Roving exhibition remembers Iraq adventure of Zikmund & Hanzelka

Miroslav Zikmund, photo: CTK

An intriguing Czech exhibition is on its way to Iraq in the coming weeks, dedicated to the exploits of the Czech Republic’s most famous explorers. Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund travelled through Iraq in 1960 as part of their voyage to the Middle East and Asia, one of several such adventures in their trademark Tatra car. On Friday Miroslav Zikmund and a delegation of visiting Iraqi politicians visited the exhibition at the Czech Senate.

Miroslav Zikmund,  photo: CTK
The walls of the Senate’s Wallenstein Palace in Prague’s Malá Strana echoed to the sound of an oud on Friday, the lute-like instrument common to the Middle East, as an Iraqi musician performed in front of a large gathering of Czech and Iraqi politicians. They included Osama al-Nujaifi, speaker of the Iraqi parliament, on his inaugural visit to Europe.

Mr al-Nujaifi’s spoke of the long history of Czech-Iraqi relations, a history that goes back 80 years to the very foundation of the modern Iraqi state. The exhibition about Zikmund and Hanzelka’s travels through Iraq was organized by Broňa Tomášová, the Czech ambassador to Baghdad:

Photo: Miroslav Zikmund & Jiří Hanzelka
“We have almost eighty years of diplomatic relations. It’s really a very long-term partnership and friendship, and the relations are very special. But the aim of the exhibition is really mainly to show that times have changed in Iraq. That the war is over, that it’s not about violence, that real progress has been made, and until now, Czech citizens haven’t realized this. Not only citizens, even politicians, businessmen. We want to attract them, to come to Iraq, and to strengthen relations through coming there.”

The exhibition features black and white photographs taken by the pair, showing towns and cities more familiar to us now from news headlines of terrorist bombings or the American military occupation. They’re a fascinating glimpse at a more peaceful Iraq, albeit one still torn by political upheaval; Zikmund and Hanzelka arrived just two years after the military coup that overthrew the Hashemite kingdom. Miroslav Zikmund, now a sprightly 91, has fond memories of the trip half a century ago:

“I remember we could go to any corner of Baghdad at midnight, it was quite safe. The fact that we could go even to the north of Iraq, to Kurdistan, we were probably the first Czechoslovak people to visit Kurdistan, and even the book we published about Kurdistan in English, Russian and German just sold out within a few weeks. And the book was mostly bought by Kurdish people.”

Osama al-Nujaifi,  Miroslav Zikmund,  photo: CTK
After a stint at the Senate the exhibition – which includes clothing and other items from the original exploration - will move to Iraq itself, where it will go on display in various towns up and down the country. After that it will return to the Czech Republic. Czechs were unable to travel during the long years of communism; for most of them, the books, films and radio programmes of Zikmund and Hanzelka were a chance, albeit vicariously, to wander far-flung corners of the globe.