Ode to the expat newspaper

One of my favorite things about traveling, in addition to foreign supermarkets, oddball museums, and miniature toiletries, is the local English-language expat newspaper. When I’m home in New York, I tend to get all my news online, either directly from news websites through specific searches or curated from friends’ links on social media (one of the best sources for news from US newspapers is Canadian NY1 anchorman and New Yorker favorite Pat Kiernan‘s site Pat’s Papers). Sorry US newspapers, I know I’m part of the problem. But while I’m traveling, I love to grab the local newspaper over hotel breakfast or in a coffeeshop and learn about local issues, news, and phenomena.Last month in Malaysia while reading the New Straits Times, I learned about how competitive the Chinese are at a kite flying festival and how southeast Asian children have to be taught to detect sour milk. The travel section reviewed a new hotel in Penang with a first impression of “adequate” and the Niexter insert written by Malaysian teenagers taught me all about malapropisms. A couple at our hotel told me they came to Penang after reading an article on the Hotel Penaga’s renovation from the paper in Kuala Lumpur.

It was from Istanbul’s Today’s Zaman that I learned about the excellent expat community and online forum I’ve become a part of in the last year, and I now have friends who have worked at Zaman and their competitor the Hurriyet Daily News. When I first visited Turkey in 2008, I recall reading an interesting editorial in one of the papers about how stealing things from airplanes like safety cards can cause delays, as the plane can’t take off without enough for everyone. The torn out article is long-gone, but I’ve retained the factoid and it keeps me honest on airplanes (though I’ve been tempted to take a souvenir from some eastern European airlines). When the Hurriyet turned 50 this year, writer Jennifer Hattam wrote a great piece on the particular challenges of not only translating the language of news, but the cultural specifics and background as well.

Expat news doesn’t only come in print form. I tweeted about expat news sources and read how writer Lisa Bergren relies on the BBC for news as well as comfort, and CJGuest recommends Al Jazeera from the Arabic world, the German Deutsche Welle, NHK from Japan, and Russia Today from the Russian Federation. Gadling’s own Grant Martin likes the South China Morning Post and the more western Sydney Morning Herald.The local English-language paper doesn’t always have the freshest content, the most stellar writing, or the coolest layout, but it provides an invaluable look into regional and national issues. Expat news can also provide a lens through which to see world news through local perspectives, and help us keep in touch with the sentiments and opinions in our home countries and cultures.

Gadling readers, do you have any favorite news sources abroad? Please feel free to share in the comments.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Ed Yourdon

Is Iraq really safe to visit?

If you ever visit Iraq, it’s probably best to tell your parents about the trip after you return. That’s what my friend Jennifer Martin did, and she says it saved her parents from lots of (mostly) needless worry.

Jennifer has just returned from a week-long tour of Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous, surprisingly safe region of northern Iraq. (Venture further afield than Kurdistan and you’re asking for trouble.) While most people would balk at visiting an area of the world virtually synonymous with war, Jennifer did some research about Kurdistan’s security situation and decided to go for it, a decision which guarantees her an automatic victory in just about any travel-related pissing match.

I recently asked her a couple questions about visiting northern Iraq– whether it’s really safe to visit, what are some of the region’s highlights, and how locals reacted upon meeting her. Here’s what she had to say…

1. Most people would never dream of visiting Iraq because of concerns about their safety. How did you decide to visit the region of Kurdistan and, perhaps more importantly, how did you know it would be safe?I was deciding where I should visit during a week-long break from school, and my ideas consisted of Portugal, Spain, and Tunisia. The problem was that I couldn’t justify spending money on arbitrarily picking a destination included on every Euro-backpacker’s “must-see” list. I e-mailed my well-traveled friend for advice, and he responded, “Come with my friend and me to Iraqi Kurdistan.” My initial reaction was not to thoughts of danger; rather, I immediately asked myself, “What do I really know about Iraq other than the information circulated by the media?” I was surprised by how much I knew about its ancient history and how little I knew about its recent history. Thus, I started to learn and decided to live by the phrase, “Instead of asking ‘why,’ ask ‘why not’.”

Well, I didn’t know it would be safe. Just like I don’t know that it will be safe walking to my car after a late-night baseball game in the States. Aside from the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan has maintained relative peace for several years now, the additional reasons I believed Iraqi Kurdistan was (is) safe for travel are twofold. First, I scrolled through several travel blogs of people who visited Iraqi Kurdistan as well as recent news in the area to ensure that all was calm. Secondly, the media and the news greatly exaggerate conditions in a country. Travel advisories for Vienna, one of the safest cities in the world, warn of kidnappings. Even in my hometown of St. Louis, travel warnings mention the risk of a massive earthquake. It’s ridiculous. If we listened to the media, we’d never leave our homes. If you do your homework and be responsible, the chances of danger are greatly reduced.

2. What are some attractions and activities in northern Iraq that travelers might be interested in?

Because travelers to Iraqi Kurdistan receive a 10-day travel pass, there is not a lengthy amount of time to see the region unless an extended visa is obtained. Generally, public parks and large bazaars can be found at the center of each city, and the landscape of the Kurdistan countryside is incredible.

Over the course of our travels, we visited the cities of Dohuk, Amadiya, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Halabja. Erbil is home to one of the oldest bazaars and to the Citadel, arguably the oldest continually inhabited place in the world. From Dohuk, day trips to Amadiya, Lalish, and Gali Ali Beg Canyon are possible. Located approximately 30km outside of Dohuk, Lalish is the sacred city of the Yazidi faith. Amadiya, approximately 60 km from Dohuk, is a small village built on a plateau and situated amongst mountains. Traveling to Gali Ali Beg Canyon is somewhat more difficult, but it is one of the most scenic places in Iraq.

The most impressive sight on our trip came in Sulaymaniyah at Amna Suraka, the headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service during Saddam’s regime. This prison operated as a facility for the imprisonment, torture, and death of thousands of Kurds. It has been maintained in its condition since the 1991 uprising by the Kurdish Peshmerga: tanks border the courtyard, bullet holes coat the walls and blankets still lie on the ground in the cells.

Additionally in Sulamaniyah, travelers can visit the Slemani Museum, which holds artifacts from 15,000 BC. A short distance from Sulay is Halabja, the city known as the place where the Ba’ath party dropped chemical weapons on the Kurdish residential areas, killing over 5,000. A museum located before the city’s entrance commemorates this event, and within the city, one can find the Halabja cemetery.

There are other activities and sights to where travelers can visit by looking through travel blogs and performing independent research.

3. Did you meet many (or any) fellow travelers during your time in Kurdistan? How were your experiences with the locals while you were there?

We only encountered one other traveler, a nice Canadian guy named Sean. We first met him while crossing the Turkish-Iraqi border and again while at the Citadel in Erbil. It was an enjoyable and unique experience being the only tourists for the majority of the time. Often people looked at us in a friendly-but-curious manner.

The locals were some of the friendliest people that I’ve encountered. They were welcoming, willing and eager to help with any of our questions, and happy to speak with us. If someone couldn’t speak English, he or she would use hand gestures to make “small talk” or to explain a point. Further, we put 100% of our trust in the shared taxi system and in the locals for help in navigating our way around the region. It was never necessary to haggle for a price, and we were never swindled.

Lastly, my friends and I always felt safe. While traveling between cities, we would encounter numerous checkpoints; however, they were never a hassle. Even several of the Iraqi Kurdistan military members at these checkpoints were noticeably friendly and expressed joy upon seeing that American tourists were visiting their country.

4. Any advice for someone considering a trip to Kurdistan? Would you recommend it as an off-the-beaten-path travel destination?

First, check out the latest travel blogs, websites, and message boards. Fortunately, many travelers have provided detailed accounts of their trips on the internet which serve as great guides on places to see, what to expect, and how to travel in the region.

Without a doubt, I would recommend Iraqi Kurdistan as a destination for travelers who don’t mind keeping their plans very flexible and who can go with the flow. The locals are wonderful, the sights are incredible, and the learning opportunities are numerous.

Thanks so much for chatting with us about your trip, Jennifer! For more, check out Jennifer’s blog for five excellent, photofilled posts about her visit to Iraq.

[Photos courtesy of Jennifer Martin]

Preserving the literary treasures of Timbuktu

Mali has been getting a bad rap lately with the kidnapping of a French aid worker and travel warnings about the dangers of terrorism, all thanks to Al-Qaeda’s local band of nutcases. But like everywhere else there are more good people than bad in Mali and they’ve been working hard to preserve a unique literary heritage in the famous city of Timbuktu.

Timbuktu is often thought of as a remote place, but it stands at an important point for the trade routes between West and North Africa. In the Middle Ages it was the center of a powerful empire and home to one of the first universities in the world. Students from all over the Muslim world came hear to learn about science, mathematics, geography, religion, philosophy, and more. Today the leading families of Timbuktu preserve the legacy of that golden age of learning–more than 100,000 handwritten manuscripts dating back as far as the 12th century. They cover a wide range of topics. The one pictured here is a treatise on astronomy.

Now these manuscripts will be available to the public thanks to the Ahmed Baba Institute, a state-of-the-art library built to preserve the crumbling documents and display them to the public. Several exhibitions are planned that will add historical context to one of the world’s more popular adventure destinations. The collection of manuscripts will be a lengthy process. Nobody knows just how many families in Timbuktu and other part of Mali have treasures squirreled away, so the institute should be seeing a lot of growth and changes in the coming years.

An interesting video about the project can be seen here.

Arabic T-Shirt incident comes to a close with a $240,000 check

It has been 3 years since we reported about Raed Jarrar. This US citizen passed through security at JFK in 2006, got a secondary security search, and was then apprehended at the gate by an airport cop and a JetBlue employee.

See, Raed committed the “horrible” crime of wearing a T-Shirt with some Arabic words. The words on his shirt did not translate to “terrorist,” nor did they warn people that he was going to hijack their flight. The T-Shirt merely said “we will not be silenced,” in Arabic and English.

JetBlue eventually allowed Raed to board his flight, but not until he agreed to cover up his T-Shirt — and to sit in the back of the plane.

Passengers had reportedly complained to the gate staff that the T-Shirt made them feel uncomfortable, and they compared it to someone walking into a bank with a T-Shirt saying “I am a robber.”

Raed finally got some justice, when the TSA and JetBlue awarded him $240,000 in damages. Raed was assisted in his case by the ACLU.

In a day and age where people get paranoid for all the wrong reasons, I’m hoping this incident reminds everyone that not everyone who looks like a Muslim is a terrorist, and not everything in Arabic is warning of impending doom.

You can read more about the case, including a video clip with more details of the incident on the ACLU web site.

Photojournalist Offers Glimpses into the Muslim World

Veteran photojournalist Alexandra Avakian has spent much of her twenty-plus year career working for prestigious magazines like Time and National Geographic and newspapers like The NY Times. Much of her work has been focused on the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Northern Africa. Stints in Iran, Somalia, Gaza and amongst American Muslims has given her ample opportunity to photograph the adherents of Islam in many different settings, both religious and cultural. A sampling of some of her best work is coming out in a photo-book published by Nat Geo. It is titled Windows of the Soul: My Journeys in the Muslim World. Avakian has also started a blog, which has the same title as her book, on National Geographic’s web site. The blog is an interesting introduction to her work. Avakian reminisces about things like visiting a movie set in Iran and learning how the country’s leading actress got around the strict theocratic laws by donning wigs and being hush-hush while applying make-up. While Avakian has by no means produced a definitive work on Muslims (I don’t think that was her goal), she offers a unique and human take on a culture that is often in the press, but not usually seen in-depth.

[Via American Photo’s State of the Art]