Enriching ourselves through the stories of others

By Rehan Khan

As a storyteller I’m fascinated by how ideas move from one culture to the next. How information is exchanged, from which knowledge is built, and wisdom garnered. I’m particularly interested in what unites cultures – the shared myths, legends, narratives – as opposed to what shatters them into a thousand shards.

Whilst on a family holiday in Turkey my interest in stories from other cultures led me to ask how the Staff of Moses came to reside in the Hall of Religious Relics within the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. As I gazed upon the Staff I was left contemplating what journey this holy relic took, from when it was wielded by Moses before Pharaoh to part the waters of the Red Sea, to turn the Nile blood red, before it ended up here in Turkey? The thought flashed before me, but was soon lost as I moved on to examine other religious artefacts.

The following year, after a leisurely cycling tour around the grounds of Hampton Court Palace, I read that King Henry VIII was fond of striding around dressed as an Ottoman Sultan. This seemed bizarre at the time, why would the most well-known Tudor monarch dress like the ruler of the Ottoman Empire? Delving deeper, it became obvious: the Ottomans were the Superpower of the Sixteenth Century and it’s human nature to copy the powerful and famous, which is why companies pay enormous amounts to celebrities to get them to endorse their products. Henry VIII, as a lesser monarch, was merely copying a more powerful one in his day. He wanted to feel as formidable as the Great Turk himself.   

Upon probing deeper, I realized there were many indicators of Ottoman and Moroccan influence on the English court in the 1590’s – dress, jewelry, food and literature. For example, Elizabeth was sent dresses by the Sultan’s mother, which she wore to Court and which framed the style of the period. Characters from the East started appearing in English plays, and was it the visit of the Moroccan ambassador, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, which took place with tremendous pomp in 1600, which inspired Shakespeare to write Othello, possibly?

The cultural exchange also went the other way – Elizabeth sent the organist, Thomas Dallam, who constructed the original organ at Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, to Istanbul with an organ he played for the Sultan. There’s plenty of academic research on this if you make the effort to look for it. I always guide people to start with the very accessible book by Jerry Brotton, called This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World, which is a great starter for this period.

What was going on in the 1590’s which led to this close cultural exchange with the East? England was cut off from Europe, it had been excommunicated by the Catholics because of Henry VIII’s divorce. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the superpowers around the Mediterranean, the Turks and Moroccans, started to take notice of England, a plucky nation with a female monarch as its head. In fact, the Court Poet of the Moroccan ruler al-Mansour composed a poem about Elizabeth, giving her the title of Sultana Isobel and describing how God had sent a divine wind to defeat the Spanish. And so arguably, in the 1590’s, England a Protestant Christian nation’s, closest international allies were two Muslim countries – Turkey and Morocco.

I’m not sure about you, but I studied the Tudors for A ‘Levels and nowhere was there even a sniff of the East. This was a story I sought to tell, but I wanted to do so in a manner which I enjoyed whilst growing up, which involved at its heart a swashbuckling tale with a quest narrative, across multiple locations. When I got to thinking more deeply about it, the closest analogy I could come up with was that this was going to be something like Mission Impossible set in the sixteenth century. And so, formed the idea of A Tudor Turk.

Like any fast-paced adventure, the story involves the quest to retrieve an object, in this case the Staff of Moses, and time is running out. Set in 1591, A Tudor Turk, takes us across Istanbul, Alexandria, Venice and London. Importantly for me it looks at the Tudors, but from an Eastern perspective. Even one of the two protagonists, Will Ryde, is an Englishman who has grown up in Morocco and who speaks fluent Arabic. The other main protagonist, Awa Maryam al-Jameel is from the Songhai Empire of West Africa.

There are many real stories of persons who were economic migrants from the West who travelled to Eastern lands in this period, settling there and embracing local cultures and practices.  

Today, when we’re living in a period of fractured identity politics and are seeing the ugly rise of nationalism in many parts of the world, it’s vital we also listen to the shared myths, legends, narratives from other cultures, for it will only enrich us, it won’t diminish us.

This is a guest blog by Rehan Khan and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. The Chronicles of Will Ryde and Awa Maryam Al-Jameel: Book One A Tudor Turk by Rehan Khan is out now, published by Hope Road.

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