The Art of Understanding: With West and East on a Collision Course, Can Galleries Succeed Where Governments Have Failed? Alice O'Keeffe on the V & a's Attempt to Bridge the Cultural Gap

Article excerpt

Said Rafisi, the muezzin at the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, closes his eyes and raises a hand to his mouth: "All-ahu ak-bar." The nasal tones of the call to prayer echo from the building's steep arches and domes, as they have done five times a day for seven centuries. "Communicating with God, you become a different type of person," he tells me afterwards. "You stop thinking about material things."

Across town, at the "Sangria" bar on the banks of the Nile, the manager, Mo Ibrahim, is preparing for another busy night catering for Cairo's celebrity set. "Welcome, welcome," he says, flashing a Del Boy smile and adjusting his expensive-looking watch. As night draws in, a fleet of shiny 4x4s delivers Ibrahim's pumped-up, Lycra-clad clientele; the riverside tables fill up with whisky drinkers and canoodling couples.

The diversity of modern Egypt exists in contrast to commonplace western stereotypes of the Muslim world. Five thousand years of history jostle for prominence on the Cairo skyline: shiny skyscrapers are interspersed with medieval minarets, and the pyramids loom mysteriously through the smog. But how can people in the west, confronted with powerful and damaging images of hate preachers, of fearful women in the hijab and angry young fundamentalists, begin to comprehend such a complex, ancient culture?

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Where politicians and journalists have failed to promote understanding, cultural institutions have stepped into the breach. This year there has been an explosion of exhibitions, festivals and concerts aiming to promote awareness of Islamic culture, celebrating everything from Sufi dance to Arabic calligraphy. Unlike these temporary initiatives, however, the Victoria and Albert Museum's Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, which opens this month, will be a permanent addition to Britain's cultural landscape. A [pounds sterling]5.4m donation from the Jameel family, Saudi Arabian owners of the Hartwell property and car sales company, has funded a new home for the V & A's collection of more than 10,000 Middle Eastern artefacts.

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The aim of the revamp is not simply to prettify the collection; it is to encourage a more nuanced understanding of Islamic culture and society. "We want people to understand that Islamic art is more than simply religious," says Tim Stanley, senior curator at the V & A. "It is a product of the Islamic empire, which encompasses Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular influences." With this in mind, he accompanied a small group of journalists to the Egyptian capital to explore the provenance of some of the Jameel Gallery's treasures.

First stop was Cairo's 9th-century, Coptic Hanging Church, which provides striking evidence of the cultural cross-fertilisation of religious traditions in the Islamic empire. Christianity predates the arrival of Islam in Egypt, and even today Christians make up 10 per cent of the population. Inside the church, which rests on thick palm trunks balanced on the Roman city walls, icons of the familiar saints line the walls. But the 15th-century altar screen is decorated with a variation on the geometric "sunburst" motif commonly associated with Islamic art. It is said to have been produced by Muslim and Christian artisans in co-operation, and varies from mosque artwork of the same period only in that small crosses have been incorporated into the design. A very similar pattern adorns the Sultan Qa'itbay Mosque pulpit, or minbar, which will be on display at the V & A.

Western and eastern cultures were also historically bound together by secular ties, with artistic styles travelling along trade routes between the Islamic empire, China and Europe. One example is the style of blue-and-white ceramics now regarded as typically Islamic. Blue-and-white pottery was first produced in the Middle East in imitation of Chinese porcelain, which was imported into the region in the 13th-14th century. …