“Visit Tartous” or “I Have Won the War”

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The Release of the “Syria Always Beautiful” video is not brand new, it was released on August 30 by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, but it sent out signals that is still accurate. Messages about happy people in regime controlled areas, enjoying life as if the year was 2010 and there was no war anywhere; partying, celebrating, riding water scooters and swimming in crystal blue water, sends out the message that the regime are regaining confidence about winning the war.

For a long time, Assad and his allies were denying that a war was ongoing at all. In central Damascus, young people were still partying, singing karaoke despite the distant sounds of mortars and shelling from the suburbs. The public TV channels still aired soap operas and broadcasted news about the president visiting local areas where people happily threw flowers at hime and his wife.

Then in 2013, there was finally little room for denying that a war was going on, and the rhetoric then turned to describe the opposition as solely consisting of terrorists, mainly from foreign countries.

Now, in 2016, when Aleppo is being massacred in front of all the world; when Syrian army together with support from Russia and crushing the little resistance that is left, Assad seems more sure than ever that he regain dictatorship of all of the country.

It seems impossible from the outside, that a country where people have been starting to talk freely for the first time in decades; where people have started to demand an end to corruption and the suppressing of oppositional groups, would return to live under the same conditions they were risking their lives for.

But in the Assad controlled Syria, anything now seems possible.

The opposition is shattered, weak, and have been hijacked by terrorist groups.

The terrorist groups have been pushing the population that was previously against the regime, or unsure what to think, back in believing in the comfort of Assad being in power again.

The regime has effectively played the terrorist card and making people longing back to the days when you were safe if you didn’t utter a word of criticism towards the non-elected government. Or if you by some other reason ended up in the grips of the feared security intelligence. Or if you, as a girl, happened to be abducted by young men of the regime allies and sexually abused.

They have made people believe that a rule under Assad is to prefer to the current situation. That they might even provide elections with other reliable candidates than Assad himself.

Tourism in Tartous might be possible in a near future. For everyone except for the people from the Syrian opposition, who have already escaped the country and will see no chance of ever going back. Except for the people who are, or will be, if the regime regain control everywhere, secretly imprisoned in one of the intelligence underground prisons, with no chance of getting out. People who only wanted freedom, a chance to say whatever you were thinking, a chance for young girls to be safe from the hands of the young men of the regime.

An upcoming stream of tourism to Tartous will be the last page turned by the Assad regime. It will mean he has won the war.

Photo credit: Tumblr

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I Dream to See My Country Iraq Again, Receiving People from All Over the World

“I am now officially a doctor. Can you write about my doctorate?” Nawar Al Saadi wrote to me the other day, sending over a link from his graduation ceremony.

Nawar is in charge of the popular Tourism in Iraq Facebookpage that I have written about previously. His enthusiasm and love for his country touched many: the blog post has been shared over 300 times on Facebook and other Iraqis got in touch with me after reading the post.

When I first spoke with Nawar he was still a PhD student in Bucharest, Romania, specializing in tourism, hoping to be a part of the future tourism industry in Iraq. He wanted to return to Iraq despite having family living in Sweden – he had a burning desire to show the world another country than what usually features in Western media, and to be a part of it’s future. And he seems to do well, the Facebookpage has over 31.000 followers and is regularly updating with positive news from Iraq and conciliatory messages for a united country. During the ISIS first attacks on Mosul and the mass escape, Nawar published photos of Iraqis in other cities handing out food and water to the newly arrived refugees on the streets.

Six months later Nawar has now received his doctorate degree and is officially a doctor from Faculty of Geography, University of Bucharest, with his doctoral thesis called “The role of international relations in the development of the tourism sector – case study of Iraq“. In the graduation ceremony one of his teachers praises Nawar and points out that their best students are always coming from outside of Romania.

But other things have changed too – ISIS has taken over large strategic parts of Northern Iraq and has at times also threatened Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Erbil. In the video from his doctoral ceremony Nawar is thanked by his professors and applauded when receiving his diploma. Dressed up and handsome in a suit and smart glasses, he holds a speech and makes a point of addressing exile Iraqis.

“For all Iraqi people living outside Iraq: we need really to work and we need really to study more. We have to make much effort because we have to change the image which is put by media about Iraq. We are not bad people, we are not terrorists as all the world thought. And I hope to see my country…”

Suddenly his voice breaks. It takes him a few moment before he can finish.

“…and I dream to see my country again to receive people from all over the world.”

When his speech ends, he rubs the tears out of his eyes as people in the room comes up to hug him.

Will his wishes about Iraq come through? Will he be able to return and pursue his dream? I don’t know, but I wish the best for Nawar whatever will happen. I haven’t met him in person yet, but I know Iraq needs him.
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UPDATE 17/10/2014

The ambassador for Iraq’s embassy in Bucharest was so impressed by Nawar after reading this and the previous article about Tourism in Iraq on Sweden and the Middle East Views, that he invited Nawar over the the embassy to give him an award for his achievements for his Iraq on October 15, 2014:

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Photo and video copyright: Nawar Al Saadi

There’s More to Dubai Than the Scyscrapers

I admit it, I have a thing for the Gulf. And Dubai is more than the expats, more than the oil, more than the fast money. There are beautiful places worth seeing, if you go off the beaten tracks.

These photos date a few years back to one of my trips to Dubai.

Photo copyrights: Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

Beautiful Iraq – There is Light in the End of the Tunnel

Saif Alani

After my article “Tourism in Iraq Another Country is Possible” (that has been shared over 300 times on Facebook) I was by another Iraqi that, inspired my article, wanted to tell me about his project.

Consisting on nine people in London who works to keep up the website and the Facebook page with the aim to register as a company, Beautiful Iraq has big plans for the future.

“It was always one of my dreams to establish something in my beautiful and welcoming country for the whole world to enjoy,” says Saif Alani, the enthusiastic 23-year-old CEO.

The main idea with the project is to become a tour operator that can provide package holidays to Iraq, but also to provide a general source of information of Iraq. So far Beautiful Iraq describes themselves as a media outlet that provides people information about Iraq.

The page already contains travel recommendation on where to and not to travel in Iraq (basically most of the country except Kurdistan; “If you are leaving Kurdistan then make sure you hire a professional security team to escort you!”) and visitors can sign up to receive newsletters. The online shop sells backpacks, t-shirts and even umbrellas with labels such as “I love Iraq” – free delivery when you buy two or more items at the same time.

“We want to be a company for travelling and holiday travel”, Saif says. “And also to deliver the news of Iraq in a way for people to get a better understanding.”

As the name of his project suggests, Saif wants the world to know the beautiful sides of his home country that he himself left together with his family 10 years ago.

“I would like people to know that Iraq is a country as any other, all countries have beauties, the bad things are only temporary. We can share this knowledge through our customers’ successful insight of Iraq’s beauties, with our hospitality and unique way.”

Saif himself has a diploma in event management and two certificates in travel and tourism, so the tourism industry is not new to him. He maintains another job in a hotel reception and dedicates his free time to his business. When I ask him what a tour in Iraq could look like he is full of ideas and things that he wants to share.

“There are magical pictures that people haven’t thought about! A tour could start in the cathedral of Erbil and go on to explore the historical and natural beauties in Iraq, the churches, to the theme park Basra Land in the south… We have religious tourism such as Babylon, which is mentioned in the Bible, historical tourism such as the ancient sites of Iraq and adventurous such as the theme parks and roller coasters. You can explore the nightlife in Baghdad; there are shopping malls and cafes – this is a side of Iraq people haven’t seen yet.”

Saif has not been back since he left but maintains contact with family members that are still living in Baghdad. He is very keen on his goal of establishing a positive common Iraqi identity. Throughout our interview he talks about how welcoming and hospitable his home country is.

“Through this, we believe we can change something negative into something positive,” he says.

We talk about the world’s perception of Iraq and Saif brings up religion, the current ISIS crisis and how it’s perceived from the outside.

“People would think that the religious aspects of Iraq could be negative aspects when it’s not, religion is very much a private matter in Iraq. It’s done in the places of worship, that’s where it’s done.”

“We do not class them (ISIS, author’s comment) as Iraqis, we class them as bad person. A bad person could be of any nationality. The acts of (these) persons have unfortunately caused a certain picture of the country that is not true… Many would think it would make Iraq weaker which are true, people are somehow deflated about Iraq, but our concept has now been stronger in preparing for the future, and politicians are involved in the combat.”

The plans of starting tours are very current – Saif is planning on hiring tour guides who are keen on working in the hopeful environment that the concept of Beautiful Iraq is. I have to ask him when he thinks it’s realistic that Beautiful Iraq will be able to offer their first tours to Iraq and he says the aim is to start in March 2015.

“It all depends on the security situation and when that is improved.”

Despite the latest humanitarian tragedy that northern Iraq is experiencing in the hands of ISIS, Saif stays optimistic, just like the founder of Tourism in Iraq.

“We replace negativity with positivity through our program,” he says, determined, with his never-fading smile. “There is a light in the end of the tunnel.”

Basraland, Iraq

Photo copyrights: Beautiful Iraq