The way we live now, by Peter York: Arabian(esque) nights

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The Independent Online

Somewhere between Old Chelsea and Old Notting Hill there's a place called Non-specific Arabia. It's populated by educated Arabists, superannuated rich hippies, worshippers of early travel writers like Freya Stark and old upper-class people who thought Tangiers was tremendously front-line fun.

Naturally, non-specific Arabia has an interior style to go with this state of mind. Aesthetically, it's one move left from the vernacular Greek look, as supported by smart Northern Europeans with houses on Patmos; the Greek look is similarly white-washed and organic and involves a lot of bright blues in bright light. Yet while non-specific Arabic is, of course, of no particular place, it tends more to the idea of Old North Africa than modern Dubai for its inspiration. It conflates images of everything from the One Thousand and One Nights to the decorative Arabism of a group of Victorian painters such as John Frederick Lewis who found a ready market for pictures of proud Bedouins and their camels, souks and street urchins and masses of lovely girls in harems wearing loose, light clothing.

Upper-class druggies of a certain vintage love North African everything too - the Marrakesh Express syndrome. They used to adore Afghanistan too, 30 years ago, and particularly liked its lovely clothes, still a staple of a certain sort of party. The Near East, as the focus of all this wild romance, is also the source of a particular kind of decorative booty. Lamps and lanterns for a start. The lands of harems and courtyards, back alleys and nights under the stars, specialised in lanterns. Not paper ones like the Far East, but pierced metal things, full of fancy fretwork, miniature mosques in themselves.

The Arabesque interior also tends towards "organic" plasterwork - quite unlike the Western tradition of tidy cornices and pilasters and ceiling roses - where shapes seem to grow out of the wall, and there are pointed arches and miniature minarets. Hardcore Arabesque also takes the tile thing to high art. A serious fogey Arabist will collect, say, early Turkish Iznik tiles and pottery (a splashback's worth would practically buy you a house in Tooting).

Of course you don't have to leave Europe to get a massive dose of the Arabesque interior. Just try Moorish Spain. This attractive bedroom is in a large house in Gaucin, Spain. It's got an Arab-y exterior, all red wash and courtyards. But the interior's a rich, rather sophisticated, West meets Near East combo.

The owners of this house, very European, decidedly patrician, have obviously got a thing for romantic, pre-war North Africa. Whether they've quite got the beat of the Arab street - close your eyes and think of Edgware Road - is a different question.

This huge decorative chimney space fits in nicely with the 'carved-from-the-solid architecture' Moorish look

Even the coffee table, with its smart Western magazines and art books, shouts 'Arab-y', as clearly as a Rajasthan table says 'been to India'

The rusty metal hanging lantern. No Arabesque interior is complete without at least one hanging monster in blackened tin

A simple chequerboard tiled floor. Like the Aegean look, this style requires hard floors and white walls

The vaguely Arabian Nights wall-hanging behind the bed is another essential