When Iraq’s minister of transport, Kazem Finjan, told reporters in Dhi Qar, southern Iraq, that the world’s first airport was built in that spot thousands of years ago, and had quite likely been used by ancient spacemen, he was roundly mocked in the international press.
Finjan made the comments as he attended the opening ceremony of a new airport in Nasiriya, in the province of Dhi Qar. Even Iraqis thought the transport minister’s statements were ridiculous.
But this wasn’t the last time the new airport would be the subject of local jokes.
Scenes from the opening of Nasiriya airport were so grand they have caused other airports to tremble.
“The entrance to Nasiriya international airport is like the entrance to a vegetable market,” wrote Haider Fadel, an Iraqi blogger on Facebook. “I am not sure why the transport minister is telling his counterparts around the world about the amazing, advanced technology here.”
Other Iraqis got busy on social media, posting pictures and videos of the unpaved road to the airport and the concrete blocks outside the entrance, upon which welcoming messages are graffitied. One video shows the tents near the departure lounge, that were originally supposed to serve as a barracks for the Iraqi army.
“Scenes from the opening of Nasiriya airport were so grand they have caused other airports – Charles de Gaulle, Dubai, John F. Kennedy, Singapore and Shanghai – to tremble,” wrote another Iraqi wit.
In spite of all the humour, the first Iraqi Airways plane landed at Nasiriya airport on March 10 this year. Finjan, the minister of transport, was on board.
Nasiriya airport was originally an air force base called Imam Ali. It has two main runways and an 11-storey air control tower. It was first equipped and began operating in March 2010, used by US military forces, and was, for a long time, one of the most important US bases in southern Iraq.
“The local council agreed with the ministry of transport and the Iraqi military that the southern part of the Imam Ali base should be turned into a civilian airport and the northern part would continue to be used by the military,” says Ashwaq al-Zuhairi, a member of the Dhi Qar provincial council. “We allocated some of our own money from the Dhi Qar reconstruction effort and also collected donations from local businessmen and from some other government departments.”
Iraq’s ministry of transport had been unable to provide any funds toward building the airport because of the country’s security and economic crises, which meant there was no money to spare for such a project, Finjan explained previously. There were some international companies who wanted to invest in the airport though, he added.
At the moment there are two weekly flights landing in Nasiriya from Baghdad and one from Erbil in the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan. International flights from Iran, Syria and Lebanon are supposed to be able to start flying into Nasiriya before the end of April.
All joking aside, the new airport could bring economic benefits to the province, said the head of the local Chamber of Commerce, Abdul Razzaq al-Zuhairi. “It could encourage more oil companies to invest in the province’s fields and it will also boost tourism, especially after UNESCO declared the province’s marshes a world heritage site last year.”