Arnie WeissmannIn the run-up to the election, when the two candidates were debating how to prosecute the war in Iraq and headlines told of the beheading of a Japanese tourist kidnapped in Baghdad, my inbox was filled with a steady stream of political rants and humor.

So when I saw the subject line Islamic Tourism, I suspected it was a joke. And in bad taste.

But when I opened it, the e-mail displayed the homepage of a London-based print publication actually called Islamic Tourism (www.tourism.islamiclife.org/neww.php). It contained links to stories about the attractions of Najaf, about efforts to restore the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, about how Iraqi Airways is flying again. While the Web page also highlighted other Middle Eastern countries, the lead position was reserved for Iraq.

Given that I had previously read an article in which Iraqs tourism minister said he spends his time trying to discourage tourism, and that Iraqi Airways has but one plane in its fleet, and that -- not insignificantly -- the only tourist anyone knows about was abducted and executed, I had to wonder why Iraq was mentioned at all. Northern Africa, Asia and even the Middle East are filled with viable destinations a publication called Islamic Tourism could focus on.

But in reading the articles, a new perspective on tourism as a renewable resource came to mind. The motivation for publishing these articles had nothing to do with tourism promotion as we typically understand it. The articles werent meant to entice visitors to come to Iraq. The publisher appeared instead to be reporting news about Iraqs admittedly lapsed tourism industry to remind the world (and Iraqis) that Iraqs considerable attractions should not be treated as if they simply dont exist.

Examples abound of tourism renewal in formerly war-ravaged lands. The concept of a vacation in Vietnam was for decades the height of absurdity -- until in short order it wasnt. Today, Lebanon is making a strong comeback as a tourist destination with European travelers. If pressed for my choice of the most magical place in the world, Id say Luang Prabang, in Laos -- an unthinkable choice in the not-too-distant past.

As a tourist destination, Iraq today seems an unbridgeable distance from these destinations. Does the average Iraqi even give a second thought to tourism? Probably not. People in abnormal situations long first for the return of normalcy -- being able to go to the market without passing through roadblocks, let alone worrying about bombs once theyve reached the market.

The editor/publisher of Islamic Tourism, A.S. Shakiry, seems to be saying that tourism is a symbolic indicator of, if not normalcy, a link to normalcy. Many of the articles were aimed at awakening Iraqs pride by focusing on its artistic achievements and legacy of hospitality -- in stark contrast to the type of pride inspired by its homegrown insurgency or its national brand of religious fervor.

If you read his treatise on Tourism Prospects, youll see that Shakiry may be the only person born in Iraq who seems to have completely escaped the tinge of Iraqs primary export -- cynicism. He certainly doesnt worry about appearing foolish publishing news about Iraqi tourism. Rather, he seems to practice a form of idealism that is akin to that of the Wright Brothers, who didnt let mans eons-old record of flightlessness discourage their pursuit of manned flight.

Which puts Iraqi Airways sole plane in a completely different symbolic light. Who would have thought that, as the political season drew to a close, the e-mail with the subject line Islamic Tourism would turn out to be the most inspiring e-mail I received?

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