In a land of crushing poverty with a brutal climate, a high rate of disease, and a notorious dictatorship, it might be strange to confess that one of the things most troubling to me in Sudan was its graffiti. While I started to gain an appreciation for Arabic graffiti itself (noticing some strange juxtapositions between imported Rasta culture, with images of Bob Marley combined with a Muhammad-like veneration) the stuff that most affected me involved the relics from ancient days.
Often covered in names to the point where the hieroglyphs themselves are barely readable, many of the ruins, temples, pyramids and fortifications from three, four and five millenia ago have been been seriously defaced. What makes a person decide that their name, or their name with the name of their loved-one encircled in a heart, is worth immortalization? What attraction does an object of history hold, that a man must stop and surreptitiously carve his bit of history into history? Have none of those who have immortalized themselves considered how they whittle down the artifacts until, someday, nothing will remain?
I became fascinated, in the same way a motorist is fascinated by a car wreck on the roadside, with the scribblings on Sudan’s monuments. Looking more closely, what I started to notice is that some of the graffiti itself has aged to the point where it is a new archeological record of its own: French, Polish, British, Arabic names (and dates!) stretching back through several hundred years. Looking even deeper, I realized that a good portion of the original hierogylphics were, themselves, graffiti. Pharoahs had erased previous pharoahs’ names, carving their own glyphs over older glyphs. So, perhaps graffiti is more of a continuation of a time-honored tradition than a new and destructive pestilence.
Yet, one can’t help but think that Mr. Letorzec’s knife, working over a fresher surface back in 1820, was Not Quite Right.