Damien McElroy enjoys the celebrations for an institution dedicated to mutual understanding
How the Arab British Centre has retained its relevance
When Abdullah Allabwani walked into a Starbucks in London in April he spotted a packet of grapes priced at £3 and was immediately struck with a wave of anguish for his Syrian hometown.
He translated the sticker price into 1,800 Syrian pounds for just 13 grapes. What once was abundant in his village cost a small fortune in London.
“In Alzabadany, a man can walk into any orchard, smell the dewy green leaves, hear the water and the goldfinches and eat all kinds of fruits and vegetables from around him whenever he wants, as much as he wants,” the exiled architect recalled. “I looked around and saw the people standing in line looking at their mobiles. I felt sorry for myself, bought the few grapes and sent a photo to my father in Turkey. I told him: “Now I know the value of our land, Dad. But now we have no land. Alzabadany is gone, Dad.”
Mr Allabawani told this story of loss to Qisetna, a network of volunteers in Britain dedicated to the lives of recently arrived Syrians, that has been sponsored by the venerable Arab-British Centre in central London.
Without the centre, Qisetna would not exist, its founders have said. It celebrated its 40th anniversary last week and celebrated the legacy of a endowment from Sheikh Zayed, the country's founding president.
The mission of the centre has been to foster understanding and improving relations between Britain and the Arab world. Decades of cultural impact and shared influence was marked at a reception in City Hall on Thursday at which over 200 guests heard a tribute from Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Secretary General of the Arab League. Sulaiman Al Mazroui, the UAE ambassador in London, recalled the generosity of Sheikh Zayed.
Sir Derek Plumbly, the chairman, describes the centre, which operates from a large townhouse in central London’s Gough Square, as a hub. This means it operates an open door policy for all who are interested in Arab and British ties to use its library, attend its events and seek its support.
It also means the centre nourishes and sustains links with broad spectrum of organisations and events beyond its doors.
“Forty years ago was a time when there was very little by way of effort by friends of the Arab World to push understanding. The world has changed so much. One thing remains is that there is a really big need to overcome the stereotype and to get people to see what lies underneath,” he said. “There are more causes out there, more programmes in the context of the war for culture out there and more writing about the subject of refugees for example.”
The scope of the institution's work ranges from encouraging fair trade with Palestine through the Zaytoon organisation, to politics with its association with the Council for Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, which actively engages with MPs over the region’s issues. In all seven tenants benefit from its central London office space. In addition there are long-term collaborations with London Fashion Week, British Council and the Institute of Contemporary Art.
The task of helping the newly arrived settle into British homes and society took on a new dimension as the conflict grew in Syria and Iraq in recent years. The Arab-British Centre is proud of its ties to Qisetna, which not only provides a non-political platform for Syrians to tell their stories but assists volunteers working with refugees in the areas of Britain where they settle.
It is also backing a tour of Britain by the Lebanon-based Arab Puppet Theatre to British schools to showcase Arab culture and develop themes of welcoming refugees.
Sir Derek describes two incarnations of the Centre coinciding with the move 15 years ago from its first home in West London to its current location near the historic home of Samuel Johnson, the great Georgian diarist, off Fleet St.
“When I arrived in Britain in 2002 there might have been one Arab cultural event and everyone would go to it,” adds Nadia El Sabia, the director of the centre. “There wasn’t such a flourishing scene. Many things have changed. Now on a daily basis, there is a performance or a book reading or event. There are broader horizons and people are using culture to learn more.”
“There is a wealth of talent in the region and that is intrinsically interesting to people,” adds Sir Derek, who cites London’s Shubbak Festival, also a resident of the building.
Getting out of London and making an impact around the country has been a big part of the centre’s recent work.
Last year’s the Arab Film festival showcased 16 films from the region that were subsequently shown around the country. A trustee of the centre last week presented a film at the Liverpool Arab Festival and there has been collaboration with the Nour Festival of Arts. This summer the pioneering Edinburgh Fringe Festival has an Arab focus.
“We are the go-to centre. We have very large networks and if we can’t help someone setting up a project we will connect them with someone who can,” said Sebai.
Operating at the forefront of the digital frontier offers unparalleled opportunities to the Arab-British Centre to extend its impact even further.
“We have a significant following among those interested in following the Arab World,” said Sebai. “Our website is the only site that gives a Arab themed ‘what’s on,’ not just our programmes and but also others so that we have a cultural agenda that used by a lot of people,” claims Sebai.
The centre increasingly uses video to improve access to its events and showcase its work.
Sir Derek and Sebai share a common dream. That the centre can one day establish its own performance venue to give voice to the region’s culture in Europe.
“We would love to have a building with an auditorium and cafe where people can come and share,” Sir Derek said.
Sebai adds: “It is a dream for the future, but a necessary dream.”