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Maltese festa in a niche

The Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage was drawn up by Unesco 15 years ago but only ratified by Malta in 2017. The document was devised with the overriding objective of preserving intangible heritage, encouraging respect for it, increasing awareness in its regard and enabling international cooperation in pursuit of it.

Intangible cultural heritage – as opposed to tangible heritage, such as monuments, built cultural heritage and works of art – embraces all those elements of a country or society, locally or globally, that make up the world’s cultures. The convention has proved to be a most effective international mechanism that has facilitated global collaboration on cultural matters and encouraged respect for all cultures.

In the wake of the ratification of the convention, Malta was quick to realise the importance of protecting so many of the elements of its unique customs, heritage, culture and identity that are at risk. The government appointed a committee to focus on the task of selecting and recommending for recognition those elements of Maltese intangible heritage that should be recognised formally by Unesco.

Both the għana (Maltese folk singing) and the ftira (the Maltese flat loaf) are being put forward for Unesco recognition on the recommendation of a selection committee established by the Culture Ministry. But the present selection board has failed to accept a recommendation made by Godfrey Farrugia when he headed a committee set up to make the case for the traditional Maltese festa to be recognised as one of the world’s intangible cultural heritage.

The Democratic Party, to which Dr Farrugia belongs, has taken up the cudgels on behalf of the festa. It argues that village feasts are “a singular hallmark of Maltese culture. Each festa is a joyous event: a multi-faceted, authentic, communal celebration, which… hosts a social and cultural dimension and... still holds onto deeply-rooted traditions which, for centuries, have embraced the Catholic faith and rituals”.

Few could possibly disagree with that statement of religious and historical fact. Nor could it be argued that the Maltese festa does not meet one of the key criteria in the convention to qualify it as intangible cultural heritage: “social practices, rituals and festive events” which “provide a sense of identity and continuity”. Interestingly, “the celebrations of big shoulder-borne processional structures in Italy” have been declared intangible heritage as has “the Holy Week processions in Popayan, Columbia”.

The Democratic Party has argued, perhaps unfairly, that “if the foreign experts consulted did not appreciate the heritage of wealth and socio-cultural identity that feasts bestowed on the Maltese, then they should have at least consulted with the previous [Farrugia] working committee”.

This suggestion may merit following up. The success of international applications for recognition in the cultural heritage field depends on the quality of the case submitted and the supporting arguments. It may well be that the previous submission on village festas simply did not bring out sufficiently well the unique characteristics that it is felt Unesco world recognition demanded.

For the sake of future generations, if the traditional Maltese festa is not protected, the cultural legacy that follows the current generation may be irreparably diminished. A more persuasive case for listing the festa as part of the world’s intangible cultural heritage needs to be made again.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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