Afghanistan's Expo pavilion shows spirit and culture of its people to the world

Working day and night, one family has saved the day for Afghanistan

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It’s a few days late, but Afghanistan’s pavilion has opened against the odds at Expo 2020 on Wednesday.

After standing empty for the first days of Expo, the pavilion has now filled up with its country’s treasures including antique jewellery, rugs and traditional objects going back to the 13th century

The empty pavilion had been the subject of much speculation, but Afghanistan’s participation has been saved by the intervention of Omar Rahimy and members of his family who have travelled to Dubai to bring it to life.

“The people of Afghanistan were sad the pavilion was closed," Mr Rahimy said.

“Now they can be happy that it is open.”

Omer Rahimy fled Afghanistan in the 1970s. Photo: James Langton

Getting everything ready has been an effort that saw Mr Rahimy get just three hours sleep before opening day.

Mr Rahimy fled Afghanistan when the communists took over in the 1970s, and now lives in Vienna, Austria

The family business, which is now in its fifth generation, imports Afghan products from lapis lazuli, saffron and dried fruits, while Mr Rahimy has also assembled a remarkable collection of his country's antiques, said to be one of the largest outside Afghanistan.

On display at Expo is exquisite bridal jewellery, embroidery for tents, silks, and a pestle and mortar for medicines that is 900 years old. All of this has been brought to Dubai at the family’s expense, while they will run the pavilion for the entire six months of Expo 2020.

“We want to show here our culture and history of over 1,000 years to all our visitors, Mr Rahimy says.

The family have run displays at fairs and expos since 1976, while Mr Rahimy first became aware of Expo 2020 back in 2016. His offer to help with the pavilion through Afghan diplomats made little progress and with less than six months before opening, he became increasingly concerned it would not happen.

Saffron on display at the Afghanistan Pavilion at Expo 2020, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

With the takeover of the Taliban last month, all contact with Afghan officials was lost.

Finally he made contact with Expo officials who set things in motion.

“On behalf of 35 million Afghans, I want to thank the government of the UAE and everyone at Expo,” he said.

With the all clear to ship dozens of cultural artefacts given the go ahead, the family, including his brother and two sons, finally touched down in Dubai on October 1, the first day of Expo 2020 and set to work that day.

Located in the Opportunity District, the pavilion is located in the same building as the popular Saudi fast food outlet Albaik and is marked on Expo maps.

It still needs some finishing touches, including the all important outside signs. While they are printed, there are plans to place the famous National Geographic photograph “girl with green eyes” outside the building.

Taken by photographer Steve McCurry in 1985 it is a haunting image of teenager Sharbat Gula taken in a refugee camp and has been called "the First World's Third World Mona Lisa".

The plight of the Afghan people visibly moves Mr Rahimy close to tears but he stresses that the pavilion is strictly non-political and hopes it will draw visitors and Afghan exiles to show that the country’s spirit has not been broken.

“You can’t forget Afghanistan and the Afghan people,” he says. “Regimes come and regimes go, but Afghanistan continues.”

Updated: October 06, 2021, 5:08 PM