Exotic England: The Making of a Curious Nation is a book I would recommend to any English, Anglophile, history buff or traveller, planning a trip to London – or even to people, who are none of the above.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown analyzes complex relationships between England and various Eastern civilizations over the ages. And, in doing so, she explores – and often explodes – much wider myths. One of those myths, for example, is secluded, monolingual, all-white state of UK before the 20th century.
Reality, as we could expect, is much more complex – and interesting. It resembles an intricately woven pattern, rather than a propaganda poster. From interracial marriages in 18th century London to contemporary Arabic productions of Shakespeare, Yasmin leaves no stone unturned. An Ugandian immigrant herself, she pays tribute to the open, porous, historically multicultural nature of the country, which welcomed her. However, Exotic England is no eulogy: she doesn’t shrink from exploring the horrors of colonialism or consequences of slave trade.
Yasmin also avoids the temptation to paint a period with one brush. She reminds us, that even in the most rigid, imperialist societies there always existed people, who questioned or subverted the order of things. Sometimes, it’s better to let these people speak for themselves, through letters and diaries. So, we meet an Sussex gentleman turned powerful Persian courtier; a freed slave turned famous London composer; an English noblewoman turned trusted military advisor of Egyptian pasha. If any of them was a film character, the movie would’ve been derided as silly and unrealistic. However, real history is much more diverse and colorful, than pretty period dramas and school textbooks would show us.
The book is structured not chronologically, as I have initially expected, but thematically. There’re chapters, dedicated to food, architecture, science, marriage, painting. For example, we learn, which medieval King was the first to try curry and why the first mosque in London was built by Victorians.
Despite the rigorous research behind Exotic England, it is surprisingly easy to read. Yasmin writes with mesmerizing, poetic language, reminding us once again, that non-fiction doesn’t have to be staid. For example, a section on trade resembles an adventure novel with extraordinary characters. A chapter on immigrants from the former colonies breathes with personal stories.
Travelers, planning to visit London, will find many interesting facts and ideas. It will tell you, where to go in London to visit a magnificent Hindu temple out of gleaming marble, which you will find in one unassuming suburb; how to look for Islamic designs in the architecture of Westminster and St. Paul’s; where seek out the pagoda in Kew Gardens.