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Thu 26 May 2011 05:46 PM

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Oil-smuggling ferries transform into cafes in Iraq

Shore of Shatt Al Arab waterway near oil city of Basra reclaims charm as nightlife hotspot

Oil-smuggling ferries transform into cafes in Iraq
SHISHA CAFES: The resurrection of cafes on the Shatt al-Arab is a sign of restoration of normal life in Iraq (Getty Images)

For the hip and trendy in Iraq's southern oil city of Basra, a warm spring
evening spent puffing a water pipe or drinking tea on a boat that was once used
to smuggle oil is just the ticket.

Ferries used to smuggle crude, weapons and people in the mayhem that
followed the 2003 overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein have been transformed
into floating cafes as the shore of the Shatt Al Arab waterway reclaims its
role as a nightlife hotspot.

"This place where we are sitting used to be a place for gas and oil smuggling
ferries. It was an isolated area," said Mustafa Sadiq, sitting with two
friends on one of the boats. "But now it has become a very nice amusement
place. We spend lovely evenings here."

A security crackdown by the government on militias in 2008 helped restore a
sense of normality in Basra, one of Iraq's most populous cities and the
southern hub of the country's burgeoning oil industry.

Basra is an important centre for the foreign companies that have set up shop
here in a bid to refurbish dilapidated oilfields, the wellspring of the
billions of dollars of government revenues needed to rebuild after years of war
and international economic sanctions.

The Shatt Al Arab, a waterway formed by the confluence of the Tigris and the
Euphrates at Qurna - a town some believe to be the site of the biblical Garden
of Eden - runs 184 km (114 miles) to the Gulf.

In the chaotic aftermath of the US-led invasion in 2003, Basra smugglers ran
wild. They bought oil from gangs that tapped into Iraq's pipelines and siphoned
off crude into tanker trucks.

The stolen oil was transported to the ferries in the Shatt Al Arab and
sailed into the Gulf, where it was sold in neighbouring Kuwait or Iran or to
ships at sea.

As the smugglers took over the Basra shore, the smell of oil hung heavy in
the air.

Now the smell of grilled meats and shisha, the aromatic flavoured tobacco
smoked in hookah-style water pipes, wafts over the shore.

"The Shatt Al Arab and its shore were considered to be one of the most
important tourist places in Basra," said Zahra Al Bijari, head of tourism
and heritage for the Basra provincial council. "Now the change we see in
the use of these ferries serves Basra and... raises the economic conditions in

The resurrection of the cafes on the Shatt Al Arab is another sign of the
halting restoration of normal life in Iraq, still beset by an Islamist

Nightclubs and restaurants are reopening in Baghdad, where parkland is being
replanted. An entrepreneur is building cinemas in private clubs. Major hotels are
being refurbished.

In Arbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region,
residents can swim at a public pool, bowl, ride a cable car, or even ice-skate.

Local investors have lined the shores of the Shatt al-Arab, which was
renowed in the 1970s for its floating cafes, with waterborne amusements. One
turned a ferry into a wedding hall, while others have been transformed into
meeting rooms.

Some of the multi-deck vessels have been painted in bright colours and
decked out with decorative lights and railings. Air conditioners have been
fitted to walkways and decks crammed with tables and chairs.

A local firm won a $12.5m contract to build a floating hotel, restaurant and

Schoolteacher Abbas Ali travels to Basra from a town far to the west to
smoke shisha and spend time with friends.

"I feel happy when I see these places," Ali said. "We come
here to spend couple of hours to feel at ease in this beautiful weather, then
go back late, feeling so relaxed."


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