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Mesopotamia - Kurdistan - Najaf and Karbala

Iraq tours, Babel tours
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Babel Tours, Iraq Tours : mesopotamia

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     Pierre Simon, head of communication at Terre Entière / Babel Tours, interviews Hubert Debbasch, the CEO of the company, about the forthcoming launch of tours to southern Iraq and the creation of a new subsidiary in the south of the country, an offshoot of Babel Tours (date of the interview: 18 March 2010).

Pierre Simon: Hubert Debbasch, why are you now about to organise tours to southern Iraq after organising journeys to the North of the country in 2008 and 2009?

Hubert Debbasch: You are right to link the two. From the outset, when we took the initiative of organising tours to Iraqi Kurdistan, we announced that this was just the starting point for the expansion of our activities to the rest of the country. Kurdistan was the first pacified region of Iraq. We will of course continue to organise tours there, partly owing to the considerable cultural interest of the province, with its ancient and in particular its Assyrian sites, and partly because of the presence of the Christian community with which we are consolidating and expanding our relationship. However, as everyone is well aware, the main archaeological treasures of Iraq are to be found in the South of the country. We are now firmly established in the North, and from the beginning our aim was to move into the South, as we stated last year. Our experience in the field means that we now know those regions which can and those which cannot be visited. At present, neither Baghdad, nor Mosul, which have a vast historical and archaeological heritage, can be visited by tourists. However, after two years in the field, we are now certain that we can take travellers in complete safety to the Oriental paradise that is the South of the country.

Pierre Simon: You mention the archaeological riches of southern Iraq, but what do you actually propose showing to the visitors? What is so special about this region?

Hubert Debbasch: I did not use the word "Paradise" lightly. The biblical tradition situates Paradise between four rivers, and the only two for which we know both the name and the geographical location are the Tigris and the Euphrates. A basic cultural education teaches us that it is the land between these rivers, Mesopotamia, that is the wellspring of our civilisation. If you need any convincing, simply wander through the Louvre or the British Museum and you will see the vast riches that come from this area and in which we can seek our deepest roots. Anyone with a sense of history will feel his soul resonate with these locations which bear the immense memory of humanity. There is however nothing as imposing or overpowering as the nearby civilisation of Egypt, because the successive dynasties which occupied this land had to make do with the fragile material of Mesopotamia and the absence of rock, which obliged them to invent an art form made of detail, delicacy and beauty.

Pierre Simon: And what exactly is the state of conservation of the sites included in your tour program?

Hubert Debbasch: It is hard to give a general answer to this question. I would say that there are three types of sites. First of all those whose major monuments are in a good state of conservation. I remain extremely impressed by the remains at Ur and Uruk. Then, I would identify sites which have been extensively rebuilt, with varying degrees of success. This is the case of Babylon, which the former regime wanted to restore as a symbol of its own prestige. On this point, archaeological purists would prefer that nothing be done, leaving them free to examine and interpret. But you cannot deny that the current site of Babylon does offer something truly worthwhile. This visit will be one of the highlights of our tour. There are even a number of intact items, and I am thinking in particular of the famous lion of Babylon: every day, schoolchildren come to be photographed in front of this animal, wonderfully sculpted from a block of basalt. It represents the goddess Ishtar. For these young people, it rightly represents the nobility of their history. Finally, I believe that there is another category of sites, which covers places that are just as eloquent and majestic, even though virtually nothing tangible emerges from the ground. The earth itself still conceals the vast majority of these riches. I will never forget my first visit to Lagash, a site which had already been extensively excavated by many researchers and where, under a burning sun, I had barely taken a few steps before I found myself stepping on a tablet covered with cuneiform writing. I believe that there are few places on this Earth where you can find yourselves drawn thousands of years into the past, while at the same time finding yourself in the presence of what makes us human and civilised today. If I am to be honest, I believe that the starkness and unspoiled nature of these sites mean that Mesopotamia will never suffer the ravages of mass tourism. You do not necessarily have to be particularly cultured, but you must at least be curious about our origins.

Pierre Simon: In order to reach southern Iraq and the sites you are describing, won't the party have to land in Baghdad?

Hubert Debbasch: Not at all. We have chosen a way of bringing in our groups that we have tested and that will be used for the long-term. All our tourists from France will pass through Kuwait on their way to Mesopotamia. This might seem to be a surprising choice given that we have offices in the North of the country and that the airlines are also promising to serve Baghdad. Our choice may appear even more paradoxical given the recent history between Iraq and Kuwait, but this is the most comfortable and safest way of bringing our tour parties into the country. Comfortable, because there are direct flights and the hotel infrastructure is excellent. Safe, because everyone knows that the city of Baghdad cannot yet guarantee the level of security necessary to bring in tours. Strangely enough, we are far more cautious than those who feel that they must try and tell us what to do.

Pierre Simon: In a place such as Iraq, which was until very recently a country at war, with all the damage inherent in such a situation, what is the quality of the tourism infrastructure? For example, what is the condition of the hotels or the roads network?

Hubert Debbasch: You have asked the question, so it is time to talk about Nasiriyah, the city in which we opened our offices and where our tour parties will be accommodated for the duration of their stay in Mesopotamia. We decided to work in this city, with a hotel offering every guarantee of comfort and safety, corresponding to a good French 4-star establishment. As for the roads, they are in very good condition, both in Kuwait and in Iraq. It is only on the approach to a few sites that the roads get worse, or even disappear altogether. All our circuits in the region demand that the tourists be in good physical condition, both to be able to withstand the harsh climate and to spend hours walking around sites on which there are no tourist facilities whatsoever. However, a swim in the waters of the Gulf at the end of the trip is wonderfully refreshing after hiking the Mesopotamian desert!

Pierre Simon: For the tours in Northern Iraq, you always organise relatively informal meetings with the local population, and these are much appreciated by the tour parties. Will the same apply for the tours to the South of the country?

Hubert Debbasch: Yes it will. In any case, one of the founding principles of Terre Entière is not only to meet ancient civilisations but also to encounter today's local population, but always in a spirit of the deepest respect. The difference with our circuits in the North lies in the fact that these meetings will tend far more to be in situ. It will not be necessary to organise meetings with the locals by inviting them to the hotel. Most of the time, they themselves will be welcoming us where they live and will open up their homes to us. I am thinking more particularly of the day based around the town of Shatra; It was hard to choose the meeting place because each family offered to invite us for lunch. Much has been said about the deterioration of sites in recent years, but let me tell you, there of little evidence of this where we are going. Most of the time, the local people will be welcoming us when we visit the sites, sites that they watched over night and day in order to protect them. They are now therefore impatient to receive a new and more welcome type of visitor.

Pierre Simon: How does the local population perceive the initiative of Terre Entière and thus the inevitable arrival of tourists?

Hubert Debbasch: Earlier on, I mentioned the unspoiled nature of the sites. When a country is used to receiving tourists and even if the flow of tourists is interrupted for a certain time, for whatever reason, the tourist is often seen as prey. Nothing could be further from the truth in Iraq. The authorities and the population are naturally well aware of the potential interest of developing tourism in the country. But the overriding reactions at the moment are surprise and gratitude. Surprise to see people at last visiting these lands for reasons other than attack or invasion. Gratitude for this initiative which promotes these places and those who live in them. All of those who, despite these hardships, have chosen to remain, much appreciate our initiative here. Another dimension of this welcoming attitude lies in the religious beliefs of the vast majority of the inhabitants. They are Shia Muslims and the first way they express their belief is through their hospitality. On this point I would like to thank the investment commission for the province of Dhi-Qar. Their help and their encouragement were invaluable. I would also like to thank Haider Ajeel, manager of the Babel Tours offices in Nasiriyah. His intelligence, his practicality and his commitment have convinced me that all future tour parties will be in good hands with him and his team.

Pierre Simon: Can we go back to the creation of this new company in Southern Iraq. What differences did you see between the creation of a company in Iraqi Kurdistan and one in the South of the country?

Hubert Debbasch: This is not actually a new company, but the work involved was essentially the same. Babel Tours was set up in Iraqi Kurdistan, in accordance with the laws of this province. Consequently, it could not be legally recognised throughout the country. We therefore had to initiate a whole new procedure to obtain recognition for Babel Tours from the central authorities in Baghdad. This has just been done. Our subsidiary now acts as a tour operator both in the South and the North, throughout Iraqi territory. For the South, before this official recognition, we obviously took great pains to train the personnel, as I just mentioned, and to gradually familiarise ourselves with the sites. The Babel Tours offices in Nasiriyah were already well-known and they are now legally authorised to carry out the thorough preparation of each of the forthcoming tours.

Pierre Simon: What obstacles did you encounter in the creation of Babel Tours for the rest of Iraq?

Hubert Debbasch: The first obstacle and indeed the greatest disappointment comes from my own country. For some time now, we have heard about the French Government's desire to encourage French companies to invest in Iraq. But if you are not investing in oil or concrete, and if you are not one of the leading companies quoted on the stock exchange, then it's best if you know how to get along by yourself. Having said that, I'm not being totally fair. I will never forget the help I received from certain French diplomats who helped me obtain a visa on time. I will never forget the astonished and sympathetic reception I was given by successive ambassadors. Above all, I will never forget the help I received from the Iraqis themselves. It is in fact virtually impossible to overcome the procedural obstacles and corruption without the help of friends and a support network in place. For us, all these ties were forged with the greatest simplicity and, I might say, with the greatest fraternity.

Pierre Simon: In the media we often hear about bombings in Iraq. What is the security situation?

Hubert Debbasch: Do you want a general report on the situation in Iraq or are you asking me about the safety of the places we offer on our tours?

Pierre Simon: I mean the South of the country and of course the places which are on our tour circuits.

Hubert Debbasch: With this new initiative, Terre Entière lives up to its reputation. What you must remember is that the areas to which we will be travelling, owing to the ethnic and religious unity of the populations, have already been at peace for a certain time. All the sites proposed in our programs are safe. Obviously, we exercise particular vigilance not only for each group, but also with regard to the changing situation as a whole, something we already do for the so-called "sensitive" destinations we propose.

Pierre Simon: Will you be taking particular measures to ensure the safety of your tour parties?

Hubert Debbasch: We rely on our close relations with the local population and on the public authorities, which function extremely well and which have understood the stakes involved in developing tourism. However, as was already the case for the tours in Kurdistan, we will in no case be resorting to the services of private security firms.

Pierre Simon: But you are aware that the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly advises against travelling to the areas which you will be visiting?

Hubert Debbasch: In order to assess the situation in any given region, you have to go there. If you have neither the courage nor the time, then you have to send out qualified people to assess whether or not the situation is dangerous. The whole of Iraq is regarded as bright red, except for Kurdistan. The diplomats representing France in Iraq are in Baghdad, which for the time being remains dangerous. They know nothing or next to nothing about what is happening in the South of the country. I have asked them to visit the South, through our organisation. They would then be able to see for themselves the calm and hospitality of the area and enjoy a little rest and relaxation. At the same time, the map of Iraq would become a little greener, reflecting France's true hopes and expectations for this country.

Pierre Simon: You talk of Baghdad as a dangerous place. But Babylon, which is on the tour program, is close to the Iraqi capital?

Hubert Debbasch: Erbil, the most peaceful place in Iraq is less than one hour from Mosul, which, alas, is the most dangerous city in the country. Our circuit avoids the major cities; this is one of the reasons we will be staying in Nasiriyah. We will not be going to Basra either, even though it is very close. Our circuit deliberately opts for archaeological sites and tourist areas such as the Marshes. The Iraqi cities are not without interest, quite the contrary, but it is too early to take tourists there. There are no security problems in Babylon, provided that you don't try to reach it from Baghdad.

Pierre Simon: Do you have special insurance coverage for tourists going to Iraq?

Hubert Debbasch: Our customers are covered in the same way as for any other circuit.

Pierre Simon: So what's next for Terre Entière in Iraq? Have you already decided on the tour dates?

Hubert Debbasch: Our circuit entitled "Mesopotamia: the birthplace of history" is a program of 9 days / 8 nights, including 6 nights in Iraq. It is balanced and will be an opportunity for an in-depth yet peaceful discovery of the most fascinating areas of the country. Following the summer holidays, this tour will be offered to Terre Entière customers, with a number of departures starting in September. But before then, we will be exceptionally offering a tour following this same route, but as of the month of June. This is a Terre Entière initiative in partnership with the magazine Témoignage Chrétien. I will be accompanying the tour, together with Luc Chatel, editor in chief, Catherine Sudre, who has been conducting excavations in Iraq for several years, Hameed Nasser, author of the book Revoir Baghdad and the local Babel Tours team. This event is being eagerly awaited by our friends in the region. After years of abandonment and darkness, this visit is being seen as a source of joy and rebirth.