Algeria played an active part in drawing up the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and was the first State in the world to ratify it, in February 2004. The primary body active in implementing the Convention in Algeria is the Centre National de Recherches Prehistoriques, Anthropologiques et Historiques (CNRPAH, National Centre for Prehistorical, Anthropological and Historical Research), a public institution under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. The activities of CNRPAH are defined as research in the fields of culture and human interactions with their environment from prehistory to the present day. It undertakes multidisciplinary field research, collection and documentation, and publishes the results of its work in CNRPAH publications as well as in international journals. Action to promote the intangible cultural heritage was launched in the early 2000s following the promulgation of the Law of 15 June 1998 for the protection of cultural heritage and Algeria’s ratification of the Convention. The national law of 15 June 1998, in addition to ensuring protection of intangible cultural heritage, stipulates: ‘Intangible cultural property is defined as a body of knowledge, social representations, know-how, skills, competencies and techniques, based on tradition in various fields of cultural heritage, and representing the true significance of attachment to cultural identity by an individual or a group of individuals.’ CNRPAH was reorganized in 2003 in order to assume responsibilities for intangible cultural heritage safeguarding. It works in close cooperation with regional cultural personnel in each of the country’s 48 Wilaya (province) Cultural Directorates (WCD); each WCD has a cultural heritage unit.
As far as training, four universities offer courses on intangible cultural heritage management. The Institut de Culture Populaire (Popular Culture Institute) in Tlemcen and the Departments of Amazigh Language and Culture at the Universities of Tizi-Ouzou, Béjaïa and Bouira now supervise hundreds of bachelor’s degree papers and master’s and doctoral degree theses on cultural anthropology. In conjunction with the country’s universities, CNRPAH will initiate doctoral studies in intangible cultural heritage sciences in October 2011. The first class will consist of some twenty students who will be enrolled as MPhil students. Similarly, CNRPAH will conduct a practical course in the 2011-2012 academic year for investigators recruited from among students holding a bachelor’s degree in social and human sciences.
Documentation of intangible cultural heritage is a prominent part of CNRPAH’s activities, as well as that of the aforementioned institute and universities. Between 1962 and 1969, the Ministry of Culture recorded hundreds of Andalusian music ‘noubates’ from the Algiers, Béjaïa, Blida, Constantine and Tlemcen schools and compiled them into recordings. CNRPAH has over one hundred hours of recordings of written and recited popular poetry from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries and continues to enrich its collection. CNRPAH also has several hundred tape recordings from the 1970s of national heritage music and songs which it is now digitizing. Although there are no other institutions specializing in intangible cultural heritage documentation (for the time being), many universities and research centres have collections of intangible cultural heritage documents. Teachers and researchers are currently compiling directories that will contain all bibliographical references so that these materials and documents can be used to establish a data bank, with validation and data entry being entrusted to CNRPAH.
Intangible cultural heritage inventorying has been built upon this on-going work of documentation. Pursuant to a decree dated 5 October 2003, Algeria set up an intangible cultural heritage data bank. This is a nationwide multi-year operation that will be carried out under the scientific control of CNRPAH. A further directive dated 7 March 2007 from the Minister of Culture instructed the WCDs, ‘to begin, as rapidly as possible, the operation of setting up a national intangible cultural heritage data bank in connection with agreements to be concluded with CNRPAH, which has a mandate to conduct scientific research and produce a corpus in the field of intangible cultural heritage.’ The country’s 48 WCDs were trained to identify intangible cultural heritage and the individuals possessing it, and to record this information. Following the identification and registry of the property at the local level, a general inventory of protected cultural property is drawn up. The WCD is required to locate and identify the repositories of all intangible cultural heritage elements (the various genres of oral literature, the ethnomusicological substratum, traditional skills, etc.) during the initial phase. During the second phase, CNRPAH is required to validate provincial lists and use previously trained researchers to collect and record such heritage. Locally, the provincial cultural director will provide the requisite logistics and support to enable researchers to perform their tasks, and CNRPAH will provide the working tools required (research protocol, methodological and ethical guidelines on researchers’ attitudes and approach in dealing with persons invited to impart their knowledge, technical record sheet and any questionnaire). WCDs have been instructed to give priority to inventorying the most fragile elements, those that are increasingly seldom practised.
In order to promote intangible cultural heritage and popular culture and bring peoples together, the Ministry of Culture planned and funded in 2010 alone 64 local festivals, including seven local music festivals, four local song festivals and 48 local cultural festivals of popular arts and culture, which represents more than one festival per wilaya (province). Twenty-five national cultural festivals with different themes (Amazigh, Raï and Haouzi music and songs, women’s poetry) have been planned. The Ministry also organizes international festivals devoted to the Ahellil, Sufism, traditional song and dance and ancient music and regularly schedules inter-county cultural weeks to give populations the opportunity to discover the subtlety and wealth of other peoples’ popular arts and traditions. Promotion of the Algerian intangible cultural heritage is ensured through appropriate events, such as the Arab-African folk dance festival. Two major highlights of recent years have been the designation of Algiers as Capital of Arab Culture in 2007, during which traditional techniques (working with wool, metal, silver, wood, leather) were showcased in workshops and exhibitions, and rich and varied programmes of folk poetry, dance and song were performed in theatres and outdoors, and the occasion of the second Pan-African cultural festival in 2009, during which artists, creators and thinkers from 50 African States exhibited their creations, productions and talents in all fields of culture: literature, theatre, cinema, dance, song, music, the arts, fashion design and heritage.
The sociocultural component is a primary feature of the guidelines and cognitive strategies formulated by the Ministry of Education for the development of educational curricula. If one does not know the symbolic value in Algerian grassroots culture of the teachings and wisdom of ancestors who have transmitted their knowledge orally, then one cannot understand modern works of literature. For example, secondary-education curricula include references to the intangible cultural heritage and even involve an explanation of tales and legends. Furthermore, the curriculum for the fifth year of primary education specifically lists cultural materials and fields providing educational content such as oral poetry and tales. The stated goal of such education is not merely notional and educational, but also to build the pupil’s awareness of belonging to a specific cultural region. Moreover, shortly after the Ahellil was included in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, workshops to teach the Ahellil were opened in several secondary schools in the region concerned, owing to support from the Ministry of Education. This will be done for all Algerian intangible cultural heritage elements included in one of the Lists of the Convention.
As far as regional and international cooperation, Algeria has agreed to host and support the Pan-African Congress of Anthropologists, an international scientific and cultural organization established in Algiers in accordance with recommendations made at the second Pan-African cultural festival.
Algeria reports on one element on the Representative List, the Ahellil of Gourara (incorporated in 2008, after having been proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005). Proclamation and subsequent incorporation have provided local communities, knowledge holders and practitioners with the satisfaction of receiving international recognition and has given practitioners and communities greater self-confidence and a desire to ensure that the practice continues; this desire is particularly reflected in the number of cultural associations formed around the practice of Ahellil (as well as other musical genres) even in the remotest villages. In addition to the educational activities mentioned above, recent efforts to promote Ahellil include the launching of an annual Ahellil festival in Timimoun, as well as financial and material assistance provided by the Ministry of Culture to local associations through ministerial or provincial authorities for the organization of meetings between Ahellil groups and performances in other locations.