Most of the references to the exhibition occur in contemporaneous weekly reports of “subversive activity” in the region. British officials were clearly nervous about arriving “illegal immigrants.” The great majority of these people were from Pakistan and India, but the reports focus more on those from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Palestine. In the 1950s, British officials fretted over Egyptian and Palestinian schoolteachers who discussed Palestine and Pan-Arabism with students. In 1969, the specter of Nasser had become more diffuse, in the reporting of the “boatloads of Northern Arabs” who were arriving as managers and business leaders. Their earnings off Dubai bonanzas were deemed unseemly by local British officials who were mandated to promote British business interests.
A 1965 survey placed the Palestinian and Lebanese population of Dubai at around 500, in a city of about 60,000 people. The Palestinian population was small, but it was large enough to agitate British officials and spark financial support for the Palestinian cause. In the same year as the exhibition opening, events at the Dubai-based Jordanian Association and the home of a Syrian employee of a Dubai travel agency raised money for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Also, the Omani Women’s Society raised funds through an auction, with PFLP members, including Leila Khaled, attending.
In April 1969, “the Al Fateh dramatic group,” seemingly affiliated with Fatah, arrived in Dubai. Housing more than half of the Trucial States’ population, Dubai would have been the logical venue for the troupe’s three days of performances. Ticket sales were handled by some of Dubai’s oldest merchant families, but the performances were scheduled at Sharjah, possibly Haroun, Cinema. The venue was eventually moved further out to Ras Al Khaimah.4 The actors, lodged in a nearby boys’ school, raised nearly $75,000. In December, another troupe arrived in Ras Al Khaimah to perform “the history of Palestine since the 1930s, the formation of the Commandos and some particularly harrowing ‘Zionist’ murders which drew a strong emotional reaction from the audience.” Those actors also raised a significant sum.
In her book about national commemorations by Palestinians, scholar Laleh Khalili inspects the “performative aspect of commemoration.” When trying to imagine what the exhibition and the staged performances must have been like, I’m reminded of the literal performances covered in her book, specifically those that have taken place in schools and refugee camps, where history was recorded and shared through dramatic reenactment. Khalili conducts a close study of a 2002 exhibition in Beirut, which focused on photographs and belongings of Palestinians killed during the second Intifada. Further, she contemplates the use of photography and murals, which bear witness to calamities and to the people who suffered them. What media, signals, and symbols of the Palestinian cause were already being employed in the Dubai exhibition in 1969?
One might wonder about how the PLO was finding a visual vocabulary at the moment one went on display in Dubai. How were display, curation, and art being marshalled to communicate experience and loss?5 It’s striking to think that the Palestinian exhibition opened when residents in Dubai regularly commemorated the completion, and commencement, of building projects. These works were also an exhibition, one that was meant to coalesce into a global, though ostensibly apolitical, identity for the city.
The Palestine exhibition did not likely last long in Dubai. Permanence is no more than a promise. While it did not last, and while theater troupes could not perform in Dubai, it is difficult to disassociate the money raised around these efforts from the wealth earned by people building Dubai. Rulers of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah became better known for their support of Palestine. Still, for a brief moment, two Arab identities, often perceived as detached, co-existed on the dusty road toward Sharjah.
1. Words were written by the political agent in Abu Dhabi but were also meant to describe the rest of the Trucial States. The National Archives (NA): FCO 8/1509.
2. NA, FCO 8 / 1509.
3. Khalidi, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, 164, 141, 168.
4. When the Sharjah venue was cancelled, the emirate’s ruler offered to donate twice the amount as they would have raised. Still, British reports claim, group members managed to fundraise throughout Sharjah. According to the same British records, local municipal workers in Ras Al Khaimah paid one percent of their salary to an “Al Fateh fund,” which was also supplemented by a land sales tax. TNA: FCO 8/1255.
5. Farah Fayyad reminded me of the documentary project by Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti about the “International Art Exhibition for Palestine,” which took place in Beirut in 1978 among a constellation of other “museums in exile.”