x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

UN workshop to safeguard traditions

A meeting in Abu Dhabi addresses the concept of intangible cultural heritage.

Falcons, a popular subject for Emirati proverbs, at the International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.
Falcons, a popular subject for Emirati proverbs, at the International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.

ABU DHABI // Lubna al Tunaiji smiles as she recites one of her favourite Emirati riddles.

"What lives in the mountain, sits with men and wears women's accessories?" She pauses for effect. "A falcon."

That prompts her friend and colleague Moza al Hammadi to share one of her favourite traditional Emirati proverbs.

"The one who doesn't know the falcon might as well barbecue it," she says. "It is said when someone doesn't know or do their craft or tradition well."

For 13 years, the two teachers have been testing their students at the Al Marwa School for Girls in Abu Dhabi, using traditional Emirati riddles, folklore, proverbs and poetry.

"In the morning before classes start we regularly get the students to role-play and pretend that they are their grandmothers as a way of making them interact and sit with the elders in the family," Mrs al Hammadi, an Arabic teacher, said.

The women were among 11 Emiratis attending a workshop on intangible cultural heritage in the capital this week, conducted by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in co-operation with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach).

The workshop was attended by 26 experts. Topics included training a network of regional experts, safeguarding cultural heritage and submitting nominations and lists to the UN body.

"We learnt that our habits in schools of documenting all these heritage-related events and activities are essential to its survival," Mrs al Tunaiji, a history teacher, said. "We will now be more systematic in our methods and network with other experts in heritage that we met through this workshop."

Intangible cultural heritage as defined by Unesco includes "the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills - as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith - that communities, groups and in some cases individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage".

Intangible cultural heritage can include oral traditions and expressions, traditional craftsmanship, performing arts, and social practices and rituals.

Last November, the UAE registered falconry in Unesco's list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Last month, Adach added two pastimes to the list: the traditional Emirati dance, or al Ayyalah, performed with walking sticks, and al Taghruda, the expression of Nabati poetry in song-like form.

Two less popular activities, both at risk of dying out, were also submitted for safeguarding.

"Sadou, the traditional Bedouin weaving skills of the UAE, and children's traditional games are disappearing quickly, so we wanted to raise awareness about them and save this heritage before it is gone," Dr Ismail al Fahil, the intangible heritage expert at Adach, said.

"Adach's work in protecting intangible heritage is closely linked to Unesco's and involves comprehensive researching and archiving of the oral history, local traditions and all sorts of traditional performing art and crafts," he said.

The UAE donated US$2 million (Dh7.4m) last year to support Unesco's intangible cultural heritage programme. The donation agreement was signed by Mohammed Khalaf al Mazrouei, director-general of Adach and the director- general of Unesco, Irina Bokova.

Compared with the rest of the Arab world, the UAE and the Gulf in general has been able to preserve many traditions lost elsewhere, Dr al Fahil said.

"They wear and take pride in their traditional dress and customs, something many Arabs don't do anymore," he said.

Dr al Fahil, from Sudan, said he wears traditional Sudanese attire at the age of 59, while his son, who is in his twenties, does not.

"We are losing a lot of our identities and traditions due to globalisation," he said.

"It is important to start as early as possible documenting and raising awareness on heritage, particularly intangible heritage that can easily be lost."

Until more of the Emirates heritage makes it on to the prestigious UN list, Mrs al Hammadi and Mrs al Tunaiji will be doing their bit in preserving and inspiring new generations of Emiratis to learn their traditions. One method is a game called "ana al zebou bakulkum", which translates as "I am the wolf and I am here to eat you". In it, one person - often the teacher - plays the role of wolf and chases the others as they hide.

"We will be getting more students to play traditional children's games, which are more active, imaginative and social," Mrs al Tunaiji said.

"Our heritage is so rich and everyone, regardless of age, can enjoy it if given a chance."