5 reasons why the Pakistan Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020 was a truly impressive experience

The pavilion represents the heart of Pakistan, albeit a skilfully curated and digitally enhanced version of it.
11 Mar, 2022

Much has been said by now about the no longer hidden treasure that is the Pakistan Pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020. The many endorsements from celebrities and the outpour of colourful photos on social media featuring the scintillating exterior of the pavilion were enough to put this on the must-see list for any visitor to the Expo — especially those hailing from the motherland. So it’s no surprise that when we arrived at the Dubai Expo 2020 after a plane, a car and a train ride, we were drawn like magnets to this symbol of home away from home.

And we are happy to report that the Pakistan Pavilion lives up to the hype.

Here are five reasons that made the Pakistan Pavilion — one of 192 in total at the Expo — a truly impressive experience.

‘Unity of All That Appears’

You can’t mention anything before touching upon the actual beautiful structure that houses virtual treats inside.

Artist Rashid Rana bedazzles visitors with bright colours and triangular panels, some of which appear like mirrors, glittering under the desert sun. The colours alone make the pavilion stand out among its neighbouring countries, catching one’s eye from afar.

The moment you approach the gleaming pavilion, you can hear the nearly 14-minute long soundtrack titled ‘Lala-e-Sehrai’ (Flower of the Desert) by Rohail Hyatt. Depending on which point the track is at when you’re amidst the structures, you may be enveloped by Mai Dhai’s gripping vocals or a trippy rendition of 'Dama Dam Mast Qalandar'. The flow of music along with how the reflective pieces play against the sunlight is in itself an experience.

Read more on the pavilion’s design by Rana here.

‘Haven of Natural Wonders’

Eight spaces await visitors inside, and the first one to make it to our list is a masterfully done edit by Walkabout Films. This video installation features panoramic shots of the diverse landscapes of Pakistan on a loop, ranging from lush green to snowy terrains.

We will only attempt to describe the one hero shot that left us feeling tingles in our body. It shows a helicopter hovering against a white backdrop of snow, and zooms out until the helicopter is but a dark speck fast disappearing against the overwhelming whiteness, and keeps pulling back farther and farther until it culminates in a very familiar sight to fans of our Northern Areas: the K2 peak in all its glory.

Spanning floor-to-ceiling, the video projection, directed and produced by Nisar Malik, is impactful enough to leave one awe-struck and draw impromptu applause — not that a stately mountain that has and will continue to exist for millennia has a care for what mere mortal beings think of it. Nevertheless, the sheer scale of the majesty that is K2 is well captured, as are the other known and not so well known tourism spots in the country.

Spotlight: Creating the Pakistan Pavilion

‘Sacred Spaces’

After the allure of tourism, this space hits differently.

The mood, lighting, and sounds of drums and chants filtering through, sets the scene for introspection as we walk through a narrow, dimly lit passageway. The video installation by Azadfilm focuses less on the grandeur of and more on exploring our connections to places of worship.

The visuals strike a vividly resonant note, from artfully captured interiors of Wazir Khan Mosque at iftar time in metropolitan Lahore to remote shrines in Gilgit-Baltistan where the locals — young and old — gather to pay homage to their spiritual roots.

The effect is at once alienating and conciliating; you may not know these people and their traditions, but you feel an undeniable sense of community through the shared spiritual experience — whether in mosques, shrines, churches, temples or gurdwaras.

The space has other notable mentions, such as the brass bowl of rose petals in water that filled the air with a scent closely associated with religious gatherings in Pakistan and a red chaddar similar to the ones seen at shrines hanging on the ceiling, all simple yet impactful touches that enrich the overall experience. But undoubtedly, it is the films directed by Jami Mahmood that leave us contemplating the human endeavour of attaining spirituality as we exit the exhibit.

Read an interview of the principal curator of the pavilion, Noorjehan Bilgrami, here.

‘Reforesting our Precious Land’

Photo: Pakistan Pavilion
Photo: Pakistan Pavilion

Full disclosure: at the first sight of the words Billion Tree Project on the wall, images of Prime Minister Imran Khan referring to PTI’s Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Programme at many a jalsa popped up in our heads.

But what awaited us was anything but.

Set up in a darkened corridor, the multisensory 'bamboo installation' by digital technologist, Abrar Qazi, features audio of birdsong and flowing water with images of mangrove trees and streams that reflect off the dark floors. Pencil-thin columns of floor-to-ceiling green laser light, meant to represent rain, heighten the bewitching effect.

As we walk through the pristine virtual forest, we realise we're walking on 'water'. So calming is the experience that we wish the walkway was longer or we could take more time to pause (hard to do with visitors walking by) and really take it all in.

Knowing that this is not in fact Changa Manga does not detract from the enchanting experience of this imaginatively executed piece of immersive art.

In pictures: Pakistan - The Hidden Treasure

The talent, the people

The talent is literally on display at the pavilion’s shop, Bazaar, which offers products featuring truck art, blue pottery, jewellery, and many more trinkets. The best part is seeing brands that we’re familiar with back home (and suppressing the urge to squeal “I have that") and seeing people of other cultures admire them for their quality and design.

A selection of high-quality products from brands such as Orah Jewels, Copper and Steel, Creo, and Anaar Masks can be spotted alongside the highly recognisable Karachi Candle Company signature scents and Zahra Ebrahim’s Khattati boxes.

Ebrahim’s furniture and interior for the eatery, Dhaaba, is also super fun, playing with birds, colours and motifs. From the ceiling to the placemats, the attention to detail in the decor is clearly noticeable.

We didn't try the food but since the chana chaat was priced at AED15, which is more than Rs700, you can't really blame us!

At the restaurant, we also heard expat parents trying to sell their children on the idea of visiting Pakistan. Their incentive? Meeting their cousins and trying all the delicious food! The downside? “Bus, thori garmi ho gee.”

The Pakistan we see everyday while living here and seeing it through this perfected lens is a surreal experience, so we can understand the parents trying to paint a more realistic picture for their kids.

We knew the pavilion had made waves even prior to our visit, especially with it having been featured in a number of international publications as a must-see sight at the Dubai Expo 2020 — but to actually see for ourselves visitors reacting so positively to the work on display, being mesmerised by the wonders that are truly still hidden to most of the world and speaking to each other about wanting to know more about “this country”, it’s a different kind of feeling.

We also spotted many Indians among the different nationalities at the pavilion, a nostalgic reminder that for all the unity this pavilion stands for, two neighbours of the South Asian continent will perhaps only see each other’s countries at an Expo held in the Middle East. Still, it was heart-warming to see them ‘tour’ Pakistan — the skilfully curated and digitally enhanced version of it.

Dubai Expo 2020 comes to an end on March 31.