The British prize celebrating Arab artists challenging perceptions

Children’s author Nadine Kaadan and music promoter Marsm were among those honoured by London’s Arab British Centre

'Tomorrow' by Nadine Kaadan.
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Nadine Kaadan didn't set out to tackle prejudice when she wrote her award-winning children's book The Jasmine Sneeze. "I've lived all my life in Damascus, so simply I am inspired by my city, by our culture and by our magnificent architecture … but it surprised me how a simple story from home can break so many stereotypes without trying," the author and illustrator, 34, said.

The story follows the life of Haroun the cat, who loves sleeping in the sun-soaked courtyards of Damascus, but can’t stand the smell of the city’s famed jasmine plants, which tickle his nose and make him sneeze. Kaadan, who wrote children’s books in the Middle East before moving to London six years ago, has already won several awards for the work, which draws on her upbringing in Damascus to chronicle the city’s rich cultural heritage in this humorous tale.

“When I arrived here, I wasn’t thinking that I would be published in English – it’s such a competitive industry,” she said. But the response has been overwhelming. “So many adults come to my story readings saying we want to hear about Syria away from the news … showing our culture in simple children’s books can tell the world that the conflict is not who we are, that we come from a beautiful place and this [situation] is temporary.”

Kaadan's work received further recognition last Thursday when she was selected from a shortlist of inspiring female artists to receive the Arab British Centre Award for Culture. Swallowing her surprise at being chosen from such a line-up, Kaadan thanked the audience at the ceremony in London's City Hall, saying, "If this award tells us something, it's that this is Arab women, this is who we are, we are empowered, we are strong."

The biennial Award for Culture celebrates people and organisations whose work has contributed to the British public's understanding of the Arab world over the past two years. This time it amplified women's voices by drawing the first all-female shortlist since the awards were launched in 2008. Other finalists included runner up, textile and print artist Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings, singer-songwriter Juliana Yazbeck, comedian Esther Manito and Samar Ziadat, a curator. "If you look at this shortlist, it shows just how much energy and impetus there is for the Arab cultural scene in the UK in all sorts of ways," said Derek Plumbly, the chairman of the Arab British Centre, which promotes Arab culture in the UK.

The organisation received an endowment from Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, when it was established in 1977 to pursue its mandate of furthering understanding of the Arab world through the arts. Satirist Karl Sharro, who tweets about Middle Eastern affairs under the handle @KarlreMarks, announced the winner of the group category after a tongue-in-cheek nod to the UK's current political turmoil. "On behalf of the Arab world, I would like to express our deep concern about the degradation of the political situation and I call on all sides to exercise self-restraint. God be with you," he said to loud laughter and applause, before quoting "an old saying that says the three most important Arab capitals are Cairo, Beirut and London".

The children’s author and illustrator Nadine Kaadan, second from right, celebrates her award with family and friends. Courtesy Arab British Centre
The children’s author and illustrator Nadine Kaadan, second from right, celebrates her award with family and friends. Courtesy Arab British Centre

Music promoter Marsm, which hosts events that feature some of the biggest names on the Middle East scene, won the award for the group category. Lynn Gaspard of Saqi Books, who was a judge on the panel, said: “For the last decade, they have consistently produced and promoted Arabic music and culture through a variety of concerts, festivals, comedy nights and fundraiser events, bringing to the UK the best new acts from the Middle East. Their varied programme of events brings much joy to a wide range of audiences, from local Arab communities to a range of British communities also.”

Marsm said it plans to use the award – a £2,500 (Dh11,285) cash prize accompanied by a travel grant from the British Council – to visit North Africa. "We would love to bring the authentic sounds of North Africa to the UK … there are still styles and genres that haven't been explored and big artists that haven't performed here," Christina Hazboun from Marsm told The National. High on her list is Gnawa Diffusion, an Algerian Gnawa band from France, as well as artists in the roots and reggae genre.

“Music is a very powerful medium that brings people together,” she said. It’s also an effective way of challenging a lack of understanding about the Arab world, particularly surrounding the status of women. “There are a lot of prejudices and misconceptions about what an Arab woman might look like and how she might behave … music shows another side to Arab culture; it puts a human face on it.”

There are a lot of prejudices and misconceptions about what an Arab woman might look like and how she might behave … music shows another side to Arab culture; it puts a human face on it.

Clad in a beautiful black and gold jalabiya, DJ Saliah, who has performed at several Marsm events, pumped up the atmosphere inside, while on the balcony guests admired nighttime views of London lights shimmering along the banks of the River Thames.

The award raises the profile of the arts as a means of countering misunderstandings about Arab societies. The ongoing need for this was reinforced by a 2017 YouGov poll in which 81 per cent of respondents in the UK said they had little or no knowledge of the Arab world.

The arts go beyond language and politics, providing a platform everyone can relate to, whether it’s music, theatre, textiles, writing or comedy, said Nadia El Sebai, executive director of the Arab British Centre. Recent years have seen an increase in the appetite for Middle Eastern art in the UK, from grassroots gigs showcasing coming talent to prestigious institutions including the Tate galleries acquiring more work by artists from across the Arab world. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to sweep away tired stereotypes.

“The region is often in the media for the wrong reasons,” El Sebai said. “People really want to know more about the humans behind those headlines.”