Jacques-Louis David's 'Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, Crossing the Alps,' on loan from Versailles. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has over 300 pieces on loan from the Louvre. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)
A great museum is a great catalog of plunder. Not just of objects stolen, bought, traded or loaned, but of entire civilizations, placed out of time and plundered of meaning. The Louvre itself was opened on August 10, 1793, a year after the arrest of Louis XIV. The royal collection became a national collection, and under Napoleon it became a symbol of empire, with entire new wings built just to house the plunder sent back during military campaigns.
Today, what can no longer be gotten through force can be rented. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a beautiful new building with a rented artwork and a borrowed name — the museum needs time to develop a collection of its own, preferably without several revolutions. But what will be the character of this new collection, the first of its kind in the Middle East? In his review of the Louvre Abu Dhabi for The New York Times, art critic Holland Cotter reflects on what the museum does — and what it should do.
In short, the Louvre Abu Dhabi fails where most, if not all, encyclopedic art museums do: in truth-telling. And the failure applies to the present as much as to the past. In news releases and public advertising, the institution promises to be “a museum for everyone”; to show “humanity in a new light”; to embody an “openness” and “harmony” reflecting the “tolerant and accepting environment” of Emirati society. But in the years since the building broke ground, international human rights groups have repeatedly criticized the Abu Dhabi government for mistreatment of immigrant laborers at work on Saadiyat Island projects.
During the museum’s inaugural week, two Swiss journalists, filming laborers as part of their coverage of the opening, were arrested by the police, grilled, forced to sign a “confession” and then expelled from the country. Over the past several years, people campaigning for workers’ rights have been barred from entering Abu Dhabi, or deported.
A walk through Mr. Nouvel’s domed museum complex, with its luminous shade and its breeze-channeling sea vistas, is an enchantment, almost enough to make you forget grim physical and social realities that went into creating it. And the manifold beauty of galleries filled with charismatic objects nearly persuades you not to remember that art is a record of crimes as well as of benign achievements. It takes an exercise in ethical balance to engage fully with our great museums, to walk the shaky bridge they construct between aesthetics and politics. A mindful visit to the Louvre Abu Dhabi requires this balance. That may be what is most universal about it.
At The Globe and Mail, Mark MacKinnon tells the story of Naief Abazid — who, at the urging of some older boys, graffitied a school wall on a lark in Daraa, Syria, at age 14. The “writing on the wall” enraged Syria’s Baathist dictatorship, and ignited the Syrian civil war — a conflict now nearly six years old — which has claimed over 400,000 lives, displaced nearly 5 million refugees, and has had lasting repercussions the world over.
At the start of it all, before the uprising and the civil war – and the refugee exodus and the terror and the hatred that have sprung from it – a 14-year-old boy stood giggling with a can of black spray paint, pointing it at the wall of his school in southern Syria.
Naief Abazid had no inkling that he was about to launch a revolution, or anything else that has followed. He was just doing what the bigger kids told him to. Trying to make them laugh. “It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad, ” he painted, just under the window of the principal’s office of the all-boys al-Banin school in his hometown of Daraa. The date was Feb. 16, 2011.
It was an incendiary political idea – suggesting that Syria’s Baathist dictatorship would be the next to fall after the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, written by an apolitical teenage prankster. Painted on a cool and dry winter evening, it would improbably set in motion a chain reaction of events that continue to rock the Middle East – and the world.
By most estimates, more than 400,000 people have been killed, and the war in Syria rages on, with the Assad regime now obliterating large swaths of the city of Aleppo. Millions more have been driven from their homes, with hundreds of thousands – including Naief – seeking refuge in Europe, inducing an epic clash of cultures on the continent and the startling rise of politicians from the anti-immigrant far right.
Naief’s graffiti has had an effect on our world similar to the assassin’s bullet fired in Sarajevo at the outbreak of the First World War. Without Naief’s act of teenage impetuousness – and the Assad regime’s violent reaction to it – would the extremist caliphate have been declared? Would the refugee crisis be on the scale it is now? Would the United Kingdom – spurred by campaign posters of streams of refugees heading north – have voted to leave the European Union? Would the anti-immigrant message of Donald Trump – who has spoken, without evidence, of possible “Trojan horses” among the Syrian refugees accepted into the United States – have resonated quite so deeply with the American electorate?
Naief Abazid – a short, thin young man with slicked-back black hair and a stubbly beard – is stunned by all that’s resulted from his impulsive act five years ago. “I was the youngest one in the crowd. They told me what to write,” Naief recalled, sipping on a coffee and sharing a McDonald’s pie.
“I only realized it was serious when I got to prison.”
In Calgary, Aziz found a Muslim community in conflict—and denial—over how to address the fact that dozens of young men were leaving their community to travel to distant battlefields. The Canadian government estimates that as of the end of 2015, 180 Canadians overseas were actively involved with terror organizations; about half of them are believed to be in Syria and Iraq, having been recruited by groups such as isis. It was difficult for members of the city’s Muslim community to accept that radicalization was happening in Calgary. It seemed implausible that these young men could be capable of carrying out acts of violence abroad—until it started happening.
Many in the community hoped that Aziz might be able to intervene. He was, after all, not much older than those who were leaving. Other imams in the community, most of them foreign born and middle-aged, had trouble connecting with Muslim youth born and raised in Canada. They didn’t know how to address political issues such as the conflict in Syria with those who were unsettled by the slaughter of thousands of civilians. Imams across the country feared that broaching the subject of overseas conflicts and jihad directly might draw objections from others in their mosques—or worse, attract the attention of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (csis).
In her essay in Pacific Standard, Rahawa Haile writes about identity, the anxiety of origins, and the search for a grounded life in unstable, isolating locales. Born to Eritrean parents, Haile grew up in Miami, Florida, speaking English and Tigrinya in a low land of built of hurricane deposits that felt doomed to rising sea levels. As America and Europe argue about how to treat refugees from war-torn nations, Haile struggles to reconcile the two parts of herself, and wonders what will happen to Eritrea, and to all the people who flee their homes in Africa and the Middle East.
When politicians campaign on platforms of keeping Africans out of their country. When the anti-blackness in the surrounding MENA region goes largely unreported. When the refugee camps in the country you gained independence from are overflowing with your people. When the journey to South Africa, a popular refuge for African migrants, is met with xenophobic attacks. When crossing the Red Sea into Yemen means entering a war zone; when Yemenis are crossing the Red Sea into the Horn you fled. When human traffickers are harvesting your organs in the Sinai. When the open ports of Libya have no despot to keep you on your side of the grave. When drowning is the best option. When the world asks wouldn’t it be convenient to stay in place? To see your doom as your salvation? Now that they have all tried their hand at exploiting your land, your people, your geography—and since autonomy can only be granted by those who have control over the physical world. After all this, how, how, how. How can we keep you there?
The intensification of the War for the Greater Middle East after 9/11 revealed unsuspected defects in America’s basic approach to raising its military forces. Notwithstanding the considerable virtues of our professional military, notably durability and tactical prowess, the existing system rates as a failure.
The All-Volunteer Force is like a burger from a fast-food joint: it’s cheap, filling and tastes good going down. What’s not to like? Take a closer look, however, and problems with the existing U.S. military system become apparent. It encourages political irresponsibility. It underwrites an insipid conception of citizenship. It’s undemocratic. It turns out to be exorbitantly expensive. And it doesn’t win.
Dishonesty pervades the relationship between the U.S. military and society. Rhetorically, we “support the troops.” But the support is seldom more than skin-deep.
In practice, we subject the troops we profess to care about to serial abuse. As authorities in Washington commit U.S. forces to wars that are unnecessary or ill-managed or unwinnable — or, in the martial equivalent of a trifecta, all of the above — Americans manifest something close to indifference. The bungled rollout of a health care reform program might generate public attention and even outrage. By comparison, a bungled military campaign elicits shrugs.
-Andrew J. Bacevich, in Notre Dame magazine, on the history of U.S. war in the Middle East over the past 30 years, and why there’s no end (or strategy) in sight.