A record 192 countries are represented at this year’s Postponed Expo, up from 139 at the previous World Expo in Milan, including, of course, the poorest, war-torn and unstable in the world.
With the help of funds from the Emirati government, everyone is using Expo 2020 to present a polished image that could attract investment or tourists, but the struggle at home lurks below the surface.
Tucked off the main pedestrian walkway, the modest Myanmar pavilion is filled with photos, clothing and cultural items native to the South Asian nation, in an attempt to represent the regional and religious diversity of the mostly Buddhist country.
Levi Sap Nei Thang, deputy director of the pavilion, says she was appointed by the former democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. “Deputy” was added to Thang’s title after Myanmar’s military seized control of the country in February, arrested Suu Kyi and cracked down on protests across the country. Technically, they are now in charge of the pavilion as well.
Back in Dubai, Thang told CNN that he has been planning the Expo display for years, with the aim of promoting trade and attracting visitors to Myanmar, but admitted that “it may not be a good time right now. [for tourists]. ”
The Expo will run until March 2022 and Thang says he hopes that at some point Myanmar’s military junta will “send a new team” to take over the pavilion as they have taken over the country. He said he recently rejected a call with a minister seeking to discuss control of the pavilion. However, if he expels her, Thang said he will not stay.
“I do this for my people, not for any political party,” he told CNN. Myanmar’s military government did not respond to CNN requests for comment.
The Myanmar flag is not the only one embroiled in a government overthrow. Afghanistan’s pavilion stood empty for days at the start of the Expo on October 1, after the Taliban takeover of the country left a vacuum in its management. Now an Afghan antique collector from Austria, Mohammed Omer Rahimy, has opened the pavilion after being called in by Expo organizers and struggling with customs delays.
Rahimy told CNN that he represents neither the previous government nor the Taliban, and that he has taken on the task for the Afghan people. In fact, there is no sign of Afghanistan’s turmoil in the displays of colorful traditional clothing, ornate ancient jewelry, and elegant bronze pieces, including a 12th-century mortar and pestle.
Rahimy strives to make it clear that he is not partisan; in fact, he says he has curated items for the Afghan pavilion on behalf of various regimes since the 1970s in more than a dozen exhibitions, and said he only wants peace. for your country, no matter who is in charge. Rahimy said his goal was to showcase Afghanistan’s rich cultural history and promote investment and buyers for the country’s exports, such as saffron, which is sold in small jars at the pavilion.
“Any regime comes to Afghanistan, then five years, four years later, the next regime comes. For me, my people are the important thing,” he told CNN.
Many of the countries’ pavilions at Expo 2020 are built with funding from the Emirati government, although organizers declined to detail cost-sharing arrangements. Private sponsorship is also an important source of funding, but ultimately individual governments are supposed to be in charge.
In the Syrian pavilion, there is no doubt that President Bashar al-Assad, accused of using chemical weapons against his own people, is in control. His portrait hangs among 1,500 wooden paintings made in Syria intended to collectively represent the country’s national unity, even though it has been torn apart by a decade of civil war. A historical chronology of Syria does not mention that conflict.
The pavilion was funded by the Emirati government and Syrian businessmen, according to designer and director Khaled Alshamaa. Syrian Economy Minister Mohammad al-Khalil was there to open the pavilion and Alshamaa is encouraging tourists to return to the country.
“It’s totally safe,” Alshamaa insisted. “Now, we are trying to rebuild our economy. The war ended 99% [of Syria]. “Air strikes and terrorist attacks remain frequent in the country, however, and civilian casualties remain common.
Similarly, the Yemeni pavilion exhibits a 330-year-old manuscript and some of the rarest swords in the Gulf, but does not mention the brutal war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen over the past seven years.
Perhaps the strangest contradiction is the Lebanese flag. A striking solid gray structure with minimalist black statues on the outside standing guard, on the inside the presentation bears no resemblance to the current economic state of the country. Lebanon is still reeling from the Beirut port explosion that killed hundreds and injured thousands, as well as an increasingly severe economic crisis that has wiped out the value of the Lebanese pound and, with it, savings of all the lives of ordinary people. Severe food, fuel and medicine shortages have helped push nearly three-quarters of the population into poverty, according to a recent United Nations report.
However, inside the pavilion, visitors are greeted by an immersive video experience that could easily double as an advertisement for the Lebanese tourism ministry, with scenic aerial shots highlighting the country’s natural beauty.
“The news will cover the unhygienized version of Lebanon,” explained Nathalie Habchi Harfouche, director of the pavilion. Harfouche does not work for the Lebanese state. When the country’s dysfunctional government, plagued by corruption allegations, abandoned plans to operate the pavilion in 2019, a coalition of private sponsors led by the Lebanese Chamber of Commerce and the diaspora in Dubai stepped in to save the project, organizers said. , with the help of funding from the United Arab Emirates. The logo of the Lebanese Ministry of Economy adorns the wall, but Harfouche said it is out of necessity more than anything, since technically the pavilions must have the backing of the government.
“We do not bring water for the government, we do not do their work, we do it for the people. If they are not willing to do it, we will do it. If this means our survival.” , so be it. We want to survive and we are going to survive as a people, “he told CNN.
Beyond the gift shop filled with soaps and jewelry, there is an attractive bar with a fine selection of Lebanese wine. Harfouche said the pavilion’s display will evolve and change over the next six months, including content that “represents reality, but in an artistic way.” Still, he has no plans to make the pavilion overtly political.
“Why should I do that?” she asked. “I don’t want to think about the government. This is an apolitical entity here.”
Harfouche said his goal is to encourage much-needed tourism and investment to help rebuild Lebanon’s ailing economy and ultimately help its people.
“It would have been easy not to be here, but it would have been a total loss of opportunity for people, not for anyone else.”
Expo 2020 has sheared out large amounts of money to ensure that as many countries as possible are represented here. Spokesperson Sconaid McGeachin declined to go into cost details, but told CNN that: “This [financial support] provides each country to tell their narrative about their culture and heritage and their approach to the future. ”
Each nation depicted here presents a narrative of sorts, but many of them are far from being the full story.