The folklore expert Nahla Imam has a new role at Unesco, and she hopes to use it to raise awareness about the important role that educational institutions can play in the area of safeguarding cultural heritage.
Imam was recently elected to the international committee that evaluates traditions nominated for inclusion on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage lists.
In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Imam called on Arab countries wishing to register their heritage sites and traditions on the lists to prepare their cases on scientific bases that meet international standards.
Getting heritage elements registered is an important goal, she said, “but should never be the only one.”
“The goal is to increase the positive returns after registration, and the lessons learned by governments to preserve their heritage elements,” she added.
The most important step, at the moment, “is to prepare scientific-based archives,” Imam said.
That is where university research can help. Decision-makers in the Arab world should benefit from the academic production on heritage subjects, she said There are “great Arabic academic contributions that are fully aware of the value of heritage.”
“Decision-makers should pay attention to the value of cultural and social construction upon making any decision. Development plans must prioritize the cultural and social heritage of citizens,” she said. “Social scholars are the soldiers in any development process.”
Safeguarding Intangible Heritage
A professor at Egypt’s Higher Institute of Folk Arts, Imam holds a bachelor’s degree from Cairo University and a Ph.D. in folk arts from Egypt’s Academy of Arts.
Getting heritage elements registered is only a first step, says Nahla Imam. “The goal is to increase the positive returns after registration, and the lessons learned by governments to preserve their heritage elements.”
Over the past years, Imam has served on several Egyptian and international committees on folk arts and heritage. She is also Egypt’s representative in Unesco’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Her election to the 12-member international evaluation committee came in mid-December.
During her years representing Egypt with Unesco, Imam contributed to preparing applications from Egypt and other Arab countries to register heritage elements on the international organization’s lists.
Cases she has helped see through to registration include two on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding: Al-Aragoz traditional hand puppetry and handmade weaving in Upper Egypt.
She also assisted with the registration of two elements on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity: date palm knowledge, skills, traditions and practices, and Arabic calligraphy.
Intangible heritage, Imam explained, is separate from tangible heritage. Intangible heritage includes traditions, arts and crafts, and the knowledge and skills necessary to keep them alive. Such elements include proverbs and tales, oral poems like the Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah epic, dances and games like the tahteeb (stick game), and crafts like pottery, copper engraving, and handmade weaving.
Clear, Impartial Standards
Imam said that her membership on the international committee “does not necessarily mean sympathy with the files submitted by Arab countries.” The evaluation of any file “must be based on clear grounds for acceptance or rejection.”
“Decision-makers should pay attention to the value of cultural and social construction upon making any decision. Development plans must prioritize the cultural and social heritage of citizens.”Nahla Imam
She added: “However, I am ready to present my experience to any Arab country in the process of working to register its heritage elements.”
In terms of the rising awareness, Imam noted a growing recognition the Arab world of the importance of preserving heritage. “Social media have contributed to managing a lively discussion about ways to preserve tangible and intangible heritage,” she said.
Imam views with appreciation “the roles that some activists play on social media, to raise awareness of the elements of tangible and intangible heritage. Online content has contributed to mobilizing individuals to defend heritage, and to increase scientific awareness of its status.”
She also referred to the “importance of NGOs and individuals joining hands to urge governments to adopt clear plans to protect their heritage, increase citizen’s awareness about the value of heritage, and work to localize and integrate its elements into daily life.”
Ines Abdel-Dayem, Egypt’s minister of culture, congratulated Imam after her election to the committee. “Imam’s victory represents a new national victory that reflects the state’s efforts abroad to confirm Egypt’s leadership,” said Abdel-Dayem.
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Imam thanked Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for supporting her selection. “The elections for membership of international organizations depend mainly on the state’s political effort, in addition to the candidate’s competence,” she said.
“My work for years in registering some heritage elements made me a well-known face for the majority of delegations’ representatives,” she said. Still, she said, her winning was a “big surprise”.