Rising from the rubble of Lebanon’s Civil War to lead the Ministry of Culture, Her Excellency Rima Abdul Malak broaches topics of identity, colonialism, and restitution with forward-thinking benevolence.
It’s Paris Couture Week and Her Excellency Rima Abdul Malak, France’s Minister of Culture, is a guest at the Georges Chakra show. She is wearing a sharply tailored, royal blue suit that matches her blue eyeglasses. The look says business as usual; the minister is often photographed in a blazer on the steps of the Élysée Palace. She smiles broadly, happily acquiescing for requests for a picture. Paris Couture Week, like all fashion arts and métiers, design, cinema, books, music, visual and performing arts, heritage, museums and architecture, French language, and digital innovation, fall under her Ministry of Culture. But if Abdul Malak chose Chakra’s show, there’s a personal reason – they are cousins and both Lebanese.
The Minister of Culture since May 2022, Her Excellency Abdul Malak was born in 1979 in Beirut, in the throes of its Civil War. “My first 10 years in Lebanon were 10 years of war,” she asserts from her office in the Ministry of Culture, where, that morning, she sat for her Vogue Arabia photo shoot. In the picture, in her hand is a book of poems by Andrée Chedid, an author she considers a symbol of multiplicity of identity. “Today, people want us to have one specific identity, but identity is always multiple. Chedid was born in Egypt to a Lebanese father and Syrian mother. She later lived in Lebanon. She wrote her first poems in English, then came to France and started writing in French, and she never stopped. She is one of the major poets we still read in France and all over the world today. She is an embodiment of the diversity we need to keep – to really talk about identity in a multiple way and not in a too essentialist way,” she underscores. She does so with pointed passion, and one wonders if she is referring to both Chedid and herself.
As a child in war-torn Beirut, a young Rima did not frequent the cinema, partake in dance classes, or attend the theater. Her singular cultural activity was reading. “The bookstore that I loved was called Librairie Antoine. We would sometimes stay for hours, walking around and discovering all kinds of new things. I loved reading in French, specifically the Bayard magazines for kids. That library was my cultural space, my refuge.” Her geologist mother and biologist father both taught at the Lebanese public university and did everything to shelter their three children from the war with games, cakes, and anniversary parties. Yet, war would often knock on their door, and the young Rima and her little sister and brother had to stop school from time to time and flee to their grandparents’ house in Ajaltoun for safety. Finally, the Abdul Malak family fled Lebanon, arriving in Lyon, France, where her parents had studied in the Seventies. “It was the only city they knew,” she says, adding that they had applied for and were given French citizenship. Their material riches were few and far between. “When we arrived, we had nothing but our five suitcases. But we had some friends there who were very welcoming. They helped us with clothes, equipment for the house, furniture – everything was given to us.”
For this interview, Minister Abdul Malak converses in fluent English, but Arabic is her mother tongue. In France, she studied political sciences before earning a degree in the development of international cooperation at the Sorbonne University. She was introduced to the French language at the Jesuit school Notre-Dame de Jamhour in Beirut. The minister recalls that when she was settling into her new life, she soon discovered the France she had read about in the cozy corners of her bookstore was very much the stuff of fiction. “Everything was so different from what I had imagined… there was no man wearing a beret with a baguette under his arm. The postman didn’t come biking to bring the mail. In Beirut, we didn’t have a working mail system, yet alone a postman…and I had been dreaming of sending and receiving letters or postcards,” she says, her voice strong while sharing her wistful disillusionment. Meanwhile, life at middle school in the suburbs of Lyon was intimidating. “The first two years were very difficult. I didn’t speak French very well, I didn’t have any friends at school, and I was very shy.” It wasn’t until her third year, when her French teacher introduced her class to theater, that the social and academic pressures of school began to lift. “This was a great moment for me of openness and discovering a new world. It opened my imagination. It also helped me in French because I started to read theater, improvise, and play.”
Today, the French language is one of Minister Abdul Malak’s most important mandates. This summer, French President Emanuel Macron will inaugurate the Cité internationale de la langue française in the renovated castle of Villers-Cotterêts, one hour east of Paris. Here will thrive a new cultural and educational hub dedicated to French-speaking cultures. Historically, French colonialism and the language are closely tied. Its second colonial era, from roughly 1830 to 1969, saw the language proliferate from Indochina, Egypt, across a third of Africa, and to Latin America. Abdul Malak considers this a normal outcome of history. “Today, we must look forward. All over the world, it’s important to preserve cultural and linguistic diversity. In Arab-speaking countries, learning French can open opportunities for jobs and international development. It’s both a cultural and economic wealth. I always keep in mind what anti-colonial leaders like Algerian Kateb Yacine used to say: ‘Le français est notre butin de guerre’ – French is our spoils of war.” She furthers, “There is a decolonial way of claiming French. It is a language of literature, of poetry, and still today, many writers want to write in French; this also presents a real richness for speaking to the world. For me it’s as important as keeping Arabic alive with its multiple dialects. It would be a pity to have only English remaining at the end. We need more diversity and diversity can also come from French.” Notwithstanding, Abdul Malak remains conscious that many Arabs and immigrant children struggle to integrate into French culture. “Each experience of exile is specific. I would tell the youth to always believe in themselves. Difficulties can always be overcome. At one point someone will become your friend, someone will help, and little by little, you will find your way.” She urges youth to seek comfort in art and culture. “As soon as you can, try to interact with something artistic – a book, poetry, art, theater, music, anything that helps in a way surpassing reality. Find in fiction some strength to understand the world and find your place within it. Art can help lift your life every day. Artists give you emotions, sensitivity, they open your mind, your eyes, and your heart. As soon as you can – stop by a library, a bookstore, a music house. Anything that can bring art to life gives meaning to life.”
Twenty years ago, Abdul Malak served as program director for the NGO Clowns Without Borders. In this role, she helped bring the magic of a show with no language as a universal tool to help heal trauma and build confidence. “Maybe what I brought to these kids around the world was, in a way, what I wanted Lebanese children to have during the war,” she considers. This overarching mission, albeit through different mandates and now at the highest level in France, continues today in her role as minister. “At the Ministry of Culture, we develop many inclusive programs that bring culture to disadvantaged areas or audiences – youth and kids included. This is a major part of our budget and priorities. We also help people from diverse backgrounds find their way in the cultural sector,” she explains. A recent project “La Relève,” which she launched, helps a new generation of cultural leaders emerge with the selection of 100 young professionals willing to work in directorial roles in the cultural sector. “I want to create a kind of pool of future cultural leaders. Among them, some would head major institutions,” she says. The ministry’s aims are shared with private sector initiatives like Fondation Culture et Diversité and L’école Kourtrajmé, whose missions are to help disadvantaged youth start a career in the arts. “It’s not only us, the government, that can do this alone. It’s good to have a private sector that is strong and committed to these values.”
Along with economic disparity, the minister is also conscious of gender inequality. And if the Ministry has benefited from only one male minister and six female ones since 2012, she underscores that women in French politics is a recent phenomenon. “Gender equality is also one of my priorities. For instance, it means doing my best to appoint more women in our administration and at the head of our cultural institutions. Case-in-point, 41-year-old Caroline Guiela Nguyen of North African and Vietnamese descent has just been appointed director of the Théâtre National de Strasbourg. She’s now the only woman director among the seven national French theaters. In music and cinema, the ministry has created a bonus system that gives extra funding towards productions that respect strict gender equality. “My main value is to try to bring people together. The best way I found to do so is through arts and culture, whether with Clowns Without Borders, or working with the mayor of Paris, or now as the Minister of Culture. I believe in projects that unite people to share mutual emotions and dreams. A cultural space that enables a collective experience where we can go beyond our differences and reveal what we have in common.”
In the Gulf countries, particularly in the UAE, France has found an ambitious partner. Today, the Jean Nouvel-designed Louvre Abu Dhabi stands as a thriving symbol of its most successful and emblematic achievement, and it’s not the only one. The UAE Ambassador to France, HE Hend Al Otaiba, emphasizes, “Culture is at the forefront of the UAE-France relationship – it is through art, museums, education, and language that we foster deeper ties that build bridges and understanding. As Minister of Culture, Rima Abdul Malak has played an instrumental role in placing culture at the heart of the bilateral agenda and multiplying our collaboration in exciting areas.” The minister furthers that both countries are discussing various cooperations, around music with the Paris Philharmonie, around design and craft, and the burgeoning digital industry. “The success of the Louvre Abu Dhabi is driving us towards new fields of collaboration. I also met people who work in animation films and video games – the French are very good at this, and we have already connected start-ups and companies between France and the Emirates. We are also developing the ALIPH Foundation initiative – an international organization that France has created with the UAE in 2017 based in Geneva. It supports restoration of damaged heritage in conflict areas,” she says. “We have been supporting reconstruction in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Ethiopia, in Yemen, and in many countries. Even now in Ukraine, through ALIPH and other partners, we are supporting the protection of museums and damaged cultural sites.” France also partners with Saudi Arabia for AlUla, an ambitious cultural and touristic project. AlUla is home to the Nabataean city of Hegra, which has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2008. Through culture – archaeological routes, museums, old town – and nature – remarkable landscapes, desert, oasis – the project will offer a unique touristic experience.
While France is collaborating with the Arab world to assist in the reconstruction of cultural sites, the repatriation of various treasures is a topic at the forefront, particularly in Egypt. Archaeologist, Egyptologist, and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs Dr Zahi Hawass has launched a Change.org petition “in honor of the upcoming opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza.” He writes, “The Rosetta Stone [the key to the decipherment of hieroglyphs] was removed from its original finding spot in 1799 by the occupying French army and seized in 1801 by the British, who took it to England in 1802. Egypt never had a say in the matter.” He adds, “The Zodiac was ripped from its position in the ceiling of a chapel in the temple of Dendera by the French in the 1820s, and has been in the Louvre since 1922…Like the Rosetta Stone, it is an Egyptian icon, and should be brought back to its rightful home.” At the time of writing, his petition boasts 154 103 signatures. “Returning these two iconic artifacts to Egypt would be an important acknowledgment of the commitment of Western museums to decolonizing their collections and making reparations for the past,” adds Dr Hawass.
But while Dr Hawass maintains significant public clout, he is no longer a member of the Egyptian government. Abdul Malak acknowledges that discussions involving restitution of cultural objects are frequent among museum directors today. “In France, we have what you call inaliénabilité, the inalienable character of a public collection. This means that a law is required and must be voted in parliament in order to authorize restitution for each artefact. What I have proposed since I became minister is to work on a framework-law to determine in what conditions restitutions of cultural goods can happen and the criteria to help restitutions in the future.” She highlights that President Macron gave a speech in Burkina Faso in 2017 on the new era of partnership between France and African countries, where he talked about possible restitutions. It was the first time a French president discussed the matter, and it launched a new, internationally recognized process. Recently, in 2022, the French republic restituted 26 statues of the royal Abomey treasure to Benin, Nigeria. Meanwhile, the day following this interview, Abdul Malak traveled to Berlin, to colaunch a fund to support research to better document the provenance of African cultural goods in public collections in France and Germany. The minister explains that restitution can be a key element but it is not the only answer. Bilateral cooperation enables various projects between museums, contemporary industries and artists, etc. She cites the 2022 Picasso à Dakar exhibition at Musée des Civilisations noires, in partnership with the Musée du Quai-Branly and Musée Picasso, as an example of a close working relationship between France and Senegal.
For the young girl who fled the Lebanese Civil War and who today is the French Minister of Culture; for the young girl who dreamed of sending letters and postcards; she has become – through her work and through her noble value – a mighty messenger of humanity. In her trusty bag is a poem; the words of Andrée Chedid, her mantra. The minister reads them to me out loud: “Youth who set sail in the jumble of worlds, don’t fall apart at every shadow, don’t bend under every burden. May your tears irrigate rather than gnaw you. Beware of degrading words. Beware of the fading fire. Don’t let your dreams unstitch. Nor reduce your gaze. Youth hear me, you’re not dreaming in vain.”
Originally published in the March 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
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