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French Version

Amsterdam exhibit shows Moroccan treasures

Bronze statues from Roman times, Phoenician jewelry, a 14th century wooden pulpit from a mosque, colorful mosaics: The Nieuwe Kerk museum in Amsterdam has put 300 art treasures from Morocco on exhibit that it hopes will change how the Dutch view people of Moroccan descent.

In the making for over two years, this exhibition dedicated to Morocco and its "uniquely rich and varied culture" celebrates 400 years of Moroccan-Dutch relations, with King Mohammed VI of Morocco and Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander acting as copatrons.

The recent surge in tensions between the Dutch and the some 300,000 people of Moroccan descent following the murder last month of filmmaker Theo van Gogh gives the exhibit a special resonance. The suspect arrested for the brutal murder is a man with dual Dutch-Moroccan nationality.

"For the moment, the term Moroccan seems to be mostly associated with the problems of immigration and integration," Ernst Veen, the director of the Nieuwe Kerk, said at the opening a week ago. "We want to change this image and put the spotlight on the other face of Morocco and its culture."

"Culture can do a lot to create bridges between the Islamic and the western world," Moroccan Culture Minister Mohamed Achaari agreed.

Some of the works are presented in chronological order, while others are grouped thematically. The show evokes a country bordered by seas and a desert through which African, European and Oriental culture passed, leaving behind a heritage of beautiful objects and art works now on exhibit in the former gothic church that is the Nieuwe Kerk.

Visitors can take in the magnificent bronze bust of Juba II, a Berber prince educated in Rome. In 25 B.C. Roman Emperor Augustus gave him back the kingdom of Morocco, then called Mauritania. Juba II was married to the daughter of famous Egyptian Queen Cleopatra.

The bust is one of the highlights and is part of a little-known collection of Roman bronze statues from the Rabat archaeological museum.

Nearby, a mosaic from a Roman villa depicting Venus is followed by a room filled with Zellige, multi-colored mosaics with geometrical shapes, inherited from the Arabs when they came to Morocco in 647.

With their arrival, Morocco converted to Islam and established ties with the Arab-Andalucian world on the other side of Gibraltar. A minbar, or pulpit used by imams to preach in mosques shows the woodworking skills of Moroccans: The wood is covered with interlaced floral motifs and geometric shapes encrusted in ivory.

The art of calligraphy also blossomed in that period, with beautiful examples of the Koran and medical texts on show.

Wanting to show the melting pot of cultures that Morocco has become, the curators of the exhibit also selected Christian steles, along with bronze Hanukkah lamps used by the large Jewish community in Morocco that settled with the Phoenicians.

Distinctive blue pottery from Fez and many contemporary pieces of jewelry illustrate that art is still very much at the forefront of life in the country called the "far West" by the Arab world but considered the closest Arab country by the Europeans.

From time to time the sound of the muezzin's call to prayer rings out through the Nieuwe Kerk. In the middle of the church beneath cast iron lamps there is a special Moroccan tea house which sells fresh mint tea and cookies to visitors.

"I hope that people will realize that discovering this culture is an enrichment. Inshallah," Ernst Veen said.

The Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Thursdays to 10 p.m. The exhibit runs until April 17, 2005. For more information, see www.nieuwekerk.nl

Beirut,12 27 2004
The Daily Star
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