Image of peril hides Baghdad's charm

The Life: Iraq is not the first country that comes to mind as a top 10 travel destination after more than eight years of war, but more business travellers are making the trip.
Baghdad intellectuals frequent Al Mutanabbi Street. Ahmad al Rubaye / AFP
Baghdad intellectuals frequent Al Mutanabbi Street. Ahmad al Rubaye / AFP

Iraq is not the first country that comes to mind as a top-10 travel destination after more than eight years of war there. A stream of bad news over the years has kept most people away.

But Baghdad, the capital, is experiencing an influx of business professionals as foreign companies such as Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum make major investments in the country.

For those brave enough to wander beyond a company's compound and with enough time to explore the city between meetings, Al Mutanabbi Street, which is named after the 10th-century poet Abu Tayib Al Mutanabbi, is a good place to see. This area is known as the heart and soul of the Baghdad intellectual community, and many publishing houses, printing companies and bookstores have their main offices there.

The Shabandar Cafe, founded in 1917, is a place on Al Mutanabbi Street where generations of Iraqis gather to discuss literature and politics and sip "chai Istikan". Istikan is similar to the shape of a cup, except that it is thinner in the middle and smaller than a regular tea cup. Nearby is Firdos Square, where a statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled by US forces in 2003, symbolising the end of Hussein's rule.

A few steps away is Al Rasheed Street, designed by the Ottomans in 1916 in a Parisian style. This street has figured in much of Baghdad's history: Sunnis and Shiites planned the overthrow of British rule in 1920 at Hayder Khana Mosque; a communist uprising filled the street in 1948; and Saddam Hussein began his political career there in 1959, in an assassination attempt on Abdul Kareem Qassim, the country's first prime minister. For art lovers, Hewar, or Dialogue Gallery, is a must-see in north Baghdad's Waziriya neighbourhood. It is run by Qasim Sabti and is a main salon for debates and art exhibitions. The gallery offers works by local Iraqi artists for sale.

The Hunting Club, a favourite location among western journalists, has a number of swimming pools, tennis courts, well-kept gardens and a cinema. It also includes a wedding hall, a barber and hairdresser's shop, plus several restaurants and an internet cafe. The club was founded in the 1920s for bird collectors and amateur hunters.

The Quote: "We’ve persevered because of a belief we share with the Iraqi people – a belief that out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilisation." Barack Obama, US president

halsayegh@thenational.ae

Published: November 7, 2011 04:00 AM

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