September 8, 2020
8 mins

Why I have enthusiastically responded to the COVID-19 donation appeal from the Museum of Contemporary Art

Two years ago today, exactly on the early afternoon September 5th, 2018, I was heading towards the exit door of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney, Australia after spending a couple of hours in my regular personal “Art Time” treat.

While taking down the stairs I spotted this giant banner fixed to the ceiling:

The banner that reads: What do you wish you had been told the truth about? was promoting the Conversion Starter 2018

The moment I read these words, I couldn’t help but pause and repeat this question in my head over and over again. I snapped this photo and never bothered to share it with my Instagram friends; it was for myself.

For that question to pop up right before my eyes at that time, it augmented an ongoing conversation I had been having with myself for a while as part of a greater self-discovery journey.

That Alchemist-style, unforeseen, and soul elevating journey was mainly triggered by my move to Australia from Dubai two years earlier, a big move I made in pursuit of my tale of two cities dream. The moment I landed in Sydney, I realised that I was finally granted a unique opportunity to fulfil a deep unsettling double-sided urge that I had to put up with for years. To challenge my own culture and value system from the outside, and to explore the Western cultural system.

By starting a life in Sydney while still maintaining my connections with Dubai and Khartoum, my greater aim was (and still) to break out of the cultural bubble I had been living inside for my entire life up to that point, enrich my life views while use my new outsider’s view to challenge my old stories and conquer my own biases, or at least contain them. And while doing that, Sydney seemed to be a great platform to explore the Western cultural system. A system that I had always admired many of its values from distance, and wondered about others.

It is true that I have lived most of my life in various countries away from my country of birth- Sudan, but they were all within the widespread Arab-Muslim-Middle Eastern cultural system. And my frequent short trips to places around the world had failed to satisfy that exploration desire. In contrast, they had kept igniting it and provoking more questions in my head.

Therefore, I was anticipating a journey rich with opportunities and challenges, and I was prepared for that … or I thought I was.

Obviously, there’s no one-size-fits-all handbook on how to lead a life across three continents, and navigate such an experience. So I resorted to doing what a typical entrepreneur would do: I drafted an initial plan and started experimenting. After all, this is one helpful skill you can develop growing up anywhere in the Middle East: the ability to navigate a blurry space full of contradicting signs with little or no guidance. You just figure it out!

One early design parameter in my plan was to reject the default blueprint for any new immigrant which centres around finding a job and “getting settled”. Instead, I spent most of my first two years of my new life AirBnB-ing around Australia and connecting with locals, while doing business on the go. That was my adaptation of the Sun Tzu’s centuries old lesson: know the territory first before you start acting.

But just like in Santiago’s story, the journey I’d embarked on didn’t proceed in the linear and direct path that I was envisioning. The fun and excitement started to mix with a heavy thread of self exploration and confrontation.

Simply put, I found myself outside Plato’s cave. And what is the best thing you can do when you manage to break free from the cave? You start asking questions and challenging the one story you knew in your previous life that was spent chained to the wall inside the cave: the shadows on the wall.

And this is what I did.

And while I was bracing for confronting answers, I slowly started to realize that I had to simultaneously deal with another subtle and unforeseen challenge: to dare to ask questions.

Let me put it this way: I am the product of an educational and social system that does not tolerate asking questions. Growing up in the Middle East, especially as an expat in the Arabian Gulf, and just like millions of other expats, I had to “develop” an essential survival instinct: never ask questions. Asking a question, even an innocent one by a seven years old kid, can lead to serious consequences to one’s life and his family’s.

While I’m writing these words, I can vividly recall specific questions that were burning in the head of my seventh grade self in Saudi or my third year university self in Jordan. Questions I had to oppress forever.

However; and in one of these eye-opening conversations, I leveraged a precious advice from my dear friend and life mentor, Anni Rowland-Campbell who was wise enough to introduce me to the idea of stepping into an “interstices of cultural systems” and that the best way to go is onward. To keep peeling layers, keep asking these scary questions, and keep being brave in handling the answers that may come bearing their consequences.

With a few diversions here and there, and encounters with several “crystal merchant” — style complacent people, I kept walking forward. I kept researching, experimenting and exploring. And I tapped into every available tool or resource I could find around me. This included initiating a couple of startups and failing fast as well as having conversations at churches, to name a few.

And while improvising my way onward, I stumbled upon two great and surprising resources that were not part of my plan at all: museums and public libraries.

They were surprises, beautiful ones indeed, simply because I virtually never had them before. Hence, I wasn’t even anticipating them.

Growing up in Saudi Arabia, where I had my entire schooling, I had never spotted a public library. It just wasn’t (and still isn’t!) a part of the system. We did have a library in my elementary school, but it was more of an abandoned store full of dusty books. Spending time at this library wasn’t part of the school calendar. I remember going there once or twice over the span of six years. No wonder public libraries are essential building block for democracies.

I ended up spending long hours in state and local libraries wherever I went across Australia. Public libraries have granted me a refreshing and a restorative zone to read, think, research, write, and work. And most of the time, they were my “office” while AirBnB-ing.

Soul Sanctuary

While I found in The Shakespeare Room in Sydney, The Dome in Melbourne, and in other magnificent public libraries a peaceful space to feed my mind, museums and art galleries treated me differently. They spoke to my soul.

Every time I walked into a museum or an art gallery, I started to sense time slowing down and almost coming down to a halt.

The creativity, richness, abruptness, openness, diversity, randomness, and even chaos I find in art always amazed me and liberated me from insisting on seeing the world in perfectly organised patterns of zeros and ones, thanks to years of computer coding since I was eight years old! Museums and art galleries have helped me further understand that the world doesn’t have to operate in a binary system of black and white. Rather, it can be a wider spectrum of diverse colours.

But it’s the sense of freedom inside a museum that got my soul enchanted. The freedom to see the world the way you envision it, and the freedom to tell your story the way you want it to be told. The freedom to have thoughts, and the freedom to express them, in your own unique voice… safely.

And that’s why, I can now understand why I was never moved or inspired by the one trip I had to a museum in during my childhood. After all, it’s hard for a kid on a school trip (and I guess everyone else!) to find a beautiful meaning in touring a series of intimidating portraits for “The Father” staring him down.

And just like the public libraries, I consider museums and art galleries essential for democracies, and for designing a beautiful life rich in colourful stories.

From my Art Time at the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, 2019.

Out of the many and beautiful museums in Sydney, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) has been my favourite and the one I ended up visiting most frequently. Every exhibition, talk, art work, or even a spontaneous conversation with another art admirer granted me the potential to learn a new story and expand my perspectives. This happened, for example, through immersing myself in the photographs of David Goldblatt, connecting with nature in a more holistic way through Janet Laurence’s multidisciplinary approach among many other occasions.

And of course, my ideal “Art Time” treat at the MCA has to be wrapped up at the rooftop cafe! There, I can sit to reflect on my tour and journal some thoughts while treating myself to a snack and a drink from its art inspired menu and enjoying the stunning view of the iconic Sydney Opera House!

The MCA, and other museums and art galleries became my sanctuary in the city. I go there every time I need to recharge my soul, to seek inspiration and the bravery to keep asking questions, and to remain open for challenging answers.

No wonder that frequent studies conclude that museums are “making enormous contribution for improving people’s lives”, and no wonder that people (in the United States at least) trust museums more than newspapers.


When COVID-19 sent the whole world into an unprecedented Anthroapuse, and while in lockdown in Sydney, I looked back at my journey thus far and felt indebted to the MCA, which was always here for me!

That’s why, MCA was among the first places I visited right after the lockdown was released in Sydney. My “unlearn and learn” journey is a lifelong adventure, and I would definitely love to keep having the MCA as a guide and companion.

And that’s why, I have not only recently renewed my membership without hesitation, but also donated to contribute to the museum’s 2020 Annual Appeal which is more critical this year due to the fact that COVID-19 has resulted in a 40% reduction in MCA’s income.

But MCA is not alone in dealing with the economic impact of COVID-19, around the world, 85,000 museums have temporarily closed their doors due to lockdown, 13% of which may never reopen at all.

And therefore, I invite you too to donate to your local or favourite museum.

I do understand that your story might be different than mine, and if you are reading this from somewhere in the Western world, then you have probably enjoyed the privilege of growing up with museums and art galleries as perpetual parts of your life. Yet, by helping a museum reopen or stay open, you can keep enjoying your privilege, and you can offer someone else, with a story similar to mine, a safe sanctuary to freely pause and ask: What do you wish you had been told the truth about?