Dar Al-Hekma, SCTA initiate ‘Reinventing Asir’ project

Updated 22 November 2014
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Dar Al-Hekma, SCTA initiate ‘Reinventing Asir’ project

Dar Al-Hekma University, in partnership with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), is initiating the Reinventing Asir project to position Asir as a signature region for progressive preservation.
The project will have multiple legs where the first one starts at the historical site of Al-Okaz village in Asir, on Feb. 18, and the last one ends in Jeddah on March 5.
“The initiative seeks to engage international and local artists, architects, designers, scientists, curators, scholars and community stakeholders in a dialogue that explores ways to bring the past of Asir into a significant future, by merging ancient wisdom with cutting-edge trends and technology,” said Suhair Al-Qurashi, president of Dar Al-Hekma University.
Reinventing Asir is a visionary project that focuses on the reinvention of the vernacular. It builds on the rich and ancient traditions and heritage of Asir.
Moreover, it has been taken as an area of intervention to demonstrate how local tradition and history can be woven into the global context of new media science, art and technology, according to Anna Klingmann, project leader and curator, and chair of the architecture department at Dar Al-Hekma University.
The project starts 50 km outside the city center of Abha at the historical site of Al-Okaz village in Asir. It will feature site-specific art installations from Feb. 18 to 20. Many artists are working hand in hand from all over the globe; Anne Senstad from the United States, Thierry Mauger from France, C. Hennix from Germany and Ahmed Mater and Ibrahim Abu Musmar from Saudi Arabia.
The artists will transform the site by color, light projections, photographs and sound installations to turn it into a multisensorial experience. The abandoned village will come to life and be a hub where local residents start conversations, remember their past but also discuss the potential future.
Part of the project is a students’ competition that will be held on Feb. 20. During the competition, students will present their design proposals for Al-Okaz village to a multidisciplinary panel of architects, artists and local stakeholders. The winner will be announced once the best design is selected.
The second part of the project will be held in Jeddah where the installation of Al-Okaz village will be showcased the following week starting with the opening of a photography exhibition by Thierry Mauger, who is part of the team for the video projections, on Feb. 25. After that, they will be shown during the Hekma Design Week in March 2015.
Hekma Design Week & Symposium is a cross-disciplinary, five-day event of intense workshops, presentations and talks that bridge multiple scales and disciplines ranging from traditional and contemporary art forms to site-specific art interventions, architecture, interior design, graphics, branding and fashion.
Finally, a video documentary of Asir events will be projected at the Athr Gallery in Jeddah alongside a contemporary majlis art installation that will take place in March by Anne Senstad, another artist who was part of the team for the video projections.
The Reinventing Asir events at Dar Al-Hekma University represents the beginning of an ongoing collaboration and research between Anna Klingmann, architecture students of Dar Al-Hekma University, SCTA and the local stakeholders in Asir as well as renowned international artists, architects, designers and scholars.
The collaboration aims to creatively explore and demonstrate how a historical village may be redefined and reclaimed with advanced technologies through an amalgamation of traditional architecture with contemporary art in a unique setting.


Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

Updated 22 May 2019
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Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

  • The Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert
  • Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden

CHIBAYISH, Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq’s southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib Al-Jurani.
He left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, and was back in his ancestral homeland for a family visit.

Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like — they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
Looking around the lush marshes, declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, Jurani added: “There are some mesmerizing places.”
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991.
Around 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes were drained, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.

This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)

In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries — Turkey and Iran — shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometers to less than half that.
It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the “ahwar,” as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year.
That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said 35-year-old Mehdi Al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.

Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands — along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
“Ecotourism has revived the ‘ahwar’. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners,” Mayali said.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 — not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a “mudhif” or guesthouse, also run by locals.
“Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes,” said Jassim Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq.
The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.

An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“It’s a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry,” said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 percent of state revenues.
The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad Al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar.
“We had 10,000 tourists in 2016, then 12,000 in 2017 and 18,000 in 2018,” he told AFP.
But there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate them.
“There are no tourist centers or hotels, because the state budget was sucked up by war the last few years,” Qarghouli told AFP.
Indeed, the Daesh group overran swathes of Iraq in 2014, prompting the government to direct its full attention — and the bulk of its resources — to fighting it back.

An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

Iraq’s government declared victory in late 2017 and has slowly begun reallocating resources to infrastructure projects.
Qarghouli said the marshes should be a priority, and called on the government to build “a hotel complex and touristic eco-village inside the marshes.”
Peak season for tourists is between September and April, avoiding the summer months of Iraq when temperatures can reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
But without a long-term government plan, residents worry that water levels will be hostage to fluctuating yearly rainfalls and shortages caused by Iranian and Turkish dams.
These dynamics have already damaged the marshes’ fragile ecosystem, with high levels of salination last year killing fish and forcing other wildlife to migrate.
Jurani, the returning expatriate, has an idea of the solution.
“Adventurers and nature-lovers,” he said, hopefully.