Conserve THIS part of Egyptian heritage from destruction too!

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.

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Sensing Weakness?

It’s interesting to see how dependent heritage “political correctness” is on the flow of politics.

Watching events unfold in Egypt– and maybe approach the tipping point– it’s instructive how the strident, uncompromising demands of a Mubarak functionary are now met with an uncompromising “no”…

From The Independent  January 26, 2011

Germany refuses to return bust to Egypt

By Tony Paterson in Berlin

A diplomatic row between Germany and Egypt over rights to the 3,400-year-old bust of the fabled Queen Nefertiti reopened yesterday when Berlin flatly refused to accept an official request from Cairo to return the priceless artefact to the banks of the Nile.

Nefertiti Bust in the Ägyptisches Museum Berlin. Photo: Magnus Manske

The world-renowned bust has been on public display in Berlin since 1923 following its discovery by the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt at Amarna in 1912. It rates as one of the capital’s top tourist attractions and is seen by some 500,000 visitors a year.

Egypt, which argues that Germany obtained the bust illegally and by deceit, has been lobbying for Nefertiti’s return for more than half a century. But on Monday, Zahi Hawass, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, declared that an “official request” had been sent to Berlin demanding the bust be handed back.

“We ask that this unique treasure be returned to the possession of its rightful owners, the Egyptian people,” the statement said.

Mr Hawass said the demand had received the full backing of the Egyptian Prime Minister and Culture Minister and was submitted to both the German government and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which runs Berlin’s Neues Museum, where Nefertiti is on permanent display.

But Germany dismissed Egypt’s demands yesterday. “This is not an official request,” a foreign ministry spokesman insisted. “An official request is from one government to another,” he added. He said Germany, which argues that the bust is too fragile even to be loaned to Egypt, would continue to reject demands for Nefertiti’s return.

A Deal With the Devil, West African Style

From Wikipedia:

A deal with the Devil, pact with the Devil, or Faustian bargain is a cultural motif widespread in the West, best exemplified by the legend of Faust and the figure of Mephistopheles, but elemental to many Christian folktales. In the Aarne-Thompson typological catalog, it lies in category AT 756B – “The devil’s contract.”

According to traditional Christian belief in witchcraft, the pact is between a person and Satan or any other demon (or demons); the person offers his or her soul in exchange for diabolical favors. Those favors vary by the tale, but tend to include youth, knowledge, wealth, or power. It was also believed that some persons made this type of pact just as a sign of recognizing the Devil as their master, in exchange for nothing. Regardless, the bargain is a dangerous one, as the price of the Fiend’s service is the wagerer’s soul. The tale may have a moralizing end, with eternal damnation for the foolhardy venturer. Conversely it may have a comic twist, in which a wily peasant outwits the Devil, characteristically on a technical point.

But who’s making the deal here?  And who’s paying the price?

As a World Heritage site, Djenné, Mali, must preserve its mud-brick buildings, from the Great Mosque, in the background, to individual homes. Photo: Tyler Hicks/New York Times

From the New York Times  January 9, 2011

Mali City Rankled by Rules for Life in Spotlight

By NEIL MacFARQUHAR

DJENNÉ , Mali — Abba Maiga stood in his dirt courtyard, smoking and seething over the fact that his 150-year-old mud-brick house is so culturally precious he is not allowed to update it — no tile floors, no screen doors, no shower.

Who wants to live in a house with a mud floor?” groused Mr. Maiga, a retired riverboat captain.

With its cone-shaped crenellations and palm wood drainage spouts, the grand facade seems outside time and helps illustrate why this ancient city in eastern Mali is an official World Heritage site.

But the guidelines established by Unesco, the cultural arm of the United Nations, which compiles the heritage list, demand that any reconstruction not substantially alter the original.

“When a town is put on the heritage list, it means nothing should change,” Mr. Maiga said. “But we want development, more space, new appliances — things that are much more modern. We are angry about all that.”

It is a cultural clash echoed at World Heritage sites across Africa and around the world. While it may be good for tourism, residents complain of being frozen in time like pieces in a museum — their lives proscribed so visitors can gawk.

“The issue in Djenné is about people getting comfort, using the right materials without compromising the architectural values,” said Lazare Eloundou Assomo, the chief of the African unit of Unesco’s World Heritage Center.

Mr. Assomo ticked off a list of sites facing similar tension, including the island of St.-Louis in neighboring Senegal, the island of Lamu in Kenya, the entire island of Mozambique off the coast of the nation by the same name, or Asian and European cities like Lyon, France.

Here in Djenné, the striking Great Mosque is what put the town on the map. It is the largest mud-brick structure in the world, so unique that it looks as if it might have landed from another planet, an imposing sand castle looming over the main square. The architectural style, known as Sudanese, is native to the Sahel.

A trio of unique minarets — square, tapering towers topped by pointed pillars and crowned by an ostrich egg — dominate the facade. Palm tree boards poked into the mosque in rows like toothpicks create a permanent scaffolding that allows residents to swarm over the building to replaster the mud, an annual February ritual involving the entire town.

Djenné is the less famous but better preserved sister city to Timbuktu. Both reached their zenith of wealth and power in the 16th century by sitting at the crossroads of Sahara trade routes for goods like gold, ivory and slaves.

The town was also a gateway that helped spread Islam regionally. When the king converted in the 13th century, he leveled his palace and built a mosque. Mali’s French colonizers eventually oversaw its reconstruction in 1907.

The Grand Mosque was again near collapse when the Agha Khan Foundation arrived to begin a $900,000 restoration project, said Josephine Dilario, one of two supervising architects. The annual replastering had more than doubled the width of the walls and added a yard of mud to the roof. It was too heavy, even with the forest of thick pillars inside the mosque supporting the high ceiling — one for each of the 99 names of God.

In 2006, the initial restoration survey ignited a riot. Protesters sacked the mosque’s interior, attacked city buildings and destroyed cars. The uprising was apparently rooted in the simmering tension among the 12,000 townsfolk, particularly the young, who felt forced to live in squalor while the mosque imam and a few prominent families raked in the benefits from tourism.

The frustration seems to have lingered. While the mosque graces the national seal, residents here appear markedly more sullen about tourism than in many other Malian cities. They often glower rather than smile, and they tend to either ask for money or stomp off when cameras are pointed in their direction.

With the mosque restoration nearing completion, the town is focusing attention on other critical problems — raw sewage and the restoration of the nearly 2,000 houses.

“There is a kind of tension, a difficulty that has to be resolved by not locking people into the traditional and authentic architecture,” said Samuel Sidibé, the director of Mali’s National Museum in Bamako, the capital…

For full story, click here.