For all the outcry and self-righteousness over the vandalism in the Egyptian Museum and its antiquities, there is another part of the cultural identity of its people that is no less significant– and far more entwined in the daily lives or memories of its many peoples and communities.
In 2008, the vanishing art, musical instruments, and storytellers if the al-Sirah al-Hilaliyyah Epic was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and its careful documentation provided a way to conserve an element of culture that– unlike the distant golden excesses of the megalomaniac pharaohs– represented a form of cultural creativity no less endangered than buried temples and tombs.
I would direct you to CULNAT, the newer Egyptian organization for inventorying the full range of Egypt’s tangible and intangible heritage– from prehistory to the present, but its webpage about folklore (http://www.cultnat.org/Programs/folklore/About/Pages/About.aspx) has gone silent, a victim of the Mubarak government’s effort to “protect” the nation from thugs and troublemakers. Maybe you will read this and be able to click on it after he is gone.
And there are countless other expressions of Egyptian culture that are no less fragile than the carved figures and jewelry in the Cairo Museum– like his one, from the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage site:
Enhancing Women’s Role as Custodians and Artisans of Egyptian Handicrafts – For over centuries, women have used their innovative and artistic talents to create artefacts passing them from mother to daughter. The “Tally” embroidery, famous in Upper Egypt, and the cross-stitches embroidery of both Siwa and Sinai are unique forms of art dating back to the 19th century. This heritage is under threat because of the permeation of advanced and easier technologies, and a lack of market awareness.
In response to the threat of industrial standardization, the Egyptian National Council for Women (NCW) has taken initiatives with UNESCO to safeguard Egyptian intangible heritage manifested in the domains of traditional craftsmanship, oral traditions and expressions, proverbs and performing arts. This project included documentation in combination with the collection of all forms and patterns of the Tally. It also aimed at training young women artists, craftsmen, documentalists and teachers in recording and documenting the work and in accessing and retrieving historical artistic records. Furthermore, small-scale enterprises were developed to create gainful employment to women living in underserved regions and villages.
* * *
There are different ways to preserve a country’s memory and creativity than selecting a certain Golden Age and using it as the metaphor and embodiment of an essentialized civilization and authoritarian regime. Certainly the material remains of Ancient Egypt are fascinating and valuable. But they, like the fabulously wealthy and well-connected families of the Cairo elite are not the only ones who deserve dignity, respect, and cries of outrage from the academy and from museum professionals when they are damaged or destroyed.