Volume 19 Number 3
Dispelling Fear of the Other
01 June 2006

Mary Hatton describes a unique series of exchanges between Britain and the Arab world.

LAST AUGUST I found myself attempting—and failing—to steer an Oxford punt, much to the amusement of my passengers: a judge, a lawyer, a teacher and an IT professional, all from Lebanon. Such escapades are a feature of a British-Arab exchange. On a visit to Lebanon in 1997 I recall similar moments of hilarity when all barriers of cultural difference evaporated in laughter. I was also profoundly struck by a society where faith is truly a way of life.

British-Arab Exchanges (BAX), formerly the British-Arab University Association, has organised exchanges for young adults for over 30 years. Delegates participate in a two-week programme of meetings with religious, political and community leaders, facilitated by a team of volunteers from the host nation. Through a mix of formal and informal gatherings those involved discover much about themselves and each other. The programme enables participants to engage with, challenge and explore the histories and values common to the Muslim and Christian traditions.

Reflections captured by the booklet An Alternative Vision: 30 years of British-Arab exchanges, show that many have been deeply affected, and inspired to share their experience with others. Former delegates have gone on to work in a wide range of political, religious, legal and social fields. For instance, Eman Akour—now a prominent TV personality in Jordan—says, ‘It was the cornerstone for many of my later perspectives and ways of understanding others.’ She was part of a Jordanian delegation to the UK in 1986.

All the British students who took part in the first visit to Egypt in 1973 went on to be involved with development or human rights work in one way or another. Reflecting on a visit to Sudan in 1983 Peter Vickers, a company chairman, says, ‘I came back with a better understanding of Islam and of the heritage of faith which the Muslim people cherish.’

Last autumn, inspired by living and teaching in Palestinian refugee camps in the late 1990s, Ronnie Graham co-hosted a two-week visit to the UK by a group of Palestinian and Lebanese young professionals. The relationship between the Palestinians and Lebanese is a sensitive one as it was the presence of several hundred thousand displaced Palestinian refugees which was one of the triggers for the 15-year-long war during which over 100,000 people lost their lives.

Whilst in London delegates gained an insight into the diversity of the British Muslim community through a meeting with Ahmed Versi, Editor of Muslim News. Versi spoke about the composition of the British Muslim community, and how his newspaper had become an instrument both for the cohesiveness of the community, and wider awareness of Muslim views. The group also had meetings with Tom Brake MP, Foreign Office officials, the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and BBC World.

A highlight was the group’s visit to Northern Ireland. Whilst in Derry, they had a tour of murals in the nationalist Bogside with artist Tom Kelly who described how he seeks to use public art to lift the spirit of his community. Nobel Peace laureate John Hume shared his experience of helping to bring about the Good Friday Agreement. The group was also received at the Town Hall by Sinn Féin Councillor Paul Fleming, and heard from Paddy Doherty—a leader of the ‘Free Derry’ campaign during the Troubles—about his work to reconstruct damaged buildings in the city. Whilst in Coleraine, they met with David McClarty, an Ulster Unionist Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Meeting people from all sides of the Northern Ireland conflict opened discussions about how a society can move beyond violence towards peace. For most of the visitors, it was their first experience of a conflict situation far removed from their own but with equivalent complexity. As they listened, a new commitment to those of other communities within Lebanon emerged. During a farewell reception, one of the Lebanese apologised for the hatred she had held towards the Palestinians. And we learnt that after returning to Lebanon, one of the Palestinians expressed his deep regret for what the Palestinians did in some phases of the war in Lebanon.

The original vision of creative partnership between Britain and the Arab World was initiated in the 1970s by Bill Conner (a veteran of the World War II battle at El-Alamein) and Egyptian friends. Whilst BAX is a small non-governmental organisation run by volunteers, its contribution in the wider context of Arab-British relations remains unique. As Dr Mahdi Hamad Buttran—a Sudanese on a UK visit in 1981—observed, ‘The exchanges are needed more than ever as the realisation dawns of the true implications of what alienation and segregation could do to the world.’
Mary Hatton

For further information, see www.bax.org.uk