Traditional UAE poetry offered protected UNESCO status

Heritage committee in South Korea rules Al-Azi tradition is important in building national identity

Al-Azi poetry has been offered protected status by UNESCO to develop clear national identity in the UAE.
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The traditional UAE performing art of Al-Azi has been offered protected status by a United Nations heritage preservation committee.

A decision to add the Emirati poetry recital to the protected list was taken during the 12th meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, on Jeju Island in South Korea.

Al Azi is a full-rhymed poem based on traditional Emirati prose with lines sometimes using old sayings and proverbs.

The practice is said to strengthen bonds, and is inspired by nature. The form of poetry was regularly performed by communities until the mid-1900s, before slowly dwindling as the country experienced rapid development and urbanization.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has decided Al-Azi is a significant and important cultural heritage performance, reflecting UAE culture and Emirati society.

“Al-Azi's inclusion in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding list is reflective of our leadership's directives to support our authentic cultural heritage,” said Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi.

“This emphasises its importance in building national identity and maintaining communication between different generations.

“It also contributes to the achievement of the Department of Culture and Tourism strategic goals in ensuring the UAE national heritage is embedded in the constant development and progress of our nation.

“In that context, Al-Azi is an important performing art which still enjoys wide public participation, highlighting its historical depth and its significant stature among elements of the UAE’s authentic heritage.”

The UNESCO committee, which includes representatives of 24-member countries meets annually to monitor the implementation of the legal document ratified by 175 countries that has listed the safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in their national legislation.

The 14-year old convention has enabled the launch of 140 conservation projects for living heritage in 107 countries.

The art of Al-Azi depends on the repetition of poems without music or rhythmic instruments.

It is practiced at national and social events to instil pride, loyalty and national values, whilst praising the traditions of welcoming and acknowledging achievement.

The performance focuses on the singer and the supporting reciters who give him answers that emphasise his words.

Reciters stand in lines behind the lead performer in a symbolic scene of unity and solidarity.

Previously, Al Majlis, Gahwa (Arabic coffee) and Al Razfa have joined Falconry, Al Taghrooda and Al Ayala on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, while Al Sadu has been inscribed on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in need of Urgent Safeguarding.

Al Azi has joined other traditional practices around the world onto the 360-strong list, such as Europe’s Mediterranean diet and Indian yoga.

Other nominees this year included German organ music and a Neapolitan pizza baking tradition that involves songs and stories handed down over generations.

“The inscription of Al-Azi on UNESCO's list is one of the positive outcomes of the depth of research and documentation that the Department of Culture and Tourism has conducted to preserve the UAE cultural heritage,” said Saif Saeed Ghobash, Director General of the Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi.

“This will help us to promote at international level, and as a tool of effective intercultural communication among world nations.”