Remona Aly
Monday 24 July 2017 BBC Radio 2

Pour some sugar on us

Sweet alliances: The Tudors and Islam

The other day, I was rocking out to Def Leppard’s ‘Pour some sugar on me’, and it made me think of Queen Elizabeth the First. Yep, I imagine the virgin queen uttered the words of Sheffield’s finest over 400 years ago, though it might have been more like ‘pour thine sugar upon us’ – because Britain has welcomed foreign sugar to its shores ever since Tudor times.

But what I can’t believe is that it took me over 30 years of my own high sugar intake before I discovered that tonnes of the sweet stuff was brought over through trade with the Muslim rulers of north Africa.

Even our English word for sugar, comes from the Arabic word for it – al-sukkar. Queen Elizabeth loved sugar so much that it made her teeth go black. I totally get this as does my dentist who has plied me with fillings over the years – I mean I’d have sugar in my toothpaste if I could.

A BBC programme aired last week called The Sweetmakers, told us that today a Brit has on average 34 bags of sugar a year. From bread to barbecue sauce, lollipops to ladoos, sugar is sprinkled, sucked and snuck into nearly everything we eat. And to think it barely existed pre 16th century is a shocker.

All of this, makes me rethink the missing pieces of our shared history, as Britain’s relationship with Islam goes back much further than I’d actually realised. Back in Tudor times, sugar not only had an impact on the edible, but opened unexpected cultural and social exchange too, from Shakespeare’s rendering of Othello: the Moor of Venice, to Muslims and Christians living side by side in 16th century Britain.

The story of sugar is the story of Britain’s melting pot. It’s nothing new, but has bound us together through its alliance of syrup for centuries.

It tells me that relationships between different people can open up a world of possibilities, if only we ventured a bit further beyond our own little bubbles.

The Sufi poet and Muslim scholar, Rumi said, “Find the sweetness in your own heart, then you may find the sweetness in every heart.”

If the unifying Tudor tale of sugar teaches me anything, it’s that the way forwards is sometimes a look backwards. And as Def Leppard, said, ‘In the name of love’, a little bit of sugar can go a long way.