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Book review: A history unseen

31st Dec 2021
Book review: A history unseen

Hidden Heritage, Rediscovering Britain’s Lost Love of the Orient by Fatima Manji. Chatto & Windus, Pg 228, 2021. HB, £20.

Although history is often painted as a tale of us and them, right versus wrong, civilised and uncivilised, the true (and broader) picture of the everyday lived experience of life often occupies this undefinable no-man’s-land. Manji in her book, Hidden Heritage, delves into this fascinating grey area of British history, where it has been shaped and influenced by the very people that they choose to demonise today – Muslims.

The author has selected a handful of artefacts that she has found in her journeys into Britain’s stately homes, galleries and public buildings. Through her findings, she gives a backdrop of the ‘Oriental’ influence on British History and how she has found herself in the country’s heritage she calls home. Manji explains her driving force, ‘I was pursuing these objects and places out of curiosity but, without knowing it, also perhaps using them to find a sense of belonging in my own country… It is proof of a more complex story – one that has implications for who we believe has the right to comment on Britain’s history and identity.’ (p2)

Each chapter begins by describing the art piece and who the subjects/actors of the paintings are. She then proceeds to provide a political back story to each piece with references to archived correspondences and then goes on to give an analysis of her findings giving each story a rich political context.

In selecting obscure portraits and identifying the subjects within, Manji draws the reader into the lesser-known tales of the time. In the first chapter titled ‘The Ambassador’ Manji speaks of a portrait that she found in the Chiswick house of the Moroccan Ambassador, Muhammad bin Haddu al-Attar, who arrived in London in 1682.

‘His striking visage has darker, warmer coloured skin. He is tall, turbaned, and seated upon a horse. A lance firmly gripped in his left hand, the wind blows back his cloak, making him look as if he might be flying. The rampant horse’s legs rise upwards in a stunt or an act of rebellion, yet the rider stares back calmly, very much in control.’ (p12)

I am able to picture the painting and its context, allowing her words and analysis to come to life without having to leave the comfort of my duvet. ‘From the very moment of his arrival at court, the Ambassador caused a stir by presenting Charles II with an extraordinary gift: two lions and thirty of the ostriches he had brought on board his ship.’ (p14)

Manji then goes on to explain the etiquette intricacies of the exchange of political gifts. She delves into these obscure tangents which add to the complex understanding of this interaction.

Manji is an eloquent wordsmith. Her style resembles William Dalrymple’s who also uses artefacts as pegs to go into the history-making their works read like civilised tabloids with subtle references to the lurid aspects of the tale in question, which in all honesty makes for thoroughly entertaining stories.

The author’s quest to find herself in British history is admirable, but it begs the question why it is necessary to justify our presence in the country? Is our humanity still hinged on our ‘correct’ participation in its history? She questions it by asking, ‘We glory in our architecture without asking the price of its beauty; we salute the static soldier without a thought of where he has marched and what for.’ (p15) The answers on offer in Hidden Heritage is a nuanced version of history, and not a blinkered one that nationalism relies on.

I loved reading this book because the actors in the book, their actions and their principles felt familiar to me and finding them in stories of British history gave me ownership of my little corner of the world.

Aasiya Versi

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Over 120 people attended a landmark conference on the media reporting of Islam and Muslims. It was held jointly by The Muslim News and Society of Editors in London on September 15.

The Muslim News Awards for Excellence 2015 was held on March in London to acknowledge British Muslim and non-Muslim contributions to the society.

The Muslim News Awards for Excellence 2015 was held on March in London to acknowledge British Muslim and non-Muslim contributions to the society.

The Muslim News Awards for Excellence event is to acknowledge British Muslim and non-Muslim contributions to society. Over 850 people from diverse background, Muslim and non-Muslim, attended the gala dinner.

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