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A pioneer of a new age
Doris Duke's Shangri-La

April 27, 2004

In James Hilton's Lost Horizon (1933), an Englishman finds paradise in the Tibetan valley of Shangri-La. Ever since, Shangri-La has symbolically stood for an imaginary lost paradise on Earth. Put together by an affluent tobacco heirless with a hatred of smoking, a fertile imagination, a love for surfing and surfers, a passion for collecting, and a romantic fascination with the Islamic civilization -- there you have another Shangri-La in Honolulu.

Situated on the ocean front at one of Honolulu's most exclusive neighborhoods, the Black Point in Kahala, the tobacco heiress Doris Duke built herself a home on a five-acre estate that should be considered a wonder of the world. A Wonder of the World? Yes, Shangri-La tells volumes about the emerging world of the 21st century: Improbable. Opulent. Pastiche. Problematic.

Hawaii is as far away from the Islamic world as you might imagine. Since Captain Cooke visited the islands in 1778, Europeans, Americans, Russians, Portuguese, Pacific Islanders, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Indians have populated the islands in large numbers. The Muslim population among them is very small. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Bahai'ism each have found a strong foothold in Hawaii.

But Islam is represented by one mosque and a small number of students from Islamic countries, a few immigrants, and some African-American military personnel on temporary assignments in Honolulu. After 1949, a Muslim Chinese Nationalist Ambassador to Saudi Arabia persuaded its government to donate funds for the purchase of a house in Manoa. He turned the house into a mosque and home for himself. He also served as the first Imam until his death in the 1980s.

The improbability of a museum of Islamic arts in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is compounded by it richness. Starting in 1937, Doris Duke began to build on this spot one of the most amazing collections of Islamic art and architecture. It was essentially completed in 1938. The house brings artifacts from all over the Islamic world, from Southeast Asia to North Africa.

On honeymoon with her first husband James Cromwell, Doris Duke took a trip around the world on a cruise ship. When she visited Taj Mahal in India, she fell in love with its majestic beauty. Built by the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife, Taj Mahal radiates an eternal serenity. Inspired by its design, Doris immediately commissioned a marble bedroom and bathroom suite for herself. Under the guidance of such well-known figures as Arthur Upham Pope, she set out next to collect art objects for her dream house in Honolulu.

Her house contains precious Islamic doors, chandeliers, carpets, prayer niches, and mosaics. Some of the architecture is distinctly influenced by the Safavid palaces in Isfahan, Iran. The Chehel Sotun (the Forty Columns) Palace is vaguely replicated in a guest house. One descending staircase encases a garden and a water flow that is spiritually uplifting. The house is a mélange of Islamic artifacts and American imagination.

Doris Duke may be considered a pioneer of postmodern sensibility and taste. Her home is a pastiche of elements from a distant past but also an enduring present. It evokes an Islamic aura, but it is clearly the fantasyland of the richest American lady of her times.

Following an adventurous but secluded life, Doris Duke passed away in 1993. She dedicated the home to a foundation that has currently turned it into a remarkable museum celebrating her global citizenship. Building a house such as this took up her entire life.

With an unparalleled dedication, she and her assistants studied, chose, bought, transported, unpacked, refined, and built it all mosaic by mosaic. It was clearly a labor of love. But typical of our contradictory world, it is a pastiche nonetheless.

Visiting the museum evokes many feelings and thoughts. At a time that Islam is receiving a bad press in the Western world, this small replica of a civilization that led the world during 9-16th centuries is a reminder of the rise and fall of all powers in history. The museum is a good antidote to the currently negative image of Islam as a Jahadist religion. It demonstrates the greatness of the Islamic material and spiritual achievements.

The museum also represents the Western romantic fascination with the Orient that gave rise to Orientalism (1978), in which Edward Said has brilliantly analyzed this colonial phenomenon. On the negative side, the Orient was conceived as the land of unbounded treasures and treachery.

As exemplified by the Shangri-La, on the positive side, the Orient was perceived to be a domain of mystery and spirituality. Each image was only partially true of the historical conditions of declining civilizations that were being vanquished in the hands of a younger and more vigorous rival in the Occident.

What can the museum teach us now? Its presence in Honolulu is a reminder of the shrinkage of the world. We currently live the trials and errors of an age of transition. Its mixed blessings consist of global markets, communication networks, and increasing mobility of people, objects, and ideas. But they also entail proliferation of weapons of destruction, terrorism, and environmental degradation.

Our ideas are still framed by tribal and nationalist loyalties. But the new world demands, nay necessitates, global citizenship. Doris Duke was a pioneer of a new age to come. The new age calls for fundamental changes in our international discourse, from a blame game to joint responsibility and citizenship.

Majid Tehranian is Professor, School of Communications, University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research in Honolulu, Hawaii.  His latest book is Bridging a Gulf: Peace in West Asia (London, I. B. Tauris, 2003).

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By Majid Tehranian


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