Afghan antiques dealer steps up to open pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Afghan antiques dealer Muhammad Omar Rahimi is seen at the Afghanistan Pavilion, which opened after the start of the Expo 2020 Dubai.

DUBAI — The collapse of the Afghan government in August appeared to spell the end for the Afghanistan Pavilion at the currently ongoing Expo 2020 Dubai, but the pavilion did eventually open, thanks to the determined efforts of an Afghan antiquities dealer acting on his own.

Despite the pandemic, the pavilion is bustling with people expressing concern about the situation in the country.

While advanced economies and Arab nations established large pavilions, the Afghanistan Pavilion sits quietly in one section of a building where cafes and other facilities are gathered.

The 300 items on display, including carpets, daggers and traditional clothing, are all the personal belongings of Muhammad Omar Rahimi, an antiques shop owner in Vienna.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Relatively few visitors are seen at Expo 2020 Dubai on Dec. 9.

Having organized a number of exhibitions around the world, Rahimi, 63, covered the expenses of transporting the art items and decorating the pavilion out of his own pocket.

Rahimi said his pavilion is just a token booth compared to other digital technology-driven pavilions, but at least “part of the historic country of Afghanistan is here.”

When the expo opened on Oct. 1, empty showcases were scattered in the pavilion space. According to Rahimi, its entire staff had vanished following the Taliban takeover in Kabul.

With an “if not me, then who?” spirit, Rahimi began furnishing the pavilion himself on Oct. 7. Rahimi, along with his two sons and a younger brother, worked through the nights and opened the pavilion six days later.

It is quite unusual for an individual to run an expo pavilion, which is more often the work of governments or corporate sponsors. The Dubai government gave him the green light because the pavilion is for Afghans.

Amid the pandemic, many small pavilions have a hard time attracting visitors, but the Afghanistan Pavilion is always full of them.

A 36-year-old British man, who once served in Afghanistan, said visiting the pavilion renewed his will to support the Afghans in some way.

Rahimi didn’t have anything to say politically about his country’s situation. But he said that he did not intend to take down the Afghan flag — which the Taliban are trying to eliminate — from the pavilion.

He also said he would set up a pavilion for the Osaka-Kansai Expo 2025 if the situation in his country didn’t change by that time.

Pandemic means fewer visitors

The pandemic has affected Expo 2020 Dubai’s attendance numbers.

From its opening to Dec. 20, 7 million people visited the expo in total. The omicron variant has pushed down the attendance figure, and the target of 25 million visitors by the end of March appears unlikely to be met. Visitors can enter such popular pavilions as those of the United States and Italy with short waiting times, an unusual situation in comparison with past world expos.

The United Arab Emirates hopes to boost its presence in the region by touting the success of the first world expo to be held in the Middle East. To achieve this goal, Dubai has shifted its strategy from attracting overseas visitors to luring people living within the country.

Admission is free for visitors 18 and under or 60 and over, and season passes for unlimited visits until the end of March are available. Many local companies have begun issuing free passes for up to eight days to their employees.

Although the country emphasizes that thorough measures are being taken against the coronavirus at the expo, 10 people working at the Japan Pavilion’s outlet of the Sushiro sushi chain had been confirmed to have been infected.