Hotel poses challenge for tribal tradition in Iraq

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A room of the Rose Plaza Hotel is pictured in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province on October 3, 2018. (AFP)
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A room in the Rose Plaza Hotel is pictured in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar province on October 3, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 05 November 2018
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Hotel poses challenge for tribal tradition in Iraq

  • A sense of hospitality is paramount, with any outsiders being invited to eat a hearty meal and stay overnight in a resident’s home

RAMADI, Iraq: The opening of a new hotel is posing a challenge to tribal customs in western Iraq’s Anbar province, where locals traditionally welcome outsiders into their homes.
In the heart of Ramadi, the provincial capital, a tall building is lit up with neon lights. “Rose Plaza Hotel” reads a bright sign in Arabic and English.
The 80-bed hotel, built by a young Iraqi businessman, has caused a stir in Anbar, the vast desert province to the west of Baghdad that extends to the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Wearing a suit and with his hair slicked back, hotelier Mohammed Kassar stands ready to defend his project.
“We are the province of generosity and hospitality,” said the 29-year-old.
“But it’s a joke that a province which covers a third of Iraq, looks out onto three countries and is a commercial hub, doesn’t have a hotel.”
Anbar has come far.
A longtime bastion of the anti-US insurgency, it was later overran by the Islamic State (IS) group and became off-limits to tourists or investors on business trips.
But since Ramadi was retaken by Iraqi authorities in 2016, reconstruction, new housing and commercial projects have sprung up, attracting entrepreneurs from across Iraq.
Louai Rafe, an Iraqi businessman, was happy to have found Rose Plaza.
He thought he could finish some administrative work in Anbar and return the same day to the capital Baghdad, 100 kilometers (60 miles) away.
But the work took longer than he expected and he decided to book into the new hotel.
“Whenever I came here, I used to sleep at a friend’s house, and I was embarrassed to bother him again,” said Rafe.
“This hotel is really welcome, it makes everyone’s life easier.”

But in Anbar, life is governed by the region’s tribes and their ancestral customs.
A sense of hospitality is paramount, with any outsiders being invited to eat a hearty meal and stay overnight in a resident’s home.
Houses are even built with such a welcome in mind, as the diwaniya or reception hall must be the largest and most impressive room.
This remains true even if it means cutting down on space for the family.
The only previous attempt to open a hotel in Ramadi was a failure, evident from the unfinished and abandoned building in the city center.
The Turkish firm behind the hotel was forced to abandon the project in 2014, when IS overran the city. Residents jest that even the jihadists stayed away from the building.
But some Anbar residents are keen to take advantage of the new hotel, such as 28-year-old Mohammed Ahmed who has reserved a room for his honeymoon.
“I didn’t have anywhere to go and the hotel is a good alternative,” said Ahmed, his beard neatly trimmed and wearing a crisp white shirt.
The owner also aims to attract business clients, holding out hope to welcome delegates for reconstruction conferences and summits on Iraq’s post-IS future.
But for some residents, the arrival of the hotel remains a threat to the region’s customs.
“These hotels never exited in the traditions of our fathers and our grandfathers,” said Sheikh Ibrahim Khalil Al-Hamed, a 52-year-old tribal dignitary.
Hamed, wearing a white bedouin scarf and black robe, said the tribes have always been known for welcoming visitors.
“These hotels destroy our reputation,” he said.


Back to the future: cassettes launch comeback tour

Updated 24 March 2019
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Back to the future: cassettes launch comeback tour

  • The niche revival has faced a global shortage of music-quality magnetic tape needed for production
  • ‘It died in 2000, as far as conventional wisdom was concerned, and it has made a strong comeback since’

NEW YORK: The humble cassette — that tiny little plastic rectangle containing the homemade mixtapes of yesteryear — is back, joining vinyl as a darling of audiophiles who miss side A and side B.
But as top musicians including Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber release their music on tape and demand continues to climb, the niche revival has faced a global shortage of music-quality magnetic tape needed for production.
Now, two facilities — one in the American Midwest and the other in western France — have stepped in to meet the need.
“It’s a good place to be — there’s plenty of business for both of us,” said Steve Stepp, who founded the National Audio Company in Springfield, Missouri with his father 50 years ago.
He said that around 2000 the “imperial hegemony of the CD” cut his business, which stayed alive as a major manufacturer of books on tape that remained popular.
But despite the astronomical rise of streaming, Stepp said rock bands like Pearl Jam and The Smashing Pumpkins began seeking to manufacture anniversary tapes in the mid-2000s, launching a cassette comeback tour.
“That convinced major record labels that there was still life in the cassette as a music form,” he said.
Several years ago, National Audio bought 300,000 reels of tape from a South Korean company that gave up music-grade tape production.
As that stockpile began to shrink, his facility in November 2016 was faced with a choice: either make reels, or fold.
His business invested several million dollars buying up old equipment from defunct production facilities, and last year National Audio manufactured 18 million audio cassettes, Stepp said, selling to 3,500 record labels globally.
“I think it’s got a bright future,” Stepp said of the cassette market. “It died in 2000, as far as conventional wisdom was concerned, and it has made a strong comeback since.”
“Reports of its death were greatly exaggerated.”
Since November, Mulann — a small French company near Mont Saint Michel — has also rebooted production, the country’s first manufacturing of music-grade tape in two decades.
Already selling magnetic tape for metro tickets or military recording studios, the Mulann group acquired a plant to produce analog audio tapes under the trademark Recording The Masters.
For Jean-Luc Renou, Mulann’s CEO, there’s still a place for analog sound in today’s ephemeral music world.
“Take the example of heating: you have radiators at home. It’s comfortable, it’s digital — but next to you, you can make a good fire.”
“Pleasure” is the goal, he said: “That’s the cassette or vinyl.”
The company sells tapes for €3.49 each, producing them by the thousands each month and exporting 95 percent worldwide, according to commercial director Theo Gardin.
The 27-year-old admits he didn’t know in his youth the joys — and pains — of the Walkman personal tape player, or the delicate strip of tape that tangles up and must be rewound with, say, a pen. Or a finger.
According to Stepp, it’s precisely 20-somethings like Gardin fast-forwarding demand, as young people seek something tangible in the Internet age.
Urban Outfitters — an American clothing brand catering to hipster types that also sells electronics — on its site spells out the mixtape process.
“If you’ve never spent 3-5 hours sitting by the radio, waiting for that one Hanson song to come on so you could add it to your mixtape, get pumped: you can now relive that experience,” it says.
“Let those ‘90s vibes wash over you, man.”
Cassette tape album sales in the US grew by 23 percent in 2018, according to tracker Nielsen Music, jumping from 178,000 copies the year prior to 219,000.
It’s nothing compared to 1994 sales of 246 million cassette albums, but significant considering the format was all but dead by the mid-2000s.
“As an old fogey I don’t want to imagine a world with no analog,” Stepp said. “The world around is analog; our ears are analog.”
“Digital recordings are very clean and sharp but there are no harmonics. These are digital pictures of audio recordings, if you will.”
Bobby May, a 29-year-old buyer at Burger Records in southern California, said that while “physical media in itself is a totally antiquated idea,” cassette sound has what he called a uniqueness.
“The consumer public is fickle and trends always change, but for the foreseeable future, I know tons of people will stay pretty crazy for records and vinyl.”
Last year vinyl saw revenues hit their highest level since 1988, totaling $419 million — an eight percent jump from the previous year.
Though vinyl’s sound quality is unquestionably superior to cassettes, May said tapes’ low cost makes them ideal for collectors.
“I still like stuff pilin’ up around me,” May laughed, adding that he probably has 500 tapes from Burger.
In addition to the homemade and indie cassettes, he cherishes several mainstream albums as well.
“I have a prized ‘Baby One More Time’ cassette,” he said, referring to pop princess Britney Spears’ debut album. “It looks great on my shelf.”