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As a partner in the 2014 Nour Festival, the Ismaili Centre hosted a series of events showcasing the colours, sounds and life of the Silk Route.

Ismaili Council for the UK

Nour festival brings the Silk Road to life
Safiya Ahmed
27 January 2015

Shining a light on contemporary Middle Eastern and North African arts and culture, the fifth annual Nour Festival of Arts took place at venues across the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in October – November 2014. As a partner of the festival, the Ismaili Centre, London hosted a series of events that celebrated the cultural diversity of the Silk Road.

  • Connecting Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan with the rest of Asia, Persia, Arabia, and Europe, the ancient Silk Road was significant, not only for trade, but also in the transfer of knowledge, languages, religions and the arts. This year’s Nour Festival offered a glimpse of the cultural treasures that emerged from the confluence of these diverse civilisations, providing “a crucial meeting point for East and West.”

    Alasdair MacLeod, Head of Enterprise and Resources at the Royal Geographical Society, set the context during a talk delivered at the Ismaili Centre. Showcasing artefacts brought from the Society’s collection of rare 19th-century photographic albums, maps and daily life portraits of men and women from the Middle East and Central Asia, he presented an insightful account of the people and places of the Silk Road, punctuated with first-hand accounts from early western travellers.

    Threads Along the Silk Road — a performance of dance and music coordinated by Professor Rahima Abduvalieva from the Aitmatov Academy — filled the Ismaili Centre with the rhythms of Central Asia. The evening featured music from the London Uyghur Ensemble, classic dance styles from San’at Mahmudova, and traditional Kyrgyz folk music played on the komuz by young and talented Janara Seitkulova. The Colours and Sounds of Kurdistan, organised by the British charity Gulan, treated the audience to an array of vibrant performances of dance and exciting traditional music. The event also included a fashion show of the colourful designs of Della Murad, who is internationally recognised for her contemporary designs based on traditional Kurdish clothes.

    Iranian Nights, curated by Roya Arab, was a scintillating evening of traditional dance and music that brought to life the rich musical heritage of Iran. Ziba Tabrizi performed regional dances from around Iran, while Adib Rostami took listeners on a journey on the beautiful kamancheh accompanied by Pouya Mahmoodi on a 10-string guitar.

    Parvaz Ensemble, founded by Arash Moradi and Fariborz Kiannejad, performed music inspired by the Kurdish tambour, maqam — a sacred form of music that has been passed down from one generation to the next and was traditionally only performed privately. Only in 2003, after consultations with elders who were predominantly from the Yarsan Sufi order, was this striking music publicly staged and recorded for the first time.

    Visitors to the Ismaili Centre also took in a display of attire, albums and portraits in Across Time and Space. Artfully arranged in the alcoves of the Ismaili Centre social hall, the exhibition was meticulously researched by the lead curator Amin Abdullah Pardhan, who collaborated with cultural organisations, including the British Museum. Together they sourced a collection of vibrant textile motifs, adorned with beads, sequins and gold coins.

    Beginning with traditional costumes from Kurdistan, and continuing across Egypt, Persia, Arabia and Kazakhstan, the exhibition gave insight into the historical and cultural significance of each region’s dress. Particularly memorable was the exquisite display from the Mansoojat Foundation, which specialises in preserving ethnic costume from Saudi Arabia.

    The traditional garments were markedly juxtaposed with the painstakingly crafted gowns of British designer Zaeem Jamal, whose passion for bringing the traditions of global ancestry to life is evident in his elegant designs. Made from silk and adorned with ankhs, remnants of Egyptian headdresses and the wings of the goddess Isis, his costumes are heavily influenced by ancient Egypt. The kaftans collected by Roya Arab, which were worn across North Africa and the Middle East since ancient times, have had a remarkable influence on Western dress. The potential for the creative expressions of the past to illuminate artistry of today were among the many fascinating insights revealed by the festival.

    In the past five years, the Nour Festival has grown from a pioneering arts education programme to a renowned fair, attracting diverse audiences and significant numbers. Through film and dance, painting and poetry, it seeks to inspire. Even after it has drawn to a close for this year, the reminder that it provided of the magnificent cultural legacy of the Silk Road, lives on.