The London-based writer Malu Halasa shows the cultural scene of the Middle East and North Africa in London, where there is still a lot to experience even in lockdown.
London makes travelers think of high tea and empire. For those of us who live here and have a passion and write about the Middle East, London, more than New York or Paris, has become a capital of Arab and Iranian culture outside of the region.
More than New York or Paris, London has developed into a capital of Arab and Iranian culture outside the region.
That was not always so. In the 1990s there were relatively few Middle East-related events in London. But in the last twenty years that I’ve lived here, London has changed.
The change began in the 2000s. In part, political events, the 11th September and ten years later the Arab Spring or the 2011 Awakening, and the wars between and after 2011, caused writers, journalists and activists to forego the usual conversation about winners and losers in regional conflicts. Instead, we looked for creative expression from these countries and in the diaspora to find a different kind of understanding and engagement.
It was an approach that continued the conversations many of us had with the people and voices that took to the streets and squares during the Arab Spring. After the revolutions turned into marshland, Middle Eastern literature, art, and culture developed their own dynamic independently of the news cycles. In many ways, Lockdown was an opportunity for what is made or shown in London to reach a global audience, and usually for free.
The history of culture in buildings
First, British diplomats who had served in the Arab world established the Arab British Center, which ran a sprawling five-story mansion in Kensington, west London. Going there was like stepping into a black and white John Le Carré film. There was a large, if not rundown, reception room, but beyond the public face the mansion was a jumble of offices and rooms filled with political groups and publications. I spent most of the time in the basement. Those were the days before the internet, and in the newspaper clippings and magazine storage boxes, I read Israeli articles for the first time about my cousin hijacking a plane in 1972.
Eventually the Arab British Center moved to a building north of Fleet Street, a stone’s throw from Dr. Johnson’s house away. Today, the organization’s cultural remit is both pragmatic and hip, from fashion, film, and digital art to courses on Arabic, Oud, and Islamic art and architecture.
There is an elevator in the building, but climbing the stairs is far more interesting. Works of art cover the walls. Above the library of the Arab British Center is on one floor Banipal: Journal of Modern Arabic Literaturewhere Margaret Obank and Samuel Shimon have been publishing Arabic literature in translation since 1998.
The other is Shubbak: Windows on the Arab World Festival, which takes place every two years at venues across London. Not only does the festival feature the latest theater, art, live performances, dance music and films from the Middle East and North Africa for two weeks, but it also develops new work and draws on the London-based Arab community of theater-makers like the playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak and the actor / producer Alia Alzougbi.
The literary component of the festival, curated in the past by translator Alice Guthrie, has brought new writings from the Middle East, from science fiction to queer fiction, to the British Library, where I appeared in conversation about my debut novel. Mother of all pigs. Shubbak Online now offers open calls for proposals for artists, panels on cultural heritage and contemporary art, and tributes to the recently deceased writer and feminist Nawal El Saadawi.
Groundbreaking fiction and non-fiction from the Middle East has been in London for over thirty years. Saqi Books, which means “water carrier” in Arabic, is a bookstore and publisher founded in 1978 by Mai Ghoussoub and Andre Gaspard.
Before his time, Saqi published titles that few Arab publishers would touch, such as Mai Ghoussoub and Emma Sinclair Webbs Imagined Masculinity: Male Identity and Culture in the Middle East (2000), Brian Whitakers Inexpressible Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East (2006) and Ammar Abdulhamid’s debut novel Menstruation (2001). Under Lynn Gaspard, the Saqi tradition of pushing boundaries continues with the recent release of Selma Dabbaghs We wrote in symbols: love and lust by Arab women writers and Raphael Cormacks Midnight in Cairoabout Egypt’s classy and roaring 1920s.
Before his time, Saqi published titles that few Arab publishers would touch.
The film festivals were decisive for the cultural mix in London: the Safar Film Festival of the Arab British Center, the BBC Arabic Film Festival and the annual London Palestian Film Festival in the Barbican Center. The news of the first Tunisian film to be nominated for an Oscar this year –The man who sold his skinDirected by Kaouther Ben Hania, the French Institute’s forward program will be presented, which has shown new Tunisian cinema, courtesy of the British Tunisian Society
The city’s cinematic engagement with the region also involves a community of feature filmmakers who live in London, such as Zeina Durra who directed it Luxor>, and Basil Khalil, whose funny short film Ave Maria is streamed on Vimeo. There is also a strong community of Arab documentary filmmakers: with Claire Belhassine and her family memories of her Tunisian grandfather, Man behind the microphone;; Yasmin Fedda and her film about the disappearance of Syria, Ayouni (“My eyes” in Arabic); and film producer Dana Trometer, known for bringing rare, hard-to-get footage from the region to the evening news. In honor of her father, legendary editorial draftsman in Lebanon, Trometer, created the Mahmoud Kahil Award, which awards prizes to cartoonists, graphic artists, artists and illustrators from the Middle East and organizes events in London and Beirut.
Eccentric angles of creativity
At a time when all venues in London are dark, some live event organizers are waiting for the lights to come back on. The art canteen of Aser El-Saqqa organizes Arabs Are Not Funny Stand-up comedy evenings and the annual AWAN (Arab Women Artists Now) festival, where a Saudi artist once performed a play in her own language Couldn’t Land I wouldn’t allow her performance to be shot if it ended up on social media at home.
Online, the London-based concert producers and organizers of alternative and underground Arabic music, MARSM, are the go-to place for the latest sounds from Ramallah to Khartoum. The site has articles, films, mixtapes, podcasts, and playlists, including # 31 Songs for Mothers, published on Mother’s Day.
All over London, galleries large and small are creating a growing fascination with Middle Eastern art. The Mosaic Rooms, an outpost of the A. M. Qattan Foundation in Ramallah, has a gallery and an extensive program of events with music, literature, film and sometimes cooking. The P21 gallery also explores Palestine and beyond, from fashion in Gaza to new Syrian painting, and has become a workspace for art activism in the UK.
Also part of the glue in London’s ecosystem of organizations, cultural collectives and festivals is the British Museum, created by the Museum’s curator for the Middle East, Venetia Porter. When Porter first entered the museum in 1989, it was collecting the contemporary Middle East and North Africa as part of the ongoing history of “Islamic Art”. By pursuing the ethnological at the expense of aesthetics, art lost its individuality and cultural specificity.
Since 2006, Porter’s innovative exhibitions have freed artists from the cloak of religion and they have grown into a stand-alone contemporary movement. The collection will be exhibited in the museum for the first time in May Reflections: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa– When the Covid rules allow museums to open.
In the run-up to reflectionsThe British Museum organized panel discussions. One of them, “Art Has No Land”, presented by Jo Glanville, included two artists from the exhibition, Afsoon and Mahmoud Obaidi, along with Almir Koldzic, director of the refugee art organization Counterpoint Arts. Their discussion began with the problem of dividing art into categories, be it “Middle Eastern” or “Islamic”.
Labels suggests a unit where there is none, as Glanville points out in the discussion now available on YouTube. The two artists are a case in point. Afsoon’s prints from a camera or cassette, objects relevant to her memories of growing up in Iran, are very different from handcrafted books in boxes by Mahmoud Obaidi, which document certain periods in the artist’s peripatetic life when he died in 1991 Left Iraq For both artists, labels, nationalities, and identities have been useful and disruptive at different times in their lives.
Almir Koldzic from Counterpoint Arts agrees. For him, artists in exile or in the diaspora have to find “home” wherever they are, and can imagine “eccentric perspectives”, unencumbered by losses.
Their discussion also spoke to London’s moving festival of Middle Eastern culture. With many eccentric angles to, from and out of the region, the horizons expand.
Politics and art
Local universities have researched, discussed and disseminated the latest work. For regional social and political research and visual criticism, the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics (LSE) is an important resource with its public and online book presentations and lectures. Recently, the center’s vibrant blog page published a research paper on billboards and neoliberal advertising in Palestine. Through visual culture, one encounters different aspects of a place.
For those who miss the purely political, the independent foreign affairs think tank Chatham House at the Royal Institute of International Affairs offers webinars.
Contemporary photography is a medium that connects London with Tehran.
Critical thinking does not only take place in think tanks in the Middle East. Contemporary photography is a medium that connects London with Tehran. Since 1979, London has provided Iranian artists with a much-needed space. In her large-format black and white photographs, Mitra Tabrizian takes a critical view of the Islamic Republic in terms of Western engagement and national self-harm. London was also the second home of the legendary Iranian photographer Kaveh Golestan (1950–2003) and his wife Hengameh Golestan.
Through the platform archeology of the last decade, the curator Vali Mahlouji has been Working with art institutions in London and around the world on “Recovering Deleted Stories”. AOTFD “identifies, digs up and disseminates artists, works of art and cultural reports that have otherwise remained dark, censored, lost, banned, endangered or intentionally destroyed.” Mahlouji was instrumental in this Recreate the citadelKaveh Golestan, the first room dedicated to an Iranian artist in the Tate Modern, and his portraits of Tehran prostitutes, an exhibition that was shown at the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, South Korea last year. AOTFD also controlled revolutionary and war photos of Golestan as well as photos from the Witness 79 series of Hengameh Golestan, on the last day women were revealed in Iran, to Epic Iran, another major exhibition in London waiting to open at the Victoria & Albert Museum due to Covid rules.
Also based in the city is Maziar Bahari’s IranWire website, which covers politics and trends in Iran, but with a twist. In addition to hard-hitting reports and documentaries, the website always featured editorial cartoons and dealt extensively with the arts. It recently made a graphic novel about the first year of the pandemic, The Crash, Covid-19 and other Iranian stories, by Mana Neyestani, available as a free download. IranWire also initiates art interventions and campaigns. Because education is not a crime, Large-format murals have been painted on buildings in London and in cities around the world in protest of the educational restrictions imposed on the Baháʼí, a religious minority in Iran. More recently, IranWire’s #PainTheChange campaign has focused on British issues.
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Whether you live in London or outside of London, the latest artwork, sounds, literature and performances from the Middle East and North Africa are as close as your computer screen. Before the first lockdown a year ago, people in Little Arabia met along Edgware Road for a Turkish coffee or a sweet mint tea. Although the shisha cafes are not currently open, it is only a matter of time before they are open. Until then, there is a lot to see, hear and laugh about online.