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Cultural Connections: The Middle East in London
SOAS: The Middle East in London, December 2015


No one can be under any doubt of the powerful financial and political bonds that connect London to the Middle East. But how can one quantify the cultural connections?

One could start by making a count of the annual flock of art exhibitions, concerts, books, lectures and articles. The most important journals are Banipal and CM - Critical Muslim. Venues to keep a close eye on include Rose Issa, Lahd and Janet Rady Galleries, the Mosaic rooms, the Brunei centre at SOAS and the Nur and Shubback festivals. This data could be checked against the Time Out weekly summaries, the listing at the back of Middle East in London and the international Aramco magazine.

These events could be assessed by visitor number, but as anyone who manages any sort of Academic Assessment survey will realise, this sort of fact-filled exercise can also be nebulous. Most especially if one starts to try to sort out the degree of purity of a cultural manifestation. Is this a genuinely free-flowing cultural exchange, or something tarnished by a grant or part of a teaching course?

So lets look at some individuals, who in terms of column inches would certainly top of any list of cultural connectors. Is Zaha Hadid evidence of a cultural connection between the culture of Iraq and Britain? Of course not, she defines herself, creates a futuristic modernism exuberantly free of national identity tags and belongs to that metropolitan world of the Western Levant, which connects Beirut, Bagdad, London, Paris, New York and the Ivy League but has no provincial hinterland. Nor could you argue that Tariq Ali is evidence of an ongoing cultural connection between Britain and Pakistan. He is part of the British literary and political landscape, with historical roots that link him to the once tolerant Muslim city of Lahore. The same would have to be said for the opera-producer Wasfi Kani, who is at the epicenter of a world defined by Garsington-Grange-Glynebourne, but is completely, if not laughably, untouched by the cultural agenda of Islamabad. The scholar and controversialist, Ziauddin Sirdar, might be thought to be a more likely exemplar of a living Cultural Connection.. But you only have to listen to him debate at Hay on Wye (or any of the other 365 literary festivals of the British Isles) to realise that you are in the company of Britain’s leading Muslim polymath. Despite the years spent in Medina and Kuala Lumpur, he is not a cultural bridge between Clifton Beach and Bloomsbury but fast on the way to becoming a British national treasure. In just the same way it might be tempting to construct some fabulous conspiracy theory out of the influence of Jewish scholars such as Avi Shlaim, Nessim Dawood and David Abulafia on the patterns of British thought. Though once again, not only has England claimed them for her own, but they have become an integral part of English intellectual identity, whatever their grandfathers read in Essaouiria and Baghdad.

So when one is looking for Cultural Connections does one have to cut out all the real success stories? Are we always looking at a bridge, or a journey half delivered, someone caught halfway between assimilation and the indigenous homeland? To make greater sense of this, I turned my back on statistics and theories and consulted the last fortnight of my diary.

The Spirit of the Moors, was a concert given by the Embassy of Morocco at Cadogan Hall in mid-October. This was not some PR exercise, transporting something exotic, such as Gnaoua musicians, for a photoshoot in London. Instead it was a very serious attempt at cultural synthesis. Contemporary Moroccan composers were being performed by the English Chamber Orchestra, immaculate in their white ties and tail-coats. It was a challenging but fascinating evening, which would otherwise only ever been aired in somewhere musically experimental like Kings Place. But using the power of a gilt invitation card and a Chelsea reception, bridges were thrown across to connect otherwise discordant worlds. As I focused on the faces in the crowd, I was reminded of all those odd, slightly quirky organizations that make other connections, year in year out. There is the British-Moroccan society, SPANA, the American School in Tangier, not to mention the Fez festival of sacred Music, Freedom for All and the Maghreb Review. They are all run for the love of it, rather than a professional salary. There was of course a political narrative behind the event, for the Moroccans believe in music, not only as an aspect of their Islamic practice but as the best way to make connections between different faiths. Having suffered more than my fair share of faith-encounter groups, I also passionately believe in the efficacy of sharing tea and music, rather than theology.

Last weekend, I was part of the Divan Club, a rather bizarre revival of an 18th-century club of Turkey merchants and travellers. This is another bunch of amateurs, who meet just twice a year, once in London, once in Istanbul. It is content to exist as a dining club, bringing together people interested in Turkey around the same, hospitable table. On one level it is a vacuous, almost Walter Mitty-like gathering, yet on the other hand, the conversations can be uniquely stimulating, for no-one is on record or fulfilling a professional function. And as many of the bankers, diplomats, academics and writers are now retired, it also allows them to be refreshingly frank. And focusing on the faces gathered together, I was once again able to create a mosaic of all the various Turkey cultural organizations that I flit in and out of. The British Institute at Ankara (archaeological), the Anglo-Turkish Society (which is social but runs a lecture series), Cornucopia (an amazingly erudite glossy magazine), the Friends of Aphrodisias (which supports a statue restoration programme) not to forget the prolifically active Yunus Emre cultural foundation, or the ex graduates of Roberts College. It also made me smile at memories of the ‘Ottoman Picnic’ which in my student days sought to muddle up art-historians with rug-dealers, artists with academics and travel-writers with archaeologists. I believe a troika of mischievous professors - John Carswell, Honor Frost and Godfrey Goodwin, were the driving force behind this annual picnic. There was no membership, no subscription, no AGM, just a near-magical plethora of bowls of home-made Turkish food brought by each of the guests along with a cascade of rugs. The gathering knew no barriers of age, race, class, sex or language. It was off the assessment radar but a totally valid form of cultural connection.

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