Monday, January 23, 2012

Dubai's Global Village: From Arab Spring to unity

Decorated pavilions of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen at Global Village speak volumes

This is Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Egypt’s January 25 revolution. Er, not in Cairo but in Dubai. The Egypt Pavilion at the Global Village is a model of Tahrir Square, where the Arab Spring began, and the narrow streets of Khan El Khalili in the Islamic district of Cairo.

Near the entrance, two men dressed as King Tut made me smile. Working laboriously on ‘traditional’ Egyptian crafts, such as hieroglyphic bookmarks and greeting cards, they look up for a second and get back to serious work.

“When I’m in Cairo, I go to Tahrir Square every Friday and join the latest ‘millioneya’,” (the million man/woman march which seems to be an event on most Fridays) says Abel H, while his friend Ahmed nods. “It is unacceptable for me to be part of the silent majority. Being part of the silent majority in Egypt now labels you as being a member of the ‘couch party.’ You sit on the couch and you watch the latest millioneya on television, and the only political views you have are communicated to whoever happens to be sitting next to you, or to your cat,” he says, firmly and gets back to work.

Naturally you come across the predictable papyrus leaf prints, busts of Nefertiti, cat statues and the paraphernalia. A sensational discovery 89 years ago by archaeologist Howard Carter turned the unknown pharaoh Tutankhamun into an international superstar. For years, Tutankhamun, his treasures and his tomb have been touring the globe with an ambassador-like presence in each city he visits. He’s here, too.
You walk further and you hear a slight music playing ahead from an oud. The history of music would remain incomplete without a reference of Egyptian Oud. Mohammed at the stall recalls how his friend Tarek from Revolutionary Artists of Egypt had taken his oud along and played music after the turmoil had calmed down in Tahrir Square. “It was then that he brought his oud guitar and we sang political and revolutionary songs, which gave people hope and excitement in those times,” he beams.
You walk further down and you come across quilts and people buying cotton underwear! The quilted fabric called ‘Khayameya’ fabric, takes its name from a whole quarter in old Cairo called Khayameya, originating from Kheyma or tent in Arabic. The fabric is actually used to set up huge tents in streets to celebrate or gather for a marriage or someone’s death.
The tent is calledSewan in Egyptian Arabic. I made a mental note that if I ever visited Cairo again, I would track down Khayameya Street (The Alley of Tentmakers, south of Bab Zweila) and get one of these quilts. But it was right there in front of me so I decided not to wait any longer.
While walking out of the square, I noticed a young man in a bright red T-shirt that read ‘My new birthday is January 25th’ walking past. It reminded me of a shirt my friend had picked up for me from the (real) Tahrir Square which read ‘100 Percent Egyptian.’


When you step inside the pavilion, an ambience of a traditional Damascus courtyard house greets you, with the beautifully ornate shops resembling the Northern Damascus souk and homes. The pavilion is in the shape of a gate like the seventh Damascus gate.
The shops sell an assortment of traditional Syrian ware including abayas, crystal, antiques, traditional music instruments, wood work ‘Arabesk,’ herbs, traditional sweets, curtains, and the damascene table cloth symbolising the wealthy civilisation of the country.
Clank. Clink. Clank. The rhythmic clanking of his cymbals resonates distinctively through the thick noise of visitors bustling about. When a thirsty passerby stops him for erk sous, a cold liquorice juice, the vendor, in his baggy Turkish-style pants, thick cloth belt, little vest, and rubber boots, tilts his heavy ice-filled copper container and pours the brownish juice into a glass held way below his waist so as to foam up the liquid. Othman who’s being serving this drink in his hometown Homs says, “Homs is one place where the people just don’t give up, it has become so symbolic. It is such an extended city, with extensive suburbs, villages and surrounding areas taking part in the protests that it has been hard for the Syrian army to subdue all of that territory, as well as everywhere else,” he says, cautiously.
You can also experience the sounds of the religious folkloric band ‘Mawaly’ providing live entertainment, nearby.
The rows of knick-knack shops attractively displaying traditional antique Syrian items gives one a feeling of walking through an aisle selling heritage items in Souk al Hamidiyeh in Damascus. “People from Homs are renowned for their sense of humour and this has come out so strongly in the crisis says Abdallah, of the Arabesk furniture stall.
That is why in the Syrian revolution, Homs has become the capital that Damascus has not.


You get surrounded by Yemeni stuff here, and at the stalls charming and chatty Yemenis in their traditional garbs, including daggers, sell their local goods.
The prime attraction at this pavilion is the Yemeni honey. It’s pricey but tasty. And if you have even slight grey hair and are male, get raedy for a ‘honey viagra’!
Yemen’s uprising began much before protesters in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets. But while the dictators in those countries were toppled, activists in Yemen have been repressed by a leadership that for years has manipulated tribes and exploited the country’s instability.
“Yemen is not like Tunisia, or Egypt, or Libya, or Syria,” says Mousa, a honey-vendor, “Yemen has a culture and society of its own that is still deeply rooted in its old norms. Modernity is prevailing in all the other countries, but in Yemen it is still crawling,” he adds handing out the honey with a smile, to add to the sweetness.


You may even walk past without noticing it. Sadly, the ‘cradle of civilisation’ pavilion is quite small and unassuming. But stop and look because it’s a real treasure house ‘a la Aladdin’s Cave,’ but full of artworks. This is the real deal: original oil paintings and other art forms, especially calligraphy come straight from Baghdad. Some of the art is sold directly from the artists. There are artists like Haider who make paintings the whole year just to display and sell it here. “I once sold a painting to an American marine telling him that the painting meant revival and renaissance and he bought it immediately,” he exclaims. “In actuality it was a painting of unrequited love, the story of Iraq is similar, isn’t it?” he questions with a lost look.
As you make your way out of the Global Village, you realise it’s not just about shopping for the unique handmade global items. The spirit of one world pervades the village. Even though gunfire reverberates in their homeland, these people are here as ambassadors of peace.

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