Few people know me intimately. Reasons include: I talk too much; I tell endless stories that go nowhere; I laugh inappropriately at my own jokes — loud donkey snorts; I subject people to my musical tastes.
My wife, Anitra “She Who Has Survived” Freeman, gets to hear most of what I jokingly call Romanian goatherd music. Actually very little of it is about goatherds. It’s mostly about shepherds. I just think goats are funnier than sheep. I listen to the songs all the time, even though the only word of Romanian I know is cioban (shepherd).
I don’t stop there. No. Goatherd music isn’t enough. I also subject people who know me too much to Rajasthani dance music, Iraqi Kawleeya, Turkish dances of all sorts, flamenco, West African Gnawa, Epirotika, Baltic polyphonies, Baltic belly dance music, rebetika, Baul songs, Odissi dance, Chinese opera, gamelan, polkas, klezmer, Cossack dance music, songs of the Orkney Islands, mambos to sambas, and this and that cumbia.
Ten years ago I was thrilled to discover something to feed me what I was needing, namely the “UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” and the “UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.”
The lists are drawn from cultures throughout the world, including those on the verge of dying out. The goal is to raise awareness of the cultural treasures of people everywhere, celebrate them and document them. I mine the lists periodically for new treats comparable to goatherd music.
As the world is flooded with corporate-directed faux culture that comes down from boardrooms and advertising agencies, UNESCO’s lists are the cultural equivalent of a modern day Noah’s Ark.
I first learned about UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) from my Aunt Alta, who was a teacher in Queens, New York. She took me to the United Nations complex in New York City as a “treat.” It’s a boring bunch of buildings. Thanks a lot, Aunt Alta. But eventually I found out UNESCO does interesting things, including the cultural heritage lists.
Here’s what I’m trying to understand. To reach out and discover all the great world’s cultural heritage, UNESCO has been open to input from all sources. Naturally some of the sources don’t get along with each other.
If, like me, you browse YouTube videos of Nicaraguan folk music, say, and make the mistake of trying to translate the comments in Spanish accompanying any video, you might have to resort to a dictionary of vulgar Spanish slang in order to get the meaning of the Honduran comments. Likewise a Honduran music video will draw vulgar comments from Guatemalans and Nicaraguans alike.
Epirotika is from Epirus, and since both Albania and Greece claim Epirus as theirs, and have split it between themselves, they both claim Epirotika as theirs, and subject each others’ claims to heaps of verbal abuse.
It was inevitable that UNESCO would try to not only protect Jewish Israeli culture but also Arab Palestinian culture. It was inevitable that to do either would draw anger from people in the other culture — because nationalism is everywhere and poisons everything.
In 2011 UNESCO recognized the Palestinian State, and Israel objected. The Obama administration cut funds for UNESCO. But we remained a member of the organization. We like other things UNESCO does, like fight anti-Semitism and support girls’ educations and freedom of the press around the world.
But last week, apparently in response to increased pressure from the Israeli government, Trump made the decision to take the U.S. out of UNESCO entirely.
When I tell someone I like mathematics, sometimes I get back, “Why do you hate art, music, history and literature so much?” That’s what all this looks like to me.
I never get so much hate mail as when I slip and say something nice about Palestinians. So I didn’t mention above that I like Palestinian dabke. I will only admit to liking Lebanese dabke and Bedouin variations. I am careful not to disclose the nationality of my favorite Seattle source of shawarma.
Or, maybe it isn’t about Israel. Maybe Trump heard a rumor that UNESCO was about to include American traditions of democracy and tolerance on its “List of Intangible Cultural Heritages in Need of Urgent Safeguarding,” and he took it personally, as he takes everything.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time a math professor and three times homeless. He has been involved with Real Change since he supplied the art for the first cover in November of 1994. This is his weekly column Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd.
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