‘Looking for nothing’ in Iraq’s desert

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Updated 10 December 2012
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‘Looking for nothing’ in Iraq’s desert

At the end of a research trip to an oil field in east Iraq, Ruba Husari took a detour to visit a site she had wanted to see for some time. When she arrived it was barren — but still she was delighted.
Less than 10 kilometers (six miles) from the Iranian border, Husari’s destination was nondescript and unremarkable — a 20 minute walk from a pothole-filled road and several kilometers from the tiny village of Qalaat Muzeibleh, with the Badra oil field barely visible in the distance.
But the spot marked the exact geographic intersection of a latitude and longitude point — 33 degrees north and 46 degrees east — one of several in Iraq and around the world that adventurous travelers are looking to document as part of an Internet-based project.
“It’s a fantastic way of exploring the country,” said Husari, whose day job involves running the iraqoilforum.com website.
After successfully managing to locate and stand at the precise spot where the two lines intersected, she triumphantly raised a clenched fist and jokingly declared, “If they ever discover oil here, I’m claiming it!“
“It’s a risky adventure, but at the same time for me, it’s very rewarding,” she added, after taking a photo of her GPS receiver with the precise coordinates to show she was standing on the exact intersection.
“It allows me to visit so many places, to do things you wouldn’t do anywhere else.”
The visit to the “confluence point” was her sixth in Iraq in the past three years, having first been told about the Degree Confluence Project by Dubai-based friends who spent weekends camping in the Emirati desert and driving off-road vehicles, often in search of the points themselves.
Due to Iraq’s chronic instability and insecurity in recent years, few of the country’s confluence points have been documented.
Indeed tourism in Iraq remains in its infancy, with many prospective travelers wary of violence and poor infrastructure.
And so despite the country’s historic attractions, the vast majority of Iraq’s tourists are Shiite pilgrims visiting the many shrines to key figures in Shiite Islam.
Of Iraq’s 40 confluence points, just 14 have been “discovered,” many by Husari but also by others in the oil industry, and some American and British soldiers who were stationed near confluence points after the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
The Degree Confluence Project began in 1996, the brainchild of Alex Jarrett, who visited the intersection of 43 degrees north and 72 degrees west with a friend in the American state of New Hampshire after buying a GPS receiver.
It was the first of 15 such visits he made to various confluence points in the United States.
“It was a fun journey (to the first confluence point),” Jarrett, who is no longer actively involved in the project, told AFP by telephone.
“And I came up with the ridiculous idea that we should just randomly post a website and let’s visit all these points in the world and see what happens.” “I had no inkling that there would be very much interest.”
Since the project was founded, more than 6,000 confluence points from around the world have been documented on www.confluence.org, a volunteer-run website, but around 10,000 are still to be found, even after discounting intersection points in the oceans and near the Earth’s poles.
Husari’s own efforts have taken her on a multitude of adventures in Iraq — she has rowed a tiny canoe through the southern marshes and driven through the desert of Najaf province south of Baghdad, all armed with her Garmin GPS system and an array of Google Maps printouts.
She even had to abandon one attempt because those accompanying her refused to go further, warning she was straying into territory west of Baghdad where Al-Qaeda-linked militants still held significant sway.
Sometimes, though, while the trip can be an adventure, the destination itself yields little in the way of photographs or novelty.
“One time in Algeria, I had to cross beautiful big rolling sand dunes, I passed old antique Arab wells of water,” said Rod Maher, a 54-year-old seismology expert now living in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil. “But then when I hit the confluence point, it was all flat. There was nothing around. Getting to it was fun, though, and I saw things I wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Maher, a native of Dover in England, noted that the fun in searching for confluence points was the fact that you never knew what you would see.
“When you go to a country for the first time, you say, ‘OK, we’ll go see this temple,’ or something like that. But these confluence points are so random, it’s like a mini-adventure.”
“You’re going to a specific point, but you have no idea what’s there. It’s quite a bit sad, if I can say that,” he joked.
According to one former American soldier who managed to visit two Iraqi confluence points, part of the appeal of making it to one is the fact that “everybody wants to be Christopher Columbus.”
“Some of my relatives and friends don’t get it,” said the ex-intelligence officer, who asked that he only be identified as Scott because of restrictions involving his new job as a drone pilot. “If we were settlers in the 1800s, I’d be the guy going to the new frontier, I find that appealing.”
In 2005, while stationed in Iraq, Scott visited two confluence points — one with an American convoy that had to make a small detour in south Iraq, and another on a boat trip organized by British soldiers he was working with at the port of Umm Qasr.
Among the most difficult conversations many confluence-hunters face are those with perplexed locals, especially in remote locales where residents are suspicious of outsiders who claim to only be looking for otherwise unremarkable points on geographic maps.
“It’s difficult to tell them I’m trying to find a place that’s only recognizable on a map, on a piece of paper, or on my GPS,” said Husari, a British citizen of Palestinian descent.
“Usually people, they think I’m mad.”
“Some of the drivers and guys I take with me think I’m just mad, to go to the middle of the desert to look for, what is to them nothing.”
“Actually,” she added, “I am looking for nothing.”


Mariam’s journey to North Pole ‘an inspiration for Saudi women’

Crossing the unwelcoming terrain of the North Pole is not for the faint-hearted. Mariam Hamidaddin’s brave and inspirational journey to the top of the earth was ended by the threat of frostbite. Reuters
Updated 20 May 2018
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Mariam’s journey to North Pole ‘an inspiration for Saudi women’

  • Mariam Hamidaddin was one of 11 women from Europe and the Middle East taking part in the recent Women’s Euro-Arabian Polar Expedition, an initiative aimed to foster greater dialogue and inspire women to push their limits and fulfill their ambitions.
  • Two weeks later and Hamidaddin still could not feel her fingertips. She struggles to cut a steak and needs help to tie her shoelaces. Medics say it could be months or even years before she fully recovers.

LONDON: Mariam Hamidaddin was skiing toward the North Pole in temperatures as low as minus 38 C when she was advised by her team leader to give up on her dream and take a helicopter back to base camp.
She did so reluctantly. Frostbite had taken its toll on the Jeddah-born entrepreneur’s hands, but with no previous experience of such climates, Hamidaddin was unaware of the severity. Only when she was assessed by a Russian medic who spoke pidgin English did she appreciate how close she was to losing her fingers.
“The words he told me were: ‘No chop’ ... which was scary but also a great relief to hear,” said Hamidaddin, one of 11 women from Europe and the Middle East taking part in the recent Women’s Euro-Arabian Polar Expedition, an initiative aimed to foster greater dialogue and inspire women to push their limits and fulfill their ambitions. Team leader Felicity Aston deliberately chose women with no athletic or Arctic experience with the intention of demonstrating that anybody can achieve their goals with determination.
As Hamidaddin discovered, however, having an expert on hand helps. The transition from frostnip to frostbite can be a matter of five or 10 minutes, so it is essential for people in extreme weather to pay attention to their body. The tiniest sign can help avoid severe consequences.
The 32-year-old had followed all the instructions learned during training camps in Iceland and Oman: She kept moving to circulate her blood and had not removed her gloves even once in the Arctic. She felt pain, yes, but the entire team had frostnip, so why should she consider quitting?
Fortunately for her future — and her fingers — the decision was taken for her.

Mariam Hamidaddin was an inspirational member of the North Pole expedition before a doctor’s verdict cut her journey short.


“There was no proper moment where I realized I had frostbite,” Hamidaddin told Arab News after returning to the heat of Saudi Arabia. “If it was up to me, I would have wanted to continue, so I am extremely thankful that I was asked to evacuate because the frostbite gradually got worse and worse.
Basically, the team leader saved my fingers.”
Two weeks later and Hamidaddin still could not feel her fingertips. She struggles to cut a steak and needs help to tie her shoelaces. Medics say it could be months or even years before she fully recovers.
This month on her Instagram feed @InTuneToTheSound, she is posting photos of her journey in non-chronological order. The intention is to be “open and vulnerable and hopefully inspire people.” In a post, a video shows her typing at a computer using only her right pinky finger.
“There is a negative media perception of what a Saudi woman looks like and what she can and can’t do,” said Hamidaddin. “For this reason, it’s important for us to show that what you see in the media isn’t necessary a true reflection of who we truly are.
“It is also important to share our failures as well because when I see success upon success, I cannot connect with that. I am human, I have weakness and I fall, and I need to know that when I fall, I can rise again. Those stories are the ones that will connect most with people.”
With Saudi Arabia women now competing at the Olympic Games, being allowed to attend football matches at certain stadiums and the imminent lifting of a ban on driving, opportunities for women in the Kingdom are blossoming.
Hamidaddin, founder of the Humming Tree, a co-working space and community center that focuses on creativity and wellbeing, said she sees examples of strong, athletic and confident women every day.
“You can see them everywhere — women running, biking, climbing mountains,” she said.
“So we are already there. It’s just a matter of sharing these stories more. We are strong women; we know what we want and we find a way around it. We do what we need to do and we get it done. The fact that driving now is going to be open for us, just makes all that easier.”
Although Hamidaddin’s journey to the North Pole was cut short, the team’s doctor said she could wait out the expedition in the warmth of base camp and celebrate with her team when they reached their destination.
It was an opportunity that, even with frostbite, she was never going to turn down. What she found at the top of the world was a beautiful, dreamlike landscape — and, perhaps fittingly, a perpetual chase to reach her goal.
“Unlike the South Pole, which is a landmass, the North Pole is a constantly drifting landscape. It’s sea ice on top of the Arctic Ocean and it’s always moving, so you are constantly trying to catch it,” she said.
“One minute you’re on top of the world taking a photo and by the time you’re done taking it, well, the North Pole is a few miles away. You have to keep trying to catch it.”