Sharing our past and present beyond borders

The Grampian Regional Equality Council (GREC) hosts a weekly Language Café in Aberdeen city centre. It’s for anyone who would like to “chat and practice their English skills while interacting with diverse cultures and meeting new friends.” Every week there’s a different topic of conversation, with activities to build confidence in speaking and interacting in a relaxed environment.

What does this have to do with heritage? Well, imagine arriving in Scotland for the first time, possibly speaking little or no English. How might it feel to navigate life here? To wonder how and why systems and services work the way they do (or don’t)? Why do people say the things they say? Why do things happen in this particular order on these particular days?

The answers are often related to culture or tradition. Or it’s always been that way and we’re not sure ourselves about the reason why.

So, yes, newly arrived people can benefit from learning about Scottish culture and heritage. But equally, we can benefit from learning about their culture and heritage. By sharing our past and present, we learn together, find similarities, common interests and values.

We explored this by asking: how can we all benefit from learning about each other’s past and present?

The conversations around tables were animated, people from different nations and cultures using their new common language to share stories, hopes and perhaps concerns. Then, just like our Edinburgh event, we asked people to share their examples of intangible cultural heritage – sports, music, festivals, food and more.

This is where it got really interesting! Because, for those of us living here in Scotland, many of the examples are new to us. I’ve since learned about some Sudanese foods Goraasa and Asida as well as local cooking classes at Aberdeen’s Cfine.

I’ve read about the importance of poetry as part of Iranian culture for many centuries and our friends in Aberdeen cited Hafez and Saadi, celebrated in Shiraz the “City of Poets”.

In Syria, Nizar Qabbani considered to be the National Poet.

Eritrea’s Independence Day is one of the most important public holidays in the country, celebrated on 24th May each year.

Injera is central to Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine.

Abraham Alem is a popular young Eritrean musician.

The Krar is a five-or-six stringed bowl-shaped lyre, one of the most widespread musical instruments in Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. It sounds like this!

When I asked people to share their examples with the room, mention of the Krar prompted applause and someone shared that they had details of a ceilidh being held soon.

I challenge you to click on one of those links and then come straight back here. I’m pretty sure you’ll be looking for more information or recipe or a music video before you know it…

Importantly, when I searched for Toub and Jalabiya outfits, I found them on National Inventory of the living heritage in Sudan. It cites the UNESCO 2003 Convention:

“The process of inventorying intangible cultural heritage and making those inventories accessible to the public can also encourage creativity and self-respect in the communities and individuals where expressions and practices of intangible cultural heritage originate.”

I hope that our small attempt to surface some examples of intangible cultural heritage from beyond our borders will have helped to encourage some creativity and self-respect in the wonderfull community that GREC have created in their Language Cafe. I think it’s also given us some food for thought about the role that organisations such as Society for Antiquaries of Scotland could play in the growing Language Cafe network.

** GREC also shared details of the Scotish Refugee Festival which includes events such as Hands on History – Glencoe Excavations and RUYA: a photography exhibition reflecting on cultural heritage, representation and memories of home.

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