Leslie McLoughlin with his children Jonathan and Elizabeth by the pyramids in Giza, Egypt in 1977.

From Arabia to Exeter: a family’s story

The delicate language of international diplomacy is well known to Arabic Interpreter Mr Leslie McLoughlin who has lived a life more akin to scenes in James Bond films.

The daring escapes, assassinations, riots and civil wars were part of life for Leslie and his young family, who have lived in numerous Arab countries since 1961. 

An exhibition at the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies illustrates the family’s diverse experiences of the Arab and Islamic world for almost half a century. The display relates the family’s creative work to the turbulent events of the period in Arabia and neighbouring countries. There are a range of drawings, photographs, textiles and memorabilia from the perspective of two generations living and growing up in the Middle East.

Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were first and foremost homes to the McLoughlins, places where they were integrated into community life, through leisure, work and school. The family remain deeply involved in the culture, language and life of Arabia, a place which they respected and in which they were welcomed.

Now in Exeter, Christine and Leslie McLoughlin a University of Exeter Research Fellow, and their grown up children Jonathan and Elizabeth are providing an insight into their exotic and rather unusual past. Mr McLoughlin explains, “As a family we all live in Exeter but we have been involved with many Arabic countries for nearly 50 years. We all feel a strong attachment, especially through the Arabic language, but also through arts, textiles, music and photographs.”

Although Mr McLoughlin’s work involved interpreting for influential foreign dignitaries such as Arab Sheikhs, several British Prime Ministers and members of the Royal Family, including Her Majesty the Queen; the artistic interpretations are the domain of his wife Christine. Her love of drawing and painting is evident in the breadth of visual art she has created of buildings across the Arab world and here in Exeter. Christine has had her sketch books with her, throughout the four decades she has spent in Arabia and Exeter. As a result, she has been able to capture in charcoal, ink and paint areas of Abu Dhabi, Muscat and Dubai which no longer exist. This is due to oil money which has financed dramatic re-development changing dusty narrow streets to major highways. Iconic buildings both in the Middle East and in England do not get past Christine who eternalised Exeter Cathedral in a sketch used for the Diocesan Christmas card in 2004.

This creative streak runs through the family, especially with daughter Elizabeth who was born in Beirut in 1967, just before the Israeli occupation of the West Bank which continues to this day. Elizabeth learned to weave in 1977 at the age of 10 at a handicraft school near the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. The school was set up by the wife of President Anwar Sadat to rehabilitate Egyptian soldiers wounded in the fighting against Israel. Samples of Elizabeth’s intricate and colourful textiles throughout a period of more than 25 years are on display. Her Dryad loom is part of the exhibition, showing the mauve coloured woollen weave, as work in progress. Elizabeth continues to experiment enthusiastically with wool on her loom from her home in Exeter.

Brother Jonathan’s first school, in Lebanon, was Arabic- speaking and his love of calligraphy reflects the influence the years spent in the Arab world. The exhibition also includes photographs of Arabian and European officials and royalty going back to the 1960s. On display are books that relate to the literary works that Mr McLoughlin has translated into English, including Volume One of the greatest Arabic dictionary “Lissan Al-Arab’ (The Tongue of the Arabs).The whole set was a gift from the late Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad, whose novel Mr McLoughlin translated in 1974 as Death in Beirut. The inscription is in the hand of the author, who was later killed in Beirut by a stray shell while sitting in his garden.

The adventure of the McLoughlin family in Arabia is captured in the broad range of creative outpourings and literary documents on display. The turbulence for the McLoughlins began with the necessity for the family to leave Aden just after the first political assassination in 1963. Later, they were evacuated from Lebanon at the time of the June War of 1967. In 1973 the women of the family found themselves unwillingly in Baghdad when their flight to Beirut was diverted from Istanbul because of the October War. Later in 1975 the family experienced eight months of the Lebanese Civil War, making an emergency exit by road via Damascus just before Christmas 1975.

The Israeli assassinations of Palestinians in Beirut in April 1973 ended Jonathan’s schooling in Lebanon. Four years later Jonathan and Elizabeth were at school in Egypt at the time of the Cairo bread riots which led to President Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. The family finally left Dubai in 1981 on the day that President Sadat was assassinated in Cairo.

These fascinating times were all part and parcel of the McLoughlin family life in Arabia which, in part, they seek to share with the wider public through the exhibition. Mr McLoughlin added, “The exhibition is an attempt to show the way we have all interacted with Arabs, Muslim and Christian, in so many different ways. We hope that visitors will get insights into the richness of experiences that await anyone involved with Arabia.”

The exhibition is open to the public weekdays from 09:00 – 17:00 at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter.

Date: 12 June 2009