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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

A home fit for a diplomat: inside the French ambassador's remarkable residence in Abu Dhabi

As France marks Bastille Day, the historic villa where a work by Dubai artist eL Seed has just been unveiled is a key part of the country’s cultural exchange

Amid a row of traditional villas in one of Abu Dhabi’s historic neighbourhoods stands a residence that would make any passer-by stop in their tracks.

The unusual villa was built in the early 1980s for a private owner and more than 30 years on, it is the official French residence.

Designed in sharp angles, the balconies are shaded by triangular concrete canopies and the entrance is shaped like a pyramid. It was the creation of Ardent, a company established by architects Ghaleb Chkaiban and Farid Al Kufaishi.

Ardent operated in Abu Dhabi from the 1970s and also designed offices, restaurants and hotels. The architecture arm no longer exists. Mr Al Kufaishi, from Iraq, was the main architect and he now lives in Canada.

But from his offices in Khalidiya, Mr Chkaiban, from Lebanon, runs the interior decorating side of the business and can recall the original design process.

“We convinced the client to go outside the traditional style of arches. There are no arches here,” he said, adding that he could not say why.

“At the time we did not decide to make a triangular villa. You take your pencil, start drawing and at the end of the day you come out with a design. But it still looks futuristic.”

By 1985, the building had become home to the French ambassador and his family. And since last July, the residence has been undergoing something of a cultural renaissance.

Works from regional artists, such as the UAE-based Khalifa Al Shimi and Syrian Shaher Alzgair, are being displayed on the residence’s walls alongside classics such as The Night by Bram van Velde.

French ambassador to the UAE Ludovic Pouille has also increased the number of events with talented local artists, musicians and cultural figures playing a central role.

Emirati musician Fatima Al Hashemi has performed at the residence and the theme of linking East and West is always present.

And just last week, an artwork by renowned muralist eL Seed was unveiled there. The Dubai artist is famous for his calligraphic, spray-painted murals, such as those found in Cairo, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi.

The piece was created specifically for the residence as part of this cultural dialogue. The new artwork pays tribute to the first sentence of a poem by a master of French literature, Charles Baudelaire.

Taken from Les Fenetres (The Windows), the lines have been recreated in colourful and contemporary Arabic script and are translated as “looking from outside into an open window, one never sees as much as when one looks through a closed window”.

Born to Tunisian parents in Paris, eL Seed told The National it was a huge honour for him as a French citizen to have his art displayed in the residence.

“I try to build bridges between people, cultures and generations through my art and I believe La Residence de France is an open door, an invitation to French culture in the UAE,” he said.

“I think that Arabic script touches your soul before it reaches your eyes. Arabic script speaks to everyone. Writing messages is the essence of my artwork.

“I always make sure to write messages that are relevant to the place that I’m painting, but messages that have a universal dimension so anybody around the world can connect to it.”

All of these changes are linked to the French-Emirati Cultural Dialogue programme launched this year, but they are also the result of the French ambassador’s drive.

“A residency is first and foremost a tool. A diplomatic tool,” Mr Pouille told The National.

He took the post last July. He is an experienced diplomat in the region, having served as deputy consul in Jerusalem and deputy head of mission at the French embassy in Rabat. In an acknowledgment to his time in Morocco, majorelle blue dominates the outdoor space of the residence.

“The villa had unique architecture, but it is also good to have modernity. It’s not a museum,” Mr Pouille said. “So I’ve used this residence to bring not only paintings and local artists but also Emirati singers, French musicians and Emirati poets.”

The unveiling of eL Seed’s painting caps a year of transformation and a second season of the cultural dialogue programme will be launched this year.

But Mr Pouille also has other work to do. One of his priorities is increasing the visibility of France in the UAE.

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Despite last November’s opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, the presence of 35,000 French expatriates and strong relationships across politics, defence and trade, Mr Pouille believes many in the UAE still do not know enough about the country.

“We need to translate the exceptional relations we have at political level to the grassroots,” he said.

So the ambassador has toured the country spreading this message, focusing on young people. One big win has been the UAE’s decision to reintroduce French to the public curriculum, starting this September in 10 pilot schools.

“This is a great achievement,” Mr Pouille said. “Maybe this will bring more Emiratis to French alliances, schools and the language.”

But the main task for the ambassador is to boost trade. France comes in behind the UK, China and Italy on that score. France also wants to boost co-operation with the UAE in the space industry.

Mr Pouille, who is married with three children, has been ambassador now for slightly more than a year.

In that time he has overseen the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, led a flowering of cultural relations and transformed the residency.

“I think I was quite lucky,” he says with a smile. “I arrive in July and four months later, Louvre Abu Dhabi opens. It was crazy, we had the president visit.”

It is a big weekend for France. Bastille Day, the French national holiday, was yesterday.

Today , France take on Croatia in the World Cup final. And now the residency has its own eL Seed.

“El Seed is now probably one of the most famous French artists,” Mr Pouille said. “It’s the masterpiece in the residency. We are very proud.”