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Some of the world's loveliest cities hug great rivers. Budapest is perched along the banks of the Danube. Cairo without the Nile would be a dustbowl. And the Tigris was the lifeblood of Baghdad for centuries.
It's hard to imagine standing atop a bridge there watching boats gliding through water because war has driven away most of the river's traffic. But NPR's Alice Fordham reports that after a decade of war, the river is slowly coming back to life.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It's a cool, sunny, winter day in Baghdad. And on the banks of the river Tigris is moored what I can only describe as a party boat. There's tinsel snaking up the boat rails, festoons of silk flowers and young men with hair in gelled up curly cues dancing while children run around.
ZAINAB LOUAY: Oh, my God. It's so beautiful. (Laughter). It's nice, especially the weather, the air when it touch your cheeks, beautiful.
FORDHAM: Zainab Louay person is an English teacher joining dozens of people paying the equivalent of a few dollars to chug up the river and back. She's with Mohammad Rayan, an engineer. I spy some couple-selfie action.
LOUAY: Yes, sure. We have must take some selfies. We just get married.
FORDHAM: As the party boat thrums along, smaller vessels buzz alongside. They're river taxis on weekdays, but this is the weekend. And some students have crammed in for a joyride. Bassem Ali Shaka has been driving these little boats for 16 years.
BASSEM ALI SHAKA: (Speaking Arabic).
FORDHAM: Now the security is OK, although the police stop him going under the bridges so he can't go far. But there were dangerous times. He remembers a sniper in one of these riverside buildings who killed three passengers in 2006.
The Tigris used to be an artery of Iraq. An old National Geographic has a report on seeing Baghdad for the first time from the deck of a Tigris steamer. Sepia photographs show a waterfront bustling with odd little boat. We read excerpts from that article written some hundred years ago by travelers Frederick and Margaret Simpich.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was paddled ashore from the steamer in a goofah, a queer craft used here since Jonah's day. A goofah is woven from willows about six feet in diameter. Some say Moses was cut adrift in one of these goofahs.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The kelek is a raft made of inflated goatskins, held together by poles. These keleks come down to Baghdad in hundreds from Mosul bringing wool, pottery, grain and skins.
FORDHAM: With better roads, cars and railways, fewer people paddled their lives down the river. And there aren't keles or goofahs in Baghdad anymore. But the transport ministry plans to bring back river transport as the street traffic's so bad - expand the water taxis and start a boat going all the way from Baghdad to the sea. And there are still oars paddling through the Tigris.
AHMED SITTAR: This is my life, my life, all the time in the river.
FORDHAM: This is the Baghdad rowing club where national athlete Ahmed Sittar comes to row every day. He loves the Tigris.
SITTAR: When I row, I feel romantic.
FORDHAM: He trains hard, competes internationally. But when he gets on the river, he says it makes him dream.
SITTAR: Dream for my life and the future like this, all the time.
FORDHAM: His coach, Hassan Showkat Hassan, says most Iraqis prefer soccer to rowing. But he wishes they would at least come enjoy the river and that more riverside parks and restaurants would open so people could watch the athletes skimming their boats along the Tigris in the golden, afternoon sunlight. Alice Fordham, NPR News.
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