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The Arab-British Centre: A window on Arab culture in London - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Noreen Abu Oun and Virginia Forbes accepting the UNESCO–Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture earlier this year. (UNESCO)

Noreen Abu Oun and Virginia Forbes accepting the UNESCO–Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture earlier this year. (UNESCO)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Anyone who has lived in London, or even visited recently, must have noticed a growing interest in Arab culture among the British public. This interest has been growing steadily over the last few years, with the scene evolving from a trickle of sporadic and isolated efforts catering to aficionados into a steady flow of major events targeting a much wider audience and hosted by some of the UK’s most prominent galleries, universities and museums.

This year saw two Arab-focused events staged in London capture the public imagination. Between them, the Shubbak and Nour arts festivals hosted a wide variety of art and culture events, including a concert at the Royal Albert Hall featuring pop singer Natacha Atlas, as well as art exhibitions, film screenings, lectures, debates, dance performances and even some cooking classes.

And during 2012, Safar, a film festival screening contemporary and classic Arab films such as Beware of Zouzou and Youssef Chahine’s Alexandria, Why?, was launched by the Arab–British Centre to great acclaim.

The organization’s building is located near the city’s famed financial district, next door to the offices of Panipal, a magazine for translated Arab literature, and Zaytoun, which helps market and distribute produce such as olives and almonds grown by Palestinian farmers in the occupied territories to UK markets.

The Arab–British Centre was founded in 1977, and won the UNESCO–Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture earlier this year. Its mission is to improve the British public’s understanding of the Arab world through a program of cultural and artistic events each year, as well as through providing calligraphy and Arabic-language classes. Surprisingly, given all this activity, only three people run the operation. Two of them are Noreen Abu Oun and Virginia Forbes. Asharq Al-Awsat visited their office in London to find out more.

Forbes, the center’s chairwoman, has seen a big change in the organization’s activities since 1977. “When we first started, the center was a meeting place for groups of former diplomats who had served in the Arab region,” she says. “It was not a platform for cultural events as it is today.”

At that time, financial support mainly came from Arab embassies in London, but this gradually dwindled. So when the center almost had to shut down in 2002, Forbes and Abu Oun decided to sell the old premises in upmarket Gloucester Road and relocate to a relatively cheaper building near London’s financial center.

But funding still remains a problem. As a UK-registered NGO, the center relies primarily on donations and sponsorship of events from both individuals and corporate entities. But as Executive Director Abu Oun explains, the fundraising process has rarely been easy.

“This is not really surprising,” she explains. “The same problems are faced by the organizers of other Arab-focused events such as Shubbak, despite the high-profile publicity this festival receives from people such as [London’s mayor] Boris Johnson and [world-renowned Iraqi-born architect] Zaha Hadeed.”

Part of the problem, she explains, is actually the word “Arab” itself.

“A prominent personality recently told us that the shareholders of his company were reluctant to get involved with the center. In fact, they suggested we change the word ‘Arab’ to ‘Middle East.’”

But both Abu Oun and Forbes refuse to do this, as it would dilute the center’s focus from Arab culture to the much wider culture of the whole Middle East, which also includes non-Arab ethnicities and cultures. And as Forbes explains, this stance is also part of a wider “educational mission” the center has to shatter stereotypes and myths among some people in Western countries such as the UK, where public perception of all things Arab might be negatively tinged.

But Forbes also has an additional explanation for the dearth in funding. She believes the current economic situation in the country, with the UK in recession since the 2008 financial crisis, has had a negative effect on many organizations’ and companies’ budgets as a whole, thus drying up funds that would otherwise have been used to sponsor artistic events and organizations such as the Arab–British Centre.

“In such situations, sponsors do not exactly come to you running,” says Abu Oun. “The leading ones tend to sponsor major events at prestigious institutions such as the British Museum or the National Gallery, rather than at small ones such as ours.”

These larger institutions attract funds due to their long-term associations with well-known personalities, as well as the lure of the added prestige associated with sponsoring them and their events. “But the situation is entirely different for us,” says Abu Oun. “The Arab British Centre is a small institution in terms of development, and usually small charity organizations like ours have to rely on individual donations and sponsors who will then be able to introduce them to the major corporations.”

However, despite these difficulties, Abu Oun says she is keen to continue organizing a number of events each year. She notes a growing interest in all things Arab since the eruption of the Arab Spring. “In the last three years we have noticed an increased level of activity on our website and social networking channels, including from some major corporations and influential individuals as well,” she says.

Among the center’s recent activities that garnered wide public interest was the Safar film festival. Abu Oun noticed that a large proportion of the audience were non-Arabs, some of whom had either lived or worked in Arab countries, or second-generation Arab immigrants who were born outside the Arab world.

In choosing films for the festival, they decided to go against usual standard for such events and avoid choosing just the films which critics and film buffs would be interested in. Instead, the center went for a mix of popular films, some of which also highly critically acclaimed, such as Alexandria, Why ?, and more light-hearted ones like the satirical comedy Terrorism and Kebab which featured two of the Arab world’s biggest film stars, Yosra and Adel Imam.

Abu Oun believes the comic nature of some of these films helped attract larger audiences, and will also help shatter some of the myths regarding Arabs. “We will definitely choose more of these films next year,” she says. “The level of audience interaction and joy films such as Terrorism and Kebab met with from audiences prove that the Arab world is not necessarily a place filled with sadness.”

Other events organized by the center include weekly evening readings by Arab authors at renowned London bookseller Foyles. Abu Oun confirms that more of these are in the pipeline.

Dance events are prominent in the center’s work. However, the small premises have been a problem in the past, as Abu Oun explains, when the center had to turn down a request by a British–Algerian ballet group that wanted to stage a performance there. However, a solution was found when the center arranged for the group to perform at a different location as part of the Nour Festival.

A new addition to the center’s activities has been its cooking classes. These are hosted by famous chefs from the Arab world, and are designed to cater for the growing appetite for Arab food among the British public—clearly visible in London, with numerous Palestinian, Lebanese, Iraqi and other Arab restaurants scattered around the city.

When asked about their dreams for the center’s future, both women are optimistic. Abu Oun answers with a confident smile: “Our biggest dream is to have larger premises where directors can screen their films and artists hold their exhibitions, so we never have to turn anyone away because we don’t have enough space to host their event.”

Forbes adds: “The UNESCO prize will hopefully give us more publicity in the future, and with the help of generous patrons like [the former Emir of Dubai and first president of the UAE] Sheikh Zayed, whose initial donation helped us get started back in 1977, a place like this can become a meeting point for both Arab and British culture.”