Iran wants you not to think about politics and just admire its beautiful carpets. Syria wants you forget all about its bloody war and to learn more about the first alphabet in the world. Yemen is on the verge of starvation and is excited about its honey, coffee, and other goodies.
Dubai Expo 2020 is the premier Middle East fair. It boasts more than 190 countries participating, except Afghanistan.
Dubai has spent billions to make its Expo village, built from scratch, a tourist attraction that is a symbol of the United Arab Emirates. It’s a feast for eyes and a celebration of globalization. Even though nations are using their pavilions to provide information, the political turmoil of the wider globe continues to intrude.
Manahel Thabet (director of the Yemeni pavilion) said, “We only had one bullet to fire.” “We wanted Yemen to be presented in a different way… to show the people, not any political agenda.”
The exhibit’s handicrafts traveled a long way from rebel-held northern Yemen to the pavilion, which was funded by Emiratis. This is a different Yemen. Merchants described the difficult nights spent trekking through Marib, Yemen’s last stronghold, with Expo-bound bags of stones, spices, and honey.
The pavilion for Myanmar, which is where the army’s takeover of power has turned into a bloody conflict displays a golden horse and invites people to visit its pagoda-studded plains.
The former government, which was overthrown by a coup in February 2013, had named a prominent Burmese philanthropist as the director and sponsor of the showcase many years ago.
A person who is familiar with the operations of the pavilion said that the Myanmar military junta had tried to revamp the exhibit of the philanthropist and to change the event schedule in recent weeks. They also hoped to host nationalist, military rallies during the fair’s six-month duration. The person said that Expo organizers were trying to stop the takeover but that the fate of the pavilion is still uncertain.
The UAE’s announcement last year that it would normalize relations to Israel infuriated the Palestinians, and upset an already established Arab consensus. In response, the Palestinian Authority announced it would boycott Dubai Expo.
Yet, it is only a two-minute walk from Israel’s mirror arch. The pavilion of Palestine stands tall, its enormous exterior painted in Arabic calligraphy that reads: “Yesterday, it was called Palestine.” It is now called Palestine.
This exhibit offers a complete sensory experience. Visitors can touch and feel handmade ceramic jugs, see vendors slice knafeh (a sweetened cheese-filled pastry), and smell oranges from Palestinian farmers.
The Palestine pavilion was not officially open to the public. Employees described the difficulties they had in trying to get Israeli approval to transport certain goods from the occupied West Bank. Staffers explained that it was decided that a Palestinian absence from the huge world’s fair would make matters worse.
Many countries were invited to Expo in 2013 after Dubai won the bid. However, Syria claimed it was invited only two years ago. This came just after the UAE opened its Damascus embassy as a sign of better relations with President Bashar al-Assad after years of civil war. It was the last country to start construction.
The black box theater was filled with inspirational slogans such as “We will Rise Together” and long explanations of ancient Mesopotamia’s written alphabet. Staff lamented the lack of funds and last-minute scramble. Khaled Alshamaa, the pavilion designer, noted that Assad was primarily focused on rebuilding Syria’s shattered towns.
The pavilion’s walls are covered with illustrated wooden tablets from 1,500 Syrians. Visitors won’t find any references to death and displacement, but staff insists that this is a happy coincidence and not evidence of restrictions on free speech. From the mosaic, miniature portraits of Assad’s wife Asma look down. Other postcard images include musical instruments, flower bouquets, and sprawling Syrian breakfasts.
Alshamaa declared, “The war has ended.” “Even though sanctions are in place, we are still alive. This is what we want to convey.
The pavilion’s large mirror bears a more obscure message: “Whatever you see isn’t all there is.”
Other pavilions that are politically sensitive have also struggled to even show up.
North Korea is not to be found. The pavilion for Libya, which fell into chaos in 2011 after a NATO-backed uprising overthrew longtime dictator Moammar Gaddhafi, still smells of new paint. Display cases are covered in thick dust, and TV screens flicker between animated cartoons and static scenes from Tripoli’s beaches.
Although signs point to Afghanistan, the pavilion looks closed. It is a showroom for office furniture. The pavilion was set up by the country’s former government before the Taliban overtook Kabul on August 15, which forced President Ashraf Ghani to flee the UAE and scrapped plans for an Expo showcase.
A female staffer at the Islamic Republic of Iran exhibit beams at the visitors and gushes that this is her first trip out of the country’s sanctions-hit nation. The booth displays portraits of Iran’s current and past supreme leaders. However, the exhibit for the Shiite powerhouse does not mention religion or other sources of pride such as its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Iran instead chose to go for a hard-core handicraft show, pitching Persian carpets without any reference to American sanctions that had crippled the trade. Saffron candy is sold by merchants. The kebab is spiced by chefs. Businessmen extol economic free zones.
The Iranian pavilion is perhaps the best metaphor for Expo. Visitors can view Iran’s real-life scenes in one room by peering through tiny holes in the wall. They will see calmly walking along quiet streets, weaving colorful textiles and digging vast copper mines. These brief glimpses of Iran offer only what the country needs.