Being one of the leading voices of Iraqi tourism and a crusader of the return that country’s pillaged and looted antiquities might sound like a thankless task. But to Bahaa Mayah, its a mission. It is a perilous mission that he is dedicated to the point that he has set off to campaign in the upcoming national elections.
We spoke to Mayah on a visit to his family in Canada shortly before setting off to Bagdad in the launch of his campaign for a poll that promises to be both bloody and acrimonious.
Mayah fled Iraq in the 1970s for the Persian Gulf region almost four decades ago when a young bureaucrat at Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign trade. Eventually he settled in the Canadian city of Montreal.
After the fall of Iraqi strongman Sadaam Hussein, Mayah returned to his home-country to become a ministerial adviser to Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Mayah focused much of his mandate to a campaign to raise international awareness of the systematic looting and pillaging of Iraq’s archeological treasures in the aftermath of the US military invasion of the country.
Following the US invasion of Iraq some 15,000 objects were looted from the Iraqi National Museum including statues, ancient texts and precious ancient jewelry. While approximately half has been recovered, others have appeared on the international market. It is believed that almost 100,000 items have disappeared through widespread looting in recent years.
In order to help stop the looting Mayah, who claims that illicit proceeds of these sales have funded terrorism, has called for a ban on the sale of archeological relics from Iraq – appealing to the UN Security Council. His calls have largely been left largely unheeded.
And while talking about tourism development in a country dealing with challenging security issues, this country remains the “cradle of civilization,” the home of some 12,000 archeological sites and numerous ancient civilizations. Iraq, in better times, would be a natural tourism hotspot.
ontheglobe.com: What are the most important sites in Iraq for a potential tourist to visit? How accessible are these sites?
Bahaa Mayah: It may sound strange that we are promoting tourism to Iraq. At the moment and we are talking primarily about religious tourism. These are destined to mainly religious cities like Najaf and Kirbala, Baghdad and Samara. These cities are safe and we can say that the security situation is in very good shape. We are promoting this and getting good results and having a steady flow of tourists from countries like Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Lebanon. We opened an airport of Najaf last year, which allowed direct flights from those countries. I was very happy to see the reflections of this on the economy since these cities are flourishing and a lot of employment opportunities have been created. This proves that tourism is a way of fighting terrorism. Once people have jobs and the economy flourishes then terrorism will be on the decline. The international community should help in bringing peace to Iraq. We would then see a flow of tourists to our cultural and archeological sites.
It will take some time to achieve a certain level of security before we see tourism flourishing in Iraq. At the same time I am not very happy with the preparation of the tourism infrastructure in Iraq. It is not the fact of having archeological sites alone because tourists have and enjoy services that we do not have yet, and they do not yet fully have the attention of the government to develop these elements that are important to have a successful tourism industry.
ontheglobe.com: Can we talk about specific sites?
Bahaa Mayah: Some of the sites that could be developed in the short term include the city of Babylon. It is a relatively safe area where we could develop tourism activities. The sites of Ur and Nazaria are also relatively very safe. Some kind of tourism activities could be developed there. But this requires resources which we do not have.
ontheglobe.com: Are we talking about lacking roads, souvenir shops; or are we simply talking about basic security?
Bahaa Mayah: Roads and the infrastructure of transport is there, but we lack hotels, trained people and man-power, guides or even restaurants or hotels. For instance in Nazaria there is only one hotel which we can really consider. It’s not enough! A small hotel of fifty or sixty rooms is the equivalent of a four-star hotel. We need much more in order to develop tourism in many other cities. In Babylon we do not have any hotels. The only hotel which was a five star hotel right now is occupied by the international forces. They should be vacating this premise sometime soon. But in order to bring it back into its previous situation of a five-star hotel, you need the manpower and resources.
ontheglobe.com: We are aware that Babylon was used as a military base by the invading forces. What kind of damage was incurred?
Bahaa Mayah: Unfortunately Babylon was indeed used as a military base by the American and Polish troops. It was one of the disasters and began after the invasion of 2003. The damage is being dealt with by a special committee of UNESCO. We witnessed the use of heavy equipment the equivalent of a heavy military armada. This has resulted in damages to the site which I believe is one of the biggest disasters as an outcome of the war.
ontheglobe.com: Is the US government funding the restoration of the site?
Bahaa Mayah: They promised to help. They realized after some time after this incident their mistake. They are ready and they are trying to help. It’s a way of saying sorry.
ontheglobe.com: Take us back to 2003 when American troops first entered your country. Some 15,000 objects of cultural significance were looted from the Baghdad Museum. The ministry of oil, however, was protected and many see an irony in this. Many perceive this as the starting point of the problems in the field of archeology in Iraq.
Bahaa Mayah Wars do not bring prosperity to any nation, but it brings destruction. The crime that happened at the Iraqi museum at the fall of the regime in April of 2003 was one of the biggest disasters to our nation. We have nobody to blame but the United States and the forces who entered Iraq at the time. They should have born in mind that they had previous warnings from archeologists from all around the world that they should take care of the Iraqi Museum. They did not do anything at the time and they let people loot a museum. Approximately 15,000 objects were looted, half of which we were able to recover. The other half is floating around the world and we are facing non-cooperation from many nations in recovering them, and I include western nations. This brings the responsibility on the invading countries to help Iraq in recovering and repatriating the looted objects.
ontheglobe.com: What is your timetable for restoring mass tourism to Iraq and its archeological sites?
Bahaa Mayah: I do not want to rush things in Iraq regarding the tourism industry for our cultural and archeological sites unless we do secure the safety of the tourists coming to Iraq. I will not promote this kind of tourism unless I feel that as a government, security forces and infrastructure that we are ready to receive tourists – only then will I do everything possible to promote this kind of tourism to Iraq.
ontheglobe.com: Are you more optimistic today then you were a year ago?
Bahaa Mayah: I wish you asked me after the next election. The next election will be the most important of the past and future of Iraq. This will decide the destiny of this nation: who is going to govern Iraq and which direction the country will be taken. I am running myself in this election and I should be starting my campaign as soon as I get back to Iraq. Of course I wish that I will win I will make sure that I will take this issue of archeology and tourism in Iraq as much as I can from my next post. Having said that the past was very difficult.
Montreal-based cultural navigator Andrew Princz is the editor of the travel portal ontheglobe.com. He is involved in journalism, country awareness, tourism promotion and cultural-oriented projects globally. He has traveled to over fifty countries around the globe; from Nigeria to Ecuador; Kazakhstan to India. He is constantly on the move, seeking out opportunities to interact with new cultures and communities.