Aurora Magazine

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"We have changed opinions about Pakistan. That is the cherry on the cake"

Updated 15 Oct, 2021 11:39am
Interview with Shahid Abdulla, project lead, of the Pakistan Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.
Photo: Sheherzad Kaleem
Photo: Sheherzad Kaleem

Shahid Abdulla, the Project Lead for the Pakistan Pavilion, speaks to Aurora about his involvement in this enterprise. The initial teething problems, the creative brains that put it together, the role of the private sector and the amazing feedback that is now flowing in.

ANUSHA ZAHID: How did you get involved in putting together the Pakistan Pavilion?
SHAHID ABDULLA: The project for the Pakistan Pavilion was initially awarded to a Dubai-based company called PICO EMEA by the PML-N Government during their tenure in 2013-2018. When the Government changed in 2018, Razak Dawood (Advisor for Commerce, Textile, Industry and Production, and Investment of Pakistan) invited me to come on board as Project Lead. The brief was simple; create a pavilion Pakistan could be proud of. To this end, I put together a team composed of some of the brightest and most creative minds in Pakistan; it included Yawar Jilani, Mahboob Khan, Bilal Maqsood, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Shamoon Sultan. However, later the Government pulled out due to insufficient funds. It was at this point that Razak Dawood and I decided to raise funds from the private sector. We also put together a board of trustees, comprising Yunus Bengali (Chairman, The Indus Hospital), Mushtaq Chhapra (founder of The Citizens Foundation, Riyaz Chinoy (MD, Yaqin Steels), Aslam Khaliq (Chairman, Reckitt Pakistan), Mehboob Khan, and myself. We also engaged Fergusons who worked with us on a pro-bono basis

AZ: How much did it cost to construct the Pakistan Pavilion?
SA: The construction costs amounted to $28 to 29 million, of which about $14 million was allocated by the UAE Government to build the structure. The Government of Pakistan contributed five million dollars and the rest was raised by approximately 60 private sector companies.

AZ: What was the experience of working with the Government?
Although I have worked with governments in the past, the experience was not good. As far as this project is concerned, I found it interesting and no fees were involved. Most of the funds were raised privately and therefore we did not have to adhere to stringent rules and regulations. Nevertheless, we were very careful about how we spent the money.

AZ: Who conceived the theme ‘The Hidden Treasures of Pakistan”?
SA: Noorjehan Bilgrami did and she also coined the term ‘The Hidden Treasures of Pakistan’. She was the main curator of the ‘inner journey’ which comprised eight key spaces, including Pakistan’s history, religious diversity, culture and landscape.

AZ: How did you decide on these key spaces?
SA: We wanted visitors to understand what Pakistan is really about. The ‘inner journey’ begins with a timeline that goes from 7,000 BCE through to Mehrgarh, the Indus Valley Civilisation, the Gandhara Civilisation up until the Mughal rule. A film depicting this journey ran on the opposite wall. Accompanying this is Haven of Natural Wonders a beautiful film directed by Nisar Malik and which depicts Pakistan’s magnificent landscapes. It is a breathtaking film which left audiences stunned by the beauty of our landscapes. There is also a film that highlights Pakistan’s religious landscape directed by Jami.

AZ: Who else played a pivotal role in putting together the Pakistan Pavilion?
SA: Rashid Rana, of course, who did wonders with the façade, Naheed Mashooqullah who designed the interior of the two restaurants (Kamran Sheikh decided the menus and the presentation of the food), the Bazaar and business lounges. Rohail Hyatt composed Lala-e-Sehrai, the official soundtrack.

AZ: One of the most talked about aspects of the Pavilion was the exterior. How was it conceived and how was Rashid Rana brought on board?
SA: When PICO was first given the project, they had engaged an Iraqi-Canadian architect, Emad, and he developed the form and the plan. When the project came to us, we decided not to redo it too much as a lot of work had gone into it. Perhaps because the initial brief centred on ‘Emerging Pakistan’, Emad may have been inspired by our mountains, forts and hills. However, the form was rather bland and we decided to do something about the exterior. This is when Yawar Jilani and Mahmood Khan contacted Rashid Rana and asked him if he could work his magic on it. And he did exactly that by creating a work of art that literally glitters. Taking him on board turned out to be an extremely wise decision. The end result really became the talk of the town.

AZ: What has been the feedback so far from visitors?
SA: Tremendously encouraging. Pakistanis visiting the Pavilion say that this is the first time they feel so proud to be Pakistanis and keep thanking the people responsible for making it happen. Foreigners are stunned, commenting that they never knew Pakistan was so beautiful and that they now would like to visit the country. We have changed opinions about Pakistan. That is the cherry on the cake.