In the 'Venice of the East,' a history of diversity

Basra was once known as a teeming port city that boasted a mix of culture and religion.

For Iraqis, Basra is "Thagher el-Iraq," meaning Iraq's mouth. For Basrawis, as the province's natives are known, it's the "Venice of the East," with its meandering canals and gondola-shaped boats decorated with flowers that once carried newlyweds and lovers.

To Basrawis, with their distinctive and strong sense of southern identity, known as janoubiyah, their city is the equivalent of New York City and, they will tell you, has been unjustly playing second fiddle to Baghdad.

Basra Province has the bulk of Iraq's gigantic oil reserves, estimated at more than 200 billion barrels. It's a major trade and commerce hub on the Persian Gulf. The legendary globe-trotting Sinbad the Sailor character from the "One Thousand and One Nights" fables called Basra home. The city's cosmopolitan flair is evident in its people, cuisine, dance, and the music that once echoed on its streets.

The city was once full of different religious groups: Shiites, Sunnis, Christians of all sects, ancient communities like the Sabean Mandaeans, Armenians, and Jews. But most, other than the Shiites, have left.

Basra was also home to some of Iraq's most beloved writers and poets, such as Badr Shakir al-Sayab.

The native cuisine is fish cooked with Indian spices, influenced by Gulf Arab neighbors. A favorite winter dish is chopped spinach stew, known as sabzi, from neighboring Iran.

Traditional Basrawi musical performances, known as the Basra Khashaba, which have roots in the parties that dhow (a traditional Arab ships) makers used to have at the end of their arduous workdays, feature male dancers who do break-dance-like moves clearly influenced by traditional African dance.

One Basrawi reminisced recently about the vibrant nightlife before conservative Islam started to change the landscape in the aftermath of the 1990 Gulf War, which along with the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s left tremendous physical and psychological scars on the city. Gulf Arabs, before the discovery of oil, used to flock to Basra for all-night revelries.

"You had Ninevah and Sinbad discotheques in town, the cafes along the corneesh [waterfront] and Sinbad Island for dancing until dawn," he said. "And for a bit of adventure you had the Khashaba parties in Abu al-Khaseeb at which buckets of liquor were passed around."

Basra, founded in AD 635, is the seat of Basra Province, which covers an area of about 7,300 square miles bordered by Iran to the east. The province's population is 1.8 million, according to the 1997 census, but provincial authorities say it's now at least 3 million, based on food ration cards and ID forms, with roughly half of that living in Basra city. Major towns include Abu al-Khaseeb, Al-Fao, Qurnah, Umm Qasr, and Zubair. The north has marshlands.

The Euphrates and Tigris rivers meet at Qurnah, north of Basra, where they form the Shatt Al-Arab waterway flowing into the Gulf. The province is home to four major ports: Umm Qasr, Khor el-Zubair, Abu Flous, and Maaqal.

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