Wearing a long white robe and a black-corded cotton headdress, Al-Homaid picks me up in a cream-colored SUV, and after a short drive we reach an unassuming four-story stuccoed villa. Its interior is a startling contrast to the hot and dusty streetscape outside. Here, in spacious galleries and climate-controlled storerooms, are more than 10,000 20th-century paintings, drawings, and sculptures from throughout the Arab world.
"The West thinks that this area is desert and camels," Al-Homaid says. "We want people to discover what’s really going on." In much the same way that Pei’s museum will present an overview of Islamic art over the centuries, the Arab Museum for Modern Art will show the largest survey of modern Arab works anywhere. Sheikh Hassan has recently handed over the collection to the Qatari government, and an architectural competition is to be held shortly to come up with designs for two permanent buildings in which to display it.
As we walk from room to room, I see works created by artists from Morocco, Palestine, and the Gulf states. Many are of high quality; others are pale imitations of 20th-century trends in the West—Surrealism, Pop Art, colorful abstraction. Surprisingly, a number of nudes are on view, several quite erotic, and I ask how these will fare when they are displayed prominently in Islamic Qatar. "We’ve become more open now, man," Al-Homaid says in American-accented English, a vestige of his days studying art in California in the 1960’s.
Along with the 20th-century Arab works, Sheikh Hassan has also assembled what may be the world’s most important collection of Orientalist paintings—19th-century works by Westerners depicting what they found on expeditions to the Arab world. There is a certain irony in these images being reunited in Qatar, the very heart of the region they depict, loaded as they are with colonialist ideology. But if these stylized images of harems, mosques, oases, and camels are rejected by some as demeaning stereotypes, they nonetheless provide the rapidly changing region with a rare degree of documentation of bygone architectural styles and dress. The sheikh has also collected works by early photographers whose cameras chronicled the premodernized Middle East. All in all, the presentation of these works comes off as a reclamation of history, a way of "de-Orientalizing" the exotic scenes. "We’re recapturing the culture and trying to present it again," Al-Homaid says at the end of our tour.
The next day, I visit the separate collection of books, manuscripts, and scientific instruments assembled by Sheikh Hassan. The library comprises some 120,000 volumes of antiquarian books about the Islamic world and is housed in another plush, well–air-conditioned villa that brings to mind an earlier incarnation of New York’s Morgan Library.
Like the art collection, the literary one includes examples of how Arab lands were seen by outsiders—the 22-volume Descriptions de l’Egypte, for example, written by scientists who accompanied Napoleon on his abortive 1798 expedition into North Africa. There are multiple versions of the Book of One Thousand and One Nights; travelogues by T. E. Lawrence and by Sir Richard Burton, the 19th-century English explorer who managed to enter the holy city of Mecca by disguising himself as a Muslim; and maps and other documents. There are translations of the Koran into dozens of languages.
The library also documents seminal Arab advances in medicine and science and how they were transmitted to the rest of the world via Latin translation. As he points out manuscripts by great physicians like Avicenna, Abulcasis, and Averroës, who were making intellectual breakthroughs while Christian Europe was still in the Dark Ages, Mohammed Hassan Fekri, deputy director of the library, explains, "In the Western mind, Islam is terror. We want to show its true face."