Reflections on Islamic Art, Edited by Ahdaf Soueif


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The Independent Culture

On one of the occasions Kingsley Amis stayed with Philip Larkin in Hull, Larkin went to the trouble to procure some new furniture for his guest. When Amis later thanked Larkin for the hospitality – and the drink and talk – a peeved Larkin wondered why Amis hadn't mentioned the furniture. It is far too easy, as Ahdaf Soueif points out in her introduction to Reflections on Islamic Art, to overlook the commonplace, the domestic; the "rugs and lamps and books and pots and pens and all the things we now know as objects of 'Islamic Art'".

What better way to rescue these objects than with this joint venture between the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing? As Soueif notes, the premise was relatively simple: "a collection of potential contributors [were] invited to visit Doha for a couple of days, taken to the museum and turned gently loose into it. Their brief: to fall in love." The list of contributors – 27 poets, novelists, historians, artists and critics – includes the likes of Eric Hobsbawm, James Fenton, Anton Shammas, Slavoj Zizek and William Dalrymple. The objects chosen include portraits, carpets, a war mask, a bowl, a miniature, and a glass document holder.

The latter, versified by Sarah Maguire, is one of the outstanding examples of how this volume has breathed new life and context into such seemingly mundane things. Maguire's document holder is a "cylinder of seagreen beachglass" that invites us to "imagine the papyrus/ furled/ in a tight scroll/ then eased/into its sheaf,/ tamped into place./ The ends capped,/ sealed off/ with sealing wax."

Other stand-outs include "The Journey", an essay by Pankaj Mishra that takes a 10th-century Koran as its starting point, and via the figure of Ibn Battuta goes on to offer some ruminations on Islam's cosmopolitan past. "Heart of Empire" by Sonia Jabbar examines a calligraphic jade pendant from 16th-century India, whose significance she reveals through the prism of Mughal history and her own experience.

Soueif has accomplished the task of shepherding these gifted contributors with great skill; the result is a luscious volume.