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UNESCO to the rescue of the halaquis

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© UNESCO/Jane Wright

Languages, oral literature, music, dance, games, mythology, rites, customs and craftsmanship are among the “cultural expressions” that UNESCO has been committed to protecting since 1997.

At of the source of this innovative undertaking was the Jemaa-el-Fna square and the commitment of one man, Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, who spends part of each year in Marrakesh (Morocco). “It all started a few years ago, when I wrote an article against the plan to build a 15-story glass tower on the square,” he says. I fought the project, because I'm convinced that any change in the layout of Jemaa-el-Fna would endanger the miracle that has taken place there every day for five centuries, I think the authorities were receptive to my argument, especially when I told them: 'What would happen if they cut 60 metres off the Eiffel Tower? Such a decision involves not just the Paris city government, but humanity as whole!' The project was abandoned.”

Not much later, another project was born: creating a list of humanity's masterpieces in the fields of oral and intangible heritage. Oral traditions and other forms of expression of folk culture, as well as the places where they flourish, could soon boast that new title. UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura has named a nine-member jury that will be renewed every four years.

“UNESCO's backing,” says Juan Goytisolo, “can be used to change the minds of the authorities and opinion-leaders and to encourage many people to take a fresh look at certain cultural phenomena. It is important to understand that the loss of a single halaiqui (storyteller) is much more serious for humanity than the death of 200 best-selling authors. UNESCO cannot save the halaiquis alone, but it can help. We have recorded their voices and their tales are going to be published but even that is not enough. We must avoid turning something which is living into a museum piece, but help to keep it alive. We must see to it that storytellers do not end up begging on the streets at the end of their lives. It is not hard to imagine, for example, schools taking their student to listen to the halaiquis introducing them to their own culture and teaching them that not all tales belong to Walt Disney.”

Read also

Jemaa-el-Fna's thousand and one nights, by Juan Goytisolo

Back to the issue Seven writers in a world of wonders, December 2000