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On a Mission: Washington Area Welcomes New Embassy Culture Centers
The Washington Diplomat / September 2010

By Larry Luxner

When it comes to bilateral relations, the United States and Venezuela aren’t exactly bosom buddies. Venezuela’s envoy here, Bernardo Alvarez, is the only member of the Washington diplomatic corps ever to have been declared persona non grata by one president (George W. Bush) and then reinstated by another (Barack Obama).

In early August, Alvarez’s boss, President Hugo Chávez, angrily rejected Larry Palmer — Obama’s choice for ambassador to Venezuela — for “meddling” in his country’s internal affairs even before Palmer’s arrival in Caracas.

Despite the bad blood, Venezuela boasts one of the most active cultural centers on Embassy Row.

“From baseball to chocolate to our common African, indigenous and European heritages, let us celebrate the historical friendship between the people of Venezuela and the people of the United States,” Alvarez declared at the inauguration of El Salón Bolivariano [Bolivarian Hall] earlier this year. “As we say, nuestra casa es su casa.”

Like Venezuela, Iraq also recently opened a cultural center in Washington, and Saudi Arabia is in the process of doing so.

Curiously, all three countries are major world oil exporters that have oodles of petrodollars to lavish on their Washington missions. And even though Chávez clearly despises the “imperialist empire” to the north, Venezuela remains the fourth-largest supplier of crude to the United States after Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia.

“This is a great night for all of us, and I would like to say thank you to all our loyal friends who have been with us for years,” Alvarez told some 200 admiring guests at the Mar. 25 inauguration of Bolivarian Hall. “We also want to thank people from the State Department, members of the diplomatic corps, lawyers, journalists and our friends from the Smithsonian.”

The inauguration followed a two-year, $100,000 remodeling project financed by the Simón Bolívar Foundation of CITGO Petroleum Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA.

Members of the Venezuelan folk group Serenata Guayanesa were thrilled to perform at the re-opening of Bolivarian Hall.

“It’s important that culture and traditions be promoted here in the United States, so that American audiences understand that Venezuela is not only about oil,” said Iván Pérez Rossi, a vocalist and cuatro player with the popular group.

Indeed, despite Venezuela’s near-pariah status at the State Department, its embassy already hosts 100 concerts, art exhibits, poetry readings, films and dance workshops every year — making it one of the most culturally active diplomatic missions in town.

“That’s the power of culture, to open a dialogue when it might be difficult to have a dialogue through other channels,” says Patricia Abdelnour, cultural attaché at the embassy. “These are things that go beyond politics or current events. We show a human face of Venezuela, a positive story about Venezuela that is not the story you get in the media all the time.”

Rosana Granado, board member of the Simón Bolívar Foundation and wife of CITGO Chairman Alejandro Granado, told Alvarez, “there’s no other ambassador with a hall like this on Massachusetts Avenue, so that makes you the coolest ambassador on the block.”

The original structure, fronting Massachusetts at California Street, was built in 1939 by French architect Alexander Goulaiev and his American colleague, Chester Patterson. It consisted of two buildings united by a pergola — the ambassador’s residence and the embassy’s offices.

“Thirty years ago, this space used to be offices — not cubicles but actual walls. There was a vault where all the passports and documents used to be kept. When we bought the office building in Georgetown in 1991, this hall became abandoned,” Abdelnour told The Diplomat. “When Bernardo Alvarez came to Washington in 2003, he almost had to wear a mask to go in there, because it was so full of mold and dust. So he thought, ‘why don’t we turn this space into something we can use?’”

The hall was closed for two years, though the actual renovation took nine months. Overseeing the project was Baghdad-born architect Aseel Albanna, who also supervised renovation work at the new Iraqi Cultural Center near Dupont Circle.

In a subsequent interview, Albanna said she landed the job thanks to a 50-foot-long beam that was starting to fail, leading the embassy to decide it was time to renovate the aging structure again (a previous renovation was done in 2003 by a Venezuelan group).

“The process was to tear out the old ceiling and see what surprises awaited us. We ended up having to do a massive amount of structural work that involved surgically extracting the old beams and cutting holes in the roof to lower the new beams by crane and install them,” she explained.

“It was the equivalent of a double hip replacement. Once that was done, the next step was to reclaim as much ceiling height as possible, to create a more open modern and organic space.”

Albanna, who studied architecture at Baghdad’s University of Technology and later at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, said much of the inspiration for her design came from her travels throughout Venezuela — from Caracas to Isla Margarita and down to Canaima, near the border with Brazil.

“When I was standing at Angel Falls, I realized that the essence of Venezuela is the organic mix of striking geography, warm and open people and rich culture. I wanted the space to reflect all of that,” she said.

In order to preserve the house’s historical significance, it was crucial to keep some of its original elements such as the wood flooring, the windows and the main door.

In typical art-deco style of the 1930s, the front door of Bolivarian Hall resembles the main door to the ambassador’s residence. In addition, the original windows on the back wall are now doors that lead to a courtyard and garden offering an ideal, tranquil venue for outdoor events.

The interior space, which comfortably accommodates up to 160 seats, features elements of beautiful curved lines on the walls and ceiling, in harmony with new light fixtures. Other structural elements include an indoor theater, an audiovisual/sound room, office space, three restrooms, dressing room and green room with bathrooms and showers, and a fully equipped kitchen.

Said Alvarez: “I feel I’ve accomplished one of my objectives, leaving this hall as Venezuela’s contribution to the city of Washington, D.C. We would like to open this space of freedom and understanding to all countries in the spirit of Simón Bolívar.”

Even though she’s not Venezuelan, the 40-year-old Albanna seems equally moved by the new cultural center.

“As an Iraqi, this has been a really important project for me because I’m so passionate about sharing culture and heritage, and building bridges between peoples,” she said. “I hope this new cultural institution serves as a model for all other embassies in this city to create spaces where they showcase their cultural heritage.”

That same enthusiastic spirit led Albanna to transform a drab 5,000-square-foot Dupont Circle office suite into the exotic-looking Iraqi Cultural Center in only four weeks. As with the Venezuelan project, this one came with its own unique challenges.

“The height was only 7’9” and the typical ceiling is eight feet high. You feel compressed, especially in a large space, so the first thing we needed to do was lift the ceiling. We also had to get rid of the fluorescent light fixtures,” she explained. “You can’t have fluorescent lights if you’re exhibiting art.”

Samir Shakir Mahmood Sumaida’ie, Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, declined to say how much the new center cost except to say that the dollar amount was relatively trivial.

“We’re not talking about a significant portion of our budget, and it’s money well-spent, because we believe this creates a real firm basis for the long-term relationship between our two countries,” said the ambassador. “It’s very important for us to change the perception of Iraq among the American public as a source of trouble into a country with tremendous historical and cultural resources, a country that has contributed to civilization and has considerable creative talent.”

The center — located above an AT&T retail store fronting Connecticut Avenue — opened to the public in early May. The inauguration party was attended by over 150 people feasting on traditional Arab delicacies like roasted lamb and couscous, and drinking not booze but yogurt milk, passion-fruit juice and Coca-Cola. Musical entertainment was provided by oud player Rahim el-Hajj, followed by a welcome speech in Arabic by Dr. Maher Dalli al-Hadithi, Iraq’s minister of culture, who flew in from Baghdad for the occasion.

“This project didn’t happen overnight. In fact, our Ministry of Culture has been studying the idea for over two years,” al-Hadithi told The Diplomat in an impromptu interview after his speech.

At the arched entrance to the center — decorated with red throw pillows, brass Arab coffee pots and handwoven carpets — is a large painting of medieval Baghdad by local artist Ahlam Abbas. Also displayed prominently are photographs of famous Iraqi landmarks such as the Golden Dome of Fallujah, as well as colorful travel posters designed to entice tourists to what was once the ancient land of Mesopotamia.

But the real prize is a 1951 reprint of a 12th-century map known as the Tabula Rogeriana which hung forgotten in a dark hall of the old Iraqi Embassy in Washington for decades. A red arrow on the glass points to present-day Baghdad for those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to understand the tiny Arabic script.

Anan Aziz N. Yamoor, director of the Iraqi Cultural Center, said this is her country’s first government cultural institution ever established outside Iraq.

Yamoor was previously assistant manager at Baghdad’s convention center, which came under the Ministry of Culture. Here, she supervises four full-time employees and several interns.

“The American public knows very little about Iraq, and what they know is not very nice,” she said. “We want to do exhibitions and cultural events like literary and poetry readings in both English and Arabic. We will cooperate with other establishments like the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian, as well as local universities. This is our plan at least. We hope to make this a reality.”

In fact, Jerome Barry’s Embassy Series will kick off its 2010-11 season at the Iraqi Cultural Center, with a concert featuring Sfaafir — a three-member ensemble performing Iraqi folk music on traditional instruments.

One thing visitors won’t find in this repository of all things Iraqi is any reference to either the 1981 Gulf War or the current fighting in Iraq that has claimed untold hundreds of thousands of lives since U.S. troops invaded the country in 2003.

“We do not want to talk about the war. Our goal is to have this cultural exchange in which educated Iraqis have an understanding with educated Americans in order to eliminate any future wars,” al-Hadithi told us. “We view what has taken place as a black mark on our history which caused many educated Iraqis to flee the country. Therefore, our goal is to flip the page and not bring back these bad memories of suffering.”

Nor will Saddam Hussein be mentioned. “Saddam occupies a big page in Iraq’s history, but if there is anything that we would like to forget, it’s him.”

Ambassador Sumaida’ie agrees.

“When people here think about Iraq, they think about war, destruction, terrorism and suffering. All this is true, but it’s just a phase,” he said. “The last four decades have been difficult for Iraq, but our history stretches back 7,000 years — 5,000 years of which is recorded history. Iraq is where the wheel was invented, where writing itself was invented. Iraq cannot be reduced to a 40-year period of war and destruction.”

Only four blocks east of the Iraqi Cultural Center at 16th and Q Street is a recently refurbished three-story rowhouse that now serves as Washington headquarters for Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government.

Built 100 years ago, the former residence is an equally rich mixture of antique charms, architectural beauty and cultural infusions. A century-old stained-glass window is just down the hallway from a new skylight painted with the Kurdish flag. Original woodwork is mixed with new wainscoting that replicates Kurdish craftsmanship.

A traditional doorknocker decorates one wall, while contemporary artwork adorns the next. In all, the immaculate restoration and striking interior design succeeds in breathing new life into the historic building while preserving its legacy.

“Throughout this restoration the goal was to maintain the integrity of original details,” said John Thompson, whose company, Eagle Home Design, worked with the mission’s chief, representative Qubad Jalal Talabani, to refurbish the building over a 12-month span.

“It is with deep satisfaction and pride that the Kurdistan Regional Government now calls this townhouse on historic 16th Street our Washington headquarters,” Talabani said. “It is with equal pride that we have been able to preserve the wonderful craftsmanship that existed while adding more beauty and creative energy to a remarkable example of a classic, stately building.”

In terms of glitz, however, the most ambitious embassy project on the drawing board is the new Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission in northern Virginia.

This five-story steel and glass building is taking shape on a tract of land in suburban Fairfax owned by the Saudi government. Upon completion, it’ll be the largest embassy cultural center in the Washington area — yet its $38 million price tag is relatively small change for wealthy Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading oil exporter.

Matthew Armstrong, senior project manager at Orr Partners, which is supervising the project, said work began a little over a year ago and should finish by February 2011.

“When we first got there, the property had a two-story, 50,000-square-foot brick building that we had to demolish,” he said. “From the get-go, our first responsibility was getting the general contractor on board. We accepted bids from seven companies and ultimately ended up with Davis Construction.”

The shiny new building will offer 85,000 square feet of office space, as well as a 120-seat auditorium, numerous classrooms and a prayer room facing Mecca, in keeping with Islamic tradition.

The Saudi cultural center’s architecture firm is Davis Carter Scott, based in nearby McLean. The company’s local portfolio boasts such big-ticket projects as Arlington’s Ballston Point (268,000 square feet); Rockville’s Human Genome Sciences headquarters (900,000 square feet); Alexandria’s Marriott Residence Inn (257,000 square feet) and the 680,000-square-foot Park Place mixed-use development in Annapolis.

Dr. Musaid Assaf is director-general of the embassy’s IT Center and point man for the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission. He said that despite its name, the new building is aimed not toward Americans interested in his country’s cultural traditions — as is the case with the Iraqi and Venezuelan centers.

Rather, it will serve to supervise the 30,000 or so Saudi students on government scholarships currently studying at colleges and universities across the United States.

“Basically, we follow them from their arrival until they graduate and go back home to Saudi Arabia,” he said, noting that around 350 people will work in the Fairfax facility.

Interestingly, this is the first official embassy building — excluding ambassadorial residences — located outside the District of Columbia, “so the Saudis had to get special approval from the State Department” before construction could begin, said Maureen Bryant, marketing director at Orr Partners.

Assaf explained that “finding land here in D.C. is very difficult and very expensive. We owned the land there already.” Another advantage, he said, is that “it’s much closer to Dulles Airport, where our students usually fly into in order to finish their paperwork here before leaving for their universities the next day.”

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