A Living and Dynamic Heritage

Maria-Àngels Roque

Editor-in-Chief of Quaderns de la Mediterrània

“Intangible cultural heritage is not just the memory of past cultures, but is also a laboratory for inventing the future heritage.” These words by Koichiro Matsuura, former Director-General of UNESCO, join the increasingly positive reflections by experts and institutions on intangible cultural heritages. However, why is it so difficult to define intangible cultural heritage? Perhaps because it is a broad and, sometimes, overly vague concept. The 1990s saw the start of the exploration of intangible heritages: characteristic, distinctive and sometimes shared features of several civilisations that have been maintained over time and represent, often more strongly than the tangible legacy, the origins and power of the diversity of cultures as well as their successive appropriations. UNESCO’s adoption of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage bestowed prestige on a heritage which until then had been relegated to the field of folklore.

The notion of cultural heritage of humanity seeks to categorise for safeguarding those tangible and intangible elements that reflect the creative capacity of human beings and are a symbol of the cultures they represent. As Federico Mayor Zaragoza states in his interview with the IEMed for this issue entitled Intangible Cultural Heritage and Memory,“tangible heritage, formed by architectonic and artistic elements, is therefore complemented by intangible musical, literary or educational expressions. Only an overall vision can ensure the preservation of the legacies which have been transmitted by the different civilisations throughout history.” The intangible heritage in the Mediterranean basin has an exemplary diversity, the result of the richness of the cultures and civilisations in the region. The recognition and effective management of this legacy can ensure its protection for future generations. 

Cultural heritage emerged with Romanticism and developed during the Industrial Revolution with the appearance of the nation state, which seeks to create specific identities. Romanticism provided extra-cultural legitimisation criteria such as nature, history and creative inspiration. During the 19th century, cultural heritage had a mainly historical basis and it would not be until the mid-20th century when the concept was broadened to become the modern notion of “cultural property”. This term appeared for the first time in the Convention of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, organised by UNESCO and better known as the 1954 Hague Convention. This meant a revolution, as from then not only tangible but also intangible property would be valued along with living testimonies in what we could call a risk society. Although previously some aspects of popular culture, such as oral literature, festivals or traditional technologies, belonged to the field of folklore, this new vision has involved a change of mentality in terms of cultural heritage. Heritage resources have ceased to be only tangible assets to also become intangible assets. The 1989 Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore and the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which in fact has been applied since 2006, are increasingly inclusive. It is interesting to note how cultural elements are shared on the two shores of the Mediterranean, with equal or different meanings depending on the historical memories, very often reinvented for political ends.

According to UNESCO, “intangible cultural heritage” means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge and skills that provide communities, groups and individuals with a feeling of identity and continuity. The cultural instruments, objects and spaces associated with these practices form an integral part of this heritage. This includes oral traditions and expressions such as language, literature, music, dance, games, mythology, rites, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, craftsmanship, architecture and “other arts”. The production of cultural heritage has involved the establishment of the relation between nature and culture as two interconnected fields. Thus, today emphasis is placed on the dynamic interaction between social and ecological processes. If the concept of sustainability is also introduced, the adaptations to specific realities must be taken into account. In this respect, we must remember the great Spanish anthropologist Julio Caro Baroja when he insisted that “the environment depends on human perception, as with any animal, but human perception is variable and changing.” Clearly, the new information and communication technologies and the deterritorialisation as a central feature of globalisation involve the growing emergence of forms of contact and social linking that go beyond the limits of a specific territory. Paradoxically, deterritorialisation also includes expressions of territorialisation, as particularly noted by Arjun Appadurai and Néstor García Canclini. In order to understand the deterritorialisation fostered by media influence, we must attach special importance to alterations experienced by an imaginary constituted by cultural images (myths, legends, heroes, arts, traditions, references). The work of the imagination, as Appadurai makes clear, is a space of symbolic disputes and negotiations through which individuals and groups seek to annex the global to their own contemporary practices, especially through the confluence between the media and the movement of people. The aspects cited allow us to see how festive, music, gastronomy or clothing elements are immersed in the social, cultural and political future. It has always been so in the long history of Mediterranean communities but today, with globalisation, they are more rapidly affected by migrations and the media and market. This takes them, and not without tensions, to an almost permanent cultural adaptation and reappropriation. 

The dossier we present on Intangible Cultural Heritage and Memory comprises different works, some of which are the result of the international seminar held in Barcelona at the headquarters of the IEMed on Managing and Safeguarding Intangible Heritage in the Mediterranean. The objective of this meeting, held in September 2009, focused on UNESCO’s acceptance of the nomination of the Mediterranean diet as intangible heritage of humanity. However, the seminar embraced other very important spheres in order to show the main aspects of the great potential of Mediterranean intangible heritage, as well as its living dynamic evolution, often shared on both shores. 

Based on his practical knowledge, Georges Zouain warns us that, to know whether intangible cultural heritage can serve as a common language in the Mediterranean basin, we must first seek elements of union and common features in the age-old peoples who, for centuries, have inhabited the region. Therefore, we must go back in the course of history to recall the alliances, wars, influences and contacts that have marked the life of Mediterranean civilisations. For Zouain, this is the only way of making sense of the notion of intangible cultural heritage and making it a common language that goes beyond national identities and territorial limits. Once its unifying nature is recognised, the authenticity and specificity of this heritage must be identified, as well as the reasons for its status as heritage. A territory weaves its history through time with the incorporation of diverse elements. The channels of incorporation are also many, and the reception of the past and its transmission is not only established from an erudite, occasionally institutional, perspective based on analysis of documentary and tangible sources. Rather, the image of the past is often constructed from the collective imaginary, which perceives the tangible and intangible legacy and defines it, thus incorporating it into the memory of each people. The philologist Alejandra Guzmán analyses this process in her article in relation to classical antiquity, a concept that embraces a common legacy in Europe and the Mediterranean and which is constantly reinterpreted and reinvented to shape imaginaries that persist beyond their historical reality. 

Perhaps oral literature has most constantly maintained these links between literature, myths and legends. Many writers from the broad Mediterranean space and its areas of influence were children absorbed by stories often told by illiterate women. Stories that ended up as part of universal culture, such as the writings in Latin by the North African Apuleius or those that make up One Thousand and One Nights, in which Tahar Ben Jelloun recognised the stories of his grandmother when he was a student and lived in Paris.

Poetry is a great oral reference in many cultures, as the poet Bahia Mahmud Awah explains in the dossier. His article focuses on the nomadic character of the Saharawi people, who over history have developed a literary tradition based on oral accounts. Poetry and narrative are thus transmitted through the generations, and rarely have written traces of the poems or stories been left. Awah deals with aspects such as the fragility of memory, as “Saharawi poetry and narrative are transmitted orally, in such a way that, by repetition, they develop the mnemonic capacity of those who learn the suras of the Koran, the paths of the stars, the medicinal uses of plants, the names of at least seven male ancestors of their family to establish kinship ties, and all the obligations they involve, with other people.”

An example of the emblematic heritage represented by cultural intangible assets is found in Jemaa el Fna square in Marrakech, a city that brings the desert closer to the Mediterranean. In 1997, the Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo and a group of Moroccan intellectuals organised an international consultation on the issue of intangible heritage and, in 2001, they managed to get this square declared a Masterpiece of the Oral Heritage of Humanity. But as the specialist Ouidad Tebbaa states, the importance of this square constructed by the Almoravids in 1071 is that it has been maintained as one of the symbols of the city, between the tangible and the intangible. Jemaa el Fna provides unique testimony of many traditions, cultures and languages that come together to combine and coexist. However, the UNESCO declaration has not been able to avoid the threat of disappearance of many of these age-old traditions. In fact, the heavy tourism resulting from the proclamation and the evolution of Moroccan civil society have caused serious changes in the dynamic of the square. While commercial activities have taken on great importance, the art of storytellers, snake charmers or acrobats have fallen into the background, so their working conditions are more precarious.

Juan Goytisolo knows that the battle for primary oral culture is already lost, so the work carried out in increasingly more difficult conditions by storytellers for a hybrid oral culture is decisive. This battle involves the inclusion of books in the struggle. Renewal and incentive take place through reading and how the storyteller can tell stories using texts the audience is unaware of, but adding embellishments or mixing up dates and names. Thus, a healthy process of intertextuality is established, as Ouidad Tebbaa demonstrates, to renew the interest of an audience that likes novelties and for which the practice of the halqa (the circle around the storyteller) provides even more enjoyment albeit more due to its infinite capacity for improvisation. 

If the urban landscape of squares as meeting places and interclassist centres makes up one of the heritage signs of Mediterranean identity, the festival is another of the references of intangible heritage. Traditional and/or reinvented, it is one of the most important signs of identity. Faced with the processes of globalisation, the festival is a response fully embraced by modernity and, at the same time, rooted in the collective and popular imaginary of a society. In this way, as stated by the anthropologist Luis Calvo-Calvo, a good number of Mediterranean festivals, throughout the 20th century and especially in the last decades, have experienced diverse transformations motivated by aspects as varied as the changes in religious rituals, the development of leisure time, the active role of trade, popular associations and, finally, artistic creation. Ever more frequently, groups of artists and creators become the real animators of the festival with their creations, many of them based on the collective, popular and traditional imaginary. Given that in the Mediterranean basin there are endless festive celebrations that foster dialogue and citizenship through mutual knowledge and understanding, Calvo insists that an effort is necessary to carry out inclusive policies in the festive context, in favour of a city-memory that fosters integration and coexistence of citizens. 

We gradually understand what intangible cultural heritage consists of and how tradition connects with the new contributions. Music is, in this sense, paradigmatic. Elena Morató’s article evokes the rhythms, instruments and birth of new cadences, while pointing out that, in confronting one of the most inaccessible treasures of our intangible heritage as is music, with the aim of analysing, dissecting or simply classifying it, just at this moment we are beginning to lose our way. The origins of music are diverse: they can emerge both from the religious field (celebrations, rituals and expressions linked to worship, moussems, processions, pilgrimages…) and the profane field (celebrations of the annual cycle and the agricultural cycle such as reaping and harvesting; rites of passage or trance; civic or family festivals, lyrical-amorous chants…). From a diachronic perspective, there are various influences that have crossed the Mediterranean in all directions and which are not limited to styles but accompanied by an expansion of the instruments linked to them. Religion as a structuring and transmitting axis of culture has had crucial importance: the first great expansion was led by Byzantine Orthodox music in the early years of Christianity, which left its mark both in the East and in the West, and whose connections have survived into the present. Arab music also expanded thanks to religion, and brought with it the lute, an instrument whose presence has continued to grow, finally overcoming other older instruments in several points of the Mediterranean geography. In North Africa, it gave birth to traditions linked to Sufi brotherhood rites, such as the Egyptian tanura spinning(similar to the samaa of the Turkish dervishes), the synchretic rituals of the tsar ceremony in Egypt or the lila of the Gnawa brotherhoods in the Maghreb, which incorporate elements of African animism and are currently heard in prestigious international festivals.

We mentioned above that intangible cultural heritage, defined by UNESCO in the 2003 Convention, is a characteristic dynamic evolution, marked by tradition and innovation. The communities responsible for preserving this fragile balance inherit certain skills from their ancestors and transmit them to the new generations in a living and changing process. Nozha Sekik offers us the examples of female artisans in Sejnane, in northeast Tunisia, who are a model of preservation of intangible heritage. The techniques used by these women to model clay are age-old and have allowed them to live modestly for centuries thanks to the trade in their works. Sekik, from his work at the Tunisian Institut National du Patrimoine, shows how often this heritage is not sufficiently protected in the face of gradual but irremediable loss. It is usually threatened by a conjunction of the effects of the evolution of mentalities, modernisation of societies and the pressure asserted by industrialisation as it is a more fragile than monumental and archaeological heritage. Therefore, warns the anthropologist, various crafts are in danger of extinction or have even been definitively lost due to lack of transmission between generations, preservation and promotion, research and safeguarding, and creation and innovation. This is probably because of the absence of strong and well-focused institutional support and because men and women who maintain and are skilled in these crafts do not always sufficiently value them. Indeed, given their poor economic conditions and lack of respect, they allow heritage techniques to be lost to the benefit of mass production, and their cultural weight and artistic contents are generally undermined.

Moreover, the Atlas of Traditional Wine-Growing project, presented by the researcher from La Rioja Luis Vicente Elías, is a good example of using the memory of the actors who have experienced traditional techniques in wine-growing heritage before the use of tractors and machinery. This research seeks to recover the practices, rituals, tools and customs linked to wine-growing. Today, many wine-growing traditions barely survive in Mediterranean Europe, as the many changes caused by modern life made the customs of yesteryear vanish. To avoid the loss of this richness, which forms part of the intangible cultural heritage, projects like this Atlas are determinant. There is, moreover, a clear urgency in this recovery, as the research method is based on surveys of informants over 70 years old. Given the lack of detailed records, only they can explain the nature of the wine-growing tasks of the past.

Finally, we should note in relation to intangible heritage that the preservation and promotion of the Mediterranean diet are at present a highly important priority for the Mediterranean region.The reasons are many: not only the multiple benefits that this diet brings to people’s health but also its advantages in relation to the sustainable development and social balance of this area. It is, therefore, a multidisciplinary geopolitical issue that decisively affects the governments of the region. Although work has been jointly undertaken in matters of agricultural and food cooperation, the most important asset is yet to come: the recognition by UNESCO of the Mediterranean diet as intangible heritage of humanity. In this respect, Francisco Mombiela and Sébastien Abis remind us in their article that the Mediterranean diet is a powerful vector of intercultural dialogue. Moreover, sometimes it also helps to shape the political discourse in this region.

It is true that in the Mediterranean imaginary the importance of food, respect for products and the pleasure of eating well are highly significant common characteristics. Moreover, although this lifestyle is evolving, it is still a tenacious reality in the region: the feelings of harmony and familiarity that encourage social encounters in the Mediterranean often originate from food. For this reason, we should emphasise the recent revision of the concept of Mediterranean diet, with the definition of a new food pyramid. This pyramid emphasises the key importance of physical activity and the existence of harmony during meals and recommends giving priority to the consumption of local and seasonal products. Based on the latest scientific analyses that show the close correlation between the Mediterranean diet and the health of individuals, this pyramid is a first example of the concept of structuring the main courses with the frequency of consumption of the different categories of foods. In the second place, although it is true that the Mediterranean area is relatively homogenous in terms of diet, we should play down the idea of a gastronomic unit and stress the increasing disparities appearing today. These disparities are related to the always considerable differences in the levels of wealth but also to the food preferences which develop differently in the urban environment and which, sometimes, are abandoned in the rural environment. The specialist Isabel González Turmo contributes to this reflection pointing out that food heritage is certainly linked to the defence of the landscape. Food and cultural landscape can be considered as inherent realities. However, at present it is almost impossible it is almost impossible to delimit the territory which must fully nourish a human population. Globalisation has swept away the limits that allowed us to identify food with territory. Thus, the anthropologist argues that the defence of food heritage cannot be bound to the protection of determined products or the territories where these grow.

As usual, the Overview of Recent Events section accompanies this dossier of Quaderns de la Mediterrània. First, we have complemented the works on intangible elements with explanation of the evolution of mentalities in a country seeing strong tensions between tradition and modernity, such as Morocco. The sociologist Rahma Bourqia presents an analysis of the evolution of values in the context of this society, as well as the negotiations in relation to these values in recent Moroccan history and, by extension, in the Muslim countries that share the cultural area of Islam. This reflection is based on a 10-yearly survey of values in over 80 countries, known as the World Value Survey. In the case we present, the survey was carried out in 2005 in Morocco.

Moreover, in this issue we focus on two areas of the Mediterranean which, despite being peripheral, notably influence the political agendas: the Caucasus and Mauritania. Does the Caucasus form part of the Mediterranean periphery? Is it an area of leverage between the East and the West? The political experts Deniz Devrim and Martí Grau focus their attention on the current relations between the East and the West and explain how the Black Sea has become the setting for new rivalries. A series of conflicts have been provoked by the differences of interests or approaches between the actors, whose exchanges are limited, somewhat fatalistically, to trade and energy. Thus, it is now necessary to resort to the human factor, absent in the Western perception of relations in the area. Around the Black Sea, generally successful initiatives have emerged but which share the same congenital defect: ignoring the fact that any regionalism which aspires to be coherent must be built, to a certain extent, upon a shared feeling of belonging to a concrete geographical space. Moreover, in recent years, the Sahel region is in the international eye due, above all, to terrorist threats – mostly from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – and the drug trafficking in the area. The Mauritanian analyst Kadiata Touré explains the political and cooperation strategies of the Sahel countries to fight against terrorism. The constant exchange of information and aid are necessary both at a regional level, between the seven countries in the area, and internationally. The silence of authorities regarding NGOs and the media is also one of the most serious problems affecting the region.

Finally, in the Cultural Overview section we feature two major events that took place between late 2009 and early 2010 with the aim of strengthening cultural dialogue between the countries of the Euromed area. The first is the second short story contest A Sea of Words, a project organised by the IEMed in collaboration with the Anna Lindh Foundation. In this issue, we offer the short stories of the three runners-up of the contest in which, under the slogan “Building Bridges of Trust to Overcome Conflict”, 155 youths from 37 countries participated. We also present the conclusions and approaches defended by Katarina Stigwall in the Anna Lindh Foundation Forum, held in Barcelona in March 2010. The event was attended by almost one thousand representatives of the associations that form part of the Euro-Mediterranean national networks of the ALF. By way of example, we include the historian Jordi Casassas’ presentation in the session on conflict and memory. Thus, we see that dialogue is necessary to recognise the pain and the representations of individual and collective memories, in an attempt to improve the cohesion of this shared space.