Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Seasonal practice for the annual camel races in Dubai (Photo by Sulayman Khalaf)

Involvement and Role of Communities in Safeguarding ICH

Modern state cultural institutions can lend support to safeguarding its national ICH by injecting financial, administrative, and logistical support. However, the fact remains that for ICH to express itself as a ‘living heritage’ it needs active involvement from the community or communities that bear it and practice it to provide a platform for its ongoing dynamic and special historically rooted organic qualities to transcend through generations within the broad context of the changing society in which it is located.

This aspect of safeguarding ICH as a ‘living heritage’ among modern nation states led the cultural experts who formulated UNESCO’s definition of ICH to emphasize the position and role of communities in the overall system of heritage safeguarding. Regarding evidence of community participation, UNESCO affirms that the nomination files submitted for inscription should fully illustrate the community or communities’ participation as extensively as possible for all stages of the nomination process: the identification of the element, the preparation of the nomination, elaboration, and implementation of safeguarding measures and so on. This emphasis on communities signifies their fundamental role in maintaining ICH as living heritage traditions, and not as dusty relics of the past that are displayed in silent museum corridors.

About sixty years ago, American anthropologist Robert Redfield formulated the concept of the ‘Little Community,’ to designate the most widespread organization of human life, particularly in agrarian peasant societies and alike. As an abstract ideal, the Little Community was described as small, homogeneous, religious, relatively isolated, governed by kinship obligations and moral traditions, thus enjoying a high level of social solidarity. The peasant village Little Community is viewed as being a carrier of little (cultural) traditions as compared with larger more metropolitan cities which are seen as carriers of great traditions.

In most modern societies, traditional communities have been experiencing major shifts not only in their social geography but also in the economic activities their members are currently pursuing. The present influx of ongoing rural-urban migration, geographical mobility, urban planning, and dispersal of kinship and familial groups within the expanding cityscapes in search of better economic opportunities as well as a quest for social mobility, market forces and global currents, have all combined leading to a generation of serious shifts and restructuring of the key socio-economic and cultural fabrics of old local ‘Little Communities.’

Subsequently, major changes have been occurring in the dialectical interplay between the ‘village little traditions’ and the ‘city great traditions.’ Both urbanization of rural life and the ruralization of city life are taking place simultaneously, particularly in third world developing countries. It is perhaps this evolutionary trend that led UNESCO experts to merge the notion of little and great (cultural) traditions into one concept called Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH).

In view of these evolutionary trends, the current stance of communities is to break beyond their old restricted local boundaries, but nonetheless continue to carry on with their local cultural ICH traditions as a kind of cultural marker of their identity and source of pride. Due to the transformation of modern life conditions, modern communities are now unable to fully embrace their ICH heritage in an organic way in conjunction with their everyday life, as was the case in traditional little communities. Thus, heightened awareness and conscious efforts are required by communities and policy makers to keep their heritage alive. They also require the use of modern media channels such as television, radio, newspapers, and internet, and even the educational system to mobilize and coordinate efforts to celebrate and transmit ICH in the communities concerned.

With the increase of roles recently performed by nation states, local communities are happy to welcome support provided by state cultural institutions to aid them in activating and celebrating community ICH as an integral aspect of safeguarding national heritage. Intangible heritage defines the identity of the community at hand as a local group and as a nation. The state itself can be viewed as an ‘imagined community’ as conceptualized by Benedict Anderson (1983). Recently, the way ICH is being celebrated and transmitted in a country such as the UAE is through joint efforts by both local communities and the state to define, redefine and safeguard what both entities regard as community and/or national heritage.

A few brief examples from the UAE will illustrate these general statements. Camel racing has been celebrated annually for the last twenty years as an Emirati ICH. Bedouin tribal communities are the bearers and the practitioners of camel culture in its present-day changing form. While the Bedouins take an active part in the annual six-month long camel racing celebration, the state also regards the camel as one of its heritage elements and has elevated it to the level of a national cultural icon. Therefore, both have been on the heritage stage joining resources, efforts, traditional skills, and knowledge to safeguard the camel racing culture and develop it within the transforming modern globalized reality.

The camel beauty contest is a newly invented tradition in the UAE which is rooted in the traditional Bedouin camel culture. Thus, the new cultural camel event, al Mezaina, is now celebrated every winter for two weeks as an Emirati ICH element. The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage is the official institution responsible for the organizational and financial support of this element, but it is the Bedouin communities in the UAE and other neighboring

Gulf countries, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who are involved in the actual day-to-day safeguarding of this camel heritage in the rapidly changing Gulf societies.

The Liwa Date Festival is in the oases of Liwa, which are located deep in the desert, some 180 km west of Abu Dhabi. The oases are well known for their harvests of good dates. The date palm is viewed by Emiratis as a blessed and all-giving tree, thus it has been regarded as a significant element of Emirati ICH. The festival is a new summer cultural event that brings both the Bedouin oasis farming communities and Abu Dhabi agencies together in celebration of the early date harvest known as al-ruttab. The festival brings in the Liwa community to display and compete in the production of fine quality dates and above all to safeguard the date palm oasis cultural heritage. Artisan shops and exhibitions of traditional lives in oases are also celebrated, in addition to the building of a larger traditional souq (market) to exhibit and sell traditional palm related handicrafts.

These examples show how local communities and the nation-state can join to safeguard what both entities regard as their intangible cultural heritage.