Iraq’s Jewish community dwindles to fewer than five

Iraq’s Jewish community dwindles to fewer than five
A close-up view of a marker on a grave at the Habibiya Jewish Cemetery in Baghdad. (AFP)
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Updated 29 March 2021

Iraq’s Jewish community dwindles to fewer than five

Iraq’s Jewish community dwindles to fewer than five
  • A turning point for Jewish history in Iraq came with the first pogroms in the mid-20th century. In June 1941, the Farhud pogrom in Baghdad left more than 100 Jews dead, properties looted and homes destroyed

BAGHDAD: The death of Dhafer Eliyahu hit Iraq hard, not only because the doctor treated the neediest for free, but because with his passing, only four Jews now remain in the country.
At the Habibiya Jewish Cemetery in the capital Baghdad, wedged between the Martyr Monument erected by former ruler Saddam Hussein and the restive Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, an aged Muslim man still tends to the graves, but visitors are rare.
The day of Eliyahu’s burial, “it was me who prayed over his grave,” the doctor’s sister told AFP.
“There were friends” of other faiths who prayed too, each in their own way, she added, refusing to give her name.
To hear Jewish prayer out in the open is rare now in Baghdad, where there is but one synagogue that only opens occasionally and no rabbis.
But Jewish roots in Iraq go back some 2,600 years.
According to biblical tradition, they arrived in 586 BC as prisoners of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II after he destroyed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
More than 2,500 years later, Jews were the second largest community in Baghdad, making up 40 percent of its inhabitants.
Some were very prominent members of society like Sassoon Eskell, Iraq’s first ever finance minister in 1920, who made a big impression on British adventurer and writer Gertrude Bell.
Today, “one prays at home,” said a Baghdad resident knowledgeable of the city’s Jewish community.
According to Edwin Shuker, a Jew born in Iraq in 1955 and exiled in Britain since he was 16, “there are only four Jews with Iraqi nationality who are descendant of Jewish parents” left in the country, not including the autonomous Kurdish region.
A turning point for Jewish history in Iraq came with the first pogroms in the mid-20th century. In June 1941, the Farhud pogrom in Baghdad left more than 100 Jews dead, properties looted and homes destroyed. In 1948, Israel was created.
Almost all of Iraq’s 150,000 Jews went into exile in the ensuing years.
Their identity cards were taken away and replaced by documents that made them targets wherever they showed them.
The majority preferred to sign documents saying they would “voluntarily” leave and renounce their nationality and property.
Still today, Shuker said, Iraqi law forbids the restoration of their citizenship.
By 1951, 96 percent of the community had left.
Almost all the rest follow after the public hangings of “Israeli spies” in 1969 by the Baath party, which had just come to power off the back of a coup.
“Promotion of Zionism” was punishable by death and that legislation has remained unchanged.


Between mountains and sea: Off the tourist track in Greece

Between mountains and sea: Off the tourist track in Greece
Updated 23 September 2021

Between mountains and sea: Off the tourist track in Greece

Between mountains and sea: Off the tourist track in Greece
  • The Athenian suburbs of Kfissia and Glyfada are favorites with locals, and ideal for those looking to avoid Greece’s tourist-heavy hotspots

DUBAI: Visitors to Greece usually flock to the islands or make the hike up to the Acropolis for a mandatory selfie with ruins. So there’s a side of Athens they may miss — a place where Greek residents like to ‘summer.’ Welcome to the leafy northern suburb of Kifissia: my childhood hometown.

Tourists may recognize it as the last stop on the metro, with Pireaus port at the other end of the line. Kifissia is a tree-lined town full of designer boutiques and colorful cafés. Its history can be traced back to the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian, when Kifissia became a retreat for philosophers. Today, it is a respite for wealthy Athenians to enjoy cooler climes during the hot summers. 

Less crowded than downtown Athens, Kifissia is a charming town that looks like a romantic comedy set. At any time of day, you might be serenaded by an amateur guitarist singing classics above the din of old men playing backgammon and discussing politics. Restaurant tables and chairs sprawl onto the pavements. Grab a pistachio ice cream at Dodoni, a ‘mythical’ chicken souvlaki from Mythos stuffed with fries, or an iced Frappe at Everest just to people-watch.

Glyfada has image-conscious, LA-style vibe and hotels to match. (Shutterstock)

The old-new mix is obvious at first glance. On Kassaveti Avenue, under the speckled shade of trees, global brands L’Occitane and HSBC neighbor homegrown favorites like Varsos, a bakery that first opened its doors in 1892 and still serves the same delectable homemade jams and cakes. Don’t be fooled by the standard outlets like Zara, Paul and Gap to the right of this main street. Tucked away nearby is a string of brightly colored, new cafés that have sprung up out of a need for vibrancy and socializing after the COVID lockdowns. 

La Petite Fleur will have you thinking you’ve stepped into a magical world — with thick slices of chocolate cake and whipped cream served on pastel colored plates. Menta has pink-and-green pillows on stone steps beneath the shade of trees and offers a list of coffees as long as the food menu. For an authentic Greek meal, the taverna at the top of the hill, Tzitzikas & Mermigas, serves wild greens from Crete, smoked chicken from Lakonia, and rosemary-rubbed goat from an old family recipe.

Peinirli is a boat-shaped pie filled with bubbling cheese and tomatoes. (Shutterstock)

The newest accommodation in Kifissia includes the stylish Say Hotel, 500 meters away from the National History Museum, with a rooftop bar offering panoramic views of the city. Families will enjoy the quiet — and pool — at Theoxenia Palace, a regal hotel with a verdant park at its doorstep and the sound of church bells ringing in the air.

Growing up, we used to regularly drive 45 minutes to the southern suburb of Glyfada, where salty sea air meets a trendy city center. Its long strip of hotels, beaches and restaurants dotted along the Athenian Riviera has a laidback Seventies vibe. Time feels slower here and it’s always a few degrees warmer than Kifissia. A grand church stands in the center of Glyfada, where narrow streets house Greek designer boutiques including Pinko and Mirina Tsantili. Some areas have their own vibe; Kyprou Street and Botsari district have the latest see-and-be-seen restaurants that seem to change every year. Foodies will love O Proedros (President in Greek), its whitewashed walls, woven seats, and a menu that includes Greek classics like peinirli (a boat-shaped pie filled with bubbling cheese and tomatoes) make it seem like it belongs on one of the islands.

Across the main Poseidonos highway, you’ll have your pick of beautiful public beaches. For a small fee, some private clubs like Asteras and Balux offer sunbeds, pools and restaurants where the fashion set like to hang out. Either way, the siren call of that deep, Aegean blue with its backdrop of green hills will steal the show.

The newest accommodation in Kifissia includes the stylish Say Hotel, 500 meters away from the National History Museum. (Shutterstock)

Glyfada has image-conscious, LA-style vibe and hotels to match. Four Seasons Astir Palace is the grand dame — it sits on its own peninsula with a private, sandy bay, and you will hear as much Arabic spoken among guests as you would in the Middle East. 

The Margi Hotel is another stunning property, tucked into the green hills of Vouliagmeni, with blush walls and a retro pool surrounded by fuscia bougainvillea. The top floors have breathtaking balcony sea views and you will find yourself researching the cost of purchasing a property nearby just to hold onto this feeling forever.

Thirty years of coming back every summer, and I still love to discover Greece’s stories between the mountains and the sea. Each visit, I find something new, rediscover something old, and am always struck by the beauty.


Saudi Arabia’s Farasan Islands: From ‘habitat hotspot’ to Red Sea sanctuary

The UNESCO listing will help the Saudi Ministry of Culture achieve the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals as well as improve the quality of life on the islands. (SPA)
The UNESCO listing will help the Saudi Ministry of Culture achieve the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals as well as improve the quality of life on the islands. (SPA)
Updated 22 September 2021

Saudi Arabia’s Farasan Islands: From ‘habitat hotspot’ to Red Sea sanctuary

The UNESCO listing will help the Saudi Ministry of Culture achieve the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals as well as improve the quality of life on the islands. (SPA)
  • Farasan Islands’ listing as a UNESCO biosphere reserve adds to the wildlife haven’s enduring global appeal

JEDDAH/MAKKAH: With their spectacular coral reefs, pristine beaches and rare wildlife species, the Farasan Islands, located off the port city of Jazan in southwest Saudi Arabia, have long been a focus for investment in marine tourism as the Kingdom seeks to highlight its wealth of natural and heritage attractions.

The Farasan Islands Marine Sanctuary was established in the late 1980s and covers an area of about 350 square kilometers, its administrative supervisor, Issa Shuailan, told Arab News.
“It was established with the aim of preserving the biodiversity, especially Farasan’s antelopes, sea turtles, shura trees and mangroves, in addition to rationalizing the exploitation of its marine resources,” Shuailan added.
Now the Red Sea archipelago’s future as a key tourist destination and wildlife sanctuary has been given a major boost with its inclusion in a world network of biosphere reserves as part of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere program.

FASTFACTS

● Now the Red Sea archipelago’s future as a key tourist destination and wildlife sanctuary has been given a major boost with its inclusion in a world network of biosphere reserves as part of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere program.

● The islands — described as a “habitat hotspot” and the first site in Saudi Arabia to be listed as a biosphere reserve — were among 20 new locations in 21 countries registered to ensure biodiversity conservation, environmental education, research and sustainable development.

The islands — described as a “habitat hotspot” and the first site in Saudi Arabia to be listed as a biosphere reserve — were among 20 new locations in 21 countries registered to ensure biodiversity conservation, environmental education, research and sustainable development.
Listing of the Farasan Islands under the UNESCO program follows extensive efforts by Saudi authorities to ensure the Kingdom’s cultural and heritage sites are recognized in regional and international forums. Inclusion in the UNESCO list will also ensure the islands’ natural and archaeological treasures receive global protection.
The archipelago includes 90 of the Jazan region’s 200 islands and islets with a total area of more than 600 square kilometers.
Three of the islands are inhabited: Farasan Al-Kubra, which houses government and services departments, along with a number of hotels and apartments that welcome visitors, and the islands of Sajid and Qummah, which make up Farasan Al-Soghra, or small Farasan. The islands are up to 70 km long and 20-40 km wide.
In the past, pearl-rich fisheries were among the primary sources of livelihood for the people of Farasan, in addition to fishing, which is still the main occupation.
The archipelago’s location near international shipping routes and its proximity to the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Horn of Africa have given it added significance.
A wealth of natural and archaeological resources, coral reefs and fish stocks has attracted the attention of visitors, tourists, financers, businessmen and fishermen.
Archaeological tourist sites include Wadi Matar, located in the south of Farasan Al-Kubra, which has large rocks with Himyaritic inscriptions dating back to the 10th century, and Al-Qassar village, where the much older site of Al-Kedmi includes stone remnants that resemble Roman columns. Another site, Mount Luqman, holds the ruins of an old fortress.
Saudi historian and journalist Ibrahim Muftah told Arab News that some people assume Farasan was uninhabited until very recently, but the historical evidence shows otherwise.

What attracts visitors the most to Farasan is the diversity of the 262 islands, and each island has its natural splendor and something that makes it special from the other.

Adel Al-Awani, Tour guide

“Recent studies have proven that it was inhabited thousands of years ago, since the Stone Age, as Zahi Hawass (an Egyptian archaeologist and former minister of state for antiquities affairs) wrote,” he said.
The residents of the islands were civilized, he added, and the archaeological evidence reveals they were adept at sailing and traveled by sea, east and west, to several other countries.
Ancient tombs are located near Jarmal House on Qamah island, along with historical buildings designed according to the unique architectural style of the time.
Al-Najdi Mosque, built in 1928, is among several historic buildings scattered across the archipelago.
The palatial Al-Rifai houses, built in 1922 at the height of the pearl trade, are considered major attractions because of the technical and architectural skills that went into their construction.
The houses were built using the island’s rocks and limestone from the coral reefs. Raw gypsum was also used, and gypsum mines can still be found on the islands today.
However, the Farasan Islands are best known for their extensive and unique biodiversity, which distinguishes them from other reserves in the Kingdom.
The islands are home to more than 230 species of fish, numerous endangered marine species and 50 types of coral reef. Rhizophora and mangrove forests are important incubators for young fish and crustaceans.
The archipelago is also a sanctuary for the Kingdom’s largest gathering of edmi gazelles and an important bird migration corridor, with about 165 bird species. It also has the largest concentration of pink-backed pelicans on the Red Sea and the largest concentration of ospreys in the Middle East.
A wildlife reserve offers shelter to deer and numerous bird species, in addition to parrotfish, which migrate to the islands once a year.
The archipelago contains more than 180 species of plants, four of which are found nowhere else in the Kingdom.
The islands’ unique appeal also stems from its historical significance and natural attractions — all of which qualifies it to be a world heritage site.
Tourists, visitors and those seeking natural beauty, sandy beaches, sea cruises, diving and fishing have turned the archipelago into one of Jazan’s most prominent tourist destinations as investment opportunities continue to grow.
“What attracts visitors the most to Farasan is the diversity of the 262 islands, and each island has its natural splendor and something that makes it special from the other,”Adel Al-Awani, who has been a Farasan Islands tour guide for more than seven years, told Arab News.
“Most importantly, there is the calmness of the islands, clear sea, coral reefs, wonderful diving areas, fishing, and joyous beaches that are approximately 200 km long.”
But there is much more to Farasan than its beautiful beaches, he added. Among other things it was a center of the pearl trade 200 years ago, he explained, and is rich in archaeological treasures with a history dating back more than 3,000 years.
“Farasan is meant to be a tourist attraction by its very nature; it attracts visitors from all over the world,” said Al-Awani. “When the Saudi tourism visa was launched (in 2019), we hosted many international tourists. “The approximate number of tourists during one month can reach 3,000, and it reaches 30,000 to 40,000 during the year.”
During the pandemic, he said, the islands proved to be a popular destination for people from within Saudi Arabia when lockdown restrictions allowed. Even while international flights were suspended, three ferries a day, each carrying about 600 visitors, would arrive, he added.
“Despite some shortage in hotels, resorts, and transportation, the number of tourists was outstanding,” said Al-Awani.
Major developments in terms of tourism-related projects and investments, infrastructure and services are planned in coming years, as the islands become a key tourist destination.
Muftah noted that the islands require investment in terms of infrastructure, in particular a fast and convenient transportation system instead of the existing ferries that no longer fit the spirit of the modern age.
Listing of the Farasan Islands in the Man and the Biosphere program was announced this month during a meeting of the 33rd session of the program’s coordinating committee, and follows three years of work by the Saudi Heritage Preservation Society to fulfill all criteria required for registration.
The UNESCO listing will help the Saudi Ministry of Culture achieve the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals as well as improve the quality of life on the islands.


Malaysia’s top tourist destination reopens despite country’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis

Malaysia’s top tourist destination reopens despite country’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis
Updated 17 September 2021

Malaysia’s top tourist destination reopens despite country’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis

Malaysia’s top tourist destination reopens despite country’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis
  • Reopening of Langkawi part of domestic tourism bubble strategy to restore Malaysia’s reeling visitor sector
  • Only fully vaccinated domestic travelers allowed to visit island resort as 30,000 tourists expected in next 2 weeks

KUALA LUMPUR:  The Malaysian holiday resort of Langkawi on Thursday welcomed its first visitors in months as part of a government pilot project to revive the country’s coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic-ravaged tourism sector.

Langkawi has been reopened as a domestic tourism bubble in the face of Malaysia’s ongoing battle against the virus.

The government strategy is aimed at giving a much-needed shot in the arm to the hospitality and tourism industry — one of the top contributors to the Malaysian economy — after months of local travel curbs and if successful it could lead to other holiday destinations following suit.

Tight restrictions have been put in place and only fully vaccinated domestic tourists will be allowed to visit the island resort off the country’s northwestern coast.

Malaysia has so far recorded more than 2 million COVID-19 cases among its population of 32 million — one the of highest per capita infection rates in Asia — and new daily case figures remain high at around 20,000.

The country’s director general of health, Noor Hisham Abdullah, told Arab News the Langkawi Travel Bubble Task Force had divided the island into three zones to monitor developments. “All preparations have been made and we hope for the best,” he said.

A cabin of a cable car is seen on its way up to Sky Bridge in Langkawi, Malaysia on Sept. 16, 2021, as it reopens to domestic tourists. (REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)

Local officials said they were ready to receive more than 30,000 tourists in Langkawi over the next two weeks.

Nasaruddin Abdul Muttalib, chief executive officer of the Langkawi Development Authority, said: “We have put in proper procedures so that there is no spread of the virus.

“Passengers will be screened at entry points. If they show any symptoms, they must isolate, and necessary steps will be taken. We have thought of all the scenarios.”

Authorities are banking on the full cooperation of visitors as the project’s success could be key to Malaysia’s return to normal.

Tourism Langkawi chairman, Pishol Ishak, said: “Everybody has a role to play. If everybody works together hand-in-hand, this measure will be very successful and can be replicated in other parts of Malaysia.”

For Langkawi business owners and travelers flying to the resort, famed for its white sandy beaches, the reopening represents a big first step toward a return to normality.

Sheba Gumis, a 33-year-old tourist from Kuala Lumpur, told Arab News: “We have been cooped up in Kuala Lumpur for over a year now. Life was put on hold for so long. The virus will continue to live with us.”

Ahmad Firdaus, a car rental company owner in Langkawi, said it was high time tourism reopened for the sake of the industry’s survival.

“We have to go on doing businesses in this new norm. We need tourist spots to be open to gain income. Even if the situation is bad, we must learn to live with it,” he added.


Sun, sand and privacy: Saudi club beefs up facilities at private women’s beach in Alkhobar

The 180 Beach Club offers spa services, including massage, pedicure and beach hairstyles. Visitors say they were attracted by the club’s ‘cool vibes.’ (Supplied)
The 180 Beach Club offers spa services, including massage, pedicure and beach hairstyles. Visitors say they were attracted by the club’s ‘cool vibes.’ (Supplied)
Updated 15 September 2021

Sun, sand and privacy: Saudi club beefs up facilities at private women’s beach in Alkhobar

The 180 Beach Club offers spa services, including massage, pedicure and beach hairstyles. Visitors say they were attracted by the club’s ‘cool vibes.’ (Supplied)
  • Women-only club is offering more entertainment options and expanded facilities at a new location

ALKHOBAR: The city of Alkhobar in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, long known for its pristine waterfront and nearby beaches, has added to its summer attractions with the return of a private women’s beach club.

The first private women’s beach in the region was organized by 180 Beach Club in 2020. Now the club’s second season is offering more entertainment options and expanded facilities at a new location that will operate until Oct. 18.
The beach club will add to Alkhobar’s appeal as an ideal place for swimming and ocean sports, especially during summer.

Expanded facilities at the 180 Beach Club include an indoor lounge area, beach swimming area with full privacy, food and beverage, dining, blue market, DJ, live shows and beach sports.
COVID-19 precautionary measures will be maintained to ensure social distancing and sanitization.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The beach club offers 400 sunbeds in a 45,000-square-meter area.

• Tickets are sold via the Platinumlist website; no tickets at the door.

• Single ticket starts at SR150 ($40).

• Vaccination is required for entry.

May Algrainees and Dima Al-Zamil were behind the first women’s private beach in the Eastern Province.
Algrainees told Arab News that after private women’s beaches were opened in Jeddah, Eastern Province women were willing to travel there just to enjoy the full privacy on offer.
“We took the initiative for the first private women’s beach event because we know exactly what it means to Eastern Province women to enjoy summer and beach activities in full privacy,” she said.
“We wanted to be among the first to implement the project, and we are so proud of the great success we witnessed in the first season, even though the number was limited due to COVID-19 cases.”
Algrainees said that the club’s new location in AlKhobar Al-Aziziyah offers up to 400 sunbeds over a 45,000-square-meter site to keep up with pandemic precautionary measures and ensure social distancing.
The first season was held for only five days. “In the second season, there is more room and time for everyone to enjoy this summer opportunity, as the event will include all week days,” she said.
On public beaches, the dress code will be more conservative, but at private beaches, such as the 180 Beach Club, women will be able to adopt a more relaxed dress code.
The beach restricts the use of phones, cameras are not allowed, and male access is limited to boys under seven to ensure full privacy for visitors.
Ghadeer Omer, a kindergarten teacher who lives in AlKhobar, told Arab News that a seasonal private beach club in the city is “really tempting.”
“I went to the first season and was mesmerized by the fine service and professional level of privacy,” she said. “It was a joyous experience to swim with my friends wearing swimwear without being worried about anything.”
The beach club is only 11 minutes’ drive from AlKhobar city, and offers “bohemian-style” decor, a variety of restaurants, food trucks, cafes, shops, and water sports, including kayaking, pedal-boarding and snorkeling.
Beachside yoga, Zumba and Pilates sessions are supervised by experienced teachers.
“In case of emergency, we have a clinic for the beach that is part of Almoosa Specialist Hospital,” Algrainees said.
The 180 Beach Club also offers spa services, including massage, pedicure and beach hairstyles, to complement the beach experience.
Visitor Jawaher Shaheen, 17, said that she was attracted by the club’s “cool vibes.”
“It is lovely here, the view, the DJ — it is like a beach paradise in the Caribbean with all these bohemian details. And, best of all, I have the chance to get tanned the way I want.”


Tourists take diving in Jeddah to new height

With its constant temperature and excellent visibility, the Red Sea is one of the world’s best spots for diving. (AN photos)
With its constant temperature and excellent visibility, the Red Sea is one of the world’s best spots for diving. (AN photos)
Updated 13 September 2021

Tourists take diving in Jeddah to new height

With its constant temperature and excellent visibility, the Red Sea is one of the world’s best spots for diving. (AN photos)
  • “This business is booming right now with a lot of tourists entering the country and can be a full-time job”

JEDDAH: Scuba diving as a business is booming in Jeddah thanks to the numbers of tourists visiting the region.
The city’s location on the shores of the Red Sea makes it the perfect place for those wanting to explore its waters.
“Diving is available throughout the whole year and there is breathtaking marine life and pristine water here. I dare you to find another sea that is as beautiful and colorful,” Captain Barraa Bawazir, a scuba diving instructor, told Arab News.
“What makes the Red Sea special is its variety of coral and fish that add a lot of color underwater. The temperature of the Red Sea and the fact that the area is so confined contribute to the diversity of the marine life and provide a good breeding environment,” he said.
Bawazir fell in love with the Red Sea when he first went diving 11 years ago and decided to become a professional diver. “The beauty of marine life and the feeling of freedom inside the sea is what drove me into this profession. Everyone can try it, even if they don’t have any experience, which makes it a good activity for tourists.” Bawazir believes that Vision 2030 will enhance the diving market, increase competition and make it more professional. “This business is booming right now with a lot of tourists entering the country and can be a full-time job.”
Mohammed Basha, a diving instructor who works in United Dive Center, which has 15 instructors, said that a lot of hotels contact the center to book diving trips for tourists.


He said their scuba diving instructors carry Padi, SSI, or NAUI certifications, which are internationally accredited scuba diving qualifications. “The clients don’t have to carry any license because we take them on a discovery dive not deeper than 5-8 meters,” he said.
Basha said that people contact the center through Instagram to set up trips and that they provide all the equipment needed. One of his plans is to create a special marketing program for hotels and a mobile app that makes it easier for people to book trips.
Dania Dawood, an amateur diver, said that she loves diving because it is such a different experience for her. “I have been diving since 2015, and I love the feeling of the quiet, where you can only hear bubbles, it’s very therapeutic for me. I strongly suggest everyone tries it at least once.”
Dania said that Vision 2030 is already bringing change. “The sky’s the limit and I have seen so many tourists on my diving trips. People from Europe and America love our sea and there is a future here.”