The relationship between living or intangible cultural heritage (ICH) and the Covid-19 pandemic has been a somewhat paradoxical one. In the early stages of the outbreak of this crisis, some festivals and other cultural gatherings served as hotspots for transmission, including the world-famous Carnival in Rio de Janeiro in late February and many of the religious gatherings worldwide. At the same time, in the course of the self-isolation, social distancing and quarantine (lockdown) conditions imposed around the world in response to COVID-19, ICH has itself become an important factor in shoring up human resilience in these harsh social, economic and psychological conditions. In many societies, people have tried to make things easier and more tolerable through creative activities.
Turning to Iran, many scholars describe Iranians as people with strong cultural traditions: people who hold to their ancient Iranian, Islamic, local, or community traditions, which they respect and practice regularly. Many of these traditions consist of rituals, festive events, mourning ceremonies, pilgrimages, and other types of social gatherings usually attended by larger groups of people. Given the social character of many of them, the current pandemic crisis continues to affect these Iranian living heritages.
COVID-19 has equally affected many other elements from virtually all of the domains of Iranian ICH, e.g. Iranian performing arts, craftsmanship, traditional knowledge practices, etc. The results include changes of various degrees, ranging from complete abandonment of an element, at least temporarily, to creatively changing features of an element to adjust it with the new conditions, to active continuation of a third group of elements in their full-fledged original forms. A very important aspect to consider in the context described is the perpetuation of the livelihood of the communities, groups, or individuals who depend on Iranian ICH to survive; these include practitioners of cultural industries, the cultural tourism sector, the ICH sector NGOs, etc.
What follows, consists of a glance at the aforementioned experiences. The exposition has been deliberately chosen to flow through the text, since the conditions described were felt to be closely interrelated. However, the reader is encouraged to search for pieces of information to answer five questions:
- How has the Iranian ICH succeeded in creatively re-creating itself in response to the new conditions?
- How has it helped Iranians with their social and psychological needs and enhance their levels of resilience?
- How have the conditions affected the financial condition and livelihoods of communities, groups, and individuals concerned with Iranian ICH?
- What capacities is the Iranian ICH capable of providing to help people improve their financial condition and livelihoods from home?
- How can the prevailing conditions help with creative public engagement strategies to safeguard Iranian ICH?
Nowrouz (Persian New Year Festival)
The outbreak of the pandemic in Iran was simultaneous with people’s getting prepared for the biggest national event, i.e. Nowrouz, the Persian New Year Festival. In contrast with its usual routine, this year (Year 1399 on the Iranian calendar) Nowrouz was held in a very different manner from normal times, with some of its elements having been completely removed.
Iranians always welcome Nowrouz from one month before the new year time (21 March) by making preparations such as Spring cleaning known as xāne tekāni (Persian: خانهتکانی), buying new clothes and equipment, and preparing special foodstuffs such as sweets, dried fruits, and nuts. The onset of this disease in Iran occurred exactly one month before the Nowrouz celebration, and the concerns arising from the conditions caused people to stay home; the shops and Nowrouz markets were virtually empty, resulting in an unprecedented economic recession. Iranians celebrate the last Wednesday of the year with letting off fireworks and leaping over fire to, symbolically, “leave one’s yellow face behind” and enter the New Year in good, ruddy health; this year, it was either not held or was held by small groups and in a very limited way. In the context of the quarantine (lockdown), so called, Nowrouz Greetings, the feature that defines the most significant function of Nowrouz as a peaceful, engaging event, respectful of cultural diversity and inclusion was not held in its usual form: New Year greetings and visits were held virtually through cyberspace and video and telephone calls.
Another important Nowrouz ritual is sizdah bedar (Persian: سیزدهبدر), the joyful ceremonies that take place on the thirteenth day of the New Year, which are celebrated outdoors as a gathering with family, friends, relatives, who take part in music, dancing, games, and eat special meals. This ceremony was cancelled by the government due to the requirement for a ban on gatherings in public places and in nature. As a consequence, people have tried to celebrate sizdah bedar in the courtyard or on the roofs of their houses this year.
Interestingly, although not necessarily a direct effect from the pandemic conditions, a campaign has grown for eliminating the live goldfish from the Nowrouz sofreh (Nowrouz Table), or substituting it with a toy goldfish, in order to support environmental goals. Another recent campaign has been to change the traditional Nowrouz ‘green plate’ (sabzeh) which is grown from cereal grains such as wheat, oats, etc. It is now suggested that they are substituted by transferable tree seeds or by plates with artificial greenery, with an aim to prevent the waste of grains as an essential source of foodstuffs and to promote preservation and revitalization of green land. These good practices represent either creative modifications of Iran’s living heritage to respect social distancing policies during the COVID-19 crisis, or a support for sustainable development.
Dance and music
With Islamic Jurisprudence guiding the methods of performing some social activities, public performances of certain traditional customs in Iran manifest in specific modes. Dancing constitutes an example of this. Only performances of certain traditional, regional dances are possible in either traditional local gatherings, and as parts of major national festivals or arts events. Like many other nations, ethnic Iranians regard their dances as a manifestation of happiness, group identity, and social solidarity; many Iranian rural, communal, and urban communities are known for their dances. Interestingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided Iranian dance traditions with new meanings; for the past few months, Iranians have begun to dance to consolidate their will in happy gatherings to reaffirm their common goal of persistence in this difficult time. This movement initially emerged among the country’s medical staff, who were at the forefront of the fight against the virus, but it is gradually gaining popularity on a larger scale as a lever to escape grief and sorrow, and to boost morale.
Since the demographic composition of Iran shows up as richly diversified, these spontaneous dances are, usually performed following ethnic patterns. Interestingly, the same music invokes a variety of ethnic dancing methods in different localities. As a result of this, these collective movements have become more attractive and are also a display of cultural diversity in Iran. In this way, a spirit of unity – solidarity – is now being expressed through the diversity of Iran’s ethnic cultures. Perhaps in the future, this so-called “corona dance” will develop into a commemorative ritual to respect the collective memory of the COVID-19 crisis in Iran.
Like dancing, outdoor music has also started to gain popularity especially in urban public places. Before this, typically, people enjoyed officially sanctioned indoor music performances in music halls. During the COVID-19 crisis, however, different types of music are being performed on balconies, on roof-tops, through the windows, or using social media. People play and sing together to recreate empathy in enduring difficulties. Similarly, many video clips, animations and songs have been made and have become viral in cyberspace.
Foodstuffs and cooking traditions
In the field of foodstuffs and cooking, Iranians are witnessing the return of traditional dishes; people are even involved in training and learning the respective cooking and preparation methods of dishes from the Qajar era (18th and 19th centuries) which constitute a theme on Instagram’s cooking pages these days; a book of this title has also recently been published. In addition, baking traditional Iranian pastries and breads has become very common, including lavash, taftoon and sangak flatbreads, etc., each one having a different name in different parts of Iran. Baking bread at home, in addition to its entertainment and health aspects, gives people a sense of self-confidence, pride in their predecessors, and identity. It is interesting to note that, similarly in other parts of the world, e.g. the UK, Canada, and elsewhere, one of the earliest products to disappear from supermarket shelves was baking flour. In addition to baking bread, the production of cooking utensils and supplies has also been revived, an example is the production of saj which is a round, metal plate on which bread dough is spread and which is placed on the fire until the bread is cooked. The traditional production of yeast for breadmaking in households has also been revived in an interesting way. Another example of cooking that involves adding special materials in the traditional way is the home preparation of yogurt and buttermilk. This revival of traditional food production (and of associated cooking utensils) signals two important aspects of ICH: first, that in a time of stress and uncertainty, traditional methods of food preparation rovides people with comfort and a sense of reasserting control over their lives; second, many of these traditional foods require a lot of time and attention which is something that we all have in abundance, but which modern life in its normal manifestation does not usually allow us.
Religious practices and rituals
Religious practices and rituals are one of the backbones of traditional culture in Iran. For example, Iran hosts many pilgrimage sites, both Islamic and belonging to other religions including Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity. Each year, these sites attract millions of Iranian and foreign pilgrims, to the extent that religious tourism is a major sector of the Iranian tourism industry. Many religious rituals in Iran are performed publically and on a daily, weekly, or yearly basis. These include (among Islamic rituals and practices) daily public prayers in mosques; mourning ceremonies for the 3rd, 7th, and 40th days after a death; widespread Friday prayers held every week; the rituals of the Holy Month of Ramadan; and the mourning ceremonies of the Holy Month of Muharram, encompassing a series of ceremonies for different groups of participants. What all of these have in common, however, is that they generally take place in public and involve the gathering of large numbers of people including, in some cases, co-religionists from other regional countries. The current pandemic crisis has resulted in stopping or limiting the activities in this sector. For example, Friday prayers have been cancelled for many weeks, which is highly significant in Iran where they have played a central socio-cultural role. Daily prayers are still attended privately at home, and the Government has worked on devising policies for holding the Ramadan and Muharram rituals safely.
Family- and small workshop-based crafts
A considerable portion of the material manifestations of Iran’s living heritage is bound within limited social groups, mostly at the family or small workshop levels, and these seem to be relatively unaffected by COVID-19 . At the family level, one witnesses family craftsmanship workshops for carpet-weaving, traditional embroidery, wood-work, jewellery making, pottery, etc. Many Iranian artists also work either individually or at the family level. These individual-, family- and workshop-based handicrafts and artistic outputs have a great potential to serve as a vital social and economic resource for these families and small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the post-virus recovery period. However, it is important that their activities are supported by appropriate policies. For example, it is important to find alternative means of exhibiting and selling products, while cultural tours are non-existent and art fairs and craft festivals cannot take place in a physical sense.
An interesting aspect of this is the eagerness of a great number of older Iranian practitioners to continue to participate in transmission activities. The provision of equipment for virtual transmission (computers, internet access, required social media apps, etc.) will easily offer a basis for effective inter-generational transmission of stories, skills, traditional knowledge, oral traditions, performing arts, etc. With proper financial support, this can also function as an income source for such elderly persons and, if they are recorded, such activities can contribute to the documentation and archiving of a considerable portion of Iran’s intangible heritage.
Many experts in the fields of architecture and urban planning have investigated architecture and the construction of Iranian houses in the past. They consider that, for many reasons, the construction plans of old houses which are composed of a courtyard, pond, vestibule, warehouse, etc. are appropriate and efficient in the face of diseases, such as the one currently threatening the world. There is no doubt that pastgenerations of Iranians had to find ways to live safely when diseases such as cholera and typhoid were rife and before effective treatments for these were found. It is believed that such traditional preventive measures, including plans for houses could be revived as part of the post-COVID-19 response and moving towards a more resilient lifestyle.
Traditional indoor riddles and board games
Like other nations throughout the world, Iranian communities are famous for their indoor riddles and board games. These games have been developed throughout the history of the aforementioned communities as tools to spend long nights, harsh winter conditions, and periods of difficult conditions, and times of reunions of families. Some of these games even enjoy highly regarded stances among ICH elements identifying Iranians. A prominent example is takhteh nard (backgammon) which is found in virtually any Iranian household. Sanandaj, Kurdistan, among a couple of other cities are famous for their high quality, traditionally designed and crafted boards of the game. Among the other indoor riddle games, the riddles of the younger generations, the oral riddles of elders for the family members, and the like are worth mentioning. These games continue to be practised during the COVID-19 pandemic as tools of strengthening family and community links. Families have creatively started playing some of these games online, with the help of social media. Family members and elders over distances continue to create similar happy gatherings with the help of the cyberspace.
According to many Iranians living abroad, the recent quarantine and lockdown conditions have provided a good opportunity for family units to be together – one of its interesting effects in this regard has been the full-time presence of parents with their children and their conversations conducted in their mother tongue. They believe that their full-time presence at home and spending time with their children, speaking Persian, and reading stories and lullabies of their mother tongue is very effective for improving children’s understanding and progress in learning their mother language and that the positive effect of this short-term period is much greater than sending their children to Persian language classes over the long-term which they have done in the past.
Another diaspora experience relates to an Iranian resident of California who became very seriously unwell with COVID-19 and was placed on a ventilator. Before he was put into a coma, his family located in Iran and the US held a communal prayer session with him over social media, thus enacting a traditional religious and social ritual of support and comfort for him. Whether or not any part of his subsequent recovery is due to this, it demonstrates the huge importance of such rituals in extreme times, and the non-religious customary aspect of this practice should not be ignored either.
Beyond Iran (Scotland)
This reliance on the living cultural traditions we now know as intangible heritage as a response to the extraordinary circumstances and the pressures of life in the time of COVID-19 is found around the world. It is as if people are searching for a sense of security that these cultural forms can give them, at a time when their sense of self is under great attack. We can find an example from Scotland: In the UK, people have congregated outside their homes or on balconies every Thursday evening to clap and bang pots and pans as a ‘thank you’ to medical, paramedical and care workers. This, in itself, is not a traditional action and may well have been borrowed from similar actions in Italy and Spain. However, in Scotland it has acquired a local flavour based on the ICH element of playing the bagpipes. In streets and communities around the country, bagpipers are accompanying this clapping with their traditional tunes. The music of the bagpipes is a powerful symbol of Scottish identity and the traditional accompaniment of Scottish soldiers into battle. As such, it provides Scottish people with a sense of pride, solidarity and hope in this difficult time that few other things could.
The lockdown conditions in Iran have provided an opportunity for people to recollect their memories and listen to the stories and tales of family elders and traditional music. It is also notable that many Iranians have been able to modify some of their intangible heritage practices and products in order align with the social distancing policies of the COVID-19 crisis and even to support the promotion and stabilization of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). This shows the great adaptability of ICH as well as the strong desire of people to continue to practise it under any conditions.
Meanwhile, the vast capacity of cyberspace has aided the development and expansion of intangible cultural heritage. These special circumstances and the new way of life created by this pandemic have also led a large number of people, especially middle-aged and elderly people, to become more familiar with cyberspace. This can be seen to have two important outcomes: first, young people have been the help and guide for their elders in this, creating the basis for in inter-generational exchange that can work both ways; and, second, the greater presence of this older cohort, often the main repository of ICH in society, may encourage the spread and transmission of intangible heritage in the virtual world. More directly, measures have been taken to make it possible for people to visit Iran’s museums virtually for the first time, in particular the National Museum, and this experience has been seen to be extremely beneficial. In addition, meetings and conferences on topics related to intangible heritage are being held, and an online photo gallery and handicraft exhibitions (such as of ceramic pottery, etc.) have been established. These are examples of endeavours that were rarely undertaken in this way previously.
Of course, talented Iranians and especially young people will probably do creative activities and initiatives until the end of this period, especially in the field of intangible cultural heritage. For example, marriages, hanabandan (the henna ceremony before marriage), funerals and other similar life events are now being held through cyberspace in some parts of Iran, or the possibility of doing so is being discussed in others. People will have to wait and see how common these initiatives will be in future and whether they may even sometimes take the place of the physical manifestation of some of these events after people are able to mix socially again.
A further point worth noting is that, although many of the aforementioned initiatives have been taken by individuals, families and other informal social groups, there is a strong opportunity for Iranian and international NGOs active in the field of living (intangible) cultural heritage to make an important contribution now and in the future. They can support these kinds of initiatives on the local level, advise government on the development of appropriate safeguarding policies, and also provide advice on the international level based on their experience on the ground. In this way, it is possible for the crisis that we are all confronted with in the face of COVID-19 and the huge social, political, economic and other challenges it poses for all societies, to be turned into something more positive in the future. We do not wish to come out of the COVID-19 crisis and simply return to ‘business as usual’ … Rather, we need to learn from its lessons, build better, stronger and more resilient societies and, importantly, clearly identify the role that intangible cultural heritage has to play in achieving this.
 A convex metal griddle