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Volume 30, Number 1January/February 1979

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Muslims in Europe

The Professions

"...physicians, architects, painters, lawyers, bankers, and professors...are often unnoticed among the millions of Muslims now in Britain and Europe."

Written by Steffi Fields
Photographed by Tor Eigeland
Additional reporting by Tor Eigeland

Although many Muslims in Europe thave been limited to hard, demanding jobs - on assembly lines and construction sites - others have made their mark in the worlds of medicine, architecture, art, law, finance, education and business.

Omar Shaheen, for example, is a successful London consultant in ear, nose and throat surgery, and director of the Head and Neck Tumor Clinic at Guy's Hospital, one of the more famous teaching hospitals. He is also a consultant at the Royal National Nose and Ear Hospital and maintains an office on prestigious Harley Street.

Doctor Shaheen - or Mister Shaheen in England, where specialists are called "Mister" not "Doctor" - was educated at an English school in Egypt, his home, and came to England to attend medical school at Guy's Hospital as his father had done. Unlike his father, however, Dr. Shaheen remained in London and has lived there since 1947.

Success in British medical circles was not, of course, easily achieved. Competition among all British doctors is intense and for an Arab doctor even more so. "I had the advantage, however, of starting at medical school in England," Mr. Shaheen says, "because the doctors who trained me, could recommend me."

Today, Mr. Shaheen's Arab background is proving to be a particular advantage. For although most of his patients are English, many Arabs from the Middle East are coming to London for treatment at well equipped private hospitals and some prefer to be treated by an Arab. "Many come to me because, as an Arab, I have a rapport with them," Dr. Shaheen explains. "They feel they can explain things to me more fully, and that, as an Arab, I can understand the way they think."

Although he has considered retirement in Egypt, Dr. Shaheen is much too busy at present to see it as more than a distant dream. He does go back to Egypt occasionally - to visit his family and, sometimes, to treat special patients. But generally he spends his holidays in the same way as a native English physician: at his seaside cottage

Another Muslim who has succeeded at the professional level is Abdulaziz A. Darwish al-Turki of Rome, a Saudi Arab architect who, at 29, has his own architectural firm.

Young, casually stylish and obviously on his way to success, al-Turki went to high school in Riyadh, attended the University of Indiana and went on to California State Polytechnic University, where he earned a degree in structural engineering. Later, after a stint with the Public Works Department in Jiddah, he earned a masters' degree in architecture from California Polytechnic in 1973, and then spent nine months with a firm of American architects in Rome.

"That's how I got to Rome," he said, "but about the end of 1974 I quit and established a firm with my brother Essam, who is a civil engineer, and some American architects who agreed to join us."

Since then the firm, Darwish-Saudi Arabia, has grown at a surprising rate. It now has three offices: one in Jiddah, one in Boston and a third, the headquarters, in Rome. It also has signed contracts worth an estimated $86 million - including construction costs - for some 20 projects either completed or under construction. The projects include an airline reservations office, an airport runway extension and private homes.

Some credit for these early successes, al-Turki says, must be attributed to the fact that he and his brother are Saudi Arabs in an era when Saudi Arabia is in the midst of an immense building boom. But another factor is the firm's bright, young, international staff whose members are not wedded to any particular methods or material.

"Consequently", al-Turki says, "we can strike a balance in ways of doing things - as between American and European - and can drop any approach or material when something better comes along."

International architecture is, of course, a demanding profession when there are offices in three countries; it requires constant travel between Europe and Saudi Arabia. In between trips, however, al-Turki still finds time to lend a hand to the efforts of other Muslims in Europe to preserve their traditions; he serves as an unpaid advisor to the Islamic Cultural Center of Italy, which is now building a mosque for Rome's Muslims (See Aramco World, September-October 1978).

Muslims in Europe have made their mark in art as well as the professions. In Spain, for example, Roberto Barnete - an American Muslim - has won a modest reputation in Madrid with portraits of Arabs and landscapes of the Arab world and has held exhibitions in North Africa and the Arabian Gulf. And one Muslim, Issam El-Said of London, has combined both art and architecture.

Born in 1939 in Baghdad, Issam El-Said spent five years at Millfield School - one of the first Muslim students to do so - then earned a degree in architecture at Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University. Since then, in a unique career, he has become an artist - a painter and print-maker - and a highly successful architectural consultant.

Gray haired, charming and modest, El-Said has designed - and supervised the installation of - the interiors of the Regent's Park mosque, an assignment that involved finding carved wooden mashrabiyas and a women's balcony from Egypt, a marble mihrab from Syria, tiles from Turkey and a chandelier from Jordan. He is also an architectural consultant for the Spanish company that is building the Imam Muhammed Ibn Sa'ud University in Riyadh, and consultant for a Canadian firm working on the King Abdulaziz University in Jiddah.

As an artist, El-Said is equally serious - and equally successful. He is one of about 50 artists handled by Christie's Contemporary Art, an organization representing living artists and run by the famous art auction firm, and was co-author of Geometric Concepts in Islamic Art, published by the World of Islam Festival Publishing Co. A beautiful and original book, this work, El-Said says, was made possible by his architectural training and led to the two university commissions.

His art, basically, is geometric-calligraphic etchings, as well as freehand, free-style pieces that he calls "folklorique," and last fall he was hard at it, "painting and etching like mad," as he put it. Recently, El-Said also finished a commission for 840 - "yes, 840" - lithographic prints destined for Saudi Arabia.

Because of their historical association with the British Empire, many of the more successful Muslims in Europe have made their mark in England. Nationally, they include Iraqis, Jordanians and Egyptians and vocationally they include lawyers, surgeons, bankers and scholars.

In law, for example, there are such men as Sami El Falahi of Iraq, a barrister, and Jamal Nasir of Jordan, who represent Arab embassies in London. Between them, they offer specialization in English, international and Middle Eastern law.

Sami El Falahi came to England originally on a cultural scholarship, to take a summer course at a small college. He did so well, however, that he ended up being offered a place at prestigious Oxford, where he earned degrees in both law and economics. Now a barrister, he represents many of the Arab embassies in London including Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Coming to England for his legal training was a great challenge, El Falahi recalls. To pass an examination for Oxford, he first had to take a crash course in Latin. Furthermore, it was unusual for an Arab to go to Oxford for a first degree in law; most Middle Eastern students came to England for postgraduate diplomas. El Falahi, consequently had to follow the English system from start to finish: complete his studies, take his bar examinations and win admission to one of the Inns of Court. El Falahi did and now belongs to the Inner Temple.

"I acquired qualifications which were rare in the Arab world," he explains. "I wanted to work for everyone in the Arab world rather than one government, or one country, so I came here to do it."

After finishing his law degree, El Falahi returned to Iraq where he worked in the oil industry as an advisor to international companies. Later, he returned to England to open his practice which, essentially, focuses on contracts and commercial agreements in which there are potential conflicts between Arab laws and English law.

Jamal Nasir's practice is similar. As a legal advisor to many of the Arab embassies in London, he specializes in international and Middle Eastern law, an important aspect of today's tremendous export trade with Arab countries.

"There is a great need for advice on Arab laws in this country," says Mr. Nasir. "Because of the commercial connection between the Arabs and the English, we try to fill the missing links. With the oil business, this need is particularly important."

Nasir attended London University after graduating from the American University of Beirut, and is a member of the Jordanian bar, as well as a member of the Federal Supreme Court of Nigeria. Unlike El Falahi, Nasir retains dose ties with his home. He goes back to the Middle East nearly every month and from 1969 to 1970 left his law chambers at Lincoln's Inn to become Jordan's Minister of Justice and Acting Foreign Minister - in two cabinets in two successive governments. Although his three children have been educated in England, and although he has the traditional country home in Sussex and a London apartment, he still regards Jordan as home.

Another success story involves Sabih Shukri, a respected Iraqi banker, and his wife, who is an eye surgeon. He was prominent in starting a new Arab Bank, the Allied Arab Bank, owned and run by Arabs in London, and then became the managing director and chief executive officer. The new bank, a merchant bank, is not a branch of an Arab bank; to the contrary, it will open its own branches in the Arab world and other European centers.

As is the case with many Muslims in Great Britain, Shukri came to London more than 20 years ago. He attended a training program given by Midland Bank, was transferred to the Rafidain Bank in Baghdad and later became general manager there. Still later, he became regional manager in London and helped establish the London branch of Arab Bank Ltd. before moving on - and up.

In addition to his banking career, Shukri has served as a director of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce, was involved in the publication of The International Who's Who of the Arab World, and is studying for his master's degree at London University. Shukri plans, he says, to continue such studies until he has earned his Ph.D. - still two years away. Meanwhile, his wife, who was an eye surgeon in Iraq, is also studying in London.

Adel Dajani of Jordan, a relative newcomer to Britain, is also in banking. The manager of the London branch of the Jordan-based Arab Bank Ltd., Dajani has been a bank employee for 25 years and before moving to London, more than a year ago, served in Bahrain, the Sudan, Cairo and Nigeria.

Originally from Jerusalem, Dajani attended the American University in Cairo - while his wife was studying at the University of Bristol - and sees his job as more than just banking. "My basic mission is to promote the economy of various Arab countries and to promote good relations with the Middle East and the U.K. - to encourage the industries and help finance exports. Then comes profit."

Some British Muslims, of course, are scholars. One is Dr. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, who teaches Arabic literature and Islamic studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. He has taught there for six years and previously studied at Cambridge, where he earned his doctorate in Arabic literature.

Dr. Haleem, an Egyptian, did his undergraduate studies in Cairo and came to London, he says, because of the excellent reputation of British universities.

Such men - physicians, architects, painters, lawyers, bankers, and professors - are often unnoticed amid the millions of Muslims now in Britain and Europe. But they suggest what the future can hold for those who try.

This article appeared on pages 23-28 of the January/February 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1979 images.