Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 8th December 2019

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London exhibition explores Britain, Middle East ties

The project was inspired by Johnson’s only play, “Irene,” which was set during the fall of Constantinople, and the book “This Orient Isle,” which looked at the historic connections between the Middle East and London.


Artist Lena Naassana, Saeida Rouass, Hannah Khalil and Nour Hage.    (Dr Johnson’s House)

Artist Lena Naassana, Saeida Rouass, Hannah Khalil and Nour Hage. (Dr Johnson’s House)

LONDON - Britain’s connections with the Middle East during the 17th century are explored in “London’s Theatre of the East,” a collaborative exhibition between the Arab British Centre and Dr Johnson’s House, which celebrates the works of British writer Samuel Johnson (1709-84).

“We always wanted to find a project we could work on together,” says Becky Harrison of the Arab British Centre. “But contemporary Arab culture and Samuel Johnson did not seem like they could be connected.”

However, the project was inspired by Johnson’s only play, “Irene,” which was set during the fall of Constantinople, and the book “This Orient Isle,” which looked at the historic connections between the Middle East and London.

“Shining a spotlight on the lesser known historical connections between North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and London through the Ottoman Empire and the Moorish connections seemed like an amazing place to start,” Harrison said.

Funding for “London’s Theatre of the East” was secured from the City of London Corporation, and Johnson’s 1749 neoclassical tragedy “Irene” was used as a springboard for discussions. The play is set during the fall of Constantinople and tells the story of Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered the city in 1453 and captured a Greek Christian named Irene. He made a deal with her: if she converted to Islam she would be able to preserve her life and have power at his court. The play examines Irene’s dilemma and the implications of accepting Mehmed’s offer.

The Arab British Centre did a call out for Arab-British artists to respond to the historical context and content of the play, with the support of academic advisers including Professor Jerry Brotton, author of “This Orient Isle.” They examined the period and influential encounters between London and the region from the 16th century onward when Queen Elizabeth I first started trading with Muslim nations.

“We commissioned quite loosely because we wanted to see where the artists would take the themes and research,” Harrison explained. “It is believed that the arrival of the Moroccan ambassador in London inspired Shakespeare’s ‘Othello.’ We provided artists with a lot of information.”

The Arab British Centre wanted to work with people coming from different artistic practices. The four commissioned artists were Nour Hage, a Lebanese fashion designer; Hannah Khalil, a Palestinian-Irish playwright; Lena Naassana, a documentary photographer of Czech-Syrian descent; and Saeida Rouass, a British novelist of Moroccan heritage.

“I wanted to show the impact of the rich and powerful Arab world on English society,” Hage said. She made an installation of a neck ruff associated with Queen Elizabeth I, which was dyed with turmeric and indigo spices from the Arab world imported to Britain in the 17th century.

Naassana explores the relationship between place and identity in her portrait series “Ipso (facto),” which draws on historic cartography to pose the question: Where do you belong?

Her exhibition features a 1620 map of the Ottoman Empire with drawings of men on the left border and women on the right border. The captions read: An Egyptian and his wife, a Persian and his wife, et cetera… Next to the map are photographs of young people from the Arab world who discuss their identity. Noha from Yemen says: “If British bombs fall on Yemen then I am Yemeni not British.” Julie, a refugee from the Lebanese civil war, says: “I will never wholly fit into being British but I will also never wholly fit into being Lebanese.”

Rouass retells the story of Irene in Johnson’s play by reordering and editing its content to draw out themes that have gone unexamined or unexplored. She used the cut-up technique, a creative process for rearranging a text in a different order.

Drawn to the first English translation of the Quran, printed in 1649, Khalil presents a dramatic monologue from the perspective of the printer’s wife and her fascination with the linguistic beauty of the holy book.

“This exhibition proves that contemporary Arab culture need not be separated from the established literary legacies of the UK; rather our shared histories are intricately interwoven and provide fertile ground for exploration and celebration both now and in the future,” Harrison said.

“London’s Theatre of the East” runs through February 15 at Dr Johnson’s House.

Where do you belong? Lena Naassana’s “Julia,” part of the portrait series “Ipso (facto).” (Dr Johnson’s House)

Where do you belong? Lena Naassana’s “Julia,” part of the portrait series “Ipso (facto).” (Dr Johnson’s House)

A journey back into history. First edition of “Irene” by Dr Johnson, dated 1749. (Dr Johnson’s House)

A journey back into history. First edition of “Irene” by Dr Johnson, dated 1749. (Dr Johnson’s House)