Sabiha Al Khemir on Islam and the West

The museum curator and author predicts that relations between the United States and the Muslim world will improve

Sabhia Al Khemir
"Most people from the Western world would think that imagery is forbidden in Islam and that Islamic art is fact geometry—the arabesque," says Sabiha Al Khemir. Gina Levay / Redux

An authority on Islamic art, Sabiha Al Khemir, who was born in Tunisia and lives in London and New York City, has curated exhibitions at museums around the world, seeking to build understanding between Islamic and Western cultures. Her second novel, The Blue Manuscript, was published in 2008. She spoke with Amy Crawford, a Pittsburgh-based reporter and a former Smithsonian staff member.

In what ways are people in Islamic and Western cultures the same without realizing it?
I look at my nieces and nephews in Tunisia and at young people here in America. Their outlook is very similar; yet, because of things that have separated us, especially in the last decade or so, the youngsters would talk as if they are completely different. I think youth is youth, it wants similar things—to have fun, to explore the latest technology, to push oneself to the limit, to have freedom.

What misconceptions do Westerners have about Islamic art?
Most people from the Western world would think that imagery is forbidden in Islam and that Islamic art is in fact geometry—the arabesque. But if we look at Islamic art from the seventh century to the present day, in all media—ceramics, glass, painting, metalwork—and across the world, from Syria and Iraq to China, all Islamic art has figurative representation. It is not allowed in a religious space, but it is not forbidden in secular space.

Do you think the strained relationship between the United States and the Muslim world will improve over the next few decades?
There is absolutely no choice but for it to improve. It’s the only way forward, because if it doesn’t, there will be no future. I believe things are changing, on both sides. The East is no longer far away. Also, this new generation, in various parts of the Islamic world, they are modern in thinking and modern in seeing the world. With all the communication that’s happening and all the opening of boundaries, the connections are there. As you cross the world, it’s amazing. I’ve done a book tour in this country for The Blue Manuscript. It was fascinating how much people are open and want to know. That curiosity wasn’t there so much a decade ago, 20 years ago.... People want to know, because they realize quickly enough that the way Islam has been represented by a certain minority, extremism, et cetera, is not necessarily Islam the way it is. I am traveling around America seeing museum collections, in search of Islamic art pieces. Whether it is in the work environment, as we look at the pieces, or whether it is over dinner or lunch, people are talking about the Islamic world.

What has furthered the cause of understanding?
One of the turning points was [President] Obama’s speech in Cairo [in 2009, titled “A New Beginning”]. It made America position itself in a completely different way vis-à-vis the Islamic world and its culture. It is a key turning point in that relationship. It was received that way in many parts of the Islamic world, even by people who are skeptical. I heard a conversation in Cairo between two people—it happened in front of me—where somebody said, “Yes, but does he mean what he says?” And somebody else said, “But he said it! He actually said those words.”

What about in Europe, where there’s now a movement to ban the veil in France and to ban minarets in Switzerland?
They are bound to realize very soon that Islam is in Europe. The whole idea that Islam is in the Muslim world and we can somehow control this relationship and keep it static is wrong. This idea of “them” and “us” is just going out of fashion. It’s not working anymore. In the 19th century, the Muslim world was a remote place, a place of fantasy. The cultural links came through the translation of One Thousand and One Nights. What happened, from the 19th century to the 21st, is that these walls of mystification have been lifted. It’s no longer the land of the monsters and the djinn. And it’s a very difficult thing to come to terms with.

There are huge geopolitical issues to work out. Meanwhile, how can the average person bridge these cultures?
By simply thinking of people as people like them, by visiting museums and looking at work that comes from there and trying to understand it. Making that effort and wanting to find out is part of the duty of each one of us. Most Islamic art is not even signed; most is anonymous. The concept of a masterpiece is not the same as in the West. The concept of the artist is not the same. This is not art that was produced to be hung on the walls. The scale is much smaller, which calls for an intimate relationship. Basically, it is calling you to come close and look, to accept that it is different and try to understand that even though it’s small, it might have something to say. Maybe it’s whispering. Maybe you need to get closer.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.