What’s so unusual about a Holocaust exhibition in Dubai?
Crossroads of Civilizations Museum founder Al Mansoori was surprised his Holocaust exhibit was the only one in the region outside of Israel
CROSSROADS OF CIVILIZATIONS MUSEUM
As a child, Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori was always passionate about history and antiquities, especially those showcasing the myriad of ancient civilizations that make up the Middle East. That might be why he appeared nonplussed when discussing the contents of his Crossroads of Civilizations Museum in Dubai, United Arab Emirates – the only museum in the Arab world with a permanent exhibition of Holocaust and Jewish history on display.
“When I opened the museum in 2014, I did not know that it was one of the only museums in the Arab or Islamic world that had Jewish content,” Al Mansoori told The Circuit in an interview last week. “There have been Jewish populations in different countries across the region for centuries and I thought surely other countries have something similar, but then I discovered mine was the first permanent gallery about the Holocaust in the region, outside of Israel.”
“I really didn’t know that I was doing something unusual or different,” he said of the exhibition, which was added in June 2021.
Al Mansoori was in Israel last week, his fourth trip to the country since the signing of the historic Abraham Accords in September 2020, to meet with friends he has made since Israel and the United Arab Emirates normalized diplomatic relations and to view some of the Jewish state’s ancient treasures.
Those diplomatic agreements, which also included Bahrain and later Morocco and Sudan, have served to bolsterAl Mansoori’s eclectic collections and inspire his own museum, which today draws many Israeli tourists curious to see how their history, culture and religion is depicted in the Gulf nation.
“The Jewish religion is part of the Middle East,” Al Mansoori said, outlining how a mix of the UAE’s traditional values, its unique location in the Gulf, as well as a leadership that encourages tolerance and coexistence, has allowed the country and its citizens to embrace all cultures and religions, in contrast to the tumultuous region that surrounds it.
“We have people coming here from countries and nationalities who hate each other,” he explained. “Our policy is, don’t bring your problems here; if you are here then you have to respect one another like friends and brothers.”
“We see the countries around us making lots of mistakes, we see the extremism and terrorism,” Al Mansoori continued. “[In the UAE] we don’t want this; we want financial stability and development.”
Located in the Sheikh Hasher Al Maktoum House, Al Mansoori’s museum has also been growing and developing rapidly in recent years. Started as a private family collection more than 30 years ago, the rare manuscripts, prints, books, maps and other items were originally held in glass cabinets in Al Mansoori’s own home until an event he held caught the eye of the director of the architectural heritage department in the Dubai municipality, who urged him to open the collection to the public.
Today, the collection is spread across three museums – the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum, the Rare Books Manuscripts & Prints Museum and The Armory Museum – and, according to Al Mansoori, each highlights the peaceful meeting of different civilizations that passed through the region and traded or exchanged gifts along the way.
“The museum was not created with professional creators, it is based on my passion,” Al Al Mansoori said. “I’m a collector and when you are a collector, you buy whatever is important for yourself; it has to be linked to your passion.”
Al Mansoori talks with passion about many of the items in his collection: A letter he obtained in 2014 penned by the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl in 1897; an ancient Torah scroll, originally from Czechoslovakia and rescued during Holocaust, that was donated last year to Al Mansoori’s collection by the Memorial Scrolls Trust, a London-based foundation.
But it is a copper-bound prayer book containing prayers in three Semitic languages – Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew – and a curtain from the Kaaba, the Great Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, that Al Mansoori says are closest to his heart.
“When you talk about prayers, you are going very deep, deeper than coexistence, you are talking about harmony,” observed Al Mansoori of the prayer book, which he said belonged to a rabbi that once said healing prayers for Muslims during the time of the Prophet Mohammad.
The curtain that once decorated the Ka’aba, said Al Mansoori, was created in 1543 by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire. Al Mansoori said that Israeli visitors to his museum pointed out that it was Suleiman that built the mosque that sits beside the Western Wall in Jerusalem and that he was the Muslim leader that welcomed Jews to his empire when they were expelled from Spain during Inquisition.
“I was very surprised when my Israeli friends told me that he [Sultan Suleiman] was the one who built the wall [around the Old City] in Jerusalem,” he noted. “The Israelis said they liked him because during the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, he welcomed them to the Ottoman Empire.”
“That is the beauty of my museum – my visitors teach me a lot,” Al Mansoori continued, pointing out that he also receives visitors from countries that have no diplomatic ties with Israel.
“The reaction of most people is very positive, and not just Emiratis,” he said, although there is hesitation from some about viewing the Holocaust exhibit.
“It is a real triumph for me when I see the children from different cultures coming here and knowing that they will leave viewing history differently,” said Al Mansoori. “They see things that are linked to them and that makes them feel happy and proud, but they also see the things that are different to them.”
“So many museums around the world focus on one group or one race and when you do that you are, by default, telling others that they are less,” he concluded. “In this place there is something for everyone and it is a place where everyone feels at home.”