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Living Heritage

A Treasure UNESCO Strives to Safeguard

By Giovanni Scepi

In 2023, the world will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The adoption of the 2003 Convention has shaped a new global understanding of heritage, beyond monuments and artefacts, to include the so-called living heritage, hence recognizing this as an instrument for innovation, social transformation, and sustainable development, while at the same time showcasing the living culture of people, its evolution and continual development, and representing the communities and people as custodians and bearers of cultural expressions. The 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage entered into force in 2006. Since then, 180 Member States have ratified it, including Palestine, which has been a State Party since 2011.

Intangible cultural heritage is manifested in cultural expressions that are transmitted from ancestors and passed on to posterity. These various expressions include festive events and community gatherings, oral traditions and songs, food-related practices and skills, traditional craftsmanship, and performing arts, in addition to knowledge, skills, and practices concerning nature and the universe, rituals, and healing traditions, just to mention a few. Intangible cultural heritage is traditional, contemporary, and dynamic at the same time. It is inclusive, representative, and community-based.

Palestinian intangible cultural heritage, hikaye, a narrative expression practised by storyteller Fidaa Atayaa. Photos courtesy of UNESCO Ramallah Office.

Safeguarding embraces a broader and more holistic understanding of protection, as it stresses the processes of knowledge production and notions of communities’ transmission of knowledge and skills from generation to generation to keep them alive.

Intangible cultural heritage is constantly recreated by communities and groups of people in response to their environment, their interaction with nature, and their history, hence safeguarding it enhances their collective identities and ensures respect for cultural diversity, human creativity, and community heritage. The provisions of the 2003 Convention aim to raise awareness about the importance of this heritage at the local, national, and international levels, which consequently facilitates its appreciation and aids in lobbying efforts for international cooperation to further promote and safeguard it.

Palestine is a partner in two multinational inscriptions that safeguard date palm cultivation and Arabic calligraphy and has listed two national elements of intangible cultural heritage: Palestinian women’s art of storytelling and Palestinian embroidery.

The 2003 Convention introduced to the international community the possibility of inscribing elements on two main international mechanisms: the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is undoubtedly the more popular one. This list presents the diverse cultural practices and expressions of humanity and sheds light on their importance while encouraging dialogue that respects cultural diversity and acknowledges expressions of communities worldwide. The Representative List is made up of those intangible heritage elements that help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance. In 2008, the first elements were inscribed on this list that currently includes a total of 529 intangible cultural heritage elements from 135 countries.

The other mechanism is the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding that is composed of intangible heritage elements that are considered by respective communities and States to require urgent measures to keep them alive. Inscriptions on this list help to mobilize international cooperation and assistance for stakeholders to undertake appropriate safeguarding measures. Today, the Urgent Safeguarding List contains 71 elements inscribed by 38 countries.

Palestinian Traditional Songs in Art center of Attara Village. Photos courtesy of UNESCO Ramallah Office.

A country’s successful listing of an element on UNESCO’s lists does not imply that this element is unique, superior to another, or that it belongs exclusively to, originates from, or exists only in that country. It is also possible that the lists include similar elements inscribed by different States since the bottom-up approach of this Convention allows for communities and bearers to be the main masters of practicing and safeguarding their own cultural expressions, without geographical borders.

Palestinian living heritage is a vivid manifestation of the community-based resilience that is deeply rooted in Palestinian society. Given the sentimental and pivotal role that intangible cultural heritage plays in enhancing the cultural identity of Palestinians, efforts invested in safeguarding it, which include recognition at the international level, become crucial as they can foster intangible heritage as a catalyst for sustainable development in general.

Artwork by Nabil Anani.

The viability of the intangible cultural heritage of Palestine reflects the historical evolution of the Palestinian communities, their traditional knowledge and popular rituals. Safeguarding and preserving this heritage by constantly practicing it and persistently working towards transmitting it to future generations means ensuring the revitalization of Palestinian cultural heritage and presenting its significance and value to the entire world.

Palestine has been able thus far to inscribe four elements on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Two of them are part of multinational inscriptions: “Date palm, knowledge, skills, traditions and practices” was included on the list in 2019, and “Arabic calligraphy: knowledge, skills and practices” in 2021. Two others are national inscriptions. The first, inscribed in 2008, is “Palestinian Hikaye,” which safeguards the tradition of narrative expression in fictious tales, practiced by Palestinian women. The second was inscribed in December 2021 and is titled “The art of embroidery in Palestine, practices, skills, knowledge and rituals.”

Giovanni Scepi is the head of the Culture Unit at the UNESCO Ramallah Office and the programme specialist for culture at UNESCO.

  • Giovanni Scepi is the head of the Culture Unit at the UNESCO Ramallah Office and the programme specialist for culture at UNESCO.

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