The Arab British Centre was awarded the UNESCO Sharjah Prize in 2013 at an award ceremony at UNESCO Paris headquarters, in recognition of the excellent work that they do to develop, disseminate and promote Arab culture in Britain.
From learning Arabic or the Oud, to practicing calligraphy, this dynamic hive of creative energy offers a busy timetable of exhibitions, events, classes and festivals all centred around promoting Arab Culture in Britain, and celebrating cooperation between cultures. Its library holds some of the finest gems of (translated) Arabic Literature, and the centre has proudly supported likeminded charities and organisations by providing them a home within their walls for almost forty years. There are currently six resident organisations at the centre and they are still growing. Tamsin Koumis from the UK National Commission for UNESCO spoke to the Arab British Centre’s Nadia El-Sebai (Executive Director), and Amani Hassan (Programme Director) to learn what value the UNESCO prize brought to their work and how they plan to build upon their award winning successes.
TK: How did winning the UNESCO-Sharjah prize contribute to the work that you do here?
AH+NES: The prize helped us to put on the second ‘Safar: A festival of contemporary Arab Cinema’ in 2014, which we ran jointly with the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts). The first year (2012) featured films, and the second festival was expanded to feature the ‘Whose Gaze is it Anyway’ exhibition. Safar was the first UK Film festival to showcase popular Arab Cinema from across the region. In terms of our reputation, winning the prize was very helpful because UNESCO is obviously well recognized as the cultural organisation in the world. Through that, we are reaching more people.
TK: Has winning the prize, and having the second festival and exhibition, enabled you to reach out beyond a London audience?
AH+NES: That is a part of our mission, to reach out to audiences across the UK regions:: We aim to partner with cultural institutions, groups and univrsities in the UK, to bring exhibitions, book launches, performances or concerts to the wider public . The ‘Whose Gaze is it Anyway’ exhibition, that began during the second Safar film festival, is touring at the minute – it’s now at the Phoenix in Leicester, and will be at the Potteries Museum in Stoke on Trent in a few weeks. It is an exhibition of film memorabilia that will be accompanied by a film screening, panel discussion, and two workshops. There’s some great stuff happening with that, and we’re delighted to be reaching new audiences.
TK: UNESCO’s main goal is to ‘promote peace in the minds of men and women’. The work that you do here is really central to this. Can you tell us a bit more about a specific project which you have run here recently which has ‘promoted peace’ through improving intercultural understanding?
AH+NES: Our main mission is to facilitate cultural dialogue and to improve the British public’s understanding of the Arab world. It’s about improving a vision that is too often stereotypical and homogenous. Recently we organised a ‘Melting Pots’ exhibition, which featured artists from Benghazi and Tripoli. Most of the artists involved in the exhibition were still living in those cities, and their art was brought to the UK even if they themselves couldn’t travel. Visitors we able to see and learn more about the lives of everyday people living in Benghazi and Tripoli and we were happy that press and media attention looked beyond the conflict in Libya to shed light on the Libya’s diverse cultural heritage and current arts scene.
TK: What does the future hold for the Arab British Centre?
AH+NES: We would like to expand: we are bursting at the seams with classes or events running most days! We would love to expand to a new space that could be open to the public throughout the week, with greater access to our library and exhibitions; room to show films and host panel discussions throughout the year, and perhaps even have separate classrooms! That’s the vision!