Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Buzkashi, goat grabbing (Photo by Reza Mohamadi)

Afghanistan’s Intangible Cultural Heritage: Safeguarding in the Midst of War

Afghanistan is a culturally rich and diverse country with an abundance of tangible and intangible heritage stretching back from over a millennium. The nation has suffered a lot during the long years of war and conflict and the generations of ancestors who depended on transferring their intangible cultural heritage skills and knowledge to descendants were severely affected and displaced during the years of war.

As for the generations of individuals currently subjected to their land being divided by war, the importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself, but rather the sense of cultural identity. Intangible cultural heritage plays a vital role in the transition of existing lifestyles and traditions to future generations. Intangible heritage can be preserved only through the fostering of a deep understanding and recognition of its significance by policymakers and communities.

Afghanistan is a land where you cannot escape from the sound of wind and rivers; one howls its way until it peaks as high as Koh-e-Baba (Baba Mountain) in Bamiyan and another sweeps across the plains and deserts of Helmand. Generally, the people of Afghanistan contribute to this source of inspiration by imitating and composing the voice of nature through music and literature. This common fount was a representation of the hope for unity everyone wished for during the war and disunion that carried on for many decades. Musical instruments such as the dambura, qicha and tabla are used to mimic the sounds of nature and in turn have been used as tools for defusing the effects of war, conflict, and disharmony.

All the notes and rhythm of music derived from Afghanistan are very precise. There is a real language of folk music with an extremely rich vocabulary that may sometimes sound strange or peculiar to more youthful generations who have been away from their homes for a long time, which is typical in Afghanistan with its numerous emigrants, refugees, and displaced individuals. Some themes return more often than others, such as love or tragedy, and they use common expressions such as braveness, hardiness, and martyrdom. Using several traditional musical instruments such as the dohol and sornai, people have combined the music derived from these instruments with traditional dance and beats called atan, which was inspired by the lives of mountain dwellers. The dance is quite often performed by males, females, or both at weddings, especially during Navruz and times of harvest as well as some religious festivals. It is usually composed of a group of people who are moving in a harmonious circle and following the actions of the leader while keeping to the rhythm of the song.

UNESCO, as the only specialized agency for cultural heritage in the United Nations system, has the mandate to assist its Member States in taking necessary measures for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage.

To support Afghanistan in conserving its richness of intangible cultural heritage, a pilot project for the documentation of Afghanistan’s Traditional Music was undertaken by the UNESCO Kabul Office in 2006. This involved a mapping of the traditional and classical music of the country. UNESCO has also supported various exhibitions of calligraphy and art to continue promoting inter-cultural and interreligious dialogue in Afghanistan, along with multiple publications on the said subject matter for dissemination of information throughout Afghanistan provided in the country’s various native languages. UNESCO Kabul also supported the creation of a national music festival for traditional music in Kabul in 2008 and 2009 and will continue to support such events during the 2010 year and so on.

This assistance helped the Afghan government pave the way for ratification of the 2003 Convention, which took place in 2009, along with the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. The focus of the Kabul Office in this area has moved towards assisting the State Party with the implementation of these Conventions.

In coming months, as part of its efforts to contribute to issues regarding policy, UNESCO Kabul will assist the government of Afghanistan in preparing a policy framework for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Promotion of Creative and Cultural Industries that will address gaps in the policy’s structure and critical duties necessary to be carried out to strengthen the capacity of the Ministry of Information and Culture to protect and promote intangible heritage, as well as to implement the UNESCO 2003 Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention. This endeavor will also provide an opportunity to support the new Afghan National Council for Music recently founded due to the encouragement and guidance provided by legislative and institutional organizations.

Peace building and sustainable development will never be accomplished until and unless all the Afghan nations consider their dignity, identity, and sense of unity for where they came from and where they want to go to. To that end, UNESCO is committing itself together with the government and people of Afghanistan, to safeguard the richness and diversity of the intangible cultural heritage of the country.