The Country of Kuwait Before the Americans Moved In

There was a Kuwait even before the American troops went in 1991 to kick out the Iraqi occupiers. Kuwait is a source to a rich culture and heritage: it contained different tribes with different traditions, music and tales, beduoins living off the sea where they were fishing for food and pearls that they traded in one of their many travels around the Gulf region. But much of it has gotten lost to the outside world. What many foreigners see in Kuwait is the many fastfood restaurants and the malls that popped up en masse after the Americans came in and stayed on.

A Kuwaiti friend of mine is dedicated to show the Kuwaiti culture and it’s from him that I have received these photos. He doesn’t have the copyright he has himself received them through social websites, so I decided to share them on. The descriptions of the photos are from my friend.

A Kuwaiti trader with dependents to another 1930s

Kuwaiti traider with dependents, 1930s

Bedouin weaving Kuwait

Bedouin weaving, year unknown

kuwait year unknown

Year unknown

Kuwait 2 1961

Kuwait 1961

Kuwait 1961

Kuwait 1961

unknown 5

Year unkown

unknown 7

Year unknown

Photo copyrights: unknown

Diving Sisters from Saudi Arabia

saudi gazette

Noor Al-Dubais (left) and Taammul Al-Dubais (right)

Photo credit: saudigazette.com.sa

Two sisters from Sanabis town on Tarout Island on the Eastern coast of Saudi Arabia made headlines this week as some of the few professional women divers in the country.

The local newspaper Saudi Gazette reports that Noor and Taammul Al-Dubais were raised in a seafaring family and that they have been surrounded by water all their lives. Noor was 5 when her father taught her how to breath under water and the sisters held their international diving licenses as 10 year olds. Now they wish to pass on their passion for diving to other girls. They are diving as a professional duo and have been diving on many different occasions.

They started to dive in the city of Jubail on the east coast, around Jana Island. Noor says to the newspaper Alsharq daily, regarding her diving experiences in the Red Sea off the coast of Jeddah:

I swam among the beautiful coral reefs as if I was a bird flying in a garden. I enjoy diving because my soul separates from my body when I am at great depths.

She says she finds guidance in her parents and that her friends from school encouraged her. The sisters’ father has been a great supporter and he himself is also a diver and a fisherman. He is also Noor’s and Taammul’s professional trainer and has designed a special diving suit for women that he said respects Saudi customs and traditions. Sports for Saudi women are not accepted by everyone and professional sports women in the Kingdom are an exception. But the sisters’ father says:

Noor and Taammul are part of a diving family that loves to look for coral reefs and explore the magical waters of the Gulf. All of my sons and daughters are divers.

Hopefully Noor and Taammul will set an example for many other brave young women around the world.

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

The Non-Existence of The Iraqi Conflict

This article was originally posted on A Brave New World’s website.

Have you been to any of the neighboring countries of Iraq recently? Have you seen the Iraqi widows begging in the streets? Or the teenagers that have lived most of their lives outside their home country, raised without proper education or housing, on the run as long as they can remember? On the 11th anniversary of US invasion of Iraq, the country is again leaning towards the brink of a civil war and the remnants of the mass exodus in the last decade are still present, scattered around the conflict-ridden region. In Jordan and Lebanon, the Iraqi refugees are now intermingling with the Syrians; in Turkey they blend in easily with the masses of trafficked people who are trying to survive on the dangerous streets of Istanbul.

Last week, Baghdad and Mosul were the latest targets in the series of bomb explosions that has plagued Iraqi since 2003, along with the terrorist groups that are de facto ruling parts of the country with their own extremist agendas. In the governorate of Anbar, The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militia briefly tool control over the city of Al Sainiyah before the government troops were able to retrieve it, in what is not a completed battle. The last decade is repeating itself all over again.

Having worked as a humanitarian aid worker for different Iraq missions, what is as disheartening as the continuous reports about lives being lost is the international response. Not in the sense of the humanitarian NGOs and UN’s collective force to – by remote management – try and assist the troubled nation. Following the slow collapse of Iraq, a mass invasion of NGOs established themselves in compounds in Baghdad, in Erbil or the surrounding countries. A staggering amount of US dollars was thrown into the country when NGOs where found to offer anything from counseling to art classes, very few providing roof over the head or food, as an aid for a war the Iraqis didn’t start themselves. But in terms of legal aid or security, the response was nowhere to be found.

UNHCR has been unable to secure the lives of the many Iraqis seeking help in neighboring countries. EU started to deny Iraqis asylum as far back as in 2007 with the justification that threatened Iraqis could “seek help from the Iraqi authorities”. This was at a time when representatives from the Iraqi government officially begged receiving countries not to deport minorities back to Iraq, as the government could not guarantee their lives. Not even the horrifying massacres of Christians during the Sunday masses in churches in Kirkuk and Baghdad seemed to change the international community’s seemingly strong belief in the Iraqi government. The well-known phenomenon that extremist groups had connections and sometimes worked in cooperation with members of the government never seemed to make it to international media, and the government’s failing interest or ability in protecting their population was silenced among international actors. Because the tragedy that was Iraq was an obvious never ending disaster, and who wants another needing family on their doorstep?

11 years later, US has pulled out, leaving behind a nation where terrorist groups are intertwined with the government; minorities are in constant fear of random assassination and terrorist attacks pose a daily threat to the civil population. Oil companies and related contracting agencies have moved in large-scale and the international community is benefiting from the booming industry, but the foreigners employed still cannot go outside of their compounds as safety still is not prevailing – as it would, if the country was back to a normal state of being. The independent region of Iraqi Kurdistan recently closed their borders to their fellow countrymen after the September bomb attacks in Erbil, and so the last resort has been cut off. They had taken a fair share of the conflict; many of the young boys and girls who became orphans joined gangs in Kurdistan when the grim reality of survival in the last decade made many people turn their backs on their orphaned relatives. And is it possible to criticize Kurdistan for closing the door to the chaos of the South, especially after considering the ridiculously low number of refugees that US has accepted since the start of their uninvited attempt to liberate the Iraqi people?

To this reality even the Iraqi refugees that are still in even a country as Syria prefer to stay where they are. Here, UNHCR is still assisting around 44,000 Iraqi refugees. Too afraid of what is waiting them back home, they prefer to stay in a country where the majority of the native population soon will be refugees themselves. Yes, a wealthy family that can afford protection or has a budget allowing them to leave the country whenever they might need to, can consider staying in one of the relatively safer cities, such as Basra that has seen an upswing in security the last years after a permanent military presence. They have seen how their fellow countrymen have suffered as refugees outside; people spending years seeking asylum with no result, living in hiding in different places in Europe and the Middle East, many women being subject to exploitation and sexual trafficking. But the absolute majority of the refugees don’t have the possibility of returning to a safe life in Iraq. They might belong to a minority; they might have had a family member murdered or disappeared without trace; or they have simply lost their hopes that Iraq ever will be a safe place again.

“We will die here or there,” a young Iraqi girl told me last year in Damascus. “It is less painful to just stay on.”

Other refugee groups in Syria have decreased after the start of the Syrian revolution, but in aftermath of the silence of the international community, for many of the Iraqis there is just nowhere else to go.

Photocredit: http://commons.wikimedia.org

Our Absolutely Amazing Arabic-Swedish Network

I’ve been volunteering for NGOs since my university years but I never thought I would start one myself one day; starting NGOs are for career driven young people, not the former high school dropout whose best day is spent tanning at the beach. But sometimes life takes you crazy places.

Back in 2010 I wanted people to practice my Arabic skills with and I found myself with no close Arab friends in my city of Malmö. Around the world language exchange meetings is a big thing and in Malmö you can for example practice French every other week, but Arabic seemed not to be on the agenda – despite the many Arab inhabitants of Malmö and the huge possibility of exchange. Complaining to a friend, she told me about an Arabic speaking girl she had met.

“I think she would be up for it,” my friend said. “Why don’t you send a message?”

This other girl was up for the idea and slowly me and her started to scrape together people to our language exchange meetings, held in Sunday afternoons in different coffee shops. Sometimes it was just her and I, waiting for people who didn’t show up.  But we stayed put, spread the word among our friends, posted online, and by time more people dropped in. When all the emails and text messages got too much we finally decided to start a Facebook page to coordinate the activities. The Arabic-Swedish Network was born.

We are now more than 240 members in the Facebook group and new people join every week. We have no rules for membership other than that you have to be nice to each other; you don’t need to have speak certain level of Arabic or Swedish to join, if you speak none of the languages you can just join in and start from scratch (hey,  there’s too many rules in the Swedish society anyways). New people who has arrived in Sweden and found the group online, takes the opportunity to introduce themselves on the wall and then shows up on the next meeting. As we are so many members nowadays people set up their own events: poetry and sheesha nights, dinner parties, breakfast meetings. I know of many who think Sweden is a difficult place to make new friends and getting in touch with Swedish people – our network is an exception.

Since November this year the Arabic-Swedish network is a registered NGO, we figured it was a good idea since we spend most of our free time on the network anyways; our homepage you’ll find here. Now where will this unplanned NGO go next? I don’t know, but if you’re around, drop in on any of our events – I guarantee you’ll have a good time.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

Dina – Women’s Rights Activist in Iraq

fist gallary(1)

Dina Najem became an activist after finishing her degree in French at the university in Baghdad, when she started blogging and became active in social media and realized how invisible the women were in Iraqi media.

“Iraq has always been a closed society,” she says. “Even before the US invasion the society was controlling towards women, and after 2003 there was no security at all. Women couldn’t even walk outside alone.”

Dina, now 24, decided she wanted to work for women to be able to participate more in the society.

“I have myself no support from the society” she says. “It’s my husband and my family that supports me. The government has the ability to improve the lives for Iraq’s women, they have the financial resources, but they are not doing anything.”

After a few years as an activist within local NGOs and social media Dina applied in 2012 to the Swedish Institute’s academic program for human rights activists from the Middle East and North Africa, “Social Innovation in a digital context”. She was accepted as one of 15 participants, and so was her husband Hayder, who is also an activist.

“I wanted to focus on women” she says. “Men are already dominating trainings, the political life, everything.”

She believes many women have not been fighting for their own rights.

“The war made so many stay at home, they were prevented from educating themselves. Women don´t have the knowledge to demand their rights.The one that does are not a big number.”

Lack of technical skills is another reason for the absence of women in Iraqi media according to Dina.This makes them unable to compete with men who are in the same business. With the knowledge gained on digital media from the Swedish Institutes program Dina was able to start training others.

After the six months long course she returned in April this year to Baghdad and started the photography project “Rights Without Words” for young women in the ages of 20 to 30. She went herself to look for a sponsor and got International Media Support to fund the project. By publishing information about the course online she received an overwhelming number of applications. There are obviously many young Iraqi women that want to make their spot on the media scene.

Finally Dina chose to include 22 participants instead of 15 as originally planned. The training was divided into three courses: human rights, photography and social media.

“I want to promote human rights in a creative way in my project. The participants have learned how to express themselves by photography, and how to illustrate the declaration of human rights without using any words.”

Dina has already been able to show the photos in the Iraq National Theatre, when the Iraqi musician Nasser Shamma was hosting a concert, a previously rare but nowadays more frequent happening in the capital.

Dina hopes that the world is interested of the positive development that is taking place in Iraq. She and her husband are not planning to move abroad – they want to continue with their activism despite the insecurity in Iraq. Even though she criticizes the domestic politics she thinks that there is hope in the expanding civil society. The many applicants to her project are a sign of willingness to change.

“I’m hopeful” she says. “I see so many girls that want to study and participate in everything.”

Next up in her work is to focus on women bloggers, and she also wants to work with mixed groups of young women and men. In a country where the sexes often are separated she thinks it’s crucial for women and men to work together and get to know each other.

The struggle for women’s rights is the core of her activism and she openly calls herself a feminist despite the resistance she often encounters. At the same time she is a Muslim and proud of that.

To the ones who question Dina’s commitment to human rights in a country where civilians are killed every day, she usually says:

“Well, but you can’t just sit on your chair. You have to defend your own rights.”

Rights without words

Participants in “Rights Without Words”

Photos: Copyright Dina Najem

Ruth Benyamin – The Real Miss Iraq 2013

Getting hold of Ruth Benyamin, the 67th Miss Iraq and winner of this year’s Miss Iraq competition, is not easy. The competition is no longer accepted by everyone, why in recent years Iraq’s beauty queens has stepped down one after another after death threats from hardcore religious groups, the competition had to move abroad – and Talat model agency that are handling the contest are careful. Over the course of a few months I exchange e-mails with the agency and upon request e-mail the questions that I want to ask in advance. Then all of a sudden I am in touch with the current Miss Iraq of 2013, or, as she boldly calls herself on Twitter and other social media: The Real Miss Iraq.

Ruth Benyamin was chosen in June this year after the first winner stepped down, but not due to death threats this time, according to Ruth it is because she wanted to get married – there seem to be many reasons for the Iraqi beauty queens not being able to hold on to their title. Ruth tells me that she in general is discouraged from giving interviews for security reasons, but she takes her time and writes me several e-mails with long replies to the questions. Born to an Iraqi father and a Hungarian mother, Ruth is actually one of the few Iraqis winning the last years’ competition.

“Miss Iraq is an old competition, being a titleholder is a great honor” she says. “I am the 67th titleholder, 66 previous amazing women have worn the crown, and they have represented different Iraqi ethnic backgrounds and have done well in their lives.”

This year’s competition was held in private and not advertised, why Ruth was officially crowned in a private cocktail party in Heidelberg, Germany. She explains that not many people know about the contest since the organizers keep a low profile due to the threats, and because of this, holding the crown doesn’t give her as much media attention as it could:

“The pageant itself is not a televised competition so it doesn’t get much exposure. There were attempts by organizers to sell air rights to various Iraqi TV satellite stations, but the deal were rejected as TV stations had their own reservations, plus they didn’t want to be attacked by Iraq’s hard line Shiite government.”

Her guess is that this will remain the conditions for the competition, citing the dependency on the country’s security but also the fact the modelling industry in Iraq is very limited and that there is no Iraqi fashion magazines.

Although born and raised in UK, Ruth has visited Iraq several times and have ideas about the potential development of the country. She points out that she believes the situation in Iraq will remain the same unless a three state solution is adopted; this means that apart from the already existing autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Southern/Central Iraq should be divided into two states, in order to curb the ethnic violence. She seems well acquainted with this political idea:

“Part of my work as Miss Iraq is promoting such a plan, a peaceful three-state solution. There is already a Miss Kurdistan which is treated as a contest that represents an independent country, and it’s not called Iraqi Kurdistan, for example.” Later on, when explaining why she would recommend another young Iraqi woman to participate in the competition, she adds: “You become nationalistic once you compete. We were 16 girls who competed in the 2013 edition in Mombasa-Kenya, each representing a city state. I represented Lagash (state in South-Eastern Iraq, author’s comment), we did not win local pageants, because there are no local pageants, but each candidate wears a banner of a city state and it was an amazing experience to learn about our heritage, culture and history.”

Ruth was modelling part time before being crowned Miss Iraq and is all positive about the sudden change in her life that the title has brought her:

“Talat Models has kept me busy travelling from one place to another. I have been to Dubai (where I am based, I am provided a luxury furnished apartment which I share with Miss Teen Iraq, Lina Ovadia), I have been invited by the Iraqi community in Brazil, Germany, I visited Frankfurt, Brasilia, Sao Paulo, Budapest, Rome, and I will visit Sydney and Auckland later in December… The advantages are that I get public relations training, etiquette classes, a model portfolio, public speaking.”

She hopes for a career in hotel management and believes that the work experiences she gets as Miss Iraq is beneficial for the future. As for her personal experience, she says:

“The title has shaped my personality and my perspective on life, it definitely boosted my confidence as young lady.”

Entering the contest was not only a daring decision for a young Iraqi woman, living outside Iraq is not necessarily a guarantee for safety; Ruth is also Jewish, an Iraqi minority that left the country en masse due to suppression, especially during the 1940s and 50s but also after. So what was the response from the Iraqi community on her participation?

“I guess some people like me, some don’t, so far the twitter feedbacks have been positive. Some feel because I’m Jewish that I don’t represent Iraq” she says, then adding, diplomatically: “But those are a minority.”

And diplomacy is definitely a much needed skill, when being in the sometimes dangerous position of the Iraqi beauty queen, that many of her predecessors have left in advance. The Real Miss Iraq seems to hold it up very well so far.

Photocredit: http://iraqibeauties.blogspot.com/