Iraqi Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, Dr. Hassan Nadhem, said that his country’s participation as a guest of honor at the Riyadh International Book Fair (RIBF) this year comes in light of growing relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and tireless diplomatic work to build real partnerships at various levels.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Nadhem noted that diplomatic relations between Iraq and its Arab environment represented a new stage of communication.
“Iraq, which has assumed a major role in this culture over a century, is now reviving its relations with the Arab world, especially with Saudi Arabia.”
Ahead of his arrival to Riyadh for the RIBF, the Iraqi minister spoke to Asharq al-Awsat from Washington, where he was attending a ceremony for the recovery of the Gilgamesh Tablet, one of the archaeological treasures that had been smuggled from Iraq and returned to the country.
“Iraq’s participation this year in the Riyadh International Book Fair is vital and comes amid exceptional circumstances, as relations with the Kingdom are growing on many levels,” Nadhem stated.
“This participation is also the culmination of all the efforts made by the Kingdom and Iraq to restore the pivotal and essential links between the two countries. We know that cultural connections are essential to the formation of relationships between societies. And I think that the cultural ties have never been severed because intellectuals, artists, and university professors in both countries have been working together and maintained continuous contacts.”
The Iraqi minister also emphasized that Saudi Arabia and his country shared a common culture.
“We don’t need evidence to prove these historical and cultural ties,” he said.
According to Nadhem, culture in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has roots in Iraq at the level of poetry and literature in general.
“Great professors, who worked in the Kingdom since the 1970s, still have a remarkable echo. Moreover, the cultural influence of Saudi intellectuals greatly enriched the Arab culture and left an impact on Iraq in particular. This exchange is a great basis for the development of relations between the two countries,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Commenting on this year’s program of the RIBF and the presence of prominent Iraqi authors and intellectuals, the minister said: “The program prepared by the Riyadh International Book Fair for the Republic of Iraq, as a guest of honor, is broad and generous. It features poetry evenings, intellectual seminars, and lectures, therefore, the large delegation that accompanied us includes Iraqi intellectuals, artists, and poets who have made major contributions to culture.”
Asked about the means to revive the bonds that unite Saudi Arabia and Iraq through culture and heritage, the Iraqi minister stressed that cultural ties were maintained during the era that witnessed severed relations due to certain political conditions.
“Iraqi intellectuals and university professors in both countries were in constant contact. Because the fields of philosophy, translation and linguistics are continuous and uninterrupted...” He remarked.
On the ongoing cultural, literary and artistic projects between the two countries, Nadhem pointed to a number of initiatives, including a joint effort to register the ancient pilgrimage route “Darb Zubaydah” on the World Heritage List.
The number of Iraqi publishing houses in the Riyadh International Book Fair may reach 20, according to the minister, including the publishing houses affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities.
On cultural tourism in Iraq, Nadhem emphasized ongoing efforts to promote the sector and create the appropriate environment to highlight the country’s heritage.
“Archaeological tourism in Iraq has never been prosperous, and we must admit this fact! If we take into account the policies of dictatorships before 2003, we find that authoritarian regimes generally do not encourage tourism,” he said.
He continued: “After the regime change and the opening of the country, Iraq witnessed difficult security conditions and a massive wave of terrorism. These events created an unsafe environment for tourism in general and not only for archaeological tourism.”
Nadhem stressed that his government was determined - after all the achievements in eradicating terrorism and providing a relatively safe environment – to conduct vigorous work to revive archaeological tourism.
“After the Pope’s visit to the province of Dhi Qar in Nasiriyah and to Ibrahim’s House, which is located in the important archaeological area of Ur, we were encouraged to strengthen archaeological tourism in Iraq, especially in the places that are sacred for some religions,” he explained.
The Iraqi culture minister concluded by saying that the Iraqi culture was “on the threshold of specific circumstances that will restore its links, especially with Arab culture, which is the major umbrella that unites Arab countries together.”