The Arab British Centre, Artistic Cultural Notions of The Arab

Whenever mention is made of the Arab, we immediately associate him with his predominantly conservative Muslim religion and the sordid complicated politics of his region. Rarely do we take the time and space to explore his rich and diversified cultural history or go as far back as to celebrate his unique personal experience as may be created, documented and found through the arts, the different forms of media and philosophic literature.

Naturally, a person’s identity is influenced by his faith and the background politics that undoubtedly clouds his works, opinions and vision; but, it is a fact that the notion and concept of the Arab to the rest of the world has in more recent times lost this differentiation. Due to this confusion, the Arab has sadly lost much of his artistic and intellectual credibility that does not exclusively depend on his religion or politics.

This is of course alarming for such a wide region, but it is the stark seeming reality sensed not just by the outsider; but, also, very often, felt by the Arab himself. It is difficult for him to find a little room to openly express his views without the fear of censure or reprisal. The way I see it, the fear is more from within our psyche than from any external force threatening our personal safety.

There really is no ghost – if you look behind you – to stop us from taking and reclaiming our artistic freedom and to create new interpretations to make sense of our lives as Arabs; and, more importantly, as separate individuals. Better still, this territory comes with an utter joy and thrill – when you know you are making, possibly mixing, swapping and changing things to go beyond the older set boundaries and the illusively imposed limits.

This is where my day at the Arab British Centre comes in.

A Day At The Arab-British Centre (The ABC)

The ABC has a wonderful website that gives a better idea and detailed information about its day-to-day work. I came across it when Noreen Abu Oun, the administrator, contacted me through Nahla Ink and I was curious to find out more. A date was set to visit its offices and for Noreen to give me a quick tour.

Noreen was truly welcoming and seemed ever so resourceful. Proudly, she showed me the different rooms in the building and told me about the ABC’s latest projects. She pointed to the large pile of books and material on her desk and explained that they are this year’s nominated works for the Annual Arab-British Culture and Society Award – worth £5,000 – for which she was very excited. (The short list for this coveted prize was announced today – 2010 Nominations).

Next, we went inside the exhibition room where the work of the British-Yemeni artist, Sousan Luqman, was on display. Exotic Transfigurations shows the prints of old European Orientalist paintings depicting the Arab woman as exotic, smooth, naked and sexy. But she transposes on them a light screen and veil to represent the Arab male re-interpretation of the same. It was enlightening.

Still looking around, Luquman herself appeared. She was in to collect a cheque for some bouhgt pieces and she didn’t mind sitting for a chat with Noreen and me. We talked for an hour. Funnily enough, we shared our thoughts, hopes, ambitions and dreams for the Arab; and, especially, for the Arab woman in today’s world and the challenges she faces in a closed society.

It was uplifting to learn that the ABC is genuinely open to support and encourage individual artistic and intellectual efforts and that this is not just an advertorial. Also, there is an urgency for the Arab to discuss, debate and educate others what we hold dear; and, to engage in, as wide as we can, an honest and creative dialogue and monologue first as obviously needs be.

After this, I felt the day was done and it was time to leave and allow Noreen to get back to her very important work. But before leaving, I did join up to the ABC’s ever-expanding library and borrowed some works to read for future inspiration on the Arab. I took with me Nawal El-Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero and The Hidden Face of Eve.

If you would like to find out more about the ABC, go to:

The ABC also houses and subsidises these organisations that are all worth a peak: The Council for Arab-British Understanding at CAABU, Friends of Birzeit University at Friends of Birzeit University, Offscreen Education Programme at Offscreen, and Banipal at Bani

Note: This article was first published circa March 2010