Intangible heritage is “living heritage,” Unesco says. It consists of “the practices, traditions, knowledge and skills”, as well as tools and spaces, that communities consider part of their cultural heritage.
The organization maintains two lists relating to intangible cultural heritage. They are the “representative” list, on which Arabic calligraphy was inscribed, and another list for heritage elements “in need of urgent safeguarding”.
Baghdadi said that the representative list was designed “to urge member states to take care of the heritage element and develop the skills of its professionals. It also instructs countries to prepare annual reports on the procedures that have been followed in this regard, to protect this element from extinction.”
The Syrian calligrapher Mouneer Al-Shaarani said Unesco’s decision represented “an important step to preserve Arabic calligraphy, confirming that this art is still alive”.
He added: “It is necessary to take care of teaching Arabic calligraphy to avoid turning it into a museum art that cannot be developed.”
Limiting Arabic calligraphy to a heritage space would be a “crime”, Al-Shaarani said. “We need to liberate it from this framework and consider it as an art derived from heritage by integrating it into contemporary arts.”
A number of contemporary artists are doing just that. They include Heba Helmi, a potter who was taught by the late Mohamed Hamam. “The old forms of Arabic calligraphy do not meet the needs of contemporary artists, but it can inspire,” she said.
Helmi regrets the deterioration of calligraphy schools. “A calligrapher’s profession is no longer rewarding,” she said. “So, we must move on by educating calligraphers to master an artistic space that frees them from the framework of decoration.”
Teaching Calligraphy at Art Colleges
Al-Shaarani suggests establishing special departments for Arabic calligraphy at art colleges or specialized higher institutes. The existing calligraphy schools in most Arab countries “suffer from deliberate government neglect, and their students do not feel their education is useful”, he said.
Baghdadi added that the schools are too poor to pay teachers a living wage. “In a pioneering country like Egypt,” he said, “a calligraphy teacher at such schools receives a wage that is not enough to buy a cup of tea in a popular cafe.”