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Arabic Calligraphy: A New Addition To the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage List?

posted on: Mar 17, 2021


By: Dani Meyer/Arab America Contributing Writer

The UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List was established with the aim of ensuring better protection of important cultural heritages and their significance worldwide. The List was established in 2008. According to UNESCO: “Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.” Cultural heritage must be recognized by the groups and communities that create and maintain the tradition – without their recognition, nobody can tell them what is and is not important pieces of their heritage.

The Art of Arabic Calligraphy

The art of Arabic calligraphy has existed for thousands of years. It is the artistic practice of handwriting and calligraphy based on the Arabic alphabet. Arabic calligraphy has been known and appreciated for its design and beauty; but it’s important to note that it’s not the same as Islamic calligraphy, which is also written in other languages (i.e. Persian.) Arabic calligraphy is not based on religion. However, the two are strongly linked and appear to be very similar. Calligraphy is often considered the quintessential art form of the Arab world. It is found in the Qu’ran, architectural decorations, ceramics, manuscripts, and so much more.

“This art is practiced by both women and men across all ages in many different fields, whether in decoration, architecture, crafts, and even contemporary paintings using environmental and organic materials from their surroundings. Essentially, it is not just a handwritten text, but a world of art that transmits beauty and people’s cultural traditions, ” says Dr. Nahla Emam, professor of Egyptian Folklore traditions and head of Habits, Beliefs, and Traditional Knowledge Department at the High Institute of Folklore.

The Calligraphy Movement

Arabic Calligraphy: A New Addition to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List?

In February 2020, 16 Arab countries in partnership with the Arab League Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) participated in a meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Each country was asked to prepare a file on the Art of Arabic Calligraphy and to identify the shared cultural calligraphic practices. This is the first time Arabic calligraphy has been considered for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List, though there are a number of other calligraphies already on the list. So far, Saudi Arabia has succeeded in registering seven different practices for the Cultural Heritage List: Falconry, the majlis, coffee, the Najdi ardah dance, the Almezmar stick song-dance, the Al-Qatt Al-Asiri art style, and the palm tree.

Hattan bin Mounir bin Samman, the Secretary-General of the Saudi National Commission for Education, Culture, and Science said Arabic calligraphy is one of the richest aspects of Arab and Islamic cultural identity.  “Arabic calligraphy has been — and will continue to be — the focus and passion of experts, stakeholders and those involved in cultural affairs, education and science, who are interested in both human and cultural heritage,” he said in a statement.

What Is happening Now?

Arabic Calligraphy: A New Addition to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List?

The files have been presented to UNESCO. As of right now, it is being considered for the 2021 cycle that are to be examined by the Committee at its sixteenth session in November/December 2021. UNESCO created a video on the topic – check it out here! This movement is still an ongoing process, and one that might not reach a conclusion for over a year. However, even the fact that people want to register Arabic calligraphy on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List is a great step towards making Arab culture more mainstream.

Check out Arab America’s blog here!