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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.

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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.

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