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the next glitch in iraqi kurdistan’s tourism campaign? a pretty pop star

Samah al-Mumen
The Erbil promoters of the Capital of Arab Tourism have employed one of the Middle East’s best known female songstresses to play a tune for them. But there’s a small problem. The same singer, Samira…
28.11.2013  |  Washington D.C
Still from a YouTube clip of Samira Said rehearsing her song for Erbil.
Still from a YouTube clip of Samira Said rehearsing her song for Erbil.

One of the most recent triumphs for authorities in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, had was getting their metropolis named Capital of Arab Tourism for 2014. A schedule of events to draw more attention to the city and to attract visitors has been launched, as has a promotional campaign. But the latter has already run into some controversy.

Local officials have brought in Moroccan-born singer, Samira Said, to perform a song called “Erbil”, in which the musical star, who’s well known throughout the Arab world, praises the locale for its beauty.

Apparently Said was chosen, in part, because she is one of the nominees in the Monte Carlo-based World Music Awards, where best selling artists in each region and in various categories are given prizes. Said has been nominated for her single, “Mazal” and she’s also up for the Best Female Artist prize.

Over the past few months Erbil has been visited by more than one famous musician – this has included the Lebanese singers Ragheb Alama, Nancy Ajram and Haifa Wehbe among others. And when they performed in Iraqi Kurdistan, some of them even used Kurdish lyrics for some of their songs. Most people in the region speak Kurdish rather than Arabic.

But the same could not be said of Samira Said’s song for Erbil, which is in Arabic. Additionally, Said’s role during the years when Iraq’s former leader, Saddam Hussein, was in power has not been forgotten either.

Many Iraqis still remember her visiting Baghdad in the mid-eighties when she was not quite as well known as she is today. She made the visit with the support of Hussein’s government and recorded a song called “Iraq Al Karama”, or Iraq, The Dignified. Locals say that Hussein used artists like Said to promote his brand of Arab nationalism.

Said’s song for Hussein’s Iraq was broadcast widely on state channels and was well known by both Iraqi Arabs and Kurds. Hussein’s genocidal history with the Kurdish of Iraq is well known too – he tried to disenfranchise or kill Iraq’s Kurdish minority – so the choice of Samira Said to sing a song for the Iraqi Kurdish capital city is a fraught one.

But this is not the only hiccup that Erbil’s authorities are facing in terms of their campaign to welcome the world to their city. While on one hand they have managed to attract several Arab countries to open consulates in Erbil – including those of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt – on the other, the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan have been shuttered recently, after an extremist attack on Iraqi Kurdish security forces in Erbil.

Iraqi Arabs coming into the region are undergoing strict security checks, if they’re allowed in at all. Recently two more extremists, associated with Al Qaeda, were arrested in the region.

All of which has led some locals to argue that the duality of Erbil’s promotional campaign is more likely to do the city’s image harm than good. How can a city that doesn’t want to speak Arabic and does not welcome Arabs, play host to those who represent Arab nationalism? And those who sing in honour of Arab nationalism?

It might also make the Iraqi Kurdish look foolish, they say, especially among those politicians in Baghdad who still don’t give any credence to their Iraqi Kurdish compatriots.

This story was prepared as part of the Media academy Iraq’s mentorship programme for young Iraqi journalists, together with NIQASH’s correspondents around Iraq.The mentor for this story was NIQASH contributor Haider Najm.

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