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Tangible Heritage and Identity: Identity of Place and Identity of People

2021-07-24
Nabil Abdel-Fattah - Consultant of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies
One of the most important issues in the discourses on identity in Egypt and the Arab world is that these are discourses tinged with holiness and patriotism, that has an effect on the approach to identity genealogy and its transformations. Not to mention that it manifests transcendental and meta-historical discourses, as they mirror the divisive and conflicting ideological viewpoints between political, religious and semi-secular currents.
Identity from a religious viewpoint, bases its discourse on some of the historical foundational moments of the Islamic and Christian religions, where every discourse is grounded in religion, theology, jurisprudence and positivist narratives, by describing it as carrying the believing group's identity, and extending it to society and the state, especially the identity-based Islamic discourse. In this type of identity discourse, identity appears centered around convictions, laws, biographies, narratives, sources of jurisprudence and the foundational history of Islam. Or Orthodox Christianity's beliefs and values. Egypt's Islamic and Christian discourses on identity bonds between identity and religion, and moments of Islamic imperial prosperity. Some of them concentrate on the honorable prophetic stage, the Rightly-Guided Caliphs or the Pharaonic history and then the Coptic phase. It is thus transformed into an ahistorical discourse which recognizes identity as the realization of a given past once, forgetting that the discourse on identity is modern par excellence, and is linked to the nation-state and its developments, and postmodernism and beyond.
This type of Islamic and Coptic Orthodox discourses on identity has borrowed the concept to make it one of its tools in the consolidation of its presence in the structure and combination of Egyptian civilization and to formally modernize the discourse of political Islam and its ideological groups, which it utilizes in the political struggle, that focuses on the vast majority, the criterion to formulate a comprehensive discourse of identity, transcending other religious, sectarian, ethnic, national and historical identities that are formative of other components of society.
The discourse of Islamic identity, to a large extent, seeks to deny other identities and cultural and social features of the Muslim majority, based on the concept of the Islamic nation grounded on religious ties across multiple societies. Semi-secular and totalitarian ideological discourses depend mainly upon the authoritarian definition of patriotism, especially in the wake of post-colonialism and the advent of the "fathers of independence" to power in divisive societies based on the multiplicity of its components and multiple identities, by the authoritarian definition of national identity and its selective national narratives, which are reformulated as a result of changes in power, either by natural death, assassination or military coups d’états. Hence, the authoritarian identities of nationalism seem to be an expression of its manipulation by the dominant political classes, and the phenomenon of customization of power in numerous Arab monarchies, sheikhdom, princely and republican political systems.
Henceforth, identity challenges have become a political issue, with them the "national" history. Subsequently, the focus on the relationship between intangible heritage and identity seemed to be eclectic and authoritarian. Among the most significant examples are the definitions of the Egyptian identity and the struggle for that identity, according to the narratives of identity and its components, from Nasser to Sadat and Mubarak, and the positions of these narratives from the Alawite family and the political class of large landowners, and quasi-capitalist in the semi-liberal phase. Following the great mass uprising on January 25, 2011, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s coming to power, along with the Salafists, they reconsidered Egyptian history from July 23, 1952, to their coming to power. They therefore codified and defined identity in the 2012 Constitution, in accordance with their religious ideological perspective.
From the foregoing, it may be said that there are discrepancies on the challenges of Egyptian national identity between authoritarianism, totalitarian tendency, and the exhaustive nature of political Islamism, and the growing struggle for identity among authoritarian speechmakers, and political Islamism. These eclectic discourses on identity have revolved around intangible heritage, and Tangible heritage was not a priority of its primary preoccupations, because the struggle was over the Egyptian spirit.
The intangible heritage was among the conventions signed and ratified by Egypt in the framework of UNESCO. Thus, interest in Tangible heritage was marginal when it came to identity, in favor of the intangible, intellectual, historical and religious jurisprudence heritage, and some semi-modern heritage that was formed with the construction of the modern state, like narratives about Egyptian nationalism, literature, theater, cinema, sculpture and figurative photography, and political and social thought ...etc.
Paying attention to Tangible heritage as one of the components of identity and its historical expressions - customs, traditions, literature, arts, and folk arts such as poetry, singing, music, folk beliefs, narratives, proverbs, dance, games, competences, etc. according to the common expression.
On the other hand, the interest in Tangible cultural heritage has been depicted in historical and religious monuments, buildings and places, religious and funerary buildings such as temples, mosques and cemeteries, and military and civil buildings such as forts, palaces, castles, baths, dams, towers and walls worthy of protection and preservation. This heritage became important during the French Campaign, and the book "Description of Egypt", and this interest extended with Muhammad Ali and Ismail Pasha and later in the development of the Egyptian national movement, and the foreign archaeological expeditions of ancient Egyptian, Pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic antiquities.
Such interest encouraged the rise of Egypt's national constitutional movement against British colonialism and the trend toward independence and building a constitutional rule during the semi-liberal phase. Then this interest developed with the intellectual debate on the spirit and identity of Egypt, whether it's Pharaonic, Arabic or Islamic. Theorization of the Egyptian national character, which manifests itself in Egyptian sculpture of Mahmoud Mokhtar and others, and in the figurative arts and the escape from captivity of the fantastic European eyes, to the depiction of Egyptian life. Designs and styles, in art and architecture and its styles, varied between European inspirations, in the architecture and design of buildings, particularly in Cairo of the 19th century and beyond and the emphasis on taking inspiration from Islamic styles in constructing mosques, and cemeteries for some elite, or some children of the middle classes. Within this quasi-liberal political context, the focus on Tangible heritage was the antiquities of several sites and the Egyptian Museum. In the field of folk culture, this has emerged in many inspirations in music phrases and song, or Egyptian cinematographic narratives, or figurative photography...etc. It should be stressed here that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists did not pay attention to this issue of Tangible heritage, and centered on the religious, ideological and historical Islamic heritage against what they regarded as the tendency to Arabization, and linking it with British colonialism, the diverse foreign presence and cosmopolitan spirit prevailing in Cairo, Alexandria and some other cities such as Mansoura and Port Said.
With the regime of July 1952, interest extended to Tangible heritage in antiquities and discoveries and their various categories, for the purposes of tourism, economy and culture, foremost among them the transfer of the Abu Simbel temple, in light of the construction of the High Dam, and migration of Nubians to other regions remote from their historic sites. The uprooting of the Nubians had a detrimental effect on the collective consciousness, the activation of the renaissance of the Nubian identity, and the interest of some Nubian youth in the diaspora in their history, or on some of their intellectuals and writers. Uprooting and immigration have become a material for songwriting, composing music, and being mindful of the Nubian style of construction. Engineer Hassan Fathi employed this constructive and Nubian style in his construction of the village of Al Qarnah at Luxor.
During Nasser's phase, the Egyptian State took an interest in Tangible heritage, through the Arts Department headed by Yahya Haqqi, the great Egyptian writer. Then the Academy of Arts, and a number of initiatives such as the compilation of lyrical and musical folklore through Zakaria Al-Hijjawi and some Soviet experts at the time, and the theoretical interest in folk arts, by Ahmed Abbas Saleh, and others. Then that interest grew with other generations of researchers, in the field of puppetry, for this cultural heritage. Undoubtedly this tendency to preserve the Tangible heritage was part of the socialist tendency, or the capitalism of the national state and its populist inclination, in glorifying the people and their cultural heritage, and Nasser's pan-Arabic tendency. This trend continued with Sadat and Mubarak, with certain tendencies of showmanship and tourism, and the gifting of some antiquities to foreign presidents.!!
Some interest in Tangible heritage in folklore declined, and this continued during the Mubarak phase, with the expansion of corruption in the field of smuggling Egyptian antiquities on its historical differences, especially in the aftermath of January 25, 2011. The most dangerous concept was the indifference to some areas of Tangible heritage for considerations related to the lack of culture and awareness of the importance of this heritage, and the essentiality for its preservation and its sites, due to the predominance of the practical tendency in the need for expansion and development of infrastructure of roads and building bridges.
This raises the question: What is the connection between the Tangible heritage and the issue of identity?
Undoubtedly the identity of any group, race, language, religion or sect, particularly in southern societies - the southern part of the world, in the Arab world and in Egypt in particular - depends on the construction of its symbolical fantastic identities, on the Tangible heritage, such as folk arts; including music, instruments, and melodies, mourning of the dead, love songs, groups, friendship, family, kinship, wedding songs and dances. Along with common poems that are inherited and replicated, as well as the inherited traditional architectural styles, in villages, areas of ethnic assemblies such as Nubians, Berbers in Siwa, and Bedouin residential areas in some Egyptian oases such as Kharga or Sinai.
This Tangible heritage, related to the history of formative groups, forms the Tangible basis on which the changing identities of each ethnic, national, linguistic, religious or sectarian group are founded. In this context, ancient mosques, temples and tombs and their sites play one of the building centers of the group's identity, its constants and transformations.
Tombs and their sites are of some significance to the collective consciousness of the Egyptians, taking into account the Egyptian material and symbolic heritage about death - since the symbolic historical heritage of the Egyptians from ancient times until now - and perceptions of the Egyptian religions, in their plurality, concerning the journey to the other world, and perceptions of those religions and doctrines on post-death conclusions, such as the journey of judgment to eternity on the variety of theological and jurisprudential narratives in the description of this eternal journey, according to each religion and doctrine.
This Tangible heritage extends from the relationship of the people of the formative community to the spiritual relationship with places of worship, such as mosques, churches and synagogues. The spirituality of the place of worship and its architectural style are superimposed on religious and spiritual rites and their practices, and the visual culture of the believer by means of the aesthetics of the place of worship, its design and style, which are feelings and a consciousness of place that represents a demarcation of popular identity fantasies.
The place and its aesthetic, symbolic and historical foundations, make up the identity of the place, the customs and mores of the formative community, regardless of their religions, customs, rituals, social movements and interactions around them.
The identity of the place - whatever its symbolic, religious, ideological, economic, entertainment, planning and architectural foundations are - forms part of people's movement and interactions around them, and thus represents part of the collective memories of the formative group or society with its various components on its plurality. Some places are linked to revolutions and their symbols, whereas others are linked to rebellions, social and political protest movements or demonstrations. Some of the others are related to the political and historical changes in this or that country, or to social, economic and technological transformations, or any change in political leadership and the nature of the political system.
For example, the statues of Mahmoud Mokhtar represent the features of modern Egyptian sculpture, are a symbol of the formation of Egyptian nationalism, and represent the inspiration drawn from the great Egyptian Pharaonic sculptural heritage, with modern national symbolism, as in the statues of the Renaissance of Egypt, Saad Zagloul, and others. Also, the mosque, cemetery and shrine of Gamal Abdel Nasser, with the change in the modern design of the mosque.
The third example is the monument to the Unknown Soldier in Nasr City, that was constructed as a pyramid, expressing the idea of immortality among the ancient Egyptians, as designed by the artist Sami Rafea.
The identity of the place, and its memory, is determined in accordance with its history, the arts of architecture, styles, aesthetics, planning or non-planning, creativity in the place, in its pattern, and its foundations by the Tangible architectural heritage, that includes the site planning, the pattern of the surrounding houses, markets, sculptural pieces, religious shrines, and even appropriate places of entertainment or interests…. etc. Setting is part of the memory of the group and the nation - in the nation-states; among which Egypt -, and the identity of the places of religious, ethnic or linguistic formative groups does not negate the unified national identity and its combined standards, but rather seems to be inclusive of it due to its plurality.
The identity of the place is not limited to arts in their diversity, or folklore heritage and folk arts, nor temples, mosques and churches, but rather Sufi shrines and others, and the historical burials of the great mystics - Bab al-Nasr, and the Mamluk burials - which preserves the remains of the deceased and some of them are historical, political, intellectual and artistic symbols or figures. Each one carries a part of the historical narratives, each in its own domain, that is continuous in a certain collective consciousness, as well as in its interruptions. It is part of the presence of the place in history, and the presence of figures in the place and history.
There is also the Tangible heritage associated with certain entertainment venues, such as historical cafés that were established in some historical stages, and were home to politicians, intellectuals, poets, novelists and storytellers, as depicted by the famous cafés in Paris, such as “Les Deux Magots”, “Café de Flore”, and “La Closerie des Lilas”, and “Le Dôme Café”...etc. These cafés were centers of literary movements, and were even offices for some writers, such as Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and others. Famous surrealist and literary declarations have been issued in some of these cafés.
In Egypt, literary cafés served as centers of dialogue and debate between intellectuals and politicians, most notably the “Matatia” café, whose corners gave birth to the nation's great popular movement in 1919, and its great pioneers were Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abdo, Abdullah al-Nadim, Mahmoud Sami al-Baroudi, Ahmed Shawqi, Saad Zaghloul, Hafez Ibrahim, and Abbas Mahmoud al-Akkad. Its location was in the green “El-Ataba” square. Also, the "Café Riche” in downtown Cairo, which witnessed generations of politicians, thinkers and writers from the sixties and seventies...and so on.
Hence, some historical cafés have formed part of the place's culture, identity, and historical memory by their inclusion in historical narratives on the place.
The identity and memory of the place are grounded on written historical narratives about places, markets, personalities, shrines, statues, architectural styles, and the social, economic and the artistic functions of any location, and some of its personalities, intellectual, political and artistic symbols, and its visitors.
By contrast, the place represents a significant part of the oral history of the community or nation, each within its limits, or beyond, from the formative community—religious, sectarian, ethnic, linguistic, and regional—to the nation. It also develops through some major transformations, and technical and scientific development, particularly in the light of the digital revolution, which has affected national identities, by the fragmentation of identities in the postmodern state and beyond.
Therefore, Tangible heritage has become an integral part of consuming digital images at the place, its identities, its people, its surroundings and its foundations. Thus, the Tangible heritage, its historic and popular identities, arts and rituals, architectural styles and shrines are part of transformative identities of groups and nations.
• The article is to be published in collaboration with Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

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