Dazzled by the discovery of my heritage

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The Independent Online

I went to Venice last weekend and, like most visitors, came away dazzled and restored. But for me it was more than the indisputable loveliness of the city and the deep silence of the small waterways and bridges just minutes away from the noise and bustle of the more popular attractions. What moved me most was the discovery of the evidence of my European heritage.

I went to Venice last weekend and, like most visitors, came away dazzled and restored. But for me it was more than the indisputable loveliness of the city and the deep silence of the small waterways and bridges just minutes away from the noise and bustle of the more popular attractions. What moved me most was the discovery of the evidence of my European heritage.

It was the same last year in Florence. These cities, which have so resplendently represented the soul of Christianity in their paintings, architecture and sculptures, have long and fertile links with Islam that go far beyond the cruelty of the Crusades. Herman Melville said that the exotic Basilica di San Marco looked as though "the Grand Turk had pitched his pavilion there for a summer's day". Inside, the geometric mosaics on the floor - and the even more impressive patterned stonework on the outside of the Palazzo Ducale - derive from Islamic aesthetics. These are the buildings that define Venice, but how many of the millions who keep their insensate camera clicking know of the centrality of this influence?

Even more exciting are the less obvious signs of cross-cultural inspiration. In the Museo Correr, there is a room with intricate maps and navigation instruments. One is a globe of the heavens and the stars. The labelling is done in both Latin and Arabic.

At the Accademia and other galleries in Florence, there are enormous paintings of Turkish pashas and merchants milling about in squares with their Christian counterparts. There is extraordinary dignity in these faces and no crude demonisation of Muslims as the barbaric enemy.

Representational painting is rarely found in the work of Muslim artists because it is considered wrong to reproduce what God has made. These Italian records therefore give us Muslims images of a past that we have never known. And they give us a historical entitlement (and responsibility) to call ourselves European in the face of a white fortress mentality.

They remind us, too, that we were once known for our great art, invention, trade and elegance, which helped in the flowering of Europe just as much as Rome and Greece. The Africans selling handbags on the streets of Venice today are only the most recent inheritors of a long history of international commerce that helped make the phenomenal wealth of that city. London, too. Did you know that 300 years before the recent colonisation by Starbucks, places to meet and drink coffee (then called the Mahometan berry) were set up in London by Turks?

One of the more trying things about being a visible immigrant in Europe is that you get caught up in senseless arguments about the clash of civilisations and cultures. A third of the 16 million Muslims who live on this continent were born European, and yet a large proportion of them still talk about "the West" as if it were always an enemy.

As the novelist Abdulrazek Gurnah observes in Admiring Silence: "They inhabit a culture of grievance. They have grown dependent on the corrupting smells of their wounds." The West, in turn, regards all Muslims either as terrorists or as ignorant devotees, incapable of rational thought or artistic achievement.

Neither sides wants to acknowledge the tight knots of culture which bind them. How ironic. When the bloodiest battles were taking place between Christians and Muslims, when rape and pillage in the name of Christ or Allah was commonplace, it was still possible for the two sides to respect scholars and aesthetes from the two communities. Today we live in the same streets but we look upon each other as alien and devious strangers with nothing in common, not even our humanity.

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