I was born and brought up in Lebanon. My nanny was Syrian and my mother surrounded herself with artists. When it came to what to study at university, it was obviously Arabic, and the choice of Islamic pottery as a special subject in my undergraduate degree at Oxford alongside Arabic literature, Islamic history and Persian, had me hooked. I was inspired by the person who was to become my mentor, Professor James Allan, one of the major scholars of Islamic art, to do the MPhil in Islamic art, which he had just started. James was a curator at the Ashmolean museum and we studied objects, especially metalwork and ceramics, through the museum’s collection. Nothing can beat handling a piece of pottery in order to understand how it was made. I quickly fell in love with pottery made in northern Syria, known as Raqqa ware – a city now best known for being the centre of Da’esh rather than a capital of the Abbasid caliphs and a centre of ceramic production under the Zengid and Ayyubid dynasties who ruled Syria in the 12th and 13th centuries. There were kiln sites along the Euphrates and in Aleppo, the evidence for which are pieces known as wasters, that were destroyed in the kiln.
Crushed but their colours intact – I love these broken misshapen objects. Much later, from the 16th century, when the Ottomans ruled Syria, mosques and private houses were covered with tiles painted with floral designs in delicate blues and greens – the best place to see these now is Leighton House in London, a place I often return to.
In the early 1980s, My Ph.D research took me to Yemen – another country whose cultural heritage is now dramatically under threat – where I studied a dynasty called the Bani Tahir who ruled in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and who built the most exquisite mosque with painted ceilings, the Amiriyya at Rada’.
This was restored by another friend and mentor Selma alRadi. I have been a curator at the British Museum since 1989 and lucky enough to work on wonderful things. I became fascinated by all aspects of writing and then magic, which led to the publication of a catalogue on seals and amulets. I am particularly intrigued by magical scripts, as can be seen on this talismanic plaque which has been engraved at the top with an image of Solomon and his jinns.
Who knows now for what purpose or for whom this was made – but I like to think belief in its powers helped someone somewhere. Middle Eastern modern and contemporary art became a serious passion of mine during the 1990s. The exhibition Word into Art: artists of the modern Middle East in 2006, based on the museum’s collection, sprang from an interest in how the Arabic script was developed and used by artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. I am fascinated by how a Chinese artist like Hajji Noor Deen bridges traditions.
In the works that I select as I build the museum’s collection, how the complex narratives of Middle Eastern politics are so presciently evoked in works such as Joanna Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Faces. These are based on photographs of posters of the martyrs of the Lebanese Civil War (1976-1990) deteriorated over time.
I am drawn to works which tell stories, the most recent acquisition, Ali’s Boat by Iraqi artist Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, is an artist’s book, a moving illustrated diary about exile, which forms the basis for a video work by that name.
I have become very interested in the modernists and some recent acquisitions are currently on display such as this haunting etching by the Syrian artist Marwan in a small exhibition From the figurative to the abstract (www.britishmuseum.org/ whats_on/exhibitions/figurative_to_the_abstract.aspx).
I have been so lucky in the exhibitions I have worked on. Word and Illumination in Medina in 2014, where we lent some of the museum’s calligraphic pieces, was an amazing experience. To visit this holy city, to get a sense of the landscape of the Hijaz, was extraordinary. It came after I had worked for three years on Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam so I knew the places associated with early Islam and the Hajj intimately but theoretically only, but actually seeing Medina and glimpsing the Mosque of the Prophet was profoundly moving. The Hajj exhibition made me think about how to talk in an exhibition about Islam as a living faith and is informing much of my thinking as my colleagues and I work on the new Albukhary Foundation gallery of the Islamic world which will open in October 2018. A hugely exciting project, our task is to look at the world of Islam from West Africa to Southeast Asia and China from the 7th century to the present day. This will not be a gallery primarily about Islamic art but about material culture more broadly, and will include the best and most interesting of what we have in the collection from archaeology – 9th century objects from the palaces of Samarra in Iraq – to contemporary art and especially at last be able to show some of the museum’s wonderful collection of ethnography – objects which talk of living traditions – costume, musical instruments, jewellery and other wonderful things.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #32, PAGES 112 – 130 AND LIMITED EDITION #50.