone buildings now associated with the city—and remained unscathed during both World Wars. Napoleon was crowned emperor inside the Notre Dame in 1804, and a memorial service for Charles de Gaulle was held there in 1970.
Now, embarking on reconstruction efforts raises various problems for the French President, Macron. Almost immediately, he promised to rebuild the cathedral, “even more beautifully” and within the next five years—a target that seems unlikely. This strategy could also backfire by furthering the divide between Paris and the rest of France; a tension that has come to a tee in the recent and ongoing protests of the so-called gilets jaunes.
New demonstrations have erupted since the fire. “Millions for Notre Dame, what about for us, the poor?” read one sign carried by a demonstrator. “Everything for Notre Dame, nothing for Les Misérables,” read another, drawing on two of Victor Hugo’s most famous novels.
Internationally, a parallel outcry has been voiced. The British and American governments immediately pledged support, with British Prime Minister Theresa May stating that “the U.K. will support this endeavour however we can,” leaving citizens to wonder where this commitment was during the Grenfell fire or Hurricane Maria tragedies, respectively. Last year, the National Museum of Brazil suffered a fire that resulted in an “incalculable” loss, destroying around 90 percent of the collection. Clearly, the massively wealthy are capable of intervening in response to colossal tragedies. The question is why do they pick and choose as they do?
Finally, should the cathedral even be restored—that is, back to how it was before the fire? The Guardian posed this question to several architects. Sir Norman Foster, founder and chairman of Foster and Partners, replied “The decision to hold a competition for the rebuilding of Notre Dame is to be applauded because it is an acknowledgement of that tradition of new interventions… The ideal outcome would be a respectful combination of the dominant old with the best of the new.”
Martin Ashley, a conservation architect specialising in historic buildings, posed an alternative solution, one that could save both time and money. “It is an opportunity to do something which is deeply contextual, very dignified, very appropriate, very spiritual, but different,” Ashley stated, adding that “Restoration is a form of destruction. In restoring buildings, you destroy the history that has gone before.”
History is entropic—nothing lasts forever. What happens next with Notre Dame will be fascinating, treading the fine line between preservation and progress, respect and innovation; the old and the new. It offers the chance to present a new vision of France to the world, but at the risk of alienating traditionalists throughout the Western world. There isn’t an easy answer: this is a volatile combination of culture and politics that might have a lasting implications for us all.
You may have seen the hashtag #BlueforSudan trending on Instagram and Twitter, or perhaps you’ve seen people changing their profile photos to the colour blue. Sudan was in a blackout, while the world watched.
Earlier this month, Sudan’s military leaders have reached an agreement with the opposition alliance to share power until elections can be held. Until then, however, the country has faced deadly political unrest and since the military ousted President Omar al-Bashir in April, Sudan has been in turmoil. On 3 June 2019, what started as a peaceful protest resulted in the Khartoum Massacre (over 100 people killed and 70 raped). The internet in the country was almost completely cut off and censored, not only making it difficult to estimate the exact number of people killed and injured, but also making it almost impossible for the people of Sudan to share the hardships they were facing. Internet access has only been partially restored this week.
When an entire country has no means of communication to the rest of the world, and when every piece of information is censored, this inevitably leads to a delay in precise reportage from global news and media outlets. In this particular case, when the world failed to immediately report on a major crisis, social media used its power to take this story and make it go viral. If you’ve wondered why everyone’s Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts suddenly turned blue, this was to pay tribute to all those who died in the disputes—including 26-year-old Mohammad Mattar, who was killed in the Khartoum Massacre. At the time of his death, Mattar’s profile picture was blue, what soon became a symbol of solidarity with Sudan.
Suddenly, the hashtags #BlueforSudan, #Sudan and #TurnTheWorldBlue all went viral, urging Western media and people to pay attention to the conflict happening. Sudanese New York-based beauty and lifestyle influencer Shahd Khidir played an active part in raising acknowledgement for this by using her platform. She has posted a powerful photo of herself crying, asking everyone to raise awareness and share on the atrocities happening—having to break from her regular scheduled brand posts. Speaking to Screen Shot about how brands have reacted to this, Shahd says that while some were understanding, others pulled out of campaigns not wanting to work with her again—”But I am not upset it was important for me to raise awareness about the Sudan revolution and in essence I don’t really need to do business with brands that don’t support me”. Shahd has taken on the role of a reporter to speak out on these issues when the civilians in Sudan had no way of doing so. Through her persistence and determination, she spoke for those who couldn’t have a voice.
“I definitely feel that social media has been effective in the Sudanese revolution”, says Daad. Daad, a make-up artist and beauty influencer from New York is also one of the Instagram personas whose activism was prominent in bringing recognition and believes that social awareness impacts and educates the public. It’s also important to note that social media bringing awareness also leads to the donations of funds and resources.
But whose responsibility is it really to share and raise awareness? Most importantly, as social media users, we are often judged for being too political or not enough. In that light, do we owe it to always use our voice, no matter how big or small? Selective empathy comes to mind. The immediate reaction to the Notre Dame fire was, rightfully, heavily criticised and compared to the Sudanese crisis. Yet, the most difficult aspect of this all is the fact that politicians all over the world shared messages of solidarity for a building but failed to do so for citizens of a suffering country. And, if we must choose somebody to blame for the lack of awareness, who better than those paid to stay on top of current affairs but who decide that these issues are not significant enough to report on?
As this is the internet after all, when a story begins to circulate on a scale as large as #blueforSudan, trolling, fake news and exploitation is inevitable. By now, you must have seen clickbait posts on your social media, promising that for every follow, like or repost, a meal would be provided for the “starving Sudanese children”. The now-deleted Instagram account @sudanmealproject managed to gain over 1.7 million likes on such a post. While we question how 1.7 million users fell for this idea, we also need to question the logistics of this and how a like can provide physical resources needed to help. Newsflash—it cannot.
How do Instagram accounts such as @sudanmealproject benefit from this? @exposinginstascams is an Instagram account that sheds light on fake news and accounts circulating on the platform. It has successfully exposed accounts attempting to exploit the Sudan crisis. Screen Shot spoke to the 14-year-old account owner—preferring to remain anonymous— who managed to get @sudanmealproject to confess that their intentions are certainly not in Sudan’s best interest, but for self-profit. “Lots of people changed their profile picture to blue to raise awareness, but they didn’t understand they weren’t really helping”, said the @exposinginstascams account-owner, adding that others were just trying “to gain followers and likes”. With substantial engagement, these accounts can gain from advertising and selling on their account. And unfortunately, it doesn’t end here. Just type in ‘Sudan’ and ‘meals’ into your search engines on Instagram and look at how many accounts come up.
Social media has helped bring awareness to the conflict in Sudan. It also presented us with fake news and fake charities trying to benefit from this, which took away credibility from the real issue. “I think that some people are always going to be opportunists and there’s not much we can do but remain concentrated on the bigger picture”, says Daad. And since it is impossible to put an end to the exploitation of people in crisis, we must remain focused on the mission of helping wherever we can.
Sometimes it takes a little more than updating our profile photos or Facebook statuses, but we can use our platforms for the greater good when needed, the same way millions of Instagram users have managed to help bring awareness to Sudan.