ARTSPACE London Showcases Photography Of Iraqi Artist Halim Al Karim

ARTSPACE London is one of London’s lesser-known art venues for out-of-town visitors. It opened in May of 2012 and focuses on Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish art. The original ARTSPACE is in Dubai, and the owners decided to open a London branch to expose these Eastern artists to a Western audience.

The latest London exhibition is of Iraqi photographer Halim Al Karim, opening this year to mark the tenth anniversary of the invasion that led to the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government.

Al Karim felt the oppression of that regime as much as any Iraqi. He was an opponent of the dictatorship and refused to serve his compulsory military service. To avoid being imprisoned and tortured by Saddam’s goons, he hid out in the desert for three years, where he lived in a hole in the ground and was fed by local Bedouin.

How that experience morphed into the surreal yet delicate image shown here is for the viewer to resolve. His show, “Witness from Baghdad,” displays a range of works from throughout his career. Many confront the issues of war and oppression head on, yet always in a creative and distinct way.

“Halim Al Karim: Witness from Baghdad 2013 runs until February 23. If you won’t be in London in time to catch it, show up at ARTSPACE London anyway. It’s fast becoming a landmark on the London art scene.

For more on contemporary Iraq, see our series on traveling in Iraq.

[Photo courtesy ARTSPACE London]

Kurdistan: The Other Iraq

Families out for an evening stroll, friends sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes, tourists seeing the sights without a police escort – am I still in Iraq?

Sort of.

I’m in Kurdistan, an autonomous region made up of Iraq’s three northernmost provinces. The Kurds kicked out Saddam in 1991 after suffering years of bloody persecution, and they’ve pretty much been doing their own thing ever since. I never saw an Iraqi flag flying in the Kurdish region, only the Kurdish “regional” flag that everyone seems to look to as their national flag. The region even has its own national anthem. The Kurdish government also acts independently at times, such as making oil deals with foreign companies even though they’re supposed to be approved by Baghdad.

Erbil, the region’s capital, is a boomtown. New buildings are going up everywhere and the shops are full of expensive products and people who can afford to buy them. Auto dealerships, electronics stores, and swank restaurants are everywhere. There’s a relaxed, optimistic mood in the air.

The Kurds have reason to be optimistic. A distinct people with their own culture and language, their population stretches across several international boundaries. Kurds are found in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Being a minority with a strong sense of independence has meant they’ve faced persecution in all of these countries. Now they have their own region and they’re doing well for themselves. Kurdistan has the lowest rate of poverty in Iraq thanks to a booming oil and gas industry.

There’s even a tourism industry. This is the one part of Iraq where you can travel individually, and an increasing number of curious Westerners are doing just that. Kurdistan’s mixture of ancient sites, functioning cities and rugged mountains has a lot to offer.

%Gallery-172501%Like everywhere else in the Middle East, foreign visitors are treated with curiosity and hospitality. Tourism isn’t big enough here yet for visitors to be pestered by carpet sellers like in Istanbul or Cairo. The relaxed vibe extends to everyone. As we visited the impressive Erbil citadel, a medieval fortress built atop ruins stretching back at least 7,000 years, we had a steady stream of people welcome us to Kurdistan (always Kurdistan, never Iraq) and chat with us as much as their English would allow.

We had people coming up to us all through Iraq, but here it was different. The locals were less surprised to see us, less anxious to know what we thought of their country. The Kurds show a confidence not seen in other parts of Iraq.

It’s difficult to judge a region after such a short visit. I only got to hang out in Erbil for a day, plus see some ancient Assyrian sites and an Iraqi Christian monastery. My impressions are only first impressions and I’m sure I missed a lot. The Kurdish hinterland, with its various factions and ethnic groups, is a mystery to me that would require another long visit to even partially unravel.

There’s no doubt that Kurdistan has its share of problems. Not everyone is profiting from the good economy and ethnic minorities complain they aren’t getting their fair cut. Still, I get the sense that they’re better off than in other parts of Iraq. The oil industry is booming and the leaders of the various factions are keeping a lid on the worst of the violence in order to make money. That’s something the factions in the rest of Iraq, intent on getting the whole pie for themselves, just don’t understand. They’re wrecking the very economy they’re trying to control.

Example: on my first day in Baghdad I ditched my guards and went to the market to find my son an Iraq National team football uniform. I nearly got arrested by the Iraqi police and didn’t even get the uniform. The security situation made the cops jittery and the market streets were clogged by a series of checkpoints. This, of course, hurts businesses. In Erbil, I wandered freely through a busy market and after a bit of hunting in a new, clean shopping mall found a uniform in my son’s size. When I paid for it the shopkeeper added my money to a huge wad of notes he pulled from his pocket. Business was good that day.

I was happy, the shopkeeper was happy, and my son was happy. The difference between Baghdad and Erbil really comes down to that – stability brings prosperity, and that’s better for everyone.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “A Family Night Out In Baghdad!”

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Bottom photo by Rob Hammond]

Ghosts Of A Dictatorship: Visiting Saddam Hussein’s Palaces

The name “Babylon” brings up two associations – that of an ancient city in Iraq, and of a place of sin and decadence. It’s only fitting then that Saddam Hussein erected one of his palaces on a hill overlooking the ancient site of Babylon.

This is only one of 70 such palaces, many built during the UN sanctions while Saddam’s people were short on food and medicine. Many Iraqis complained the sanctions did nothing to hurt the dictator, and this Babylon-on-a-hill seems proof of that.

Saddam had palaces in every corner of the country, and this one and another I visited in Basra are both opulent, even though they’ve been stripped of everything even remotely valuable, even the wiring. They were once fitted with the finest rugs and gilded furniture. There are rumors that there were solid gold toilets.

These empty, echoing shells are the only thing left of a huge cult of personality. Saddam’s face used to be everywhere. Statues stood at every intersection, giant murals decorated every neighborhood. He was a constant presence in the media. Saddam used to joke that if an Iraqi family’s TV broke, all they had to do was tape a poster of him on the screen. Now there are only empty plinths and whitewashed walls, and the Iraqis watch satellite channels from Europe and Dubai.

You’ll have a hard time finding Iraqis who will say anything good about Saddam Hussein. Even those who hated the sanctions, bombings and eventual invasion are glad he’s gone. Of all the people I talked to in my 17 days here I only found two guys, workers in a roadside tea stand, had something positive to say about his rule.

“In Saddam’s time Iraq was strong. Now it’s weak,” they said.

True enough as far as it goes, but Saddam’s megalomania was what brought Iraq to ruin and the vast majority of Iraqis understand this. During his reign everyone pretended to love him, because to act otherwise was to court death. In their hearts, though, they hated him. It must have galled the Iraqis to see his image everywhere, and to think about the treasures that filled his palaces.

All those treasures are gone now, except for one sad reminder of a pot-bellied dictator and his limitless greed. In a dark side room on the second story of the Babylon palace, I came across the shattered bowl of a gold-painted toilet. Not solid gold, sadly, just gold paint. Must have been the guest bathroom. It was good enough for me. I’d been in the bus for a long time and there was no other bathroom available so …

%Gallery-171444%Yeah, baby!!!!! Gadling dumps on the dictatorship!

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Beer run in Basra!”

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Shameless bottom photo taken by a laughing Per Steffensen. He was laughing with me, not at me. Really.]

Visiting The Sacred Sites Of Shia Islam

“She wants you to take her picture,” a man said when the old woman in the black abaya came up to me.

We were standing in the mosque of Imam Husayn in Karbala, Iraq. This is one of the holiest shrines for Shia Islam. It was near here that Imam Husayn, son of Imam Ali, was killed along with his supporters by the Caliph Yazid. The Shia believe that Ali and Hussein were the rightful successors to the Prophet Mohammad. The Sunnis believe that the Ummayid Caliphs like Yazid had that honor. For the Shia, Husayn’s martyrdom has become a symbol of their oppression at the hands of corrupt governments.

I got that message loud and clear as soon as I raised my camera.

The woman tore into a litany about the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, describing his justness, his bravery, and his death at the hands of treacherous soldiers. I couldn’t follow it all but I knew the story, how a massive army surrounded Husayn and his few dozen followers in the desert, how the women and children begged for water and were shot with arrows. How the men fought bravely and were killed off one by one. The woman started crying, her voice breaking as it increased in volume.

I wondered who else she was crying for.

During the rule of Saddam Hussein – a Sunni – the Shia got kicked around. Many disappeared into his jails and torture chambers. Their neighborhoods always got fewer municipal funds. They were the last hired and first fired. Then Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990.
The U.S.-led forces soon pushed the Iraqi army out of Kuwait and President Bush called on the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam. Shia, Kurds, and some Sunnis answered that call. The rebels took over several key cities and most of the provinces. Saddam had all the heavy weaponry, though. Saddam had the tanks. The rebels called on the U.S. for help.

The U.S. government launched some missiles, extended the no-fly zone, and said some very nasty things about Saddam, but otherwise did nothing.

Saddam’s reprisals were terrible. Nobody knows how many civilians were killed. The mass graves are still being discovered. There was more than just religious fervor coming out of that woman, there was a lifetime of suffering. I doubt there’s a single Shia in Iraq who doesn’t know someone who died because of Saddam.

%Gallery-171120%The old woman finished her testimony and she gestured that I could go. As I walked away I kept turning back to see her watching me, tears in her eyes.

It seemed that everyone in the mosque wanted to talk with me, and it was the same in the shrine to Imam Ali in Najaf. As I sat on plush carpets under exquisite tile ceilings, the melodious sounds of Arabic prayers in the background, people kept coming up to me. Some were curious and asked where I was from and why I was there. Once I answered these questions they had reached the end of their English. They welcomed me, smiled and moved on. Others had better English and stopped to chat.

Parents pushed their kids forward to practice their English lessons. Others wanted to know if I was a Bosnian, the only European Muslims they were accustomed to seeing. Telling them I wasn’t a Muslim didn’t seem to make me any less welcome.

Many of the people I met were actually Iranian. Their country has an even greater Shia majority than Iraq, and has been ruled by Shia for centuries. Iranian pilgrims come to Iraq by the millions every year. Karbala and Najaf are almost as holy to the Shia as Mecca and Medina.

One of the best conversations was with two female engineering students from Iran. Bright eyed and friendly, they were delighted to learn that I’d been to their country and had visited that matchless city, Isfahan. There’s an old Persian proverb, “Esfahan Nesf-e Jahan” (“Esfahan is half the world”) and with its stunning mosques, soaring blue-green minarets, and sparkling river I couldn’t deny it.

The Shia shrines of Karbala and Najaf give Isfahan a run for its money, though. Some interiors are entirely made of multifaceted glass, with colored lights that make the walls and ceiling sparkle like jewels. Others have vast ceilings of paneled tiles like the one shown below. The graves of the martyrs are ornately decorated in gold, as are some of the doors.

Together the girls and I admired the architecture and they urged me to take my wife to Iran the next time I go.

“Oh, she would love it!” they said. “She should have come to Iraq too.”

“She was too scared to come.”

“Oh, it’s not dangerous,” they said.

I found their innocence touching. On second thought I realized they couldn’t be so naive. They were simply being welcoming. The Iranians did have more of a sense of optimism than the Iraqis. Although they, too, have had a succession of oppressive governments, at least they haven’t been persecuted for their faith.

It was pilgrimage season. The television was filled with images of the Hajj. People were visiting Karbala and Najaf in large numbers too. One night I flicked on the television in my hotel room and saw an announcer at the same mosque where I spoke with those Iranian students. It was a call-in show and as pilgrims mingled in the background, the announcer chatted with the callers.
They were almost exclusively women and almost all were crying. I couldn’t follow the conversations very well but I did pick up the names Husayn and Ali, as well as other male names, probably of the women’s relatives. And one name was repeated over and over again with a mixture of hatred and horror.

Saddam. Saddam. Saddam.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology, and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Iraq Street Art: Beautifying the Blast Walls!”

[Photos by Sean McLachlan]

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]