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From Yurts To Kimchi, Protecting The World's 'Intangible' Cultures

  • Daisy Sindelar

Seventy-year-old Kakesh Jumabai-Kyzy has spent her entire life working with felt.

The mother of eight lives in the mountainous Kyrgyz area of At-Bashy, where many families still tend flocks of sheep that provide the warm, fluffy wool that Jumabai-Kyzy transforms into traditional Kyrgyz clothing and the colorful felt rugs called shyrdaks.

"I learned carpet-making from my mother, and after that I continued working by myself. I make yurts, shyrdaks, kementais (wool coats for men), and kalpaks (national wool hats)," Jumabai-Kyzy says. "Dozens of my items have been sold abroad. But only my younger daughter-in-law and one of my own daughters are continuing my craft. My other children didn't learn it."

Jumabai-Kyzy is one of a dwindling number of artisans skilled in making shyrdaks and alakiyiz, an appliqued felt carpet.
Kakesh Jumabai-Kyzy (left), a 70-year-old craftswoman living in Kyrygyzstan's remote At-Bashy region, collecting the dried wool she uses to make felt for traditional shyrdak and alakiyiz carpets.

Kakesh Jumabai-Kyzy (left), a 70-year-old craftswoman living in Kyrygyzstan's remote At-Bashy region, collecting the dried wool she uses to make felt for traditional shyrdak and alakiyiz carpets.

The rugs, which combine rich colors and striking graphic patterns, were traditionally used for warmth and decoration in Kyrgyz households.

But Nazgul Mekeshova, a historical-legacy specialist with the Kyrgyz Culture Ministry, says the appeal of shyrdaks and alakiyiz is dying out.

"Before, the craft was thriving in our country," Mekeshova says. "For example, when young girls got married, mothers typically gave them shyrdaks and alakiyiz as gifts. But now it's foreign carpets and rugs that are selling the most at local markets. The shyrdak and alakiyiz remain only as a form of historical art."

But last year, Kyrgyzstan's unique rug-making heritage got a boost when the shyrdak and alakiyiz were recognized by the United Nations' cultural agency, UNESCO, as a cultural element in need of urgent safeguarding.
One of Jamabai-Kyzy's felt shyrdak rugs.

One of Jamabai-Kyzy's felt shyrdak rugs.

UNESCO has offered protection for cultural entities for decades, most notably through its World Heritage List, which includes 981 properties -- from India's Taj Mahal to Australia's Great Barrier Reef -- deemed as having outstanding universal value.

In 2003, UNESCO passed a special convention offering protections for living, non-physical elements of culture -- something the agency calls "intangible cultural heritage." Helena Drobna, a specialist in UNESCO's culture sector, explains:

"It has to be transmitted from generation to generation, it has to be created and constantly recreated by the communities, and it has to provide them with a sense of identity and continuity -- things like oral traditions or expressions, performing arts, traditional craftsmanship, social practices and rituals, and knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe," Drobna says.

Since then, hundreds of so-called "intangible cultural heritage elements" have applied for special UNESCO status. These include everything from Korean tightrope walking to Sicilian puppet theater to falconry, a tradition nominated by a collective group of 13 different nations.

The process of applying for addition to the UNESCO list can be grueling. Countries must demonstrate that the cultural element is essential to the identity of a community, continues to develop as it is passed through generations, and represents no threat to human rights.

Applicant countries must also describe how they plan to independently support the cultural element. UNESCO provides no automatic funding to countries that make the cultural intangible list. But Drobna says the special UNESCO designation gives many crafts and rituals the attention and momentum they need to regain importance within their community:

"The benefit of it is that it's raising awareness in the community on the local level, regional level, national level, and internationally," Drobna says. "So the idea is that as it raises awareness, it may also raise funding, in order to safeguard these elements. The local or national governments may release some funding, and they may also apply for some international support from UNESCO."

Dozens of countries have applied this year to add their intangible cultural elements to the UNESCO list.

Shrimp Fishing On Horseback

Applicants include Mongolia, which has nominated its traditional making of gers, or yurts. Belgium is hoping to call attention to its regional tradition of shrimp fishing on horseback.

The Turkish coffee culture has also been nominated, as has the South Korean tradition of making and sharing the spicy cabbage dish known as kimchi.

These cases and others are due to be considered when UNESCO convenes an intergovernmental committee for the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage in Baku on December 2-7.

The event is expected to receive considerable publicity in Azerbaijan, whose first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, has served as a UNESCO goodwill ambassador since 2004.

Baku is also hoping to use the December meeting to secure urgent safeguarding status for its own intangible cultural element -- chovqan, a form of polo once popular among Azeri nomads riding sturdy, short-legged Karabakh horses.

Azerbaijan's application is not without controversy. Few in the country have heard of the sport, and neighboring Iran has protested, saying polo is an international game and should not be acknowledged as a sport indigenous to any one nation.

UNESCO says its list is meant to highlight the intangible cultural heritage of individual communities, not countries -- a step that is meant to emphasize the natural diversity of most countries around the world.

But Rahman Badalov, a Baku-based philosopher and art critic, says some countries may use special designations like the UNESCO list to fuel nationalist sentiment.

He recalls the bitter "dolma dispute" between Azerbaijan and its rival neighbor, Armenia, when both tried to informally claim the savory stuffed grape leaves as their national dish.

Efforts to promote chovqan as a signature Azerbaijani sport, Badalov says, are a waste of time and money.

"It's the latest example of the government misusing budget resources," Badalov says. "They have lots of money and are looking for a kind of entertainment. Ninety-nine percent of the government's cultural initiatives are ugly, useless things. It's only cosmetic, a mask, with no content. They want to gain political favor, to show a positive side of themselves."

RFE/RL correspondents Baktygul Chynybaeva and Arifa Kazimova contributed to this piece from Bishkek and Baku