Reflections on “The Art of Integration”

Last week I got an invite, from Bint-eh Adam of Tranquilart fame, to attend the launch of Peter Sanders’ photographic essay The Art of Integration (you can see miniatures of the photos here and an essay by Sanders, in Saudi Aramco World, here). For anyone unfamiliar with Sanders, he started out photographing rock stars in the 1960s, before embracing Islam (one of many to do so in the early days of the Murabitun, many of whom later left that group) and turning his hand, and his camera, to the people and architecture of the Muslim world. His photos have appeared in calendars, on book covers, and in books of his own such as In the Shade of a Tree. This exhibition, hosted at Rich Mix, “an exciting new cultural centre for London situated in Bethnal Green”, which has a bar (and yes it does serve alcohol, although it wasn’t doing so last night) and a cinema, consists of images of Muslims and their interaction with modern Britain, and especially, modern London.

The evening’s entertainment consisted of a poetry recital by Poetic Pilgrimage, a play by the Khayaal theatre company about coffee, a dance routine by some girls dressed up in vaguely “eastern” costume backed by some recorded Moroccan-sounding music, and a speech by Peter Sanders himself. This clearly was not an occasion for the strictly religious, who might well have balked at the fact that the men and women were freely mixing, but I can say that there were quite a few beards and hijabs in evidence. Poetic Pilgrimage are two black women from Bristol who read poetry in a sort of hip-hoppish style, and last night’s reading was about familiar themes such as dealing with other people’s fears and being assumed to be from somewhere other than here. The piece was very well-written - it had rhythm and rhymed without sounding like a nursery rhyme for adults (of the sort discussed on UZ’s blog a couple of weeks ago).

The Khayaal sketch was delivered by three men, and showed three points in the history of coffee - one in which a character supposed to be Abu’l-Hasan al-Shadhili discovers that coffee makes his students more attentive and more inclined towards dhikr, one in England around the 17th century in which a man persuades a friend to stop drinking ale and take up his coffee habit instead (and both agreed that their coffee was, wait for it, “more-ish”), and one in the present day when a non-Muslim man overcomes his fear of terrorists when a man with a rucksack, a puffy jacket, coffee-coloured skin (“yes, your enemy is the same colour as your mocha!”), wires coming out of his bag and speaking a foreign language (yarhamuk Allah) turns out to be a fellow gardener. The same themes, then, as Poetic Pilgrimage’s recital, but it certainly amused the crowd. I did not, as you might expect, pay much attention to the dancers, other than to notice that they were mostly or all white, as were their costumes, which were very much not hijab. The ladies might have enjoyed the spectacle, but that’s their prerogative and not mine. Finally, in his speech Peter Sanders told us that his exhibition had lasted longer than he had expected, and that indeed he expected it to die after the July 2005 bombings, but people begged him to keep it going. He also discussed how long it took to get a venue for it.

As for the exhibition itself, the quality of the pictures is Sanders’ usual, but I could not help but get the impression that the subject matter presents a too middle-class and too London-centric view of Muslims and how they “integrate” with British culture. Sanders, of course, is relatively well-off and lives in a small town in Buckinghamshire, albeit one with a small Muslim population. Despite Rich Mix being in Tower Hamlets borough, there is not much evidence of the life of Muslims in that district or, indeed, any of the major Muslim hot spots in London. Writing as a Muslim who lives in an area where there aren’t many, I feel at home when in Tower Hamlets or Tooting, despite the poverty and the other problems that exist in those places. Not that we need any more clichéd street shots of women in veils or niqabs along with others in saris or tracksuits or miniskirts, but I do feel that this exhibition more or less reflects the people who came to the launch: generally middle-class and in many cases not very strict about their religion. Of course, this picture is real, but it’s not the whole picture.

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