x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

New threat to a tranquil island: tourism

With a kind of fragile stability settling over parts of Iraq, problems that were once pushed aside are rising to the surface.

A young resident of Aziziyah island in the middle of the Tigris River. There are suggestions the island should become a tourist resort.
A young resident of Aziziyah island in the middle of the Tigris River. There are suggestions the island should become a tourist resort.

AZIZIYAH, IRAQ // With a kind of fragile stability settling over parts of Iraq, problems that were once pushed aside by an overwhelming flood of violence are rising to the surface. For the residents of Aziziyah island, peace has brought with it that most nefarious of threats to their way of life - tourism. A series of wars over the past three decades have to some extent passed by the tranquil and picturesque island in the centre of the Tigris river, 60km south of Baghdad. The families living there are poor farmers, they are Shiites in a Shiite area, and the land has no strategic value. For these reasons, during the most recent war, the US forces and their enemies did not bother going there. Even under Saddam Hussein, the farmers were largely allowed to go about their business unmolested. Not interested in politics, they grew their crops, ferried them to the mainland and sold them at the market in Aziziyah city. However, with local officials looking to the future and eyeing lucrative business opportunities, there is talk that the eight-kilometre-long island should be turned into a resort. It may be in a shabby state of repair, the theory goes, but it is undeniably beautiful and would be a huge hit with people wanting to have a weekend away from the crippling stress of Baghdad, Iraq's teeming capital. "I reject any plans to turn our home into a place for holiday makers," said Minar Khalaf, the most senior figure on the island. "We don't want them here, and we don't want the government's investment plans. "I have been here for 50 years, and I have put sweat, my life, everything I have into this place. If they wanted to get me out of here, they would have to pay me for that. "In fact, even if they gave me US$1 million (Dh3.7m), I would not go anywhere. What would I do? I want to work, I want to be on the island, not living as an idle man in the city. Do you know how many birds I have seen born on the island? Do you know how many sunsets and sunrises? How could I give that up?" Any plans for a resort, on what is government-owned land, are at the moment vague and not likely to happen any time soon. There is still not so much as a footbridge from the island to the mainland - one supposedly has been in the pipeline for years but has never materialised - and as long as that link does not exist, the islanders are hopeful that tourist development will not come. "Our best chance is that the government in Iraq is always a big failure, whatever they try to do is not successful, so if they want a resort here, we should rest easily that it will not happen," said Mr Khalaf, 58. Although the island is a kind of rural idyll - shoes hang from the gates, a symbol that roughly translates as "don't envy the island her beauty" - life there is difficult for its 20 families. Some of the boys take a boat across the water to go to school each day, while the girls forgo their education entirely. For those needing medical care, getting them to a hospital involves a tricky river crossing. "Sometimes we eat well, sometimes not so well," said Arsham Hassan, a 30-year-old whose family sold their house in a mainland village to move to the island when he was five. And pollution is taking its toll on the Tigris and the productivity of the agricultural land. "The water coming down from Baghdad now is filthy," Mr Khalaf said. "In the past, the river was much higher, and much cleaner. The river seems to be dying, I've never seen it in a worse condition. "The Turkish have built their dams and the Iraqi government poisoned it by adding water from a salty lake. "The water is so bad that none of us would drink it. We have to buy bottled water in town and bring it here." Despite the universal concern among the farmers that they will one day be turfed off the lands they have worked, some wish the government would come and help improve their lot. "I was born on the island and it's where I belong," said Hussein Khalaf, a 37-year-old father of six. "We've given our lives to this place, but the future looks difficult. "If we got some support from the government we could improve, if not we will just be stuck in the same condition. "I want my daughters to go to school. I would like to be able to afford my own house. These are simple things, but they would change the circumstances of our lives." psands@thenational.ae nlatif@thenational.ae