Monday, August 28, 2006

arab weekend at v and a

Colourful displays of traditional Saudi costumes modelled by young Saudis were on show in the Italianate central courtyard, known as the John Madejski Garden, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, central London, last Saturday and Sunday.

The parades of costumes were part of the “Souq, Scripts and Soundbites” Arab Weekend held at the museum to celebrate the opening in July of the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art. The opening of this magnificent gallery is the culmination of a three-year renovation and redesign project made possible by a donation from the Jameel family of Jeddah.

In all, three weekends have been organised to mark the opening of the gallery. On August 5-6 there was a Turkish weekend, “Tulips, Tiles and Coffee Culture”, and on September 9-10 there will be an Iranian weekend, “Poetry, Picnics and Persian Pastimes.” As a prelude to the Arab Weekend, the late night opening of the V&A on Friday was devoted to Arab culture under the title “Arabise Me.”

The displays of Saudi nomadic tribal outfits were organised by the Mansoojat Foundation, a UK-registered charity set up by a group of Saudi women with “a passionate interest in the traditional ethnic textiles and costumes of Arabia.” The parades were complemented by a video on tribal costumes shown inside the museum.

The John Madejski Garden was transformed into an Arab souq, café and entertainment area for the weekend. In the eating area, the air was filled with the aroma of water pipes.

There was a multiplicity of events, including calligraphy workshops from the Amman-born calligrapher Nassar Mansour, screenings of the film “Le Grand Voyage”, tellings of Arabian stories by Joshua Gaillemin, and, on Sunday, readings and discussion from the Egyptian novelist and writer Ahdaf Soueif.

On Saturday there were performances by the Iraqi oud player Ehsan Emam, and by the Palestinian singer Reem Kelani and her three supporting musicians. The performances were due to have taken place in the John Madejski Garden, which would have provided an ideal venue, but for some reason the location was switched at the last minute to the Raphael Room. The echoey acoustics were far from ideal for music performances, but the outstanding talent of the performers shone through.

The timetabling of the weekend left something to be desired. The distinguished Lebanese-Syrian food writer Anissa Helou was scheduled to give a talk on Middle Eastern Street Food in the lecture theatre on Saturday at 12.30, but the time was abruptly altered to 11.30am. Not surprisingly, those planning to attend at 12.30 did not know about the change and the talk in the lecture theatre was therefore not as well attended as it should have been. Helou made her displeasure over the sudden rearrangement known by deciding not to give the talk scheduled for Sunday.

Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette August 29 2006