FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

The Homo Neanderthalensis Issue

Why Heart Iraq?

Hey! We were just partying down in Cartagena, Colombia, and guess who we bumped into? Bahaa Mayah.
2.3.08

Hey! We were just partying down in Cartagena, Colombia, and guess who we bumped into? Bahaa Mayah. You don’t know Bahaa? He’s the Iraqi Minister of Tourism. Yep, Iraq has a Ministry of Tourism. A country in which a good 50,000 people were blown up or shot last year and whose name is more or less synonymous with “hell on earth” has an entire department of the government solely dedicated to managing the affairs of people who’ve travelled there for fun. How’s that for optimism? Anyways, we ran into Bahaa and were like, “Dude, what are you doing in Cartagena? And don’t you feel that your post is at best a laughable sinecure and at worst a superfluous diversion of much needed funds away from the rest of the gaping bloody wound that is the Iraqi national government—I mean what do you even do at your office, write the number zero on a big easel every day then shrug and head home?” Turns out the answer to the first question is he was there for the biannual meeting of the UN’s World Tourism Organization (the other WTO) and the answer to the second is it’s a lot more complicated than that. Now we feel like dicks. Vice: OK, no offense or nothing, but why does Iraq have a Ministry of Tourism? Bahaa Mayah: We’re in charge of both tourism and national heritage. Besides its natural resources, it’s one of the richest countries on earth in terms of archaeology. Iraq is the cradle of civilization—we have over 10,000 sites that are registered by UNESCO or other official organisations. Mesopotamia, Babylon, Sumer all started in present-day Iraq. Fair enough, but wasn’t a good deal of the country’s ancient treasure absconded with right after the invasion? Yes. On the archaeological side, the situation sometimes makes me cry. Organized criminal networks from the Middle East and Europe are active in Iraq and use heavy machinery to demolish ancient sites just to extract a few objects for trafficking in international markets. There are UN resolutions concerning archaeology in Iraq, but not so many countries are abiding by the rules and so we are forced to stand by and see our national identity destroyed. Of course Iraq’s archaeology does not belong to Iraqis alone. It is the history of the entire world. The political borders in place now were not there thousands of years ago. These societies were all of our ancestors, so you’d think the world would stand together to fight trafficking and trading ancient artifacts in international markets. It’s so painful when it comes to our attention that auctioneers in London, Europe, Germany, or over the internet are selling Iraqi objects. Is there any way for you to stop this? Of course we try, but we can’t do much more than sending emails. You know how costly it is to hire lawyers and we do not have those kinds of funds. In Spain they seized about 23 items that were exported from England. I went with our ambassador in Madrid to see the people at the Spanish Ministry of Culture. I asked to look at the objects, but they said I couldn’t because I needed some court document from a judge. “OK,” I said, “Can I get that today?” They told me it was impossible and that it would take a long time to get a decision from a judge just to see the items. We cannot afford to go through this whole process every time artifacts turn up in foreign markets. We are now looking at drafting a resolution to be adopted by the UN to prevent the trafficking and selling and even having at home any of these antiquities. These belong to where they came from. You cannot just take something that does not belong to you. It’s painful when you go to visit museums in Berlin, London, and Paris and you see what you see there. How are all these civilized nations standing by and allowing this to happen? I think this is the responsibility of everyone and especially the media. Your support is essential to us. We are going through very tough times. We cannot protect 10,000 archaeological sites—this is impossible even in a stable country. What you see on TV is only guns and fighting, but nobody talks about this other kind of terrorism that is taking place. The terrorism we always hear about will end one day, but if you demolish archaeological sites we will never get them back. Can’t you go after the middlemen in these sales, like the auction houses and websites? The organizations selling our antiquities are in business—they’re out to make a profit, they do not care about history or archaeology and so they must be forced to abide by international law. We do not blame the auction houses themselves though, we blame the governments for allowing those auctions to take place. If it happens in Germany we blame the German government, in the United States we blame the US government. We will never see any results from simply blaming the big auction houses—we all know who they are—and eBay. These thefts do not just happen by chance. It is all completely organized and we need the world to step up and help crack down on the networks of criminals responsible. Back to the matter of Iraqi tourism though, is there any? Sure. Aside from archaeological sites, Iraq is full of holy sites and holy shrines for Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. We now have countries asking us to send tourists to Iraq but we have to ask them not to. Keep in mind this is without us spending any money on advertising. We have to say no because we lack both the infrastructure and security, but if we can improve these things we expect to get three or four million tourists in three or four years. We don’t have a way to measure tourists properly yet, but right now we probably get about 2,000 people a day, mainly coming from Iran to the holy sites in Najaf and Karbala. That’s about 700,000 a year with the current situation. That’s way more than I would have guessed. Of course, terrorism and tourism don’t get along. Tourism is about peace and terrorism is about killing. So before we can have any tourism in Iraq we will have to deal with terrorism. Once we can actually offer tourism to Iraq the financial impact will reach ordinary citizens, and I also think that security will increase. You know, some people take up weapons and terrorism because they have nothing else to do. Once we fight poverty we’ll also be fighting terrorism. INTERVIEW BY RAINBO BLUE