I Love My City Damascus

View from 4 Seasons Hotel in Damascus

News from Damascus are always depressing nowadays. But it used to be a vibrant city, full of life. When I lived there last year the fear of the war was present in the city, but here are the words of a young woman from Damascus and how her life used to be before the war.

“I grew up in Damascus and when we went to visit the village my parents came from, I just wanted to go back home. My parents’ village is beautiful, green and with fresh air, but it’s not like the city. In Damascus I had everything; freedom and friends.

Summers were the best. My cousin was older and worked in Saudi Arabia and used to come home for vacation in the summers. She got divorced and when she came home she wanted to have a good time, to live a free life, a life she couldn’t live over there. When she was in Damascus I packed a bag with all my stuff and moved in with her. She rented a flat downtown and I stayed with her there all summer. My family was angry with me for moving out from them, they thought my cousin had bad influence on me, but there was nothing they could do. I had become so independent from them since I started working and making my own money.

Me and my cousin never cooked, we just ordered take out to the house or went to restaurants. We went to the swimming pools somewhere in the city and ordered sheesha. In the evenings we went clubbing, there were many nightclubs to go to, and there were always a lot of guys after us. We had a good time with them, we let them pay for everything, then when we got bored with them we just hopped in a taxi and left” (she shows how they teasingly waved goodbye from the car window while laughing) “We never talked politics back then. She supported the president, she thought it was because of Bashar al Assad that she could live a free life in Syria comparing to the life she had as a divorced woman in Saudi Arabia. I was against Assad, just like my father was, but me and my cousin never spoke about it. We just had a great time together. I loved my city.”

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

Tourism in Iraq – Another Country is Possible

When was the last time you heard some positive news about Iraq? It’s been a while, huh? I’m as guilty of charge with my blog posts, but the suffering that often takes place south of Iraqi Kurdistan is hard to ignore, which is a strong reason to happier news from Iraq hardly making headlines.

When I first saw the page “Tourism in Iraq” on Facebook I wondered what was the idea with it. And who was behind it? It didn’t seem to be one of the many ironic sites you can find on the net; there was no “Postcards from hell” feeling over the updates. Beautiful photos showing nature and tourist sites in Iraq with explanations in English and Arabic were being posted on a daily basis. Photos from a game of women’s beach volleyball in Baghdad mixed with photos of new construction sites. Over one reads the conciliatory phrase “God bless Iraq from the north to the south.” I decided I had to find out what or who was behind this page.

Soon I was in touch with Nawar Al-Saadi from Baghdad, who started the Facebook page “Tourism in Iraq” with the intentions of enlightening people in Europe about his home country. He was more than happy to answer my questions.

“There is a marginalization of the civilization of Iraq. All current generations of young people in Europe believe that Iraq is only a country of terrorism, and that all Iraqis are people like the killers,” Nawar writes to me in one of the many emails that we exchange. “This is not true. Iraqi people love peace, love life, love people, social sciences and they hate retardation and intolerance. But because of the impact of media under the control of US, people only see the negative aspects about Iraq.”

Nawar tells me he is studying a PHD at the University of Bucharest in Romania, specializing in tourism.

“My thesis is about the role of international relations in the development of the tourism sector in Iraq,” he says. “I chose Iraq because I want to serve my country.”

Tigris river

How can tourism be found in a country that has been plagued by violence since the US invasion 11 years ago? Nawar starts his explanation with a small history lecture:

“Iraq is a veritable treasure house of antiquities, and recent archaeological excavations have greatly expanded the knowledge of ancient history. Prior to the Arab conquest in the 7: th century Iraq had been the site of a number of flourishing civilizations, which developed one of the earliest known writing systems; Akkad, Babylonia, and Assyria.

The capital of the Abbasid caliphate was established at Baghdad in the 8: th century and the city became a famous center for learning and arts. For this reason we started this page, with the wish to be the face of tourism in Iraq. Iraq is one of the most important countries in the world of tourism and antiquities, where there is the passage between two oceans and a bridge between three continents.”

Iraq really does have an amazing history, but I wonder how realistic the situation is for tourism in Iraq at the moment. I ask Nawar how he sees the future potential for this. He admits that it might take time, but is optimistic.

“Iraq is now in international openness, but it needs security and stability. After that it will take a great position in the global tourism. The reason is that Iraq has one-third of the effects of the world and the most ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia such as Babylon, Assyria and Sumer. As for religious tourism – Iraq has buried most of the prophets and saints of all religions in the world, such as the Prophet Ibrahim, Prophet Adam, Prophet Noah, Imam Ali and many others.”

He has ideas on how Iraq will be an attractive country for tourists, in an age where sunny beaches in comfortable tourist resorts are reachable for so many:

“People outside want to know a lot about Iraq, especially that Iraq were in international isolation for three decades because of the wars. In addition to this most of the tourists in the world are bored after repeated visits to archeological countries as Egypt, Greece and Italy. Now people are looking for something new, a civilization to visit like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the palaces of Baghdad and tales of Shahriar and Chehrzac and A Thousand and One Nights. All of these things are famous in the world and taught in all grades. For this reason people are hungry for a visit.”

Women’s beach volleyball in Baghdad

Nawar has lived in Bucharest since 2011 and is planning to return to Iraq after completing his PHD. He says his family is living in Sweden but he has no plans to prolong his stay outside of his country:

“When I will go back to Iraq I will work in tourism development projects or a professor at the University of Baghdad, I will see next year.”

Nawar attaches many photos in his emails that he allows me to publish. He’s happy to share information and photos about his home country and his efforts have had effect. The page now has over 12.000 followers and he claims around 5.000 of those are foreigners (non-Iraqis), many of them European, and that he receives many emails with questions about how it will be possible to tourist in Iraq once it’s secure for foreigners to travel there.

Until then Nawar continues sharing information about his home country, posting photos such as the one of the sunny Tigris River with the message “Good morning Baghdad” and a thumbs up. Showing Iraq as the place it once was; the place of intellectuals, of culture and a beautiful nature, a place that it hopefully will become again. Far away from the depressing news in international media. Or as one of the messages on the page states:

I never meant to be Iraqi, I’m just a lucky man.

nawar

Nawar Al-Saadi

Photo credit (all photos): Nawar Al-Saadi/Tourism in Iraq

Remembering Halabja

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Monument at the Halabja memorial site

On March 16 1988, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on his own population, the Kurdish population in Northern Iraq. All of these photos are from the cementary and memorial of the genocide in Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan, when I visited it two years ago.

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Graves in the cemetary

Between 4.000 to 5.000 people died when the Iraqi airforce indiscriminately bombed the village of Halabja with chemical weapons. What was the reason? The Kurdish people wanted independence, they want to be free from the brutal suppression of the Saddam regime.

Men, women, children and animals all died, some directly, some after a few minutes of vomiting or laughing hysterically. Between 7.000 to 10.000 more people were injured, blinded or paralyzed by the gas that is believed to have included nervgas and mustardgas, injuries that are still today effecting the people that were lucky to survive the attack. Or should we say unlucky? Because what happiness can you experience in life after surviving a genocide?

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Memorial site

The Halabja genocide took place centuries ago but the act of erasing a rebellion by gassing people to death is a method that is still being used by dictators whom are desperately clinging on to power no matter what suffering it brings their own countrymen. Tomorrow is the international day for remembering the victims of Halabja – but let’s also keep in mind the people in another country, where civilians have been subject to the same crime against humanity as recent as last year. Let’s keep in mind our brothers and sisters in Syria.

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Memorial site

The Destiny of Being Lebanese – on Today’s Bombings

beirut bombingsWhenever I think about Lebanon I think about night life and the beach, sunny memories from long summers. But there are other things too that comes to my mind – the underlying fear of something to happen, because that something regularly does happen, and the intolerance that so easily pops up, young people that many years after the civil war still despise anyone from another group. The wounds from the civil war just doesn’t get a chance to heal when the violence button seems stuck on repeat. Today’s bombings of Iran’s embassy in Beirut is a depressing but recurrent event.

The destiny of being Lebanese if I can have my say is having a country to be proud of – beautiful and dynamic, a place people from more boring countries loves to visit. Who wouldn’t want their home country being the given summer destination instead of wanting to go anywhere else every year?

But the cost of being Lebanese is also often bitter – I dare to say this after all the “where are you from” questions with dreamy eyes I have received from various people at any occassion. For a country with all it’s potential, a vibrant job market and internationally prestigious universities, the young people still just wanna leave. And who can blame them, when your Sunday brunch in the center of Beirut suddenly can be shattered by explosions tearing people’s bodies into pieces?

The bombings and occassional violence in Lebanon has different reasons, from internal Islamic groups targeting the crazy night clubs to people who wanted to get rid of that inconvenient politician. But the very worst reason for being bombed in your own country must be when it has absolutely nothing to do with you. When your country happens to be a playground for dirty international affairs just because it has always been and because your own government can’t or won’t control the violence within their own borders.

We condemn this cowardly terrorist act which is aimed at inciting tensions in Lebanon and using the country as an arena to send political messages”, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said today.

I hope next time the government will back up their wise words with some actions. Giving the Lebanese people the right to being able to stay in their own country that should be no one elses but theirs.

Photo credit: http://www.dailystar.com.lb

Two Voices from Aleppo University

Aleppo University after the bombings January 2013

I was able to talk with two persons from Aleppo University in Syria, that shared what they had been going through.

Here are their stories:

I was offered a job at Aleppo university after my studies. When the revolution started we as employees in a governmental institution were made to cooperate with shabiha (a feared subgroup within the Syrian intelligence/military, some claim they are criminals that the government recruits to terrorize civilians, a strategy to stop the revolution). We had to assist them in their fights against the protests. I tried to act as if I assisted them, then I was able to escape the country.

My home in Syria is all destroyed, my street is in ruins. No food is available and when going to search for food to buy people are being killed by snipers. Why are the government and the Free Syrian Army taking it out on us? We are only citizens.I  didn’t think the revolution would go this bad, and I blame both sides now. They have both helped in destroying my city.”

I was a student in Aleppo university. In January 2012 students were gathering in front of the cafeteria, holding a protest. They were protesting peacefully, shouting for freedom, protesting against the war and demanding the release of political prisoners. Security guards inside the university called shabiha without the students knowing. They came directly and started arresting students on spot and hit them with electrical batons. Another time they gassed the university with teargas.

Then on January 15 2013, it was first day of the examinations, the government bombed the university, many people saw the attack and that it was carried out by a warplane. Still when I see a plane or helicopter in the sky I get an awful feeling. One missile hit the entrance of the faculty of architecture; the other one hit the student dorm that had been evacuated to host refugees from other areas of Aleppo, people that had have to flee their homes. Dead people were littering the streets all around.

I can’t forget the barbarity of Shabiha and the security forces, the way I saw them attack the students or the sounds of clashes and missiles around us. I still have nightmares and then I wake up sometimes and I have to say to myself: ‘It’s ok, I’m out of Syria,I’m safe now’. But now a year after my departure, the situation is more much worse. There are inner borders and snipers in everywhere and there isn’t any safe place left in Aleppo.

Photo credit: New York Times

Girls Night Out!

I have had some of the craziest nights out in my life when being in the Middle East. Cities like Beirut, Istanbul and Damascus offer an amazing night life, where people put away their troubles at the door and do their very best to have fun, not limited by the bar closing at 1 am or queuing for a humiliating number of hours before maybe being let in. Yes, I have been clubbing in New York too, I still consider my Middle East partying experiences the very best!

When I first started travelling in the Middle East I was surprised by how people I met could spend a fortune on their outfits and drinks when I knew so many of them were struggling just to get by; students depending on their parents and recent graduates with low salaries in ridiculously expensive cities. But even if the show-off hurts the pockets, I learned to have fun and not care about tomorrow’s worries – a good lesson for a Lutheran Swede.

One night in Istanbul me and my girlfriend took the bus from our gloomy hostel and hopped off in Taksim area, walking around aimlessly until we heard some reggae music and popped in to the Riddim bar, that still exists, but at that time only was a small bar crowded with the alternative people that Taksim loves , or vice versa. We had no plans for the night, not the right outfits and not enough money, but we quickly made friends with the bartender who treated us to drinks, then early morning made us company to a rooftop club where people made out, smoked pot and discussed how to get away from doing the military service, until they fell asleep on the many pillows on the top floor. On the street downstairs a fight broke out and someone pulled a gun (but no one got shot), the party continued anyways. At 6 or 7 am the tired staff that wanted  had to shake everyone awake and force them into the elevator. A night like that would never had happen in the quiet little university town I was living in back home.

But a girls night out for me in the Middle East, can also mean playing tawla and smoking sheesha until late hours, while discussing the most important things in life; love and relationships. I guess these things never change?

Photo: copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

Aleppo Screams S.O.S.

Aleppo Screams SoS pic

So now the world is discussing whether the international community should intervene in Syria after the latest chemical attacks that the regime brought on its people. I can’t launch a clear opinion in this issue, because I’m not sure an international military intervention would bring less suffering to the Syrian people – but assistance of some kind seems to be needed since the revolt has escalated into civil war, with human rights abuses reported from both sides. But what the world show know is, many of the Syrian people have been asking for help for a long time, before the conflict steered towards total chaos.

The ancient city of Aleppo, once a beautiful green city in the northern part of the country, is now one of the most destroyed cities in the world. Eager to crack down on the uprising, the Syrian government has bombed the city to pieces, wiping out the infrastructure. Electricity and water is cut off, hospitals are functioning without the most basic needs, earlier this year 90% of all children of Aleppo were reported to be out of school – and the number can hardly have decreased. Below is  picture of Saif Aldowleh Avenue in Aleppo before the war started in 2011, shared with me by someone that wants to show the world what happened to his city.

And here is the same avenue, from a slightly different angle, today:

Do you think this might be expected when it’s a war somewhere? Then remember that the inner city of Damascus is still untouched, with schools and supermarkets open and a vivid nightlife still available for young people to party and attend karaoke nights, like nothing is happening in other parts of the country.

Desperate to make the world realize what is going on, a Facebookpage was started by some of the inhabitants of Aleppo in June 2012; Aleppo Screams SoS. Click on the link and have a look to see how the citizens of Aleppo were asking for help long before the most recent events, publishing photos on the ongoing destruction, photos of killed children, asking people to share. I hope the world will listen soon.

Photos: anonymous source, copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog; Photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/AleppoScreamsSos