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At the recently held meeting of the UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Rabat, forty-seven new global nominations were inscribed within their luminous list.

Among these nominations, eleven from the Arab world make a distinguished debut and fittingly epitomise beautiful aspects of Arab life, art, and culture.

For instance, the “Al Talli” traditional embroidery skills celebrate the masterfully woven female fashions embellished with vibrant symbols depicting desert and sea life in the UAE.

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The traditional art of Al Sadu weaving from Kuwait is also garnering a central interest within educational curricula as students are encouraged to learn contemporary weaving techniques and showcase them in exhibitions. Meanwhile, guests can enjoy the celebratory Al-Mansaf dish from Jordan during major sociocultural events.

The Arab region boasts a captivating, splendorous repository of traditions that are shared by local communities or regaled by multiple countries at once. These practices have spanned many centuries and are intrinsic to the region’s livelihood, social fabric, and economic resilience.

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Throughout our lives, memories are etched with enjoyable social practices that have paralleled our life milestones, such as preparing traditional feasts during celebrations, participating in cultural dances, playing musical instruments, writing poetry, and orating songs.

Immersing oneself in communal heritage activities is an altogether transformative experience, infusing our souls with essential values, such as connection, kindness, artistic expression, and playfulness.

Sustaining communities in the region

For instance, knowledge and skills pertaining to cultivating date palms — a focal tradition in countries, such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait — emphasises their importance in sustaining communities amid the region’s dry climate, in addition to being central to the region’s economic, cultural, and agricultural roots.

The sheer beauty and craftsmanship involved in heritage practices is too glittering to ignore, as they are fundamentally interweaved with our daily lives, such as gastronomy, fashion, games, sports, dance, artisanal craftsmanship, religious practices, and botany.

To be more specific, the UNESCO defines intangible cultural heritage as a collective of “oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts”.

Fundamentally, intangible cultural heritage involves a high degree of savoir-faire that results in multiple socioeconomic advantages to communities.

An interior view of the museum with the calligraphy
An interior view of the museum with the calligraphy Image Credit: Supplied

These practices allow communities to feel connected to their past, instilling them with a sense of identity, character development, pride, social inclusiveness, and community connectedness.

Moreover, many practices are delivering high economic returns, in the form of tourism attraction, goods and service delivery, job creation, and income generation.

The creative industries are at a turning point in the region, with investments and momentum garnered towards their sectors. As such, it is worth leveraging the intangible cultural heritage landscape to deliver a bevy of lucrative returns.

A suite of legislative solutions

A suite of legislative solutions should preserve and promote treasured intangible cultural heritage, focusing on securing sufficient financing for their various activities, offering regular public access to intangible cultural heritage via a number of venues, and delivering professional training programs for the artisans who will go on to create and continue these heritage practices.

Surely, a well-designed and engrossing arts education can introduce students to the expansive variety of cultural traditions within various Arab countries, imbuing them with civic pride, cultural character, and creative vivacity.

Classes should take on a more experiential pedagogy, with children able to immerse themselves in heritage practices. Interacting with artisans and masters of specific intangible cultural practices can give children a glimpse about their subliminal beauty and the craftsmanship behind them.

It does not stop here, though, as exiting talent pools would need to be replenished by future workers. As such, vocational schools, apprenticeships, and universities can provide a professional setting for students to pursue full-fledged careers focusing on various cultural practices.

To fortify this field, there should be continuous effort to survey and document practices related to intangible cultural heritage, which could be disseminated in the form of historical and cultural documentaries, cultural guidebooks, coffee table books, digital masterclasses, and cookery books.

On a more recreational manner, cultural workshops and instructive classes can be organised for the wider public, such as classes in embroidery, culinary arts, or jewellery-making.

Intangible cultural heritage

Policymakers and urban planners should also help make intangible cultural heritage an attractive hotspot and subject for communities to stay engaged with in order to boost preservation efforts from the grass roots.

With that in mind, communities should have regular access to intangible cultural heritage through various venues, such as museum exhibitions, art galleries, opera shows, live performances, cultural festivals, cooking shows, and year-long cultural markets that showcase traditional heritage practices and sell artisanal crafts.

Celebrating the nuances of intangible cultural heritage practices on mass media is a fantastic way of educating the public about them, especially if they are tied to daily social practices.

For instance, educating parents via seminars that discuss important social practices is a practical way to ensure their transmission to the younger generations within their own family circles.

Now more than ever, policymakers should demonstrate a commitment to intangible cultural heritage, considering the rich tapestry of traditions that hold immense social, economic, and cultural value for societies.

Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and literature