Organisers aim to promote a positive image of Palestine by showcasing its rich culture alongside commercial opportunities.
A wall inscribed with the message “Welcome to Palestine” in multiple languages greets patrons who arrive at the pavilion representing the State of Palestine at Dubai Expo 2020.
The glitzy emirate is hosting the six-month-long world fair, which was postponed from 2020 to 2021 due to the pandemic, and aims to showcase key technological innovations, business opportunities and cultural festivities from over 190 participating countries.
Nestled between the UAE and Saudi Arabian pavilions, Palestine’s is located in the Opportunity District and designed by the Palestinian Economy Ministry. The 1,250 square-metre rectangular two-floor building with rounded corners has an exterior fashioned with line drawings of the city of Jerusalem and swathes of decorative Arabic script.
“In the pavilion we highlight the Palestinian identity and narrative by representing our culture, history, civilisation, traditions, holy places, and our capital Jerusalem,” the Palestine pavilion’s media liaison officer Raseel Amr told TRT World.
On a gusty early January afternoon, a steady stream of people builds into a long queue waiting to enter the pavilion themed as being “A land of history and promise”. Around a dozen are allowed in at a time, and once in, visitors are welcomed by a female usher wearing a traditional embroidered thobe.
“The aim is to make our visitors feel like they are in Jerusalem,” the guide announces to a group of us upon entry into the pavilion, priming visitors for an event that will take them into a “five senses journey of Palestine.”
And a sensory experience it certainly was, as visitors embark on a journey of seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting what the land has to offer.
While on the ground floor, the guide runs through a quick summary of historic Palestine and the land’s significance for the three Abrahamic faiths. The floors themselves are replicas of Jerusalem’s Old City streets, tailored with vertical strips of deep brown cladding and interspersed with generous entryways.
The group then is held in a waiting zone before taking an elevator which doubles as an immersive simulation of rising high above Jerusalem. Once on the second floor, everyone sets foot in a dark room where a promotional video is played that introduces viewers to various Palestinian cities and their cultural attractions.
Visitors then walk down hallways that display images of Palestine before entering the ‘Touch Palestine’ area where one can physically interact with all sorts of items: a chunk of salt from the Dead Sea, an aluminum fragment from the Dome of the Rock, a mosaic slab from Jericho, and an original key from 1948 that symbolises the right of return.
Next up is the ‘Smell Palestine’ section, where a cornucopia of scents are on offer. From zaytun (olives), za’atar (thyme) to maramiya (sage), vapour aromas are dispersed from the snout of a clay pot to be inhaled.
Following that, pictures of Palestinian dishes are on display down a corridor that leads to a virtual culinary experience, replete with a table where visitors can sit around that illustrates a traditional feast and a menu to browse.
Additionally, a QR code allows you to download the exclusive Expo 2020 edition of the Palestinian cuisine cookbook containing up to 32 authentic dishes.
To round off the excursion is a room where guests can don virtual reality (VR) headsets to visit religious sites like the Al Aqsa Mosque and Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
For Amr, the reason behind this sensory tour was to bring Palestine to those who cannot go to Palestine. “Making it interactive in this way brought a sense of what Palestine feels to not only Palestinians, but to all visitors from different nationalities,” she said.
The culmination of the tour then leads to a souvenir shop that sells a selection of ceramics and Palestine-themed art and crafts. Opposite the store is a section where an assortment of Palestinian food products can be purchased, such as olive oil, za’atar, makdous (stuffed eggplant) and maftoul (Palestinian couscous).
Besides that, multiple display screens keenly showcase the export potential of Palestine’s bustling manufacturing sector and growing tourism industry.
“The Palestinians have been able to preserve their culture under extraordinary circumstances,” said Mansoor Hanif, a Jordanian visiting the pavilion with his young family. “The Expo is a huge opportunity to promote themselves and they’ve done it in a very impressive way,” he told TRT World.
With a daily estimated visitor count between 3,000-4,000 (and up to 6,000 on weekdays), Amr believes people eventually leave the pavilion with a positive impression of Palestine and are “truly shocked to see a hopeful side of our country.”
There was however scant mention of the Israeli occupation – aside from references made to the martyr memorial, for example.
Ultimately, Amr said the decision was made not to dwell on the occupation in favour of showing the world there’s more to Palestine than people might be aware of. “By presenting them the way we did, it surely denies the occupation’s narrative and proves our truthful one,” she added.
And so through its Expo participation, the pavilion hopes to familiarise the world with Palestine’s unique heritage and identity, as well as its hopes for a better economic future.