There are almost 900 historic monuments around the world that have been granted the protection of "world heritage site status", a measure that ensures they are preserved for the benefit of future generations. But how can we prevent the gradual loss of our living heritage, those customs and traditions that define our community yet remain intangible, more fragile than bricks and mortar? Representatives of 114 countries will meet in Abu Dhabi next week to help answer that question.
This "intangible" heritage consists of poetry and oral expressions, craftsmanship, rituals, dance and performing arts - traditions that have been passed on from generation to generation for thousands of years. They are the defining elements of the world's peoples that give us a rich cultural diversity, but they are struggling to survive in today's hegemonic world of globalisation and mass media. "This heritage is something that you cannot touch, you cannot put in a box in a museum and protect, it is embodied in the people so it's very difficult to safeguard," says Cecile Duvelle, the head of the division of cultural objects and intangible heritage at the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). "The problem with intangible heritage is that it isn't money or experts that are going to save it, it isn't that easy. It relies on the will of the people to continue the practice, to transmit it to future generations."
Though Unesco has protected "tangible" heritage, such as the pyramids of Giza and the aflaj (water irrigation channels) in Oman since the early 1970s, other types of heritage remained neglected until more recently. "Unesco had, for decades, been much more dedicated to the tangible heritage than intangible heritage, probably because it's more difficult to grasp and to understand and to delineate, and so it has been underestimated in its contribution to cultural diversity," she says.
The idea of protecting living heritage came to the fore only in the 1990s and it was just six years ago, in 2003, that a binding international agreement to protect the world's intangible, or living, heritage was signed. Simply defining and identifying intangible heritage is by its nature a challenge, let alone preserving it. From the polyphonic singing of the Aka pygmies of central Africa, a complex and distinct musical tradition based on four voices with spontaneous improvisation, to Belgium's Carnival of Binche, three days of festivities during Lent in which several hundred elaborately dressed performers adorned with ostrich-feather hats and wooden clogs parade through the town, intangible heritage spans a vast array of human interactions.
"It was very difficult to find a way to describe this kind of heritage, which is not a built heritage, not a monument, not a place, not an object, it's what people carry with themselves, part of their heritage from generation to generation which makes them feel like a member of a community," says Ms Duvelle. In a modern world, the threats to such traditions, which in some cases have been passed on for thousands of years, are escalating. The youth are drawn away from villages by the need for work as traditional economies die out.
"People are moving, they are travelling, they are marrying, so this heritage is constantly evolving and transforming. Globalisation, migration, urbanisation, a lot of movements lead to the disappearance of this heritage," says Ms Duvelle. With the 2003 convention, these living traditions were finally given similar protection to that bestowed on the world's great architectural and natural treasures. At next week's meeting in Abu Dhabi, delegates will for the first time choose which of these traditions will make up the Urgent Safeguarding List - those that are facing a "grave threat" and are not expected to survive without immediate action.
Fifteen applications have been submitted for the list, and those chosen can also receive financial aid. A second "representative list" is also being compiled, for which there are 111 nominations, which will be discussed next week. There are already 90 "cultural elements" on this list, which were previously designated as Unesco Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity during an earlier project, and were automatically included.
The nominees on the secondary list are not necessarily practices that are threatened, but it is hoped that their documentation and recognition will help to create awareness of the traditions and keep them alive. "The youth can be convinced of keeping alive some elements of tradition if it has some recognition at the national or international level, if they feel that it's not something that just grandfather practices, something that is valued and can create jobs," says Ms Duvelle. "It helps it become something to be proud of."
The UAE has no nominations for the lists to be discussed in Abu Dhabi, for which countries had to put forward proposals last summer. It has, however, led a group of countries that recently entered the traditional sport of falconry for addition to the secondary list the next time the committee meets, in 2010. Because of the nomadic nature of the Bedouin there is little documented history of falconry, but it is thought to date to the 13th century BC and either to have originated in Mesopotamia or the Far East.
The Emirates has about 5,000 falconers, according to the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach), compared with a few hundred in other countries, but oral and literary traditions are just as strong, says Dr Nasser al Hamiri, the director of Adach's department of intangible heritage. "The UAE has very strong oral literary traditions such as poetry and storytelling," he says. "Nabati poetry, for example, is still very popular." Nabati poetry, which traces its routes to the 16th century, was practised by the Bedouin and was one of the only means to pass on accounts of historical events. Unlike classical Arabic poetry, it is simple and spontaneous in style, often passing on advice or wisdom, reflections on society and satire. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, is one of its most famous advocates, and recently published a compilation of his works.
Traditional Emirati dances, which often include oral recitations, are also still performed at official events. The al ayyala combines song and dance with two opposing rows throwing boasts and challenges at each other, while brandishing sticks or swords in co-ordinated movements. It symbolises triumph after battle and the courage and hardship of Bedouin living. "It is important to preserve this heritage because it is connected to the identity of the people, it is the main component of Emirati identity," says Dr al Hamiri.
"Adach, particularly the Intangible Heritage department, has a huge programme for preserving this heritage.We collect it by doing interviews with elderly people from communities, we promote it and have exhibitions." Emirates Heritage Club's biannual cultural festival is also essential to keeping Bedouin traditions alive. Children play a simple game called shbair shbair in which they sit opposite each other and take turns jumping over the gap between them, increasing the height of the barrier each time by a shbair - the Arabic term for the length between an outstretched forefinger and thumb. Games like these may seem trivial, but risk being lost if they are not passed on from generation to generation.
"We must find ways of attracting young people," says Ms Duvelle. "We aren't asking people to live in the past, we don't want to stop young people being modern, but it's about keeping some of these traditions that can enrich their daily lives." Another famous Emirati folk tradition is al razeef, in which lines of men recite verses to each other in a performance punctuated by rifles being fired. After the recital, dancers take over, performing a swaying dance. The female dance of al na'ashat is also still performed at celebrations, with women rolling their heads from side to side to show off their long flowing hair. Not only important for holding on to the past, these traditions are also important for development, according to Dr al Hamiri.
"Heritage can benefit the development of a country economically. It is also related to tourism and an important component of development," he says. In Marakesh, Jemaa el Fna Square, already included on Unesco's representative list because of its unique concentration of traditions, is also the city's main tourist attraction. A gathering place for fortune tellers, Berber musicians, henna tattooing, traditional medicine, storytelling and poetry, it has been a centre for cultural exchange for centuries and is an example of how heritage can also bring money and employment to local communities. In the end, the future of these traditions lies with the youth; it is up to them to utilise them for tourism and general cultural enrichment.
According to Unesco, the traditions of the past are essential components for the creativity of the future. Modern artists, performers, authors and even medicine draw on the knowledge and traditions of our ancestors. As Ms Duvelle sums up: "We're not fighting to take humanity back to the old ages, we just want to make sure that humanity fully benefits from all the cultural achievements of the past. It's not about choosing between modern and traditional. It's about keeping both."