Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Guest Blog: Mining the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’

Thalia Kennedy 6 min

The big Logar copper mine of Mes-e Aynak, with its Buddhist finds, epitomizes a dilemma many countries are facing: excavate your natural resources or protect your cultural heritage (and natural environment). In Afghanistan, after three decades of violent conflict, the latter is threatened to lose out in this competition. But as the country’s archeological sites, also its ‘intangible cultural heritage’ – traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, artisanal and craft skills, oral histories and stories, poetry and languages – need to be preserved, for generations to come, and there are tools available to support this, argues our guest blogger Thalia Kennedy(*).

The Afghan government’s National Institute for Archaeology and the French archaeological delegation in Afghanistan are leading excavations at the Buddhist archaeological site at Mes-e Aynak in Logar province. Archaeologists are working there to complete excavations before a Chinese commercial company moves into the site to mine for copper. Publicized in the international press, and featured in Archaeology magazine, both the campaign and the dedicated work of the archaeologists highlight the continuing plight of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. Despite its historic importance, and the social benefits and long-term potential for tourism that such a large site might bring to Afghanistan, Mes-e Aynak’s future remains uncertain.

The urgency to safeguard rich archaeological sites and artifacts in Afghanistan, to prevent further decay, destruction and looting, is paralleled by a less-publicized but equally urgent concern. Alongside the country’s material heritage stand the traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, artisanal and craft skills, oral histories and stories, poetry and languages that make up much of the country’s cultural geography. Under stable and peaceful circumstances, these elements of cultural practice and traditional knowledge are safely passed from one generation to the next. Individuals and groups that transmit knowledge and practices are often referred to in policy frameworks as ‘culture bearers’ – master artisans, storytellers, actors, poets, singers, group elders, guilds and social networks. Conflict, insurgency and refugee migrations in Afghanistan have however led to the fragmentation of networks that once ensured the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge, expressions and skills. Individual culture bearers may have left the country, be unable to continue their activities, or have ceased to pass on their knowledge. These forms of cultural heritage are nevertheless of great importance to Afghanistan and its peoples, fostering social cohesion, economic and development opportunity, cultural diversity, and a sense of pride and heritage. The unique nature of Afghan elements and traditions set them apart from regional counterparts. In a society where literacy levels are low, skills, traditions and expressions transmitted through non-written methods hold additional significance.

Described by UNESCO as ‘intangible cultural heritage’ (ICH), this aspect of cultural legacy has in recent decades been a focus for discussion within legal and policy-making communities. UNESCO laid out definitions and safeguarding measures in its 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, a culmination of a series of debates and recommendations made during the previous decade to establish a legal framework within which ICH may be protected and supported. The Convention distinguishes five areas that it aims to safeguard, described as oral traditions and expressions, including language; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices involving nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship. UNESCO clearly indicates that these ‘intangible’ elements of cultural heritage warrant attention alongside ‘tangible’ and ‘natural’ counterparts. The UNESCO Convention came into force in 2006.

The Afghan Law on the Protection of Historical and Cultural Properties of May 2004 responds to the challenge to protect cultural heritage. Legislation focuses on the preservation of tangible heritage – sites and artifacts such as those at Mes-e Aynak that are endangered and in urgent need of protection – and on the prevention of widespread looting and export of valuable artifacts from the country. Although the law does not at present incorporate intangible heritage, Afghanistan became a State Party to the Intangible Heritage Convention on 30th March 2009. UNESCO country programming statements for 2011 include assisting the Afghan government in reinforcing its legal frameworks on cultural heritage – might this include greater safeguards for intangible heritage? The same document also notes that the 2008 Afghanistan National Development Strategy ‘“includes explicit objectives… [that] include the preservation and revitalization of the country’s tangible and intangible heritage;… [and] the promotion of folklore, handicraft and cultural expressions at large”’.

The Afghan government’s ratification of the 2003 Convention shows its support for safeguarding the country’s ICH, and activities have been devoted to revitalization, with direct ministerial support Dr Sayed Makhdum Rahin, Minister of Information and Culture, who regularly attends and supports traditional cultural and social ceremonies and gatherings, and has recently chaired preparatory meetings for the forthcoming Spring Music Festival in Kabul. Individual training programs are supported by the Ministries of Information & Culture, Education, and Higher Education – the traditional painting program at Herat University, the innovative and active Afghanistan National Institute for Music in Kabul, Sanayee School, and the Afghan Traditional Arts Training School, established by Ghulam Muhammad Maimanagi in the 1930s, are all government supported initiatives. However, the necessary prioritization of limited funds to more urgent activities may see the loss of some forms of traditional knowledge and practice.

UNESCO’s global activities include the compilation of associated lists related to Intangible Cultural Heritage – to comprise elements in need of urgent safeguarding, representative elements, and instances of good safeguarding practice. At present, Afghanistan’s rich heritage does not feature on these lists, inclusion perhaps a worthwhile future aspiration to highlight the importance of the country’s intangible heritage. Afghanistan’s artisans may also consider independent submission of their finest pieces for the UNESCO Award of Excellence for Handicrafts in Asia. The 2003 Convention itself additionally emphasizes the potential positive benefits and role that the NGO and wider interested communities may play in the identification and safeguarding traditional knowledge and practices. While other sectors to include commerce, media and tourism are important factors in the safeguard of ICH, these may not thrive in Afghanistan until more stable times – in current circumstances, NGOs may therefore play a vital bridging role until a more secure situation emerges. A 2010 UNESCO meeting in Estonia focused particularly on the involvement of NGOs in the safeguarding of ICH in Europe; perhaps a similar focus may be beneficial for Afghanistan.

Existing NGO projects that seek to support intangible cultural heritage are varied in approach and mission. Localized programs have included artisans working on restoration projects; skills training programs and transmission of traditional knowledge; creation and revival of markets; documentation of oral histories and stories; support for workshops and guilds; recording of traditional knowledge and skills; and archiving materials associated with intangible heritage. The social and economic successes in safeguarding and revitalizing traditional knowledge and practices in nearby India, Vietnam and Cambodia stand as testament to what is possible in this sector. Although projects that support intangible cultural heritage might include an element of foreign intervention into a local tradition, this may be justified where traditional knowledge could be lost entirely without external support and assistance, and can be mirrored by the role that local communities and organizations play in this process.

The recent UNESCO cultural conference held in Kabul in October 2010, attended by a number of representatives from the governmental and non-governmental communities, was an important progression in dialogue between organizations and entities that often otherwise work in isolation. The significant time on the agenda devoted to intangible heritage and creative industries brought together relevant parties for discussion and information sharing. This type of initiative also stimulates collaboration between NGOs themselves, encouraging greater efficiency and efficacy within the sector.

A natural step from here might be greater sharing of UNESCO instruments and toolkits, which provide useful guidelines and suggestions to those working in the fields. 2011 sees a global UNESCO initiative for training of trainers for member states, to help raise awareness and identify ICH amongst local communities. A UNESCO representative from the Kabul office attended the related regional meeting in Beijing in mid-January. The agenda included training on community-based inventorying of ICH elements, with materials designed to include local NGOs in this process. International agencies have historically partnered with Afghan NGOs in a variety of sectors with often very positive results. In this context, both heritage organizations and the various NGOs that focus on contemporary culture and media are well-placed to incorporate a focus on ICH into their missions.

Local NGOs not working specifically with cultural heritage may also play a useful role in the identification of traditional practices and knowledge to be safeguarded in areas that larger agencies may not comfortably operate. The increased awareness, training and information exchange laid out by UNESCO for 2011 is well-timed to further enable the NGO community in its participation to safeguard, alongside invaluable sites such as Mes-e Aynak, Afghanistan’s intangible cultural heritage for generations to come.

(*) Dr Thalia Kennedy has a research and teaching background in Islamic and South Asian art and architectural history. She was until recently Director of Education at Turquoise Mountain, where she oversaw and ran the Turquoise Mountain Institute for Afghan Arts & Architecture in Kabul. Thalia is now a Trustee of the Institute and currently a Guest Scholar at theGetty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles. Contact:[email protected].

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