Decision of the Intergovernmental Committee: 13.COM 10.a.4

The Committee

  1. Takes note that Egypt has nominated Traditional hand puppetry (No. 01376) for inscription on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding:

Al-Aragoz is an old form of Egyptian theatre using traditional hand puppetry. Performances are highly popular events during which puppeteers remain hidden inside a small portable stage while an assistant interacts with the puppets and crowd. Al-Aragoz takes its name from the main puppet, whose distinctive voice is created with a voice modifier. Performers and the audience interact dynamically throughout the shows, which have a comic and entertaining atmosphere, and practitioners must be skilled in manipulating and maintaining the puppet, as well as in improvisation and music. Shows explore a variety of themes relating to daily life, with a recurring theme being the struggle against corruption. The art used to be presented by groups of travelling performers, who moved from one folk celebration to another. However, when these performances began to dwindle, performers and their assistants settled permanently in fixed places, mostly in Cairo. The viability of the practice is threatened by the changing social, political, legal and cultural circumstances of its enactment, such as laws concerning public gatherings, the rise of religious radicalism, an overall decrease in interest among younger generations, and the advanced age of its active practitioners. The number of surviving practitioners has diminished while many of those who once-performed stories have now disappeared.

  1. Decides that, from the information included in the file, the nomination satisfies the following criteria for inscription on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding:

U.1:   Besides its entertainment function, primarily for children of different social backgrounds, traditional hand puppetry Aragoz transmits moral principles, social norms and cultural values, addresses family relations and conveys messages about negative social behaviour and other topical issues. Related knowledge and skills are passed on orally from masters to apprentices. Although the practice of Aragoz has become somewhat scarce and the last practitioners find it hard to attract new apprentices, the element still constitutes an important and contemporary component of the identity of communities concerned.

U.2:   Despite the efforts of the communities, groups and individuals concerned, the viability of the element is at risk due to the changing social, political, legal and cultural circumstances of its enactment, such as laws concerning public gatherings, the upsurge of religious radicalism and an overall decrease in interest among younger generations. The disappearance of traditional venues and occasions for performing hand puppetry is accompanied by an absence of documentation. Nowadays, regular performances are limited to Al-Suhymi House in Cairo and rely on fewer than ten active performers, mostly of an advanced age, and there is an absence of professional puppet makers. Due to the age and scarcity of practitioners, Aragoz is not developing in response to changes in modern society.

U.3:   In the last decade, steps have been taken to safeguard the element through the identification and description of its contemporary state, scientific research and related publications. The nomination presents a sophisticated strategy to return Aragoz to its former viability, concentrating on training a new generation of performers, linking them to the market and creating new performance venues and opportunities. The safeguarding plan aims to promote and raise the visibility of Aragoz and encourage experience sharing among new practitioners.

U.4:   During a series of meetings and training sessions, Aragoz practitioners learned about the principles of the Convention and the impacts of the potential inscription. They participated in identifying the obstacles to the development of the art and threats to its viability and suggested how the training programme could be drawn up. Several practitioners and three NGOs provided their free, prior and informed consent to the nomination and offered their premises for the training sessions and meetings.

U.5:   The element is included since 2012 and 2013 in two inventories respectively maintained by the Egyptian Society for Folk Traditions and the Egyptian National Commission for Education, Culture and Science. The element was identified in partnership with the practitioners, who served as informants during the thorough research conducted. Updates are made whenever new information is available or researchers report new developments in the field.

  1. Inscribes Traditional hand puppetry on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding;
  2. Commends the State Party for the submission of an improved file following the decision of the Committee not to inscribe the element in 2015;
  3. Invites the State Party to avoid the use of inappropriate vocabulary and concepts when referring to intangible cultural heritage, such as ‘unique dialect’, which are contrary to the definition of intangible cultural heritage under Article 2.1 of the Convention.