Some of Dia al-Khatib’s collection is priceless, other things in it are historic. But to al-Khatib, a local of the eastern Iraqi city of Kut, each item is precious.
Al-Khatib has been collecting all kinds of things for decades now – this includes everything from rare stamps to gifts that German leader, Adolf Hitler, gave to the Iraqi royal family – and he wants to open his own museum to exhibit the artefacts.
The room where he stores his collection is full of differently sized packets, bags and boxes.
The 70-year-old told NIQASH he’s just waiting for the right opportunity to display his life’s worth of collecting, but as yet nobody in officialdom seems interested in supporting the idea.
Dia al-Khatib: When I was much younger and still at school, stamps coming into Iraq from elsewhere in the world, with their bright colours, started to make me curious. So I would allocate some of my pocket money to buy stamps, to feel the joy of owning a small part of another culture. This went on for years and I ended up with hundreds of stamps.
I became a member of a number of stamp collecting organizations and clubs. And now I actually have millions of stamps from all over the world.
NIQASH: Is it difficult to protect a stamp collection like this, in a country like Iraq?
Al-Khatib: I have got a lot of advice from people in stamp clubs and I follow the latest scientific advice on how best to preserve the stamps. There are special powders, special containers and gloves must be used when touching the stamps. I also try to control the temperature in the rooms where the stamps are kept.
NIQASH: What are the most precious items in your collection?
Al-Khatib: I have some very valuable items and it would take a long time to tell you all about all of them. For example, I have some decorative items that belonged to the German leader, Adolf Hitler. I also have his watch, which he gave to the Iraqi king, Ghazi [bin Faisal, who was king of Iraq between 1933 and 1939], at his coronation. It’s very precious and it still works.
I also have the design for the Volkswagen car, which was approved by Hitler. And I actually have a lot of things that belonged to Iraq’s royal family.
NIQASH: Such as?
Al-Khatib: King Faisal I’s bicycle and gifts that the royal family received from other countries’ leaders. I have a copper Scout’s medallion that was given to Prince Faisal in 1935, the Iraqi king’s official stamp, various pens, stamps and other stationery.
I also have a music recorder from 1880 made by the German company, Odeon. I bought it when I went to Germany 40 years ago. It still works today
NIQASH: So what do you do with all of these things?
Al-Khatib: I have participated in 54 international exhibitions in various countries around the world, including in the US, France, Britain, Germany, the Vatican city in Italy, China, Japan, Kuwait, Algeria, Tunisia, Oman, Beirut and Egypt.
For me though, the best exhibition I ever attended was my own, held in 1950 in Kut. I showed a lot of very expensive and important items and the exhibition was attended by many government officials and locals. It was remarkable!
Since then, I have been invited to take part in many exhibitions. I was part of a big exhibition in Kuwait in 1963 that was inaugurated by the king of Kuwait and I still have his signature.
Later on, I went to the UK in 1965 where the exhibition I was part of, was opened by Queen Elizabeth. I remember her compliments on my efforts.
I also remember how I was not allowed to participate in the Baghdad International Fair of 1978 because they said my collection dated back to the royal era and that it went against the current government’s policies to glorify things like this.
NIQASH: And apparently you met the Pope too?
Al-Khatib: Yes, I had that honour when I took my collection to an exhibition in 1968. He gave me a box with a picture of Jesus Christ on it and several gospels. In return, I gave him a copy of the Koran.
NIQASH: Have people offered to buy your collection or parts of it?
Al-Khatib: Many offers from inside Iraq and from abroad. But I always refuse in no uncertain terms. What I want to do is establish my own museum on a piece of family land. I’ve actually contacted a lot of officials here to ask if they could support such a venture and protect this modern Iraqi heritage – but nobody has been interested.