Asylum tales: London museum hosts a tour with a twist

June 28, 2012

What connects a brass medallion to Leonardo da Vinci’s diary, a Japanese sake kettle and an ornate wooden pulpit that once belonged to the Sultan of Qa’itbay?

All are housed in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and all were chosen by Sudanese asylum seeker Marwa Fedail on one of a series of special tours giving new meaning to old treasures.

For an hour, Fedail showed visitors different objects she relates to her life in the spotlight as a daughter of Darfur rebel leader Jibril Ibrahim, and her medical training in the far-flung reaches of Sudan.

The tour, in aid of Refugee Week, was a chance for 26-year-old Fedail to indulge two of her main interests – art and storytelling. “I like history, I like history of art, I like art in general, and I like to tell my story,” she told AlertNet.

“I consider it a symbol of a shelter or a cocoon to hide in,” Fedail said of Phoebe Stannard’s brass medal with an engraving of a person curled up inside.

Fedail said her family has been involved in politics for a long time.

Her uncle, Khalil Ibrahim, led the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the most militarily powerful rebel group in western Sudan’s troubled Darfur region, before being killed by Sudanese government forces in December. After his death, Fedail’s father was elected chairman of the JEM.

Scrutiny of her family has often been intrusive and uncomfortable, Fedail said.

“Sometimes when I feel that… I just try to find somewhere to hide. The idea of privacy is like a dream for me,” she explained. “When I need to think and contemplate, I try to find this cocoon.”

As part of her medical training back home, Fedail, who has just sat exams to qualify as a doctor in Britain, travelled across Sudan meeting different ethnic communities in Africa’s biggest nation, where hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken.

“I started to think more about how we can use (our) difference in culture to make it a point of commonality instead of (something) making us fight over things,” she said. “That’s why I started to write my diary and think I have a story to tell… My experience though, up to now, I think it’s short, but I think it’s rich.”

Originally designed to hold rice wine, this 18th century Japanese kettle has the shape of a traditional teapot, reminding Fedail of a long-cherished Sudanese tradition – drinking tea under the shade of a big tree.

“It’s very simple and unsophisticated. People just come and sit and drink a cup of tea and chat… They use it as a way to socialise,” she said.

From time to time, politics even gets an airing, although people have to be careful about what they say, she explained. “Sometimes they talk about the high prices but not in the way of criticising the government – it is not safe,” she added.

“It’s a symbol of liberty and freedom of speech,” Fedail said, introducing an intricately carved 15th century minbar. The minbar, or pulpit, is used by imams to deliver sermons during Friday prayers.

“It played a major role in the Arab Spring where most of the protestors used to start their protest from the mosque where they gathered. The leader would stand on the minbar and speak. It was a starting point before they went out into the street,” she said.

“The dictators and oppressive regimes really… have this fear of the minbar because it’s a powerful tool which can be used by people as a platform to speak their minds.”

Fedail said young Sudanese suffering economic hardship and limited freedom have taken inspiration from the Arab Spring’s toppling of dictators.

“Me with my young friends and colleagues have started to write on Facebook and other social networks about the importance and the need to change,” she said.

“We’re fed up, and we’ve had enough, and this regime just has to go. We’ve really suffered a lot as the younger generation from this oppressive regime. There’s no freedom of speech, you can’t speak your mind. There’s no development. All our entire lives, we’ve been in war… we really need some peace,” she explained.

“I actually became very interested in this because (Mary Queen of Scots) did it during a very dark and difficult time (when she was imprisoned),” Fedail said, hinting at her own tough existence as an asylum seeker, still waiting to hear if she can stay in Britain.

“I came here, I am asylum seeker and I have to start from scratch … I know good things will happen in the end,” she concluded. “There’s a proverb that says the end will always be good – if it’s not good, it’s not the end.”

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