Abu Dhabi // Representatives of 114 countries will meet in Abu Dhabi today under UN auspices to discuss world cultural traditions that face an immediate risk of being wiped out.
Unesco's Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage will convene at the capital's InterContinental Hotel from today until Friday to compile a list of cultural practices that require immediate protection. Intangible heritage- or living heritage, as it is also known - includes traditions such as dance, storytelling, poetry, games, craftsmanship and rituals that have been passed down for generations, in some instances for millennia, providing communities with a sense of identity.
The committee will consider 12 applications from eight nations for cultural items to be included on the "urgent safeguarding list". Urbanisation, globalisation and the growth of mass media are increasing the risk of communities' losing unique know-how, rituals and traditions. There are also 111 nominations for a secondary, "representative list" of practices that are culturally significant but are less at risk of dying out.
The Abu Dhabi meeting "highlights the importance of the intangible heritage, its safeguarding, and the transfer of such an important element in culture to future generations," Mohammed Khalaf al Mazrouei, the director general of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach), said yesterday. The UAE has not submitted any files for consideration at this year's meeting but has put together a bid for the traditional sport of falconry to be added to the secondary list in 2010.
It also plans to nominate the traditional dances "al ayala" and "al ahaala" for recognition. 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. Mr al Mazrouei said that initiatives such as this week's meeting would help to preserve Emirati identity in the younger generation and were in harmony with other efforts to protect the country's heritage.
The UAE was among 12 countries to sign a proposal that falconry be recognised by Unesco. The UAE has about 5,000 falconers, more than any other country. Al ayala, a dance accompanied by drumming and evoking the warrior spirit, is still regularly performed at national ceremonies and weddings. It is similar to traditional dances known as "aarda" in other countries and is often accompanied by gunfire.
Al ahaala is unique to the UAE and is performed without musical accompaniment. Traditionally, singers representing two areas or tribes stand in opposing rows and throw challenges at each other. Though "tangible" heritage sites have been protected internationally for decades, other elements of cultural heritage have received less recognition, and the first binding international agreement to protect the world's intangible heritage was signed only in 2003. The UAE and 113 other countries ratified the agreement.
"The UAE gives great concern to heritage and culture, therefore it was very keen on signing such an important international agreement," said Bilal al Budoor, the executive director for culture and arts at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development. "We realise how important it is to maintain and preserve human cultural heritage, since it represents a cornerstone of any country's sustainable development."
Mr al Budoor added: "It's important to keep these traditions alive for the younger generation, so that they can remember what the UAE was like in the past." More than 400 cultural experts, 50 regional bodies and non-governmental organisations, and eight ministers will attend this week's event. Koïchiro Matsuura, the director general of Unesco, will address the meeting's closing session on Friday. Cultural practices included for consideration on the "urgent safeguarding list" include a communal fishing practice in Mali that is falling into disuse and is otherwise threatened as climate change dries the traditional fishing area, and traditional Mongolian music played on a wooden instrument.
Practices recognised on the urgent and secondary lists are eligible for funding from Unesco. Practitioners may also find the recognition useful when they apply to private foundations or national bodies for financial support, said the Unesco spokeswoman Lucia Iglesias. "It's a label of prestige and recognition," she said. "It will help attract international bodies and anthropologists interested in recording and safeguarding these practices."