x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Connecting to Arabic culture through culture

The Arab British Centre, a non-profit organisation based in London, aims to educate Londoners about the Arab world

At the Arab British Centre, a non-profit organisation in London, the aim is to present a picture of vibrant and varied communities and traditions with a goal of educating Londoners about the Arab world.
At the Arab British Centre, a non-profit organisation in London, the aim is to present a picture of vibrant and varied communities and traditions with a goal of educating Londoners about the Arab world.

In the middle of London's financial district, just opposite the house once occupied by the compiler of the first English dictionary, Samuel Johnson, is a tall, thin townhouse. It is the home of the Arab British Centre, a non-profit organisation with a remit to educate Londoners about the Arab world.

When I visit the centre, one of its regular Arabic language and culture classes is taking place, a crash course in Middle Eastern music through the ages, with singing, YouTube clips, instrument-playing and historical facts. I ask Noreen Abu Oun, the executive director, about the centre, which has been in London since it was opened in 1977 by the secretary general of the Arab League and the British foreign secretary.

"The idea is not to be political but to use culture and art as a means of dialogue," she says. "People relate to each other a lot better that way. If we have a conversation about war we might disagree. We're more likely to relate to each other as human beings through things that we enjoy and have in common: food, music, art. When you do that, people start to empathise better."

It also has some permanent resources, including a small library of fiction and non-fiction arranged by country, language books, memoirs and periodicals, such as the Journal of Palestine Studies.

The permanent art collection, which decorates the main stairway winding through the building and down to the basement, includes geometric calligraphy, bold paintings of houses and palm trees, photographs and lots more. Many of the artists are Saudi Arabian - the collection was curated by Offscreen Education Programme and includes pieces from their Edge of Arabia exhibition - but others are from elsewhere. They include Gaza-born Laila Shawa, who photographs parts of Palestine and transforms the pictures using silkscreen printing techniques; Iraqi Hassan Massoudy, who trained as a calligrapher in Baghdad before studying figurative painting at Paris's Ecole des Beaux-Arts; and Ahmed Mater Al-Ziad Aseeri, one of Saudi Arabia's most celebrated young artists.

At the very top of the stairs sits a big sheet of corrugated cardboard, with stencil art spray-painted on it, showing a military helicopter wearing a bright yellow bow and the words "WRONG WAR". It's by Banksy, the celebrated graffiti artist who has painted sections of the Israeli West Bank barrier as well as walls all over London. The artist gave the piece to Jocelyn Hurndall, the mother of a British peace activist who died after being shot in the head in Gaza while trying to move Palestinian children out of the field of fire, and it is on loan to the Arab British Centre.

This art collection is complemented by a changing roster of temporary exhibitions, a slot that's currently filled by Orient Street Souvenirs, a show about longing and collecting in relation to the Middle East, which includes pictures of London street signs whose names reflect links with the Arab world, such as Gaza Street, Arabia Close, Damascene Walk, Lebanon Park, Tangier Road and Palestine Grove. They're just a few of the evocatively named streets in the exhibition by Ariane Severin, a photographer and artist who was born in Germany and now works in London, but whose work often focuses on the Middle East. The street sign shots are complemented by photos of cars shrouded in dust covers, taken in Middle Eastern countries and alluding to an Orient veiled in mystery.

The centre also plays host to other non-profit organisations. Five groups are housed in the slender building: the Council for Arab-British Understanding, which works in politics, media and education; Friends of Birzeit University, which supports Palestinian students; the Offscreen Education Programme, which sends students on trips to Islamic countries; Edge of Arabia, which promotes contemporary Saudi Arabian art; and Banipal, a journal for Arab fiction and poetry in English translation.

Together, these groups present a picture of vibrant and varied communities and traditions. For the past four years an annual £5,000 (Dh30,000) prize, funded by the Arab British Centre, has further championed this cause, celebrating those who have contributed most to the British public's understanding of Arab culture. It is open to candidates of any nationality, working in any field, and not just individuals - last year's winner was the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival.

Is all this tireless work actually changing anyone's perceptions? Abu Oun, who was born in London to a Palestinian father and a Moroccan mother, said that her "otherness" had been a source of conflict growing up, and thinks the answer is yes.

She says that painters and builders hired to work at the centre often took an interest and she would chat to them about the organisation.

"People tend to have very stereotyped views," she says, "but when you talk to them and they see an image that they wouldn't usually connect with the Arab world it makes them think, and question their stereotypes. If I was giving a speech about how the West does this and the Arab world does that, it's not really going to get anywhere."