Man holding a big sandwich

Difficult to grasp? Enter the world of UNESCO’s cultural intangibles

A look at some of UNESCO's intriguing intangible cultural treasures and how their safekeeping can benefit us all.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Biting into a ftira sandwich on the Maltese islands is a tooth-shattering challenge I’m happy to endure. Once through the hard crust of the flattened sour-dough bread, the filling of fresh olives, salted capers, tomatoes, onions and tuna offers a real taste of the Mediterranean. So much so, it would seem, that UNESCO have given Il-ftira the status of international cultural recognition. Yes, UNESCO are now protecting bread rolls. 

I’ve always associated the UNESCO heritage stamp with important sites from around the world that, if they weren’t already a travel lure, certainly become so after such an accreditation. I’m thinking along the lines of Macchu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Stonehenge and the Great Wall of China. In contrast, accepting a sandwich as something of a cultural heritage seems at first, like the ftira itself, a little hard. 

But as UNESCO state, and quite rightly so, ‘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.’

UNESCO Intangibles a benefit to us all

Ftira, which has been baked in a traditional way since the 16th Century, certainly comes under the banner of tradition. Being recognised by UNESCO supports both the making of the bread and the community that surrounds it. This help involves boosting the dwindling number of ftira bakers, and one way in which this is done is by funding educational establishments to assist in schooling the next generation of bread makers.

Protecting this industry then enables locals and tourists alike to continue enjoying a tasty chunk of traditional Maltese culture. The benefits of safeguarding ftira baking therefore extends beyond those directly involved. And this is also important.

There are a whole host of weird and wonderful traditions from across the world that have found their way onto the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ recognition list. Like ftira baking, these customs also have clear advantages to the culture from which they originate, but are also beneficial to all cultures, including yours.

Here are some more examples:

Andean Cosmovision      

The Kallawaya Ethnic Group, UNESCO protected
Kallawaya Ethnic Group
© Viceministerio de Cultura

Since the pre-Inca period the Kallawaya ethnic group from Bolivia have used special medicinal techniques based on their belief system to cure people’s ailments in the community. A lot of the Kallawaya methodology involves the wearing of colourful robes and chanting to the spirits, but also within it is an in depth knowledge of plants and their medicinal properties.

So large is the Kallawayan’s body of medical knowledge that they employ the use of around 980 species of plants. One such application is bark extract from the cinchona tree which was used to treat malaria long before Europeans derived quinine from the same plant. 

Helping preserve their culture under the UNESCO banner could lead to the discovery of many more remedies which may prove beneficial to the world.  

Arabic Coffee

Arabic man serving coffee
Arabic Coffee Ceremony
“Arabic coffee  by Yousif Al Mulla is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Arabic coffee making ceremony originates from the Bedouin tribes and involves roasting, grinding and brewing the beans on an open fire in front of guests. This demonstration is a way for the host to show their generosity to those present; it’s signifying friendship through hospitality.

What’s more, if there’s a dispute between people, coffee is served as and when a resolution is found, showing that the friendship is reinstated. This process is of cultural importance in all Arab nations, especially the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar. 

Coffee was introduced to the West via Venice and Malta in the 16th Century. Since then, western nations have fully embraced the drinking of coffee but have also assumed the traditional use of the drink as a social instrument; at public coffee mornings for example, or when it’s offered to a visitor at someone’s house. East or west, this drink provides the user with energy and helps inspire conversation; now we’re all full of beans.

East Asian Tug of War

Tug Of War on a commercial street in Yeongsan Juldarigi, Korea
Part of the Korean Yeongsan Juldarigi tugging ritual held on a commercial street.
© Hyun Gwan Wook, 2005

What benefit does tug of war have apart from providing us with something to do at school fetes? East Asia shows us that the game has a deeper significance. 

Tugging rituals have been important for rice farming communities for centuries in countries like Cambodia, Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam. The ritual is done to encourage a good harvest, and it represents the strength of natural forces; the push and pull of nature. What’s more, it’s intentionally uncompetitive, and as there are no winners or losers it has the effect of bringing communities together.

Tug of war helps highlight the importance of cooperation; something worth remembering at the next fete if you get roped into it. 

Niger Joking Relationships

Niger Joking Relationships
L’expression de la parenté à plaisanterie à la cours d’un chef de village
© Tahirou MAYAKI dit Atto, 2011

Another activity that emphasises the importance of cooperation is the ancient tradition of inter-community joking in Niger. This involves members of neighbouring villages, for instance, playfully taunting one other yet with a duty to tell the truth in a bid to settle a dispute. The outcome is always a peaceful one and highlights the need to love and assist one another, and to resolve problems in a fun way.

Anger between communities in any culture leads to a whole host of problems, often including violence. Niger offers us a peaceful solution to conflict; humour as the ultimate form of diplomacy. Make jokes, not war. 

Jamaican Reggae

Bob Marley singing
“Bob Marley” by monosnaps is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Reggae is a musical style unique to Jamaica, which is part of the reason for its UNESCO recognition, but what’s also of great importance is the cultural context that the music grew from. Originating from Kingston, the early reggae pioneers suffered oppression at the hands of their colonisers, and so, reggae music became a way to express the feelings of the subjugated.

Jamaican reggae became so significant as an illustration of this subjugation that the music was adopted by other oppressed cultures across the world, from South Africa to the South Pacific. It’s become a symbol of freedom and equality; a voice for the marginalised. And also, through its lyrics and laidback vibes comes hope. We only have to look at artists like Bob Marley and songs like Three Little Birds to feel this. 

‘Don’t worry about a thing

Cause every little thing gonna be all right’

Bob Marley and The Wailers, ‘Three Little Birds’

Preserving humanity 

These cultural assets in their varied forms of intangibility are worth protecting on a direct level because they have a clear value to the culture they originate from, and also for many of us outside of it.

But more than this, there’s a general, overriding and universal theme shared by all of the traditions found on UNESCO’s list, and that theme is community. Without community there’s no humanity, and this makes safeguarding cultural intangible heritage, from bread rolls to Bob Marley, vitally important to us all.  

Cover photo: “Yummy” by Jiuck is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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