UNESCO has added Arabic calligraphy to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. The proposal was put forward by a coalition of 16 Arabic speaking countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine. They will create a report on their progress in supporting the art form next year.
The proposal was led by Saudi Arabia, which had declared the years of 2020 and 2021 the “Year of Arabic Calligraphy,” which included the push for Arabic calligraphy to be included on the UNESCO list. In a statement published by the government of Saudi Arabia, Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, the country’s Minister of Culture, said, “We welcome the inscription of Arabic calligraphy, which is the result of the Kingdom championing this treasured aspect of authentic Arabic culture.”
The UNESCO statement describes Arabic calligraphy as “the artistic practice of handwriting Arabic script in a fluid manner to convey harmony, grace and beauty.” Originally invented to improve legibility of Arabic script, the writing form became more complicated as artists found that by shaping the letters in different ways they could create unique motifs. The form has continued to evolve as artists have used different media to create the calligraphy, including honey, black soot, saffron, and even spray paint.
As opposed to UNESCO world heritage sites which are physical in nature, intangible cultural heritage refers to precious cultural practices. Games, hunting practices, dialects, culinary treasures and folk dances are included, alongside more contemporary heritage practices. In Singapore, for example, street vendor food made the list in 2020 as a repository not only of food practices but the community unity that these open air food courts invite in urban spaces. The coalition of 16 Arabic-speaking countries also successfully lobbied for falconry to be added to the list this year as well.