Qataris Call for Safeguarding a Heritage That’s Slipping Away

/ 15 Nov 2019

Qataris Call for Safeguarding a Heritage That’s Slipping Away

DOHA—The influx of migrant labor to Qatar and the modernization efforts associated with the economic boom since the 1970s pose a major cultural challenge for Qataris. The country’s openness to other cultures and the rapid pace of social development prompt many questions about culture, identity and heritage in a country where native citizens are a minority.

At an assembly last week in Doha, the capital, a panel of experts discussed the topic of safeguarding key aspects of Qatar’s intangible cultural heritage, and its role in protecting Qatar’s traditional culture and national identity for future generations.

According to UNESCO, intangible cultural heritage includes rituals, practices, expressions, oral traditions, and knowledge and skills associated with traditional crafts that people recognize as part of their inherent cultural heritage.

Like other Gulf societies, Qatar experienced a rapid and dramatic change away from its historic pearl fishing and Bedouin lifestyle, after the discovery of oil resources in the 1940s. (See a related article, “An Archaeology Project Connects Young Qataris to Their Past.”)

As a result, several Qatari heritage elements vanished because the economic reasons behind their practice were no longer valid. Today, many of these elements are only alive through association with objects in museums and grandparents’ tales, but younger generations had no chance to experience them firsthand.

“Safeguarding this type of heritage is a social responsibility for civil society organizations and members of the community and not just the role of government institutions,” Mariam Ibrahim Al-Hammadi, from the department of humanities and history at Qatar University, said at the panel discussion.

As such, raising awareness of the importance of intangible heritage is vital, according to Al-Hammadi.

“We need to filter pure Qatari heritage from adopted heritage.”

Mariam Ibrahim Al-Hammadi   A historian at Qatar University

Hurdles for Preservationists

There are two opinions in the Qatari community about intangible cultural heritage, Al-Hammadi said. One acknowledges its importance and the need to safeguard it. The other says that these cultural practices are “bid’ah” and should be erased from Qatar’s cultural heritage because they contradict Islamic beliefs. “Bid’ah” refers to innovation in religious matters, which is discouraged in Islamic law.

Moreover, as the Qatari economy developed, the country started attracting a significant expatriate workforce that is now about 90 percent of the population, according to unofficial figures. This posed a new challenge for the country’s cultural identity.

“We need to filter pure Qatari heritage from adopted heritage,” Al-Hammadi said. “There are heritage themes that were distorted already, and other pure Qatari elements have vanished.”

Native Qataris are a minority in their own country. A panel of experts gathered in Doha last week to discuss how to preserve key aspects of their intangible cultural heritage for future generations (Photo: Eman Kamel).
Native Qataris are a minority in their own country. A panel of experts gathered in Doha last week to discuss how to preserve key aspects of their intangible cultural heritage for future generations (Photo: Eman Kamel).

Three elements of Qatari heritage are now included on the UNESCO Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage. They are the Majlis as a cultural and social space, Arabic coffee as a symbol of generosity, and falconry as a living human heritage.  All three were submitted to UNESCO in collaboration with other Arab states.

Recognition by UNESCO plays a pivotal role in preserving nations’ intangible cultural heritage, said Federico Lenzerini, an associate professor of international law at the University of Siena, Italy, who spoke at the Doha gathering. It also highlights international cooperation, he added, and allows countries to see what they have in common, thus fostering friendships between nations.

During the panel discussion, Abdulla Mohammed Al Sulaiti, deputy director for research and collections at the National Museum of Qatar, emphasized the role of education in supporting the transfer of this intangible cultural heritage to the country’s children.

“Every piece showcased at the museum has a story that needs to be told,” Al Sulaiti said. “This connects tangible heritage with intangible heritage, and educational institutions are a principal partner to museums in creating such programs.”

Collecting Memories of the Past

To help museums tell these stories, the Qatar Museums Authority conducted 240 interviews with older members of the Qatari community, resulting in 720 hours of recorded material that has been sorted and classified according to historical periods. Today, almost 30 percent of the interviewees have passed away—a grim fact that further highlights the urgency of safeguarding elements of the country’s intangible cultural heritage that are preserved in human memory.

“Intangible cultural heritage needs to be transferred to academic institutions because that’s part of the recognition and acknowledgment of this heritage.”

Hamad Al Muhannadi   A cultural heritage specialist at the Ministry of Culture and Sports

The Qatar Museums Authority is now working with museums and educational institutions to make these resources available for students and researchers who study cultural heritage.

But the generation of researchers who were interested in studying this type of heritage are now old themselves, according to Noura Hamad, a member of the audience. “How can we prepare new young academics in this field?” she asked the panel.

Hamad Al Muhannadi, a cultural heritage specialist at the Ministry of Culture and Sports, acknowledged that more needs to be done to orient young researchers to this field.

“Intangible cultural heritage needs to be transferred to academic institutions because that’s part of the recognition and acknowledgment of this heritage,” he said.

He pointed to recent positive steps in this regard, such as starting a course about popular literature at Qatar University and the different projects to protect and promote Qatar’s history and culture carried out by University College London in collaboration with the Qatar Museums Authority.

Such collaborations have also resulted in different programs and activities related to cultural heritage at Qatari schools, but Qatari writer Jamal Fayez says that most of these activities are not an integral part of the educational process, which limits the impact of such interventions.

“The absence of cultural heritage from educational curricula means graduating half humans who are not connected to their heritage and identity,” he said.




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