Report on the Everyday Muslim Symposium at the Bishopgate Institute 31/01/2015

Dr Nazneen Ahmed

To say that I was excited to be part of the Everyday Muslim Symposium would not be an understatement. 2 years in, Everyday Muslim is a beacon of creative, engaged, local heritage work with Muslim communities in London. I feel privileged to call Sadiya a friend and to have seen the project evolve from Heritage Lottery Fund application to the amazing, inspiring project it is today, one that can do that rarest of rare things, and sell out an academic symposium! The conference was a fantastic mix of papers thinking more academically about issues of heritage, the sharing of historical findings and knowledge of British Muslims, and showcases by community activists, archivists and cultural producers bringing history into being. I’ll post more about my own paper in a separate post, but the day brought up lots of issues and thoughts for me, going into work on Making Faith in Suburbia, and it’s these I want to think about here.

From the first set of talks, particularly those by museums and our Big Archive/Religious Heritage organisations I was struck by the fact that there’s still a gulf between the desire from the Big Heritage Institutions to encourage Muslim participation in archives and and their financial and physical commitment to helping Muslim communities do this. One speaker said that it’s up to Muslims to come forward and express their own desires to collect and preserve their heritage and that nothing can be done until there’s this collective show of will on the part of the Muslim community. But how to explain to these institutions that even the idea of heritage needs to be proactively introduced to parts of some Muslim communities, that it’s just not something that many elders, for instance, really think about? Faridha Karim, who has had much experience in conducting oral history and heritage projects with Muslim communities in London, spoke directly to these problems and issues.

I too think about the struggles I’ve had trying to interview elders and collect life stories, people usually voluble in regular conversation who suddenly clam up at the very idea of going on record, who say “oh daughter, why is my story important? Speak to this person [insert some official important sort]”. There are issues here of the confidence of a community and its members – that these stories, there histories are worth recording, that they have value and meaning and are important. If we think about the East London Mosque, it’s a profoundly assertive organisation, and that to some extent also feeds and is fed by its own historicised understanding of its identity and meaning. But for a little house mosque around the corner, does it have a similar sense of its own historical place? I’m hoping our project with its comparative focus and emphasis on community research might contribute to this work in Ealing.

In this light, it was particularly exciting to see Linda Monckton and Shahed Saleem speak about the English Heritage research on mosques. I think their forthcoming book will be an invaluable tool for our own mosque research, by providing a chronology, indeed, a vocabulary to think about mosque design comparatively. As our project also wants to explore, Shahed was keen to demonstrate how mosques aren’t just bricks and mortar arbitrarily put together or simply simulacra of big Saudi or mosques “back home” – or even if they are, they are consciously and creatively constructed as such. They are products of complex processes of design and cultural expression (and negotiation) but until now, have rarely been spoken about in the way churches, for example, are analysed architecturally. The book should help concretise in a popular way the fact that mosques are “English heritage” and I impatiently await its publication.

I loved Dr Muhammad Seddon’s photographs of Yemeni lascars, particularly those from personal collections, and the stories he wove out of them, published in his book The Last of the Lascars. I was struck by how many of those were taken in domestic spaces where religious and cultural artefacts were prominent – here the idea of the Muslim front room was displayed with pride. The way he had uncovered so much of the history of this community by personal exchanges and through personal photograph collections was particularly inspiring. I think this is the way we can uncover the richest histories of the buildings we’re looking at, through photographs and stories collected by those who worship in them. Seeing Regents Park Mosque used as a case study in Shahed’s presentation immediately brought back my memories of the place for example. I think back to the photographs we have as a family outside Regents Park Mosque, how driving there on Eid would be so exciting, and how slowly we stopped going as we ourselves became suburbanised and our links to London faded. A single image of a religious building can evoke many memories.

Halima Khanom’s presentation was also inspiring in what can be achieved if a museum or heritage does invest even a relatively small amount in efforts to diversify their holdings. For us, I think it was particularly helpful to see how young community researchers can be engaged within a creative process of heritage collection by ensuring that collection and process of self-representation relate to things that are meaningful for them. Halima’s project “What Muslims Wear” was testament to her skills, creativity, and commitment to Muslim heritage and the Museum of London’s holdings will be so much the richer for her curation of the project. Outfits she and the project came up with incorporate maxi dresses, modest but sparkly interpretations of the anarkali, and streetwear, the display and the outfits going into the archive skilfully demonstrating both the creativity and diversity of young Muslims in Britain today.

There are specific challenges being faced by Muslim communities in relation to heritage, but I do wonder if one interesting way forward would be to bring BME groups and religious minority groups together to discuss their shared ideas and challenges regarding heritage. As one speaker noted, Black history is considerable advanced in some ways in comparison to British Muslim history. I wonder what we can learn from each other? Whilst the disconnect of some organisations from heritage issues on the ground among Muslim communities was a little disappointing, it was heartening to see the Heritage Lottery Fund so very present at the conference and so passionately keen to support Muslim historical endeavours. I think much will come from this symposium (not least the prospect of further symposia, I noted with interest that it was “inaugural” which suggests a series to me!) I look forward to taking part in the journey of Everyday Muslim with our work on Making Faith in Suburbia.

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