Intangible cultural heritage: a wealth disseminated by UNESCO throughout Lebanon

UNESCO closed the first phase of a project for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage of Lebanon, following a training of trainers’ workshop. “We must protect and transmit this knowledge in our communities,” says a workshop participant.

How to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage of Lebanon and what does it enclose? How can we make as many people as possible aware of the importance of this heritage and its little-known wealth, from zajal to artisanal work and dabké? And how to strengthen human and institutional resources for the protection of this capital? These are a few of many questions that are of concern to UNESCO, whose regional office in Beirut launched, in 2017, a training project funded by the government of Japan and executed by the Beirut office in collaboration with the Lebanese National Commission for UNESCO. The project aims to remedy the lack of human resources equipped to carry out inventory and safeguard activities for intangible cultural heritage (ICH).

This capacity building program having helped to create a national network of trainers, a 5-day training of trainers workshop was offered in July 2021 to close the first phase of the project after 4 years of work, and with the objective of supervising new trainees in the future. The goal would be to allow the trainers to transmit this knowledge to other members of their community, NGOs or students, in order to expand knowledge on ICH and its safeguard across the country.

“Intangible cultural heritage is an ancient heritage transmitted from generation to generation, and which remains present today in different forms, explains between two sessions Dr. Annie Tabet, anthropologist, and who coaches the 25 participating trainers representing different regions from the country. Lebanon is very rich in terms of ICH, and this is because of the diversity of its communities. But there are also elements that are common to all communities and which are present on a national scale such as zajal, dabké, Lebanese cuisine, crafts or Jezzine knives, which provides a sense of identity and continuity to communities”.

Reflecting on the project, the expert underlines the importance of this kind of training to increase awareness on this subject, “at a time when globalization, the consumer society, and the import trade have weakened some skills and elements of this heritage”. “We are also working with schools, universities and organizations to disseminate this knowledge, and hope for the continuation of these efforts, which is not easy in terms of funding with the economic crisis”, adds the professor, also member of the International Network of UNESCO Facilitators of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

© UNESCO

Not a folklore

Despite the signing of the UNESCO Convention by Lebanon in 2007, the Land of the Cedars is in great need of a sectoral cultural policy for the safeguarding of ICH. The workshop prepared the trainers to transmit and disseminate the principles of this Convention across the country. For a week, participants reviewed the content of the capacity building material already explained in previous workshops, while focusing on important topics such as the links between safeguarding intangible cultural heritage and education, development sustainable and emergency situations.

“With this project, which began a few years ago, we can say today that we are extremely familiar with the 2003 Convention. The sessions are pleasant and useful at the same time, and we take advantage of the diversity of the participants to exchange our expertise”, says Okaila Mourtada, a workshop participant. Today, she is part of a real network of actors in the field, members of communities and NGOs, academics and officials of several ministries brought together by UNESCO within the framework of the project, and involved in safeguarding ICH in Lebanon. For this coordinator in a technical education institution in Tyre, social recovery requires the preservation of these practices, representations, knowledge and know-how that form ICH. “We must protect and transmit this knowledge to our colleagues in schools and integrate it, for example, into the school curriculum, she says. The public does not necessarily understand that ICH is not a static folklore but a living heritage that changes according to the needs of people and their environments”.

© UNESCO

These remarks are echoed by Georges Rizk, an administrative manager in a school in Akkar and keen on zajal, who considers that the ICH is known theoretically but is unrecognized on an operational level. “The distillation of rose water is chemistry, he explains. Boat building is physics, and this is how we can include this notion of ICH in educational programs.” He adds: “If the crisis requires a return to agriculture and roots, we will need to revive many traditional professions. The protection of heritage and its preservation contributes to the development and recovery of economic activity which is now necessary”.

The participants in the project celebrated the closing of the workshop during a certification ceremony, in the presence of Joseph Kreidi, National Coordinator for Culture at UNESCO and Ramza Jaber, Deputy Secretary General of the Lebanese National Commission for UNESCO. In the short and medium term, the project, which is entering a new phase, will have so far strengthened national capacities for safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage present in Lebanon with the widest possible participation of the communities and non-governmental organizations concerned, and provided technical assistance for safeguarding ICH at several levels.

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