Arts & Culture The Arab Art Issue

H.E. Zaki Nusseibeh: Why we need art now more than ever

"Its significance, its need, its urgency, is all the more acute today."

.للقراءة بالعربية انقروا هنا

By Georgie Bradley

His Excellency Zaki Nusseibeh. Illustration: Sekka.

His Excellency Zaki Nusseibeh is passionate about culture not because he seeks token admiration or recognition in his career. He is a culturalist because he wants to be active in pursuing a life that sets him on a ceaseless journey of enquiry and discovery, based on open dialogue and exchange with others. The UAE Minister of State wants to continue through culture to work on becoming “a better human being.” “Culture elevates us above our physical confines. The arts call something in you and bring you out of yourself, making you transcendent,” he says, mixing demure charm with an encyclopedic sharp intellect. He is at once stately and homely, and you can spend hours listening to him. Perhaps it is the extraordinarily vast and varied career he has had over the last decades, but he commands focus and renders you silent as you listen to his ideas.

As it happens, H.E. Zaki Nusseibeh is a culturalist of the highest order. His library of books alone is 50,000 strong, covering topics as varied as quantum physics and the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. 

He is particularly keen about classical music and opera, singling out the majestic works of Richard Wagner, the 19th century German opera composer, whom he anoints as “a true master” of his craft. Throughout his life, H.E. Zaki Nusseibeh has been captivated by the great canon of Wagner’s epic music dramas he attended in the major opera houses of the world, particularly in Wagner’s iconic opera house in Bayreuth, where he felt “a deep resonance with the spirit of the work.” “I truly believe that each time I experience his operas I am transfigured into becoming more sensitized and understanding, a better, perhaps a wiser, person” he adds.

“I don’t think you can develop a true appreciation of life and its experiences, of feeling empathy towards others, unless you allow yourself to be open to the art scene that surrounds us”

H.E. Zaki Nusseibeh

However hard it is to explain art in simple words, H.E.  Zaki Nusseibeh still finds language to describe his passion. “Every time you look at a work of art, it calls something in you and brings you out of yourself through moving you to question: ‘Why is this work like this? What is it trying to tell me? Why do we react to it in this way? Does it tell me different narratives as I view it over the years?’” He adds “Viewing and trying to understand art takes you on a constant journey of discovery and wonder.”

Becoming active in cultural pursuits, H.E. Zaki Nusseibeh believes, makes you a better person. “I don’t think you can develop a true appreciation of life and its experiences, of feeling empathy towards others, unless you allow yourself to be open to the art scene that surrounds us – and by that, I mean the entire palette of cultural activities,” he says.

Even though H.E. Zaki Nusseibeh speaks a number of languages in addition to English and Arabic: German, French, Italian, Spanish and Russian, he’d like to study Persian and Hebrew. Many of those earlier languages, he confesses, were mastered with the aid of reading light novels. “I used to love reading a lot of science fiction and thrillers in my spare time; but to make my pursuit seem more serious, I would read these books in foreign languages. So, it became a productive bargain, how to enjoy light reading without feeling guilty while improving one’s linguistic skills!”

“The vulnerability of the arts is very acute. This pandemic has taught us that art and culture are particularly sensitive to its mandated lockdowns”

H.E. Zaki Nusseibeh

Lockdown has seen an upturn in his reading, remarkably. “Now instead of driving to meetings, I am reading between my video calls.” Right now, he is reading a book on abstract Arab art centered on the Barjeel Art Foundation – the independent initiative established by Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al Qasimi to manage, maintain and showcase his personal art collection of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art. He is also immersed in re-reading a book written by an Oxford historian on the Arab-Israeli conflict. “It’s not a new book, but it does offer a penetrating insight into this long-standing and tragic confrontation.”

In short, “I haven’t found it difficult to work from home” he says.

What he has found unsettling in the time of Corona is the painful experience faced by the arts due to the inevitable consequences of lockdown mandated by world governments as a control measure to stop the spread of a global pandemic. As an industry that has historically been on the fringes of public or private support systems, it has long since fought for visibility and encouragement – but has now been forced into isolation and possible regression. “The vulnerability of the arts is very acute. This pandemic has taught us that art and culture are particularly sensitive to its mandated lockdowns. We have seen many countries react to this global threat by raising barriers between them. This is bad because we cannot face global threats like this one except though global collaboration, through opening our hearts and our frontiers to each other.”

Art is needed in our lives at all times; but “its significance, its need, its urgency, is all the more acute today. That is because it highlights the values of kindness, empathy, working with each other, bringing us closer to one another instead of dividing us.” “We cannot go back to living in the Middle Ages, or to relive the turbulent and destructive madness of the competing and warring nation states of the first half of the twentieth century” he adds. The world today is truly and literally a global village. “Global trade, instant communications, the heady world of Artificial Intelligence, social networking and instant internet connections have made us more integrated as we seek to erect barriers to stem an inevitable wave of the future.”

The UAE Ministry of Culture and Youth has put in place contingency plans to safeguard the arts in the Emirates. “There are programs being implemented to set up budgets in order to help creative entrepreneurs, and to see the needs of artists and small enterprises,” he notes. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation has organized webinars bringing its network of diplomats with their colleagues around the world together to discuss culture in the time of Corona.  The Future of Diplomacy Series is looking online at the future of diplomacy in the post pandemic world.” The Ministry also feels a sense of duty to “buy art and support the local and expatriate art scene so that we can populate our embassies with our own art.”

“[Art] highlights the values of kindness, empathy, working with each other, bringing us closer to one another instead of dividing us”

H.E. Zaki Nusseibeh

Having been born in Jerusalem and sensitized by the beauty and splendor of its rich Byzantium heritage, its mosaic tapestries that adorned many of its iconic buildings, and its unique architecture of historic mosques and churches as an infant, H.E. Zaki Nusseibeh was a voracious reader, holed up in a Jerusalem library that introduced him to the magical universe of literature. He carried his passion for critical thought forward to Europe later on, where, as a high school student in Britain, he used to visit his sister who studied at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, and where they’d go to visit its rich museums and galleries, including the Jeu de Paume museum in the Tuileries Gardens, which, at the time, “was where impressionist art lived, as well as Rodin’s fabulous sculptures.”

This affinity for art continued to inspire him at Cambridge University. “I began my regular pilgrimage to museums in Cambridge and London, and started my first collection of orientalist art while I was in university. Leaving the orientalists behind, I started after that and to this day, within my modest budget, to collect Modern and contemporary MENASA art as much as I can. I love to live surrounded by art.  At the same time, I like to share this art with my community, and so make it easy for those who are interested to come and view it.”

Despite a lifetime of involvement in the arts, H.E. Zaki Nusseibeh says he is a better consumer than creator of art. “I’ve dabbled, like most people, with writing some poetry and with piano-playing in my life, but the urge to be creative continues to be subdued by the lack of time. When you see the genius in others, being able to understand and work with that genius is, for me, a huge undertaking in and of itself, and a source of great joy and enlightenment.”

After accruing an enormous amount of momentous experiences in his multi-sphered career across journalism, politics and culture, H.E. Zaki Nusseibeh has earned some rightful repose for when he decides to retire. His most notable experience, he says, was in April 1968 – “I call it an encounter with destiny. It truly set the template for where my life is today. I was a stringer covering stories for a number of international and Arab media outlets. I came to interview the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in Al Hosn, the old fort, for an English documentary. I interviewed him in Arabic and then translated his sayings into English. The rest, as they say, is history.”

“I love to live surrounded by art.  At the same time, I like to share this art with my community”

H.E. Zaki Nusseibeh

Recently, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has elected H.E. Zaki Nusseibeh as a new member. The Academy was established in 1780 by the founding fathers of the United States including John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. “I have been elected to be a member within its cultural and non-profit leadership sector in which I stand with iconic giants in the field like Neil McGregor, Tom Krens and James Cuno. It is an honor to be involved with such an ancient institution. It brings people together who are keen to serve humanity in ways that can build bridges between cultures and peoples. It is important to highlight together everything that is beautiful in life, to explore its mysteries, to stand up against everything that is ugly and mean around us, and to try to bring joy into the lives of those we can reach out to.”

H.E. Zaki Nusseibeh plans to “see ways in which our collaboration within the institution’s network can help us in our endeavor to reinforce the same narrative that we all share.” And that narrative is to “spread the message that makes us realize that as humans we belong to the same family of mankind regardless of race, creed or color, that we share a common destiny and future, and that we are as safe jointly as our weakest members.”


Georgie Bradley is a British-Greek editor and journalist based in Dubai after a lifetime in Bahrain – which she still frequents on a monthly basis. She is also a certified crisis counsellor for women victims of domestic violence, having volunteered for Women’s Crisis Care International in Bahrain. Elevating the voices of the region’s change-makers is what makes her tick.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.