The New York Times reported earlier this week that Qatar is buying up art by the millions of dollars, including spending a record-breaking $250 million on a painting by Cézanne of a pair of men playing cards. What interested me most about the story was not the mind-boggling price oil brushed on canvas can command, but the spirit behind the purchases.
Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani is chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority, which, apparently, is on a mission to make the small country one of the cultural hubs of the world. Though she declined to be interviewed for this story, the Times reported on an earlier conversation it had had with her three years ago. “The sheika suggested that establishing art institutions might challenge western preconceptions about Muslim societies,” said the paper. And then, in a direct quote, she said, “My father often says in order to have peace, we need first to respect each other’s cultures. And people in the West don’t understand the Middle East. They come with Bin Laden in their heads.”
I underlined her words. They are at the heart of everything: “In order to have peace, we need first to respect each other’s cultures.”
Ramadan—the holy month of fasting for Muslims—is a good time to start. We are now half way through it, but for many of the millions of Syrians whose lives have been turned upside down by two ferocious years of fighting in their country, this month of family togetherness and inner reflection is reminding them of all that they have lost. The conflict has affected almost a third of Syria’s population and left 100,000 people dead. Nearly two million people have fled, seeking safety in neighboring countries.
During the first days of Ramadan fasting, my Oxfam colleague, Karl Schembri, visited with refugees from Syria now camped in Lebanon and Jordan. Among them was Um Ashraf, a 25-year-old mother from Hama. She arrived in Jordan with her family three months ago after tanks surrounded their neighborhood and soldiers destroyed everything.
“We had a farm in Hama, but all our animals were killed, our water supply cut off and our wells were destroyed until we couldn’t stay any longer,” said Ashraf. As she told her story outside the tent that has become her family’s home, Ashraf prepared food for iftar, the evening meal families enjoy that breaks their day-long fasts during Ramadan.
This year, unable to afford meat, Ashraf was putting together a collection of cucumbers, peas, beans, and rice with tomatoes and potatoes. While the meal may be scant, Ashraf is grateful for something else: Her husband, who had stayed behind in Syria for as long as he could bear, returned to the family the day before Ramadan started.
“Now we are all safe. That’s what’s most important, even if our house has been destroyed,” said Ashraf. “It’s the best gift of this Ramadan—to be reunited.”
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