Rethinking Universality

Rethinking Universality

Reflections of a Louvre Abu Dhabi Student Ambassador

Rethinking Universality

Shamma Faisal Al Bastaki

November 2017

Imagine this. You walk into a gallery and see a Van Gogh landscape hanging on the wall. A few inches to its right hangs an eighteenth-century Japanese woodblock print. A film of confusion clouds your view as your head jerks towards the sign by the entrance, searching for clarity. “Is this the Impressionism gallery?” You think you’re asking the security guard, but you are really asking yourself. Your voice is too low for him to hear.

You turn back to the artwork. After a moment of contemplation, your furrowed brows straighten, and your forehead smoothes. You start to see how the delicate impressionistic swirls in the Van Gogh are curiously reciprocal of the fine, inky curves in the Japanese woodblock, and the same exact palette of vivid blues, jades, scarlets, and ochres could have been used to create both works. You notice the Japanoiserie essence swimming in Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, in the animation of the landscape, in the jagged edges of the tree-branches, in the subtle dancing of the leaves, in the simultaneously quiet movement of it all.

How could these two pieces exist independently in your mind after this? How – and why – does a nineteenth-century Dutch impressionist painting displayed next to a traditional Edo-era Japanese woodblock look, and seem, and feel so … right?

Now, I am no expert. I’ve conjured a hypothetical scene based on some details I know of art history. But this scenario is a flavor of what the Louvre Abu Dhabi is trying to achieve in “putting artworks in conversations with one another” – one of its core philosophies. I know Van Gogh was inspired by Japanese aesthetics, but many patrons may not.  What will happen, then, to the audience, to gallery spaces, to art historical narratives, and to the artworks themselves when these seemingly unrelated works from vastly different cultures, traditions, and time periods are displayed side by side?

The Louvre Abu Dhabi calls itself a “Universal Museum,” but other museums have described themselves in seemingly similar ways. The British Museum calls itself a “Museum of the World.” The Metropolitan Museum in New York City considers itself an “encyclopedic museum,” as does the original Louvre in Paris. What, then, will make Louvre Abu Dhabi different? What can it mean to be a museum that is “universal”? Some might argue that a universal museum is not too dissimilar from being an encyclopedic museum, or a “Museum of the World” for that matter, and they could be right. What I gradually began to discover, however, during my time as a student ambassador for the museum surprised me: what makes the Louvre Abu Dhabi unique is that it is not merely a universal museum, but rather a universal museum that rethinks universality, and does so in a most thoughtful and profound way.

Artist’s rendering from above.

Image © TDIC, Architect Ateliers Jean Nouvel.

I entered the realm of the Louvre Abu Dhabi not really knowing what to expect. There was a call for application to a “Louvre Abu Dhabi Student Ambassador Programme” and as an arts enthusiast, naturally, I was intrigued. The application process was rigorous and competitive, and I was ecstatic when I got in, but there was still a feathery sense of discomfort tickling my happiness. I felt somewhat skeptical, perhaps even hypocritical. I remember thinking to myself, “how could one of the oldest, most prestigious “western” museums in the world, with eight hundred years of rich history, be replicated in the Middle East in less than a decade? How would a museum like this work within the cultural landscape of the UAE? What was the point of importing a western museum with a western name, a western architect, and possibly even a western audience? Was having an “Emirati Louvre” an attempt at franchising culture? The Louvre fit in France; it did not fit in Abu Dhabi. This idea seemed inorganic. Artificial. Superficial. Ridiculous.

When I joined the Louvre Student Ambassador Programme, I was shrouded by these doubts, but my skepticisms were soon dispelled, and I was amazed with what I discovered during my time as a student ambassador.

Without roof, showing gallery spaces.

Photo © TDIC, Architect Ateliers Jean Nouvel.

On our very first programme orientation, one of the members made the mistake of referring to herself as a “Louvre Ambassador,” and our supervisor immediately corrected her: “Louvre Abu Dhabi. You are a Louvre Abu Dhabi ambassador, not a Louvre ambassador. We are not the Louvre.” And this correction lingered with all twenty-four of us from then onwards.

Our supervisor was right. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is, as I discovered after series of programme lectures, workshops, meetings, and conversations, most definitely not the Louvre. It may have the same name, draw from the latter’s expertise, and borrow a significant amount of artwork for its collection, but the mission of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi sits on a whole other spectrum.

One of the goals of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is to put histories, narratives, and civilizations in conversation, but more importantly, the museum seeks to put people in conversation. This museum does not want to lecture and educate as much as it desires to stimulate curiosity and re-questioning in its audience. Jean-Francois Charnier, the museum’s Scientific Director, once gave the ambassadors a talk on the museum’s curatorial philosophy and said something that really stuck with me: “Don’t give them the answer, give them the desire to know,” he said. “Make people actors in inventing the answer.”

What makes the Louvre Abu Dhabi unique is that it is not merely a universal museum, but rather a universal museum that rethinks universality, and does so in a most thoughtful and profound way.

According to Charnier, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s artworks will not be organized based on the conventional “departmentalization” of traditional museums; instead, beginning from pre-history and spanning millennia, the artwork on display will originate from civilizations across the globe, and these works will be displayed thematically rather than follow traditional categorization approaches, such as by geography or chronology. Approximately half of the artwork displayed will be from Louvre Abu Dhabi’s own growing collection, and the other half will be loans from thirteen major French cultural institutions. “The objects will explore universal themes with common influences highlighted,” explained Charnier, “to illustrate similarities, and exchanges arising from shared human experience transcending geography, nationality and history.” For example, a gallery titled “The Prince’s Court”  will explore the parallels of courtly culture and iconography around the world, with royal Chinese, Western, and Mughal portraits hung side by side, allowing the visitor to examine the way different cultures perceive the image of power. Other planned galleries include “Universal Religions,” “Eastern Roads of Exchanges,” and “Questioning Modernity.”

What I began to understand is that the originality of Louvre Abu Dhabi resides in the unique narratives it proposes in presenting these supposedly divergent civilizations in the same spaces, galleries, and cabinets, prompting the audience to ask whether these civilizations are really so different after all.

It would be naïve to assume that this kind of thematic organization is totally original, that it has not been attempted before. There are galleries and exhibitions that have, in the recent past, adopted a similar thematic presentation style. In 2015, for example, I visited the Brooklyn Museum, one of New York’s more daring museums, to see an exhibition of African Art called Double Take: African Innovations. Billed as an “experimental installation,” the show carefully grouped artworks into several “universal themes” – “Art of Power,” “Art of Innovation,” “Art of Satire,” “Art that Moves” and so on – that suggested unexpected links between two or more seemingly dissimilar objects. In a manner that anticipates the organizational scheme of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Brooklyn Museum exhibition dismissed the usual forms of classification based on chronology, region, or medium, choosing instead to link the works through the selected themes.

No matter how vast and diverse the African continent may be, the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition was nevertheless limited to one region; the Louvre Abu Dhabi is much more ambitious in its inclusivity. More importantly, the Brooklyn exhibition was precisely that: an exhibition. A part of a whole. Temporary. Transient. No museum has ever done what Louvre Abu Dhabi is doing: building a whole museum on the philosophy articulated by Charnier, namely defying expectations and giving the audience a “desire to know” as a way of rethinking the narrative of universality, an entire museum that transcends geographic, chronological, and historical boundaries. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is taking a revolutionary leap in the world of museology.

Because we live in a multipolar and multicultural world where references abound and where collective history is constantly being re-written, encyclopedic-style information is no longer possible.

“Universal” is a troublesome word, however. It may invoke colonial or imperialistic connotations. Critics might argue that “universalism” enforces a kind of flattening effect whereby diversity is neglected in the effort to find transcendent global patterns that prove our sameness. We also need to ask: who gets to decide? Who gets to set these narratives, and based on what assumptions? Isn’t the very suggestion of a narrative limiting, in some way? What if a work of art belongs to more than one “universal” category?

I have been wrestling with these thoughts for quite some time, and so I decided to ask Jean-Francois via email. In his written response, he emphasized that the Louvre Abu Dhabi proposes a new “vision” of the world. “Louvre Abu Dhabi is from its inception designed to be a universal museum in the Middle East. But “universal” here does not mean “unilateral,” Charnier explained, arguing that “the Louvre Abu Dhabi transfers the notion of universal, which originated in Europe’s Age of Enlightenment, to propose a new vision based on the idea of a deep human unity and a world enriched by the pluralistic nature of its history. Because we live in a multipolar and multicultural world where references abound and where collective history is constantly being re-written, encyclopedic-style information is no longer possible. That is why Louvre Abu Dhabi will go beyond habitual institutional boundaries, to contemplate the concomitance and correspondence of artistic expressions from different civilizations, and shed light on the commonalities of human history.” Moreover, Charnier mentioned that these categories are not static, but constantly evolving, along with the rotation of loans and acquisitions in the collection. It might be fair to speculate, based on Charnier’s explanation, that the Louvre Abu Dhabi perhaps presents a version of history and the evolution of cultures that is closest to the “truth.”

Artist’s rendering of interior view.

Image © TDIC, Architect Ateliers Jean Nouvel.jpg

I was also interested in the question of why now? And why in Abu Dhabi? What is it about our unique historical moment that makes the opening of a museum like the Louvre Abu Dhabi not only significant, but necessary? According to Jean-Francois, Abu Dhabi is a multicultural city between Asia and the “Western world”, whose cosmopolitan dynamism is at the heart of the contemporary world. To him, the significance of a project like Louvre Abu Dhabi, on this size and scale, is the fact that it will play an important role as a catalyst for cultural interaction and offer visitors the opportunity to gain a new perspective on the histories of humankind. “It will be a place of education and reflection for all, connecting Abu Dhabi to the world and the world to Abu Dhabi. It will be a bridge to the future, offering generations to come the opportunity to become true global citizens, developing and learning regardless of cultural background,” he wrote.

I would also add to Jean-Francois’ statement the idea that, in the past decade and especially within the last few years, we have seen the rapid global spread of racism and xenophobia. Forces of migration, diaspora, and the concomitant fear of difference are driving nations, peoples and individuals further apart. Questions of belonging, identity, and openness are being challenged and reexamined. The Louvre Abu Dhabi functions on the opposite philosophy. The museum is operational on the very basis of difference, on allowing the audience to entertain those differences and find the threads that weave seemingly distant cultural chronicles together on the loom of human existence. It provides an alternative to violence, a remedy for hostility on the basis of disagreement, and may even suggest that it is our art that can save us from our prejudices. And perhaps, under the 7,850 star-shaped pieces of aluminum and steel of various sizes and angles that compose its very complex dome, the Louvre Abu Dhabi will provide a narrative that highlights that our differences are what unite us.

Shamma Faisal al Bastaki is a senior at NYU Abu Dhabi. The Louvre Abu Dhabi opens to the public on November 11, 2017. 

All images copyright TDIC and Architect Ateliers Jean Nouvel. Used by permission.




There’s a Metaphor in There Somewhere

There’s a Metaphor in There Somewhere

There’s a Metaphor
in There Somewhere

MAY 2016

Dear Friend,

It should come as no surprise that I really, really, really like books. As soon as you saw this letter from me, you probably thought “I bet this is going to be about books”. Good guess.

We returned to the Platonic idea of each man having a specific nature in my Ethics class today, and I think my specific nature is more of the bleached-paper-and-PVA-glue type. I like books. I’ve bought too many books since coming to London, an undisclosed amount which should keep me up at night thinking of all the sterling pounds I’ve spent, but really doesn’t. Because I have the miracle/curse of having one class a day, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the city on my own. What I’ve discovered thus far is that the specific nature of London , or at least of my London, resides in its bookshops. I’ve probably been to every bookshop within a 30-minute walk from my flat in Russell Square. I’ve been to Skoobs—two minutes away and therefore a very tempting distraction when I can’t be bothered to write an essay—many times. The last time I was there I walked out with three books: one on Miles Davis, one on Jay-Z, and one about music in the twentieth century. All for 15 pounds (78.80 AED). Isn’t that insane?

Photograph by Gaby Flores

I can find my way to these bookstores well enough that if I were to be reincarnated into a pigeon I’d probably find myself flying to these same places every day. The funny thing is, though, that stepping inside them is different. See, the thing is that these bookstores are huge—or yuuuuuuuuuuuuge, as the next Republican nominee for President of the United States likes to say. Two floors seems to be the minimum, even in secondhand shops, with some shops having shelves that literally touch the ceiling. How the hell am I supposed to reach up there? These bookshops seem bereft of ladders, which makes me think that the sellers are saving all the best books for themselves at the top. I mean, there’s also the fact that the average height of a British citizen is a good 10 cm taller than my current height, which isn’t too bad but maybe 10 cm makes all the difference. You know how hopeless I am at estimating things, so it’s not like I would know. Part of the reason why I keep coming back to certain bookstores is to think of new ways to reach these hidden books. I’m not even sure if I want them, but just the simple fact of them being out of my reach makes me want them more. I mean, I could be missing out on the book that defines my life. My whole life! I suppose I could ask for help from these aforementioned 10 cm taller individuals, but I’d rather be left to my own bearings. My pilgrimages are very personal events, you know.

These bookshops, these quiet areas where I constantly lose myself, become markers through which I can find myself in a busy throng of people.

But in all honesty, I get lost every time I go in. Doesn’t matter where it is—Skoobs in the Brunswick, Foyles on Tottenham Court Road,Waterstones on Picadilly/Tottenham Road/Gower Street, London Review Bookshopon Bury Place, Libreria Bookshop in Brick Lane—I know how to get there, but I get lost the second I step inside. I don’t even know what I do, or how I decide what books to pick up … does anyone? I don’t know. I kind of just walk around, maybe sit down and have some coffee (a lot of these bookshops have cafes in them, which reeks of capitalism but I’m too deep in it to care). Sometimes I get a flat white, but sometimes I get a latte because it’s often 10 pence cheaper, which doesn’t seem like a lot but really does once you’re a budgeting college student like I am. Sure, I could take the tube to Chinatown instead of walking for 20 minutes, or I could use the 2 pounds and 40 pence to buy a Pelican book on the origins of plastic. I mean, it’s not even a contest.

My London bookshops have become part of my routine and I go to a different one each day. So that means that each day, you can find me pacing up and down the aisles, picking stuff up and putting them down again, and being a quiet nuisance who doesn’t even spend any money but will sometimes cave in and buy 5 new books in one go. Throw me into the city again, however, and that’s different. I don’t even need Google Maps at this point, I’m so well-acquainted with the area (area being an ambiguous term, by which I mean whichever Bookshop Area I am currently in) that I’ll even take the side streets home just for kicks. Isn’t it funny? These bookshops, these quiet areas where I constantly lose myself, become markers through which I can find myself in a busy throng of people. I guess that’s kind of ironic, considering that as I was leaving class I overheard these two girls finding directions for this, like, really good Korean place? that costs around 6 pounds? and is, like, really popular? and also super near?

FYI, the Korean joint she’s talking about is two minutes away from campus. Honey, you’ve been here for a little over a month. Get it together. I’ve eaten there at least four times in the past two weeks. It’s also a straight walk to the London Review Bookshop and the adjacent London Review Cake Shop, also known as the place where all time recedes into a vacuum.

But see, that’s what I’m talking about. I saw a play yesterday near Trafalgar Square and decided to walk back home instead of taking the tube, because it’s only a twenty-minute walk from Trafalgar to Russell Square. But in a bookshop, in my London bookshops, I get lost all the time. Not to say that getting lost is a bad thing, of course. When you walk around in a new city, getting lost is half the fun of it. Getting lost in a bookshop, however, is marginally better, in part because books can’t physically speak and are therefore quieter than the hordes of tourists in Piccadilly. Also, books don’t push you around when you’re trying to cross the street at a busy intersection.

I just came back from one, actually. I saw Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s The Time Regulation Instituteagain, this time on the tippitytoppiest shelf, making out with the ceiling, out of my reach. Most importantly, out of my credit card’s reach. Just as well, I suppose, because I’m still making my way through the other book I bought a couple of days ago. I tell myself I’ll be back eventually…maybe tomorrow. Okay, definitely tomorrow. And, as I stood there staring at The Time Regulation Institute—should’ve I took those growth pills as a kid — I thought of all my London experiences, which made me think of you, which made me write this letter. I hope you’re well.

Surprisingly enough (or not), I’ve still got a list of books I want to buy. Tanpinar’s is one, along with Han Kang’s Human Acts and Dickens’ Bleak House. I will only allow myself to buy one, though, so I’m giving myself a month to decide. I know I could go to a secondhand bookshop and save myself some cash while I’m at it, but I only go to the secondhand bookshops if I don’t have anything in mind in the first place, because most their charm comes from the search (case in point: Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera for 3 pounds, aka 10 AED – are you f***ing kidding me?). See, I already have a system devised for myself. It’s that bad. Furthermore, it seems counterintuitive to keep going back to bookshops while simultaneously banning yourself from buying anything, as if Alcoholics Anonymous were to have their weekly meetings in a wine cellar. I know that I could avoid going into a bookshop. I know how to avoid them, and I guess there are other things in this city worth exploring, but I can only go to the British Museum so many times before the stench of colonialism and oppression sears my scarf; at least in a bookshop, I can just forego any Kipling novel. Keep in mind that this city is expensive. Really, really, really expensive. You can go into a bookstore for free—and leave for free too, if you can manage to avoid buying anything. I can only visit a bookshop so many times though, before I end up convincing myself that yes I do need the biography on Basquiat, especially since I’ve glanced over it in the last five bookstores I’ve been to.

London has a reputation for being a literary city, but it isn’t really that evident when you first get there. I mean, I guess you can’t really expect people to be wearing “I LUV JANE AU$TEN” sweatshirts or whatever, but I like to imagine that Londoners know they’re walking around in a literary powerhouse. I suppose in reality, though, most people don’t care that much. That’s why I was delighted to overhear a conversation between two booksellers about who should have won the Man Booker prize last year. I’m still making my way through A Brief History of Seven Killingsmyself, so I refrained from jumping into the conversation. However, as I’ve just finished it, I think it’s high time that I go pay them a visit and give them a piece of my mind (that being that Marlon James did, in fact, deserve to win the prize). Then again, I haven’t read most of the other novels that were shortlisted, so I can’t make a sound judgment as of yet. Maybe they’ll have a copy or two of Francis Plug laying around.

I’m hopeless.

Interview with Charles Siebert (I)
Interview with Charles Siebert (II)


Shakespeare at the Olympics

Snapshots from Berlin I

Snapshots from Berlin I

Photo by Shenuka Corea


Four inches of snow covered everything, like a layer of sugar dusting. It was wonderful, light and frothy, not wet, unpleasant and uncomfortable, like everyone said it’d be. At least it wasn’t yet. The street was still, and impossibly silent with just a hint of movement at the peripheries of my vision: a car door closing, a cyclist in the distance, a dog barking; the only consistent movement was the still gently falling snow. Certainly not a hint of the masses the city has been a home to for centuries. It was hard to imagine that the busy metro was just a short walk away.

This part of Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg, didn’t feel like a city. Here, you can stand on the center of the street without having to worry about traffic, though the traffic lights, irritatingly, work exactly as they did in other parts of the city. The buildings seemed old and alike, painted with the same color palette, running from ochre to cream and branching out into other pastels, the same sort of wrought iron balconies, long, regular rows of windows, and ornate doors.

In another part of Prenzlauer Berg, life passed by in droves; the streets sometimes busy and sometimes almost empty. Scooters, bikes, sleds and other modest forms of transport prevailed. Groups of children passed by, wrapped up like burritos in brightly colored parkas. One straggled behind the rest of her large family, diligently transporting an armload of snow that was beginning to crumble, leaving a trail of broken off chunks behind her. Adults strolled by with quicker steps and soberer wardrobes. Dogs were abundant, all pure-bred, well groomed, and on long leashes, creating the occasional stain on the otherwise pristine snow. Breath was visible, eddying in the air.

Shenuka I Photo 2

Berlin is a city of eccentrics and artists. Prenzlauer Berg had its share of both. Indeed, I later found out it was known as one of the city’s Bohemian Quarters. There was, for instance, a balcony encrusted with eerie garden gnomes and other kitsch porcelain figures, all ensconced in a bed of ivy. There was also a bare tree, labeled ‘Love Grows Here’ in English, adorned with wind chimes, many of those strips of colored plastic that spiral in the wind, and strings of seashells, a dreamlike sight when surrounded by snow. The graffiti, of course, was everywhere, neon and pastel, splattered across ornate antique doorways, the seal of the present marked on evocations of the past.

Birds clustered around a bush, piercing the silence with their high-pitched babble. As I came closer to investigate I realized that the bush was hung with bird feeders on a bird table. Sensing my approach they rose in a flurry of wings to the higher window sills of a building. I felt somewhat guilty for disturbing their meal.

Shenuka I Photo 3Berlin the metropolis, was evident in Prenzlauer Berg, in its many cafes and restaurants catering to many different international tastes; from the ever-popular hummus and shawarma of the Middle East to Mexican, Vietnamese and, of course, German cuisine. The interiors of the small restaurants, where people could unwrap a few layers of insulation, were cozy and warm. The smell of and consumption of food enhances this feeling, making going back outside a harsh surprise, as it seems colder than it did before. The idea of a long sip of a mug of steaming coffee, held between cold fingers, seems enticing. Watched through a café window, the snow could be enjoyed without its unwelcome chill.

I was sad to leave, though the darkness was beginning to fall, prematurely from my perspective, and my cold fingertips and tired feet screamed at me that it was time to go. As I was being shaken around by the movement of the train I wondered when and if I would see snow that beautiful again and how long it would be before the day’s snowfall became filthy and unpleasant, as it inevitably would.

(Photos by Shenuka Corea)

January Term Sketches from New York

January Term Sketches from New York


January Term Sketches from
New York

April 2016


One day, I would like to call myself an artist. Here are some of my sketches from my January term, which I spent in New York this year.

It was a great experience, because New York has that strange, neo-romantic spirit of a post-modern megalopolis, which gets mixed with the still-alive spirit of twentieth-century USA, echoing jazz, hipsters, beatniks, hippies and a gazillion of other great and poetic (in its inner nature) things. This place represents the idea of diversity, though New York’s cosmopolitanism is different from the diversity I was exposed to back home (Russia).

I enjoyed every second I spent in this busy, technologically upgraded, story-filled city. This January marked my first time visiting the United States. I had some expectations of New York before going there, formed by pieces of popular media. Among them were: Carrie Bradshaw’s Manhattan, Friends’ New York, MoMA, Metropolitan, and Broadway. I tried to sketch everywhere, even while walking on the streets. Because I did not have a camera and this was my way to create nice memories.

We got kicked out of Grey Dog Coffee at rush hour; we hung out in Vapiano, with its fabulous interior and surprisingly affordable prices; we visited Rockefeller Center; I sketched magical creatures inspired by rats in the subway; beautiful strangers, my classmates, places of interest, reflections, dialogues, yellow cabs, dogs, the gorgeous Strand Bookstore (where we spent a fortune) – everything is  on the pages of my New York’s sketchbook.

Here is my first set of New York sketches. It features Rockefeller Center, where we saw the huge Christmas Tree and listened to the soundtrack from Home Alone, as well as some people I sketched in the subway and three versions of my roommate Helina.

All graphics by Anastasiia Zubareva.

Here are my classmates, a cartoon we watched while waiting to go to a museum, and my humbling-real-student-saving-money-for-Broadway-and-museums lunch (plain yoghurt and 150g veggies) grabbed from the grocery shop near by, recommended by our professor, Eliot Borenstein.

More subway sketches and the colorful portrait of smiling Ankita. That day we visited MoMA and I was melting from happiness, inspired and excited.

Midnight “breakfast” at IHOP with Ifadha and Ankita. I had my “Never Empty Coffee Pot.”

18 miles of books – Strand Books. The best place to go after Broadway and the museums. The $1 books were awesome! I struggled a lot at the end of J-term, though, because I had at least 7 kg of them.

I am in love with with this place. Want to live there… The Metropolitan Museum of Art! Modigliani’sWoman’s Head and one of the halls of the museum with the garden of sculptures.

Grand Central Terminal’s hall: Ifadha and I witnessed the sweetest moment of proposal there.

Here we are killing time before a performance of “Wicked” on Broadway that evening.

Grey Dog Coffee was a super cool and cosy, but since it was a rush hour they “politely” kicked us out. As the comment describes the waitress: “She was sad [to kick us out] but also impatient.”

Vapiano is an Italian restaurant with awesome food and interior design. Surprisingly, it was reasonably priced even for college students. New York dogs are super cute, as are cats. Their owners were pretty friendly. The weird creature in the right lower corner was inspired by huge and funny New York rats (especially those in the subway). And, yes, hold your bag tight unless you want to donate it to the stranger.

Anastasiia Zubareva is a member of the NYUAD Class of 2019.

Restaurant Review: IKEA Canteen, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi

Restaurant Review: IKEA Canteen, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi

A while ago, I wrote an article on Art and Home. Consider this piece a follow-up.

Few cities I have visited can pride themselves in having as cosmopolitan a cuisine as Abu Dhabi does. The city’s 1500+ cafés, restaurants, bars, and canteens serve a greater variety of food than I could ever hope to sample. But for all its sumptuous food outlets, Abu Dhabi can feel like a food desert for Scandinavians who yearn for a taste of home. That said, one oasis on Yas Island cooks up the food we so crave: more or less authentic Swedish meatballs.


Swedish meatballs may not look appetizing, but I cherished every bite, including the thirteenth ball the server gave me by mistake. (Photo: Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen)

Save for McDonald’s perfectly geometric hamburger patties, no meat comes in as uniform a serving as IKEA’s 100% horse-meat-free balls doused in a supposedly Scandinavian gravy and served with a generous ladle of mashed potatoes and lingonberry jam. It should scare me that the meatballs I ate in Abu Dhabi this Wednesday tasted and looked exactly like the ones I would buy whenever my family made our biannual pilgrimage to the IKEA outlet near Odense, Denmark. Assuming a truck driver drove directly from the factory in Källby which produces every meatball IKEA sells and took no detours, he would have to drive over 7,000 kilometers to reach the canteen on Yas Island. One would think the time it takes for the meatballs to arrive in Abu Dhabi would make them unpalatable and stale. With that fear in mind, I suppressed my cravings for Scandinavian food for four protracted months. When I caved last December, I realized that far from rendering the meat inedible, the voyage from Sweden to the U.A.E. does the balls well, tenderizing them like a steak under a cowboy’s saddle. Of course, four months of deprivation may have lowered my standards for what I accept as authentic Scandinavian food, or perhaps the Indian server gave me a particularly good dozen on that first visit. Whatever the reason I fell enamored with the canteen on Yas Island; I have made monthly trips to the blue and yellow colossus next to Yas Mall since December.

When I sneaked around the corner that lets shoppers dodge the upstairs labyrinth and headed to the canteen this Wednesday, I had gone almost fifty days without an IKEA fix. Needless to say, my cravings showed. I usually order one dozen of meatballs and a cup of coffee; that Wednesday, I ate a serving of roasted turkey on top of my usual order, and I finished the meal with two cups of coffee and a cinnamon roll, a veritable food orgy for 51 dirhams.


IKEA also serves food that does not come in perfect spheres. Here, roasted turkey with bread dumplings, carrots, Brussel sprouts, and lingonberry jam. (Photo: Nikolaj Ramsdal Nielsen)

I cannot review the meatballs in a way that does justice to readers who do not know what it feels like to crave food not for the taste of it, but for the memories it contains. I can only say that if IKEA stopped serving heaven by the dozen, I would have no qualms turning vegetarian overnight. Though the taste always struck me as somewhere in the uncomfortable realm between mealy and meaty, I cling to IKEA’s meatballs, because Danes in Abu Dhabi do not have any other food to hang on to. (No, Danish pastries are not Danish; the French call them Viennoiserie (literally “things from Vienna”) for a reason.) For want of something better to cherish, or something actually from Denmark, I cling to the Swedish meatballs whenever I want to reconnect with the country I left behind. Although Danes mostly eat their meatballs in a clear soup dish that most people despise, IKEA meatballs come closer to an accurate representation of Danish cuisine, whether we like it or not.

If some medium told me four years ago that I would revere Swedish meatballs the way I do today, I would likely have laughed and brushed it off. Impossible. Faced with the choice between a spoonful of cod liver oil or a dozen meatballs, my younger self would have swallowed the liver oil to get through the torment as fast as he could. The 2013 horse meat scandal did not help open my mind to the wonders that IKEA serves in its canteens, either. I remember counting myself lucky, in retrospect, that I chose driving home hungry over eating at the canteen when my family and I visited the Odense outlet a year before the news broke.

What changed my mind? I wish I could attribute my conversion to something other than sheer deprivation, but I cannot. The pride which convinced me that I could go for a full semester before tasting Scandinavian food again proved misplaced. When I got over the shame of succumbing to eating the meatballs I once loathed, I grasped what I had gained by coming back to IKEA: a way to vicariously connect with my home. IKEA represents a synecdoche of Scandinavia and everything it stands for. The free flow of coffee for IKEA Family Card holders confirms that no other region in the world drinks as much coffee as the place I come from; the absence of waitstaff hints at the “minimalist” customer service Scandinavian restaurants offer; the wooden benches stir memories of the picnic-centered culture I know.

IKEA’s canteen will never win a Michelin star, or even a half-decent review on Zomato. For all but the most deprived Scandinavian expatriates, it remains an option to avoid. But for the few who learn how to cherish mediocre food that harkens back to “home” and much better meals, IKEA and its meatballs hold the countries we left behind within them.


The Rhythm of Home

The Rhythm of Home


Homesickness changes with time. It turns from the sharp attacks that hit you unexpectedly at the beginning of your first journey away from home to small bittersweet moments that fill your heart with a combination of longing and satisfaction: you embrace your memories and the part of home that stays inside you, even as you enjoy your current situation.

I used to associate homesickness with missing the people back home, but about ten days ago, in a dimly lit café, while I listened to the rhythmic sounds of Arabic poetry, I realized what home actually meant to me. It took the rhythms of Rooftop Rhythms Arabia at Brand Moxie to remind me that home can be a feeling, as well as a place.

On that very humid Wednesday evening, I went along with a bunch of students from NYUAD to Brand Moxie in Rotana Complex. The Arab Cultural Club promoted the event; the group consisted mostly of Arab students and students studying Arabic, but some came merely because they enjoyed hearing poetry regardless of whether they understood the words or not. I think that that is what makes poetry art: the ability to enjoy it without fully understanding it. The beauty in that is that you can still get the purpose behind the piece of poetry from the dancing voices of the poets performing.

The place was very artistic, with abstract paintings and colorful pictures spread randomly on the walls, reminding me of the cafes my friends and I would go to back home. We used to sink into sofas and talk for hours. Arabic calligraphy decorated the walls of the poetry space, bringing back images of my school’s hallways, which were filled with the students’ admirable attempts at calligraphy. At the back, the space looked like an art studio, but it also had bookshelves that would bring any bookworm to tears. The cozy atmosphere triggered memories of cold winter nights when I would sit in the living room of my house, sipping hot drinks and watching the wind occupy the night. I couldn’t understand how these waves of memories came to me when it’s 38 degrees outside, but it did. Listening to the poetry, however, was a whole other chapter of nostalgia.


I sat in the front row, and watched the people in the audience, which was quite diverse. Most of the audience consisted of Arabs from different nationalities and different age groups. They all seemed tired after a long working day and seemed a bit annoyed with the fact that we, the proud NYUAD students, took over all the comfortable couches. People from other nationalities streamed in as well. My favorite person that night was the organizer of the event, Paul Dorian, who despite not understanding one word of Arabic, roamed the room with contagious enthusiasm.

The evening started off with a piece by Farah Shamma, a young Palestinian poet with a talent and a spark that far exceeds her age. She is the one who popularized the art of spoken word to Arabic poetry. Her poem was about language and its connection to home. She talked about the challenges the Arabic language is facing with the Arab world turning to the usage of English in education and business. Her words were quite personal, and she recited the poem in both English and Arabic. One of the most exciting parts of the poem was when she recited the Arabic alphabet, her voice reaching a higher pitch with each letter, and suddenly switched to the English alphabet at the end. The audience laughed for a split second, and then fell into deep silence after realizing the deeper meaning.

The switch between languages was dramatic, emphasizing the confusion between words and themes that occurs in the transition. She talked about the warmth she feels when she uses her native language. Listening to her took me back to the long discussions we used to have in my school about language and its role in defining our identities. In one of the hallways at school, an Arabic teacher had hung a poster displaying the famous quote “I am my language”, written by the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish.

Other performers followed, each pouring the contents of their hearts to the sympathizing faces of strangers. Some talked about loneliness, others about God, and others described their homesickness. The most touching performance was by a Syrian engineering student, who dreamed of becoming a theatre major but the idea of a ‘safe career’ discouraged him from pursuing that dream. He recited a short poem about a woman he loves passionately. He reminded me of what I miss about writing in Arabic: the strength you could find in the words. There are around 38 words to say love, for instance, ranging from platonic love to obsession (not good, but it’s still love). His words were powerful and tender, and with a talented musician playing the oud in the background, his performance was touching beyond the barriers of language. It was art. He ended it with a thud, saying how the two lovers, referring to himself and his loved one, were separated by religion.

The mere idea of a poetry night itself reminded me of the poetry competitions we held at school, the literature evenings, and the book discussions we were forced to attend but learned to love at the end. I felt it then, the pinching feeling of wanting to return home for just a few hours, and embrace that feeling of unity and love that art used to create in those days. I realized that my school used to be a home to me in more ways than one. I was practically raised there. Because my mom is such a dedicated teacher, she rolled me up in a blanket when I was only 40 days old and took me with her to school. She would leave me in the nursery while she ran from a classroom to another, taking breaks every so often to tend to me.


The school instantly became home to me. It had all of the components of home: my mother and sisters, to begin with, and most importantly the artistic and open view of the world. We were immersed in all kinds of art, and my personal interest drove me towards language. I saw how beautiful words could be, whether it’s in reading literature, reciting poetry, or turning the offspring of my imagination into words. The love I had and still have for language made me feel safe. As cheesy as this may sound, I used to bury myself in language, usually by writing, whenever I needed an escape. My school nurtured language, my safe haven, and became a home to me. I studied there for 18 years, and now I realize that after I graduated, the school had a permanent place in my heart. Poetry was a big part of what I call home, which I didn’t realize until I visited the home of Rooftop Rhythms.

[Photo Credits: Neil Bie for Rooftop Rhythms, Jean Hellon Productions, and Black on Black Rhyme-Abu Dhabi.]

[Video Credit: Daniah Kheetan.]