Travel to Kurdistan

Despite the ongoing threat from Daesh, Kurdistan is trying to hold the fort. Many Kurds I know try to keep up the vibes by sharing positive photos and news from their country.

Travel to Kurdistan is a beautiful Facebook page with one clear aim in mind.

Wanna go somewhere exciting? Somewhere different? Try Iraqi Kurdistan next time. here’s a few reasons why (all captions, when there are, are from the Travel to Kurdistan’s page):

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“Zaxo, Kurdistan”

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“Our colourful flag must wave in all weather and at all time to survive.”

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Photo credits: Travel to Kurdistan’s Facebook page

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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

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Year unkown

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Year unknown

Photo copyrights: unknown

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

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.

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Nawar Al-Saadi

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