Geoff Hann, author of our guide to Iraq, passed away on April 21st 2022. To commemorate his life, Geoff’s friend and co-author Karen Dabrowska shares the tribute she delivered at his funeral in May.
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The Holy Quran tells us: “We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.”
And that is exactly what Geoff did. He brought people together from different countries and different cultures so they could get to know each other. He built bridges of friendship and understanding between East and West.
In this verse the Quran talks about people and it was the Iraqi people who helped Geoff in his hour of need in the days before his tragic death in Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad. After he suffered a stroke at the end of an archaeological tour of Iraq he was without friends as the people on the tour had left the country. A medical evacuation flight organised by Tina his partner was not allowed to take off as two people on the tour were arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle antiquities out of Iraq and the judge said Geoff had to stay in Baghdad so he could answer questions about this. I heard about Geoff’s plight through the crowd funding appeal organised by Tina and spoke to Tom Westcott, a journalist. What Tom doesn’t know about getting things done in Baghdad is not worth knowing. Tom contacted a friend and in less than twenty-four hours Geoff had pyjamas, juice and excellent food. And he was looked after every day until he passed on April 21st.
Imam Ali talks about brothers in Islam and sons in humanity and we saw the humanity, generosity, friendship and good will of the Iraqi people in the way they helped Geoff.
When Saeed Shehabi who runs the Abrar Islamic Foundation heard I wanted to organise a commemoration for Geoff, he said May 31st is 40 days after he passed – lets have it then. Once again sons in humanity, Saeed and Abrar gave us the use of the venue and provided a meal. And I want to say a special thank you to Saeed, Hassan and everyone in Abrar.
Many of you will know Geoff but for those sons and daughters in humanity who never met him, I would like to say a few words about his amazing life.
Geoff was the world’s oldest tour leader still taking people to Iraq aged 85. He treated war, sanctions, terrorism and a global pandemic as minor hurdles in a mission to share his passion for the ancient history of modern Iraq.
He was not a man – he was a superman – doing things nobody else managed to do.
He was the first person to take tourists to Iraq during the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq war, the first one to take tourists to survey the destruction wreaked by ISIS in Mosul, the first to take tourists after Western governments imposed sanctions on the regime of Saddam Hussein and the first to revisit the country when COVID-19 travel bans were finally lifted.
He became a tour guide who took travellers with him all over the lesser-explored places in the world for 50 years: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Kashmir… the list goes on. He has been blown up by the Taliban, shot at by the Syrians and was caught up in the Iranian Revolution. But he always brought everyone home safely.
The overland trips started when Geoff drove from London to India to where his wife had gone to live in ashram with a guru. He lost a wife and the world gained an adventurer who, through his company Hann Overland, organised hundreds of trips from London to Kathmandu.
He still kept going despite wars and sanctions: if the FCO advised against travel to a country you could be sure Geoff would be taking tourists there.
I first met Geoff when trying to write a travel guide to Iraq for Bradt. Dr Salah Shaikhly a prominent figure in the opposition to Saddam’s regime suggested I write it and I said yes. Everything is easier to get into than out of. Our first meeting was bit strained. “What do you know about Iraq?” Geoff asked as he glared at me from across a massive dining table in his home in Streatham. “Not a lot,” I said. End of conversation. I went home with my tail between my legs.
But when I got home there were at least ten emails from Geoff, pictures, answers to questions, information about tourist sites in Iraq only he had. That was Geoff, a meticulous researcher who provided those on his tours with excellent background information. His contacts on the ground were second to none, he could make informed decisions about when it was necessary to change route or abandon a visit to a certain site for security reasons. He was the ideal person to write a travel guide to Iraq. It was an honour and a privilege to write three travel guides with him.
Retiring, growing old – Geoff gave that up years ago. I remember saying to him “I am 60 now,” and he looked at me with the mischievous grin I am sure you all remember and said “I am 80 – what’s your problem?” He was a bit of a devil, he loved a drink and a good time and he was fun to be with, always helpful and entertaining.
We are all very sad Geoff is no longer with us on this earthly plane. But rather than mourn his death let us celebrate his life, his inspiration, and his can-do attitude. He accomplished many missions impossible.
Let us hope that trips to Iraq – the serious scholarly trips which take us to the cradle of civilisation – continue, and another inspiring travel agent follows in Geoff’s footsteps and continues to foster friendships across frontiers between the Iraqis and the peoples of the world.
I will end with a quote from the famous Iraqi poet Badr Al-Sayyab which I am sure echoes Geoff’s sentiments:
Farewell my friends, my beloved ones
If you wish to remember me,
Remember me on a moonlight night
When the moon shines over the Tigris
Otherwise, I will just be a name
Disappeared among other names
Just as the moon lights up the Tigris
You lit up my life
I am forever in your hearts
Just look up at the moon
On a moonlight night.
Geoff Hann was the author of our guide to Iraq. He passed away on April 21st 2022.