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'We are grateful that many Middle Eastern treasures are in international universal museums'

Zaki Nusseibeh of the UAE endorses the role of institutions such as the British Museum during discussion with French cultural leader Jack Lang

In March, during Art Dubai, two old friends, both leading figures in Arab cultural life, met at the fair and talked about ways in which the Arab and European worlds could relate better. Zaki Nusseibeh, born Palestinian but now a citizen of the UAE and a revered intellectual in his adopted country, was for over 30 years interpreter and advisor to Sheikh Zayed Al Nahyan, the founder and first president of the Gulf country. Jack Lang was a famously radical and media-friendly minister of culture through most of the 1980s under President Mitterrand, and has been revitalising the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris since 2013. In January this year, just after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, IMA held a very timely and healing conference “Renewals in the Arab World”.

Lang was one of the first to support the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, which will be the first universal museum outside the western world when it opens next year. The desire to create this certainly stemmed from Zaki Nusseibeh, who believes that it will educate people in the validity of other cultures and as such, be a bulwark against the kind of narrow-minded fundamentalism that has given birth to Islamic State. In fact, at the end of the discussion, Nusseibeh gave his endorsement to the institutions such as the British Museum, with its antiquities from all over the world: a member of the audience asked what was being done to protect the cultural heritage in the war zones of the Middle East, and he said, “We are grateful that many of these treasures are in international universal museums”. A.S.C.

Zaki Nusseibeh: Tell me about your life in the arts.

Jack Lang: It has been a question of conviction. Ever since I was a child, my love of art was total. I always rejected censorship; in Nancy we created an avant-garde theatre and never let it be censored. In 1985, Martin Scorsese could not show his film “The last temptation of Christ” in France. I welcomed it, but it encountered great hostility; there was even a bomb in a small cinema of the Quartier Latin where it was showing.

ZN: Sheikh Zayed allowed the film about Mohammed [Mohammed, Messenger of God (1976)] to be shown. On another front, you fought a huge battle for I.M. Pei’s pyramid to be built in front of the Louvre and for the Opéra of the Bastille. How did you get people to follow you?

JL: When I became minister of culture in 1981, I had the good fortune to enjoy a close friendship with President Mitterrand. We were a duo—we hardly needed to speak. We managed to do difficult things to which there was huge opposition, such as moving the Ministry of Finance out of the Louvre.

ZN: President Mitterrand and Sheikh Zayed became close friends. After Presidents De Gaulle, Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing, Sheikh Zayed was worried when a left wing president came along, but they managed to have an intellectual relationship. They worked together, for example, on the library of Alexandria [a joint Egyptian-Unesco project started in the 1980s and opened in 2002].

There was a major row in France when the Louvre Abu Dhabi was announced, but you were one of the first cultural figures to support the plan. You said it was a way of reinforcing cultural ties between countries. How do you see this happening in practice?

JL: The Louvre Abu Dhabi will be a new Louvre of a kind that we can’t have in Paris, where we have kept the separation of departments because their heads supported the Louvre Abu Dhabi and as a consequence we had to protect their positions. But in Abu Dhabi we will be able to put different kinds of art from all nations together; it is a transverse vision that will have a positive influence on Paris.

ZN: In my first interview with Sheikh Zayed in 1968 he described his three pillars for Abu Dhabi: first, a federation of emirates to protect the state; second, to bring prosperity to those around him and to other nations; third, while reinforcing the heritage, to build bridges to the rest of the world. Culture is no longer seen as centred on the west. We here in the UAE are at an axial point between three billion people.

Now tell me about the Institut du Monde Arabe. It was proposed by President Giscard d’Estaing in 1974 to be a showcase for Arab art. You chose Jean Nouvel, who is now the architect of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. You have come to it now with a clear mandate to bring it to life again.

JL: It is a house for everyone in the Arab world. I am an internationalist. Arabic is a major language; how can we encourage a new generation to discover its deep culture? In the 16th century, the Franciscan François Ximenes de Cisneros gave us the great polyglot bible in Greek, Arabic and Hebrew. What equivalent are we doing now? At IMA we aim to become the main centre for Arabic online.

So far as exhibitions are concerned, we did the Hajj show with loans from the King Abdul-Aziz Centre in Saudi Arabia, and the Moroccan contemporary art show has been very successful. We are holding symposia presenting various aspects of Arab civilisation to provide another face besides the dreadful news in the media. The next conference will be on the city in the Arab world, and IMA is going to publish a major book about Arab Modern art.

ZN: Your second passion is education. You believe that education and culture are closely linked. How can we bring them to young people?

JL: [The late President] Bourguiba in Tunisia achieved a great deal through education and it is one of the reasons why the protests against the dictatorship were successful there. That is why the terrorists attacked the Bardo Museum, which is full of Roman treasures. The lack of education can explain prejudice and ignorance, but on the other hand, the people who perpetrated 11 September were educated people.

ZN: Sheikh Zayed used to say that the most important pillar of society is education and he paid parents in the UAE to send boys and girls to school. I believe there is a deep failure in the educational systems in both the east and west. Islam is a religion of peace, but in it, as in other religions, there are fascists who can exploit it for power, and young people can be brainwashed.

Sheikh Zayed said that it was chance whether you were born into one religion or another and what counts is whether you do good. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world; in France, 10% of the population is Muslim. We need to look deeper into our pasts. France has had great scholars of Islam and we must all work together but also rediscover out own intellectual history.

Now, tell us about your writings.

JL: I’ve written books on law (I am a university lecturer in the subject); recently, I was in the UAE, not for cultural purposes, but to propose a new international law on piracy along the Somali coast. But I have also written about François I and Lorenzo de’ Medici.

ZN: Are you an optimist?

JL: I am, and it is people who give me hope, new ideas and new projects. What is less exciting is political life in most countries. People with a vision, like Sheikh Zayed or the current rulers of the UAE, are rare.