Last month as part of the Shubbak Festival Professor Jack Lohman, director of the Museum of London, gave a talk on London’s historical connections to the Arab world. A good bulk of the talk, however, went into the history of the Muslim presence in this city. Today, at the beginning of Ramadan, it is great to see the vibrancy that that history has led to.
Lohman’s talk started with the concern that Arabs’ history in London is actually rather elusive, and ended with the request that anyone with any information or artifacts about the Arab history of London share them with the museum. Although short, the talk brought up findings spanning from archeological studies to more modern urban histories, originating along the lines of migration and trade between London and the Arab world.
Professor Lohman cited various pieces of literature from over 200 years ago sharing snippets of British sentiment toward Arabs, as well as the Arabs’ feeling being so far west of Europe.
Among them was the 1802 play by Eyles Irwin entitled The Bedouins, or Arabs of the Desert. The play, a comedy in three acts, was among many written by Irwin, about his travels and adventures in the Arab world, namely Egypt and Syria. Having himself been born in Calcutta, he notes great hospitality and generosity as being among the traits of Arab people.
Henry Mayhew, a satirist and journalist, wrote much about immigrant culture and poverty in London in the mid-19th century, noting with wry humor that many Moroccans had originally landed in Scotland, but left because the Scottish didn’t seem to understand spices.
London’s more modern urban history shows that the 1930s welcomed an influx of Iraqi migrants; the 1950s brought migrants from Morocco who settled in North Kensington and the East End. By the 1970s the first Arab London Guide was published. Most interestingly, however, was that the most documented area of Arab history was the development of Muslim presence — though clearly, this is not limited to Arab communities.
It was in 1800s East London that the East London Mosque Trust converted three townhouses in East 1’s Commercial Road into places of worship, discussion and community service; the first official mosque was built by 1899. The newly arriving Somali and Yemeni sailors were the main force behind building it.
At the time there were ironically more Muslims than Christians in the British Empire but still no place for worship in the capital. It was through the efforts of the then Ismaili imam Agha Khan and Lord Rothschild attempting to bridge cultures and religions that the mosque was erected, but not without discouragement. The Muslim community of the 19th century was worried that any Islam that enters Britain would be appropriated to a more Western appeal, losing its basis.
Although short, Lohman’s talk expressed an interest in the diverse cultures of the Arab peoples in London. Today, at the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, the vibrancy of the Islamic presence in London puts the history discussed into perspective.
As a widely referenced region today, the Arab world is a strong point of interest and as noted, the Museum of London is interested in developing its collection and knowledge of the area. It would be a great pleasure to see how the museum’s collection on this particular London subculture grows.
Read complete article at Arab News Com