Iran wants you to put politics aside and marvel at its ornate carpets. Syria wants you to forget its brutal war and learn about the world’s first alphabet. Yemen, on the brink of famine, is very excited about its honey and coffee.
Welcome to Dubai’s Expo 2020, the world’s first fair in the Middle East with more than 190 participating countries – except Afghanistan, whose new Taliban rulers are not a show.
Dubai has gambled billions to make the built-from-scratch Expo Village a triumphant tourist attraction and a symbol of the United Arab Emirates – a feast for the eyes designed to be devoid of politics and the promise of globalization has been made.
But even as nations use their pavilions as benign informants, the political unrest of the wider world manages to infiltrate.
“We had a bullet to shoot,” said Yemeni Pavilion director Manhel Thabet. “We wanted to present Yemen in a different way … to demonstrate to the people no more political agenda.” But the exhibition’s handicrafts’ winding journey from the country’s rebel-held north to the luxurious Emirati-funded pavilion betrays a very different Yemen.
Merchants describe harrowing nights of trekking with expo-bound sacks of stones, spices and honey through the battlefields of Marib, Yemen’s last government stronghold under siege by Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
The pavilion for Myanmar, where the military’s seizure of power has turned into a bloody conflict, displays a golden chariot and takes visitors to its pagoda-studded grounds.
The previous government, which was toppled by a coup in February, had years ago appointed a prominent Burmese philanthropist to direct and sponsor the showcase.
But a person familiar with the operation of the pavilion, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said Myanmar’s military junta
In recent weeks the philanthropist was trying to change the display and program schedule with the hope of hosting nationalist, military rallies in the six months after the fair.
The organizers of the expo, the person said, were trying to block the takeover, but the fate of the pavilion remains uncertain.
After the UAE announced it would normalize ties with Israel last year, angering Palestinians and longstanding Arab consensus, the Palestinian Authority announced it would boycott Dubai’s expo.
And yet only a two-minute walk from Israel’s mirrored arch, the Pavilion of Palestine stands tall, its massive exterior painted with Arabic calligraphy: “Yesterday it was called Palestine. Today it’s called Palestine. Is.” The exhibition creates a complete sensory experience, inviting visitors to touch handmade ceramic jugs, watch vendors smell nafeh, a syrupy cheese-filled pastry, and smell oranges from Palestinian farms.
However, the Palestine Pavilion has not been officially opened to the public, as employees describe a litany of headaches trying to get approval from the Israeli authorities to retrieve some items from the occupied West Bank.
Asked what was said about Palestine’s participation, the staff said it had been decided that Palestinian absence would be worse at the mass World’s Fair.
While several countries received invitations to attend the expo almost immediately after Dubai won the bid in 2013, Syria said it had been invited just two years earlier – shortly after the United Arab Emirates met with President Bashar Assad. In a sign of better relations reopened its embassy in Damascus. Years of disastrous civil war. It was the last nation to begin construction.
Black box theater staff, filled with motivational slogans such as “We will rise together” and lengthy explanations of the written alphabet of ancient Mesopotamia, mourn the last-minute mayhem and paucity of funds. Noting that Assad was focused on rebuilding Syria’s broken cities, pavilion designer Khalid Alshama said the government provided “moral support” in a big way. Illustrated wooden tablets sent from 1,500 ordinary Syrians around the world blanket the pavilion’s walls. But visitors won’t find references to death or displacement—something that staff insist is a happy coincidence, not evidence of free speech restrictions. Miniature portraits of Asad and his wife Asma look down from the mosaic. Other postcard images show musical instruments, flower bouquets and giant Syrian breakfasts.
“The war is over,” said Alshama. “Even though there are restrictions, we survive. That’s the message we want to show you.” A large mirror in the pavilion carries a more cryptic message: “What you see is not everything.” Other politically sensitive pavilions have struggled to show as well.
North Korea is nowhere. The pavilion for Libya, which fell into violent chaos after longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi following a NATO-backed uprising in 2011, is still colored fresh. Display cases sit empty but thanks to layers of thick dust and TV screens flickering between children’s cartoons and still scenes of Tripoli’s beaches.
Signage points to Afghanistan, but its pavilion appears closed – nothing more than a rare showroom for office furniture. The country’s previous government had arranged for the pavilion before the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in the final days of a US troop withdrawal on August 15, forcing President Ashraf Ghani into exile in the United Arab Emirates and among other things. With plans for an expo showcase were cancelled.
At the exhibition for the Islamic Republic of Iran, a female employee beams at visitors, saying her visit to the original theme park is her first outside the sanctions-hit country.
Although the booth has portraits of Iran’s past and present supreme leaders, there is no mention of it in the display of the Shia powerhouse.
Religion, nor other sources of the country’s pride such as its controversial ballistic missile and nuclear program.
Instead, Iran went for a hard-core handicrafts sector, pitching Persian rugs with no reference to US sanctions crippling business. Merchants sell saffron candy. The chefs gently season the kebabs. Businessmen praise economic free zones.
Perhaps the Iranian Pavilion offers the most appropriate metaphor for the Expo. In one room, visitors must peek through tiny holes in the wall to see real-life scenes from Iran, where unnamed men dig giant copper mines, peacefully stroll through village streets and weave colorful textiles. Brief, optimistic glimpses The country gives you nothing more or less than what you want to see.