LONDON: In an era when globalization and migration are both increasing, marginalized and minority communities, including Arab migrants — particularly those from mixed cultural backgrounds — are trying to define and understand their identity more than ever.
A new program launched by the Arab British Center aims to overturn preconceptions and challenge prejudices, retrace the ways the Arab world has influenced and shaped British culture and society, and celebrate the contributions of Arabs to Britain.
The driving force behind the program — Arab Britain — was a 2017 poll, conducted by Arab News in conjunction with YouGov, on British attitudes toward the Arab world.
“Sixty-eight percent of people (in the survey) thought the Arabs had not contributed anything to British society,” Nadia El-Sebai, executive director of the Arab British Center told Arab News. “That statistic sticks in my brain, because how could you say that Arabs have not contributed to British society?”
As Britain works toward exiting the European Union, she said, “Our objective is to change, overturn and challenge these preconceptions about Arabs and Arab communities in Britain.”
The program is slated to feature several installations and the first phase was launched in cooperation with Dr. Johnson House, a museum dedicated to its former resident; Dr. Samuel Johnson, best known as the author of 1755’s “Dictionary of the English Language.”
Using Johnson’s 1749 play, “Irene” — set during the fall of Constantinople in 1453 — as a springboard for research, four Arab-British artists were commissioned by the center to produce contemporary work based on Johnson’s reinterpretation of the age-old tale “Mahomet and Irene,” adapted from Richard Knolles’ “Generall Historie of the Turkes” (1603) for the exhibition — “London’s Theater of the East,” which runs until February 20.
With support from academic advisers, the four artists — Lebanese fashion designer Nour Hage; Lena Naassana, a photographer and filmmaker of Czech-Syrian descent; Palestinian-Irish writer Hannah Khalil; and Saeida Rouass, a British novelist of Moroccan heritage — spent six months intensively researching the relationship between the UK and the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa from the 16th century onwards. That relationship first flourished when Queen Elizabeth I began to encourage trading with Muslim nations, particularly the Ottoman Empire and the Moorish Kingdom.
Hage’s work for the exhibition was inspired by fashions in 16th century England and the influence of the Silk Road in trading. During her research Hage learned that England previously wanted to trade with the Ottoman Empire because it was considered the most powerful and rich empire at the time, but the Ottoman Empire did not even recognize the English and most trade between them was carried out by the Venetians. It was a quiet revelation for her.
“I was like, ‘Oh! There was a time when it was the other way around’ — in the sense that they wanted to ally themselves with the Arab world more than the other way around,” she told Arab News.
Hage’s work featured spices and dyes that were traded during Elizabethan times, including star anize, nutmeg mace and sugar, which was considered a luxury item.
“Sugar didn’t exist in England before the Anglo-Moroccan trade alliance (and even then) only the rich could afford it,” Hage explained. “So all the rich Elizabethans had black and decayed teeth because of their consumption of sugar, and people who wanted to seem rich would blacken their teeth with charcoal so it looked like they could afford sugar.”
Queen Elizabeth I herself was known to have had a serious predilection for sugar, and it is believed that her teeth were completely decayed by the end of her life.
Hage also highlighted some of the materials traded during the Elizabethan era with her Elizabethan ruff made of linen and silk and dyed with indigo and turmeric.
All four artists — who were selected from an open call and just happened to all be female — embraced a feminist angle. But British-Moroccan novelist Rouass took it even further. Her re-telling of “Irene” was created following a residency at Dr. Johnson’s House and by using elements of Johnson’s Dictionary. (During the exhibition, the dictionary was opened to the word “east”, which Johnson defined as “the quarter where the sun rises.”)
In Johnson’s original play, Mahomet kills Irene to prove his dedication to his people. In Rouass’ 21st-century version, Irene becomes empress of the land.
Khalil said she was inspired by the first printing of the Qur’an in England in 1649. She created a monologue from the perspective of the printer’s wife.
“The idea of the Qur’an being something that has been part of British culture since the 17th century really excited me,” Khalil told Arab News. I always try to find ways to make Arab culture more accessible to a white British audience and to make them look at it differently, and I thought this is something that most people wouldn’t know and it would really interest them.”
The playwright added that she sees art as one of the most effective ways of enabling individuals and societies to understand other cultures.
“The world is not a very pleasant place at the moment, so, as artists, I feel like we can try and find ways to bridge cultures and make people see themselves in one another (and) get on a bit better,” she said.
Naassana, a documentary photographer who has worked extensively with marginalized or minority communities in Egypt, presented a series of staged portraits that explored the legacy of Arab immigration to Britain.
Naassana said she flirted with several themes during her research, including mapping, trade routes, the way economics drove cultural exchanges, and Queen Elizabeth’s granting of Royal Charters to trading companies, including the East India Company.
“My main challenge was, “How can I make this visual?” Because it’s all set in a time that precedes the invention of photography,” Naassana told Arab News. “So, I was working with a medium which I almost felt didn’t quite fit in with the nature of the topic we were dealing with. That’s how I decided that I wanted to work with the present-day generation of Arab-British youth, who have all this history behind them and have been shaped by it — whether they are aware of it or not or to what extent that may be — and they are as they are today because of this long history of these exchanges.”
Occupying the top floor of Dr. Johnson’s House, her installation — “Ipso (facto)” — presents Arab-British youths against the backdrop of the rich history of material and cultural exchange between Britain and the Arab world. She took six young women and juxtaposed them, according to their place of heritage, against a 17th-century English map of the Middle East.
“In staging this encounter between the lone individual and the weighty legacies of history, these portraits open up a multi-layered exploration of origin and identity,” the statement on the installation read. Written statements of the individuals’ experiences of being Arab-British complemented the portraits.
Naassana said the “dynamics of identity” are increasingly complex and the aim behind her work is to “start a conversation and open up all these labels; British, Arab, Arab-British… What does it really mean? And are those labels helpful or are they, on the contrary, sort of destructive because they confine our sense of self and our sense of the other?”