UAE publishes the largest Arab thesaurus of cultural heritage

More than 150 specialists in heritage, anthropology and the arts in the Arab world have reviewed the thesaurus.
Saturday 19/10/2019
Egyptian professor of documentation and expert in popular heritage Mustafa Jad. (Al Arab)
A dream come true. Egyptian professor of documentation and expert in popular heritage Mustafa Jad. (Al Arab)

ABU DHABI - Published in three volumes by the Sharjah Institute for Heritage, the “Intangible Cultural Heritage Thesaurus,” dedicated to folkloric heritage in the Arab world, is the result of years of work by Mustafa Jad. More than 150 specialists in heritage, anthropology and the arts in the Arab world have reviewed the thesaurus.

“The story of the thesaurus is an example of Arab will to realise a dream that we have waited for more than half a century until we were able to complete this achievement,” said Jad, of Egypt’s Higher Institute of Folk Arts. “In fact, for the past 20 years, I did not let go of the idea of preserving our Arab folkloric heritage.”

He explained that the function and concept of “thesaurus” as a documentation tool is different from that of an “encyclopaedia.” The thesaurus is an organisation tool providing the digital database with material for easy retrieval in its video, audio and text formats.

The paper version of the thesaurus is arranged thematically in one volume and alphabetically in a second for easy referencing and finding classification numbers of the item to be documented.

The thematic thesaurus can be used to find the thematic classification of an item and its reference number. Information about the item can then be added to the digital database. An encyclopaedia contains scientific information directly under its alphabetical classification.

Jad said that without the right methodological tools for documenting, preserving and retrieving the thousands of elements of Arab popular culture, the task of identifying, analysing and interpreting details and relationships underlying those elements would be very difficult.

For example, wedding traditions are linked chronologically and vertically to those of the engagement ceremony, the dowry, the offering of jewellery to the bride, the wedding night, et cetera. They are also connected to other folkloric elements, such as wedding music and songs, evil-warding beliefs, display arts, wedding folk dances, ornamental arts and ornaments for the bride.

These items may intersect in other ways and with other items. There can be similarities and differences among different locations for the same item. There are countless cultural variations of the element related to its geographical path location.

The factor of time also intervenes and some elements of popular culture have been around for centuries while others have disappeared from the collective memory. Others evolved or were transformed and acquired other functions, continuing to exist in new forms.

“It wouldn’t have been possible to invite all Arab intangible heritage specialists to participate in the three revision and authentication workshops but the attendance was nevertheless beyond what we have envisioned. Many Arab specialists just showed up,” Jad said.

He pointed out that the thematic classification in the “Intangible Cultural Heritage Thesaurus,” has been linked to specialised fields including: general heritage topics; knowledge and practices related to nature and the universe (popular beliefs and knowledge); social practices, rituals and celebrations (folk customs and traditions); forms of oral expression (folk literature); arts and performance traditions (folk performing arts); folk plastic arts; and skills associated with traditional crafts.

Jad said preparation of any thesaurus is related to the size of intellectual production in the area. Hence deciding on the sections and subsections, descriptors and the hierarchical and cross-sectional relations varies.

In the intellectual production in the intangible cultural heritage in the Arab world there are millions of scattered heritage materials that have not been collected and organised in a systematic framework.

This intellectual production of Arab intangible cultural heritage has been reflected in the size of the thesaurus. The thesaurus pages reflect the multiple and complex hierarchical classifications of items and their interrelationships. In addition, the great geographical diversity within and between each Arab country has produced 12,330 descriptors used and 9,130 descriptors not used.

The alphabetical section of the thesaurus contains all used and unused thesaurus descriptors. These have been distributed in the thesaurus by the nature of each of seven classified sections, putting the number of descriptions in the thesaurus at 21,460.

Jad said most Arab institutions possess archives of Arab popular heritage. These are often stored on tapes, CD-ROM, pictures or film and there often are individual digital databases. However, there is no encompassing Arab archive that can be consulted electronically on a global level.

The Arab thesaurus project is a milestone in the collection of heritage elements in Arab institutions and will be made available to all. It is a dream about to be realised with the publication of this thesaurus that has been authenticated and adopted by Arab experts in cultural heritage, anthropology and information technology.