Author: David Batty
When Mariam Karah Ahmad saw the embroidered red, coral, gold and black Syrian dress in the Pitt Rivers Museum, the anthropological treasure house run by Oxford University, it brought back memories of the life she had left behind as a refugee.
Hearing that the dress was probably worn by a wedding guest in the north-west of her home country in the mid-20th century, Ahmad, who used to work in a textiles factory, said: “When I was in Syria, if I saw a hand-made dress like this, I just thought it was normal. Now I come here and I see it is actually very special.”
Ahmad, who is in her early 30s, is one of 25 refugees, mostly from Syria, being trained under an initiative run by the Pitt Rivers and Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science to provide native-language tours for refugees and the local community. The project, Multaka – Arabic for “meeting point” – aims to help emigrants foster connections between Britain’s cultural heritage and their own.
Rachel Harrison, volunteer and engagement coordinator at Multaka-Oxford, said the volunteers, who also come from Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan and Zimbabwe, include a former assistant professor of archaeology from Damascus University, graphic designers and students.
“Each guide,” she said, “will give a personalised tour based on objects they choose from the Islamic astronomical instruments at the Museum of the History of Science and Middle Eastern textiles at the Pitt Rivers Museum.
“We hope this will also help improve [the public’s] knowledge of the Islamic world’s contributions to science and culture, which are overlooked in British education.” The first public tours – given in Arabic and with an English translator – will be on Friday 16 November as part of Oxford’s Christmas Light Festival.
There will be 10 further tours over the next year. The volunteers are also co-curating an exhibition of textiles from the Arab world at the Pitt Rivers, starting next April. The scheme, supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, is based on a project launched by Berlin museums in 2015, giving refugees paid work.
The Oxford guides work as volunteers as payment is not allowed in Britain without a work permit, which many refugees do not have. Project manager Nicola Bird said their focus was on helping the volunteers integrate into British society and developing their skills and confidence to find employment.
Abdullah Al-Khalaf, another Syrian volunteer who fled from Aleppo after it was bombed in 2012, has already spoken at three Multaka events about Islamic astrolabes from Syria and Iran, which are used to navigate, determine the the time of prayer for Muslims and read the Islamic calendar.
Al-Khalaf, who is now applying to study history at university, said: “Without Multaka, I wouldn’t ever see these objects and get knowledge about them.
“Here at the museum we see we share a human history and culture. Today I heard one woman say she is from Hungary and that how she sees that we are similar with clothes and traditions. The museum is really a meeting point for culture.”