Flagged and Stamped

Over the last half century, as many nations around our region have gained independence or been through regime change, they’ve have had to ask themselves big questions. Like, what makes our country, our country? What are the symbols that define us? And, who gets to decide the answer to those questions? In our episode today, two stories about the complicated paths two countries took to arrive at those decisions.

This episode was produced by Alex Atack and Abde Amr, and edited by Dana Ballout with additional support from Zeina Dowidar and Nadeen Shaker. Fact checking by Percia Verlin, and sound design by Mohamad Khreizat and Alex Atack.

Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $1 a month.



DANA: Over the last half century, as many nations around our region have gained independence from colonial regimes, they’ve have had to ask themselves big questions. Like, what makes our country, our country? What are the symbols that define us? And, who gets to decide the answer to those questions? 

In our episode today, we have two stories about the complicated paths two countries have taken to arrive at those decisions, and they take place in very different time periods.

In part one, Iraq grapples with the idea of changing its’ flag after the American invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein. And then, in part two, the UAE finds this crazy inventive way to make money from it’s newly found statehood. It’s the strangest thing you’ll never guess it, so you have to listen.

I’m Dana Ballout, and this is Kerning Cultures. Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, and the spaces in between.

Of the 22 Arab countries, most of them use some variation of the same four colours in their flags: red, white, black and green. The exceptions are places like Somalia, Comoros, Djibouti and Qatar.

Some countries use all four – Palestine, the UAE – some of them just two, like Saudi Arabia or  Bahrain.

People in the vexillology world – which is a super funny word but it means the study of flags – call this a flag family, when a group of countries’ flags look similar. And it’s not unusual. You have flag families in Africa, there’s the Scandinavian countries, where many of the flags have a cross on them.

But the origin story around the pan-Arab flag – that is, the earliest version of the green, black, red and white flag, used during the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire in around 1916 – is a little blurred. Some people say it’s a mash up of several flags used by Arab national clubs. Some people will say it was Mark Sykes, the British official who introduced the first flag to use those colours. But whatever the reason, the colours have stuck around.

They’re the colours under which wars are fought, treaties are signed, and because they’re so ubiquitous now, we wondered if any country had ever tried to change them.

And it turns out that in Iraq, they almost did.

After the American invasion of Iraq and after Saddam Hussein was overthrown, the American transitory government in collaboration with the Iraqi interim government pitched this idea: let’s introduce a new flag, something totally different to any of the other Arab country.

It was white, with blue and yellow stripes and a crescent moon in the middle.

For the Americans, it was supposed to represent a new era in Iraq’s history. But for Iraqis, it was the opposite: here was this foreign invading power, trying to change something that was at the core of the country’s DNA, it’s flag. It was a tough sell.

Producer Alex Atack takes the story from here.

ALEX: For any flag designer, there’s a pretty universally accepted set of rules to follow. They’re called the five principles of flag design.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Number one: keep it simple. Number two: use meaningful symbolism. Number three: use two or three basic colours. Number four: no lettering or seals. Number five: be distinctive or be related.

And if you follow those rules, you should, in theory, end up with a good flag. Break the rules, and you’ll get a bad flag.

TAREK: It’s a good question – what are the elements that make a good flag design? I think first is the recognizability. It has to be recognizable. It has to stand out.

ALEX: This is Tarek Atrissi, he’s a Lebanese Dutch designer who was asked to design an international “flag for peace”, that’s what they called it, as part of a Dutch design exhibition in 2015.

So when I asked Tarek about good flags and bad flags, he gave me a couple of examples. 

The Dutch flag: bad flag. Not awful, but not great. For example, when he’s trying to select it from a grid of flag emojis, he often can’t recognise it right away.

TAREK: Its very confusing, it can be confused with many different flags. When I need to select the Dutch flag, I often or select the Luxembourg flag, or you might select the Russian flag by mistake. So it’s not very recognizable.

ALEX: And that’s an issue. You want your country’s flag to stand out. Like the Lebanese flag.

TAREK: Looking at the Lebanese flag, like I think it has much more recognizability. I think the Lebanese flag sort of fall in the category of the Canada flag as well, because they use a national three, which is the Cedar tree. It’s almost like the Cedar of the flag is almost like… Fairouz actually, it’s the only thing has been neutral to the Lebanese, is the only thing.

ALEX: Beyond just looking good, flags are also supposed to give us a sense of belonging… some kind of national icon that a whole country can get behind.

And, I think coming to a flag design that makes people feel that, but that also looks good and is inclusive of history and religious and ethnic groups… that’s the hardest part.

TAREK: So it’s a very simple design piece that has to reflect through its design, a very complicated story behind it. So actually it’s extremely challenging. It’s also the type of project that doesn’t happen often. Most countries have their flag established historically since a very long time.

ALEX: There was one flag expert I spoke to told me that he thinks of flags as like the shorthand of history. That they’re a way of studying what a country was trying to say about itself through various periods of its history.

And so, quick history of the flag we’re talking about today, the Iraqi flag – the first version that had the green, red, white and black was brought in in 1921, under British Mandate Iraq.

Then it was changed to the three horizontal stripes we see today in 1963, when the Ba’ath Party came into power. They also added the three stars to represent Syria, Egypt and Iraq – three countries they hoped would come together in union one day.

And since then, there have been various changes over the years to the design, but they’ve all used these same pan-Arab colours.

And to talk about what they represent, we spoke to the Iraqi artist Dima Yassine, who told us about a poem on the Martyr’s Memorial in Baghdad that’s about the colours of the flag.

DIMA: [Reading poem in Arabic] So it says white are our doings, black are our battles, green are our kind of valleys. And red are our pasts.

ALEX: It’s a 14th century poem by the Arab poet Safi al-Din al-Hilli, which was tied symbolically to the four colours of the Pan-Arab flag during the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire in 1916.

And, they’ve been used on the Iraqi flag since then in various ways, and there have been changes over the years like I said, but maybe the most significant change to the flag was in 1991, when Saddam Hussein was president.

DIMA: So he decided to write ‘Allahu Akbar’, which is God is great between the stars with his own hands. Talk about narcissism. But so – it’s like – so he wrote it with his own like handwriting. He wrote Allahu Akbar the middle.

ALEX: This was right before the beginning of the first Gulf War. 

[Archive recording]

ALEX: In a famous speech around the same time, Saddam Hussein said quote, “We in Iraq will be the faithful and obedient servants of God, struggling for his sake to raise the banner of truth and justice, the banner of “God is Great.” 

[Archive recording]

DIMA: I’m always bothered by the words. It’s not just, it’s not because of the religious connotation in it. It’s because of the history of it. Like he wrote them. Like Saddam wrote them actually on his own – he decided to put his own signature on that flag. He’s kind of like, I own you, you know what I mean? So it bothers me when I look at those words on it just really bothers me.

ALEX: And then, in 2003… 

[Archive recording]

ALEX: When the American-led governing council had power in Iraq…

[Archive recording]

ALEX: Saddam Hussein’s handwriting on the flag, and its connotations of the old Ba’athist regime, it bothered them too. So in 2004, they announced a plan for a redesign.

JOHN: The removal of Saddam Hussein’s memory is a very, very active portion of the US occupation 2003 and 2004, really and beyond.

ALEX: This is John Andrews, he’s an academic and has written about the history of the Iraqi flag. But in 2004, when the new flag was proposed, he was there, in Iraq, as an infantryman with the American military. And he told us a bit about what led up to the decision for the US-led Iraqi Governing Council to petition for this flag change.

JOHN: If we’re changing all these other things and we are indeed de Ba’athifying the country, why don’t we have a clean break and start over and we’ll have a new flag on top of it. Why not? Well, you know what, while we’re, while we’re changing everything why don’t we change that too? 

ALEX: So they set up a competition where designers could pitch their new ideas for flag.

DIMA: They kind of ran a contest of at the, at the time. there were lots of designs for the flag. 

ALEX: But the idea that got chosen was designed by the famous Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji.

[Archive recording] 

ALEX: And it’s totally different from any of the previous Iraqi flags. It’s white, with two blue lines to represent the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, a yellow line to represent the Kurdish people, and a crescent to represent Islam. But when the design was published in an Iraqi newspaper, the backlash was pretty much immediate.

[Archive recordings]

DIMA: I think the backlash comes from the idea that we got attached to these four colors, and there was a lot of history in it. 

[Archive recordings]

DIMA: So it’s kind of like, I think we just grew very attached to the colors. I think that’s why we’re not convinced when we look at the, like, that can’t be Iraq. No. This is not – [laughs].

[Archive recordings]

ALEX: Do you think there’s also something in fact that the flag change was at least in part influenced by the Americans?

JOHN: I do. I do. I would, I would say that. I mean, it’s an erasure

ALEX: This is John Andrews again.

JOHN: I think it would be very easy to point to that and say, Americans are trying to change everything about us, including our sacred symbols.

ALEX: Mmm. Is that what you felt to be true? 

JOHN: At the time or, or presently?

ALEX: Well, if it’s a different answer than both, I guess. 

JOHN: I think looking back on it where I am now, I do, I do think it is something of an overreach by American influence to just do one thing too many in Iraq.

ALEX: The competition, and Rifat Chadirji’s flag idea, they were both scrapped after the backlash. He passed away last year, and we reached out to his foundation to speak to for this story, but they weren’t available in the end.

Instead of his flag, the coalition authority brought in one that was quite similar still to the 1991 version with the Takbir, Allahu Akbar, except they removed Saddam Hussein’s handwriting, and replaced it with a Kufic script, which is an angular Arabic script from ancient Iraq.

This is from a video from the moment they raised the new flag over the Iraqi embassy in Washington DC.

[Archive recording]

ALEX: Then, in 2008, the three stars, which had become associated with the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein, they were taken off the flag too. These new flag designs passed with – as best I can tell – very little disagreement.

The flag today is the same as in 2008 – three horizontal stripes, red white and black, with the Takbir in Kufic script in the middle. It actually breaks one of the cardinal rules of good flag design that I talked about in the beginning in that it’s got lettering on it. But I think if we’ve taken anything from this story its that those rules can be broken, and they’re almost designed to be broken. The more important question is; what does a flag mean to the people of the country?

And obviously with the Iraqi flag there are lot of different answers to that. We all have different feelings about what our national flags mean and what they should represent. But for Dima, something changed recently when she was back in Baghdad in 2019, during the huge anti-government protests, where the flag was everywhere.

DIMA: You see it as a beautiful thing. I mean this from the flag itself, especially when it’s like big and everybody is like carrying it  It’s very, very hard to explain, but it’s. It’s really – it’s very emotional.

ALEX: In the newsreel from these protests, you see the flag draped around a woman’s shoulders as she treats a wounded protester in the back of an ambulance, in one, a crowd carries a flag so big it takes like 30 people to hold it up in some of the shots from above, the crowd is just a sea of red white and black.

DIMA: I mean, those kids were carrying it and they wouldn’t let it fall on the ground and they would die for that. It’s just crazy. Like they would die just to carry that flag. They were not even fighting. A lot of people died this way. They were shot. But if you talk about if it represents like – design-wise – if it represents Iraq, I don’t think so. No, I don’t think so.

ALEX: this is, might be a big question, but like you, if you had the chance to redesign the flag, And you can do whatever you want, what are the things that you feel like you would want to represent? How would you go about it? How drastically would you change it?

DIMA: It is a big question. but I would love to represent the diversity. Because Iraq has just, it’s just – it’s not, it’s not one thing. It’s just so many things all together. So I would love to represent that. Because we’re talking about the cradle of civilization. We’re talking about the Somarians and the Assyrians and it’s, it’s it’s a place that has a history of 5,000 years worth of history, if not even more. So I’ll put some kind of aspect in that. Actually there was a version and in the, in the protest that people were carrying. So instead of ‘Allahu Akbar’, they put a word that was written in in the Cuneiform, which is the, the Assyrian language. And it’s, it’s written the word was [amargy], which means ‘liberty’. it made more sense to me at the time, because at least it has a lot of, like, it has a little bit of this – It symbolizes something that the country is – that weight of history that the country is carrying. So it has this really deep meaning. Because we all carry that civilization kind of weight.

ALEX: After the break, the story of how, in the 1960s in the Trucial States before the UAE, an American conman made a fortune … by selling the country’s stamps.


DANA: For our next story today, we’re going from Iraq to the UAE, to tell you about how a shady American entrepreneur found a way to take advantage of the country’s new found statehood in this really weird way that I had never heard of before, and how the UAE used it to their advantage. Here’s Alex again.

ALEX: When I met Ammar Shams to interview him about his stamp collection, he showed up with a printed poster of some of his favorite stamps, rolled up in a tube and tucked under his arm. Straight away he unfolded it out on the table and started telling me about some of them.

AMMAR: So national day, 1977, we had a set of three stamps commemorating national day, but they printed the Arabic date in the English style. They wrote the date on the left the month in the middle and the year on the right. 

ALEX: He’s retired from work now, but Ammar has had a lot of jobs in his lifetime.

AMMAR: Worked in oil and gas, worked in entertainment, worked in the film industry and was a banker, worked for the federal government, worked for local government… 

ALEX: He also happened to have been a governer at the school I went to in Dubai.

AMMAR: If it was a good idea at the time I tried it.

ALEX: Okay wow.

ALEX: Now he’s a full time student, working on a PhD in Islamic Law in London. But he grew up in UAE in the 60s – back then it was called the Trucial States – in a neighbourhood called Deira.

ALEX: What was life like in the 60s in Dubai in Deira?

AMMAR: Fun. Basically all us kids spent the whole afternoon running around barefoot chasing footballs and sand pitches everywhere. Very few cars, very few people, so it was a smaller place.

ALEX: And he told me that if you were a kid growing up around this time, your options for things to do were pretty limited.

AMMAR: No, there wasn’t much except running around the neighborhood, playing football.

ALEX: The first cinema didn’t open in Dubai until the late 60s, and to read any books or comics from abroad you’d have to make the trip to the British council library on the other side of the Creek from Deira.

AMMAR: The latest comics would come into the British council library and we’d come in to read them.

ALEX: So at some point, he got into philately, or stamp collecting.

ALEX: So how did you get into philately what’s your kind of earliest memories of that? 

AMMAR: Earliest memories. We’ll go back probably to the 1960s. Dad somehow convinced me that stamp collecting was a good idea and he worked for British Petroleum at the time in Dubai.

ALEX: This was when the Trucial States were still under protectorate control by the British.

AMMAR: And everyday he’d come back from the office, whatever letters that come into BP from different parts of the world. I think the mail boy who worked at the office knew to tear off all the stamps and give them to my father who’d bring them home. 

ALEX: Oh wow okay.

AMMAR: And then it was literally, you’d take the piece of the envelope that the stamps were on, put them in warm water until the stamp sort of comes off. And then as the stamps come off the envelope, you put them on a towel to dry and then sort them and then put them in albums.

ALEX: So his Dad would arrive home from work with whatever new stamps he’d collected that day, and Ammar would look through them and file them away into one of his stamp albums.

AMMAR:  And then over time it just became virtually an obsession, I guess. I think as a child, it was just, there was color, there was variety and there was structure. It helped me narrow down countries. I learned about places that I’d never been to. It was, it was a window into, or out of Dubai and into the rest of the world.

And I still remember my first ever holiday to London was 19 – summer of 1977. I was, yeah, 13 years old, I guess. Dad wanted us to see London and go to whether it’s the planetarium or the natural history museum, or do something useful with my time. I wanted to go to Stanley Gibbons.

ALEX: Stanley Gibbons is a famous stamp dealer in central London, it’s still there today.

AMMAR: All of my savings I’d collected, I brought over with me with one objective in mind, which was to buy a penny black.

ALEX: Okay.

ALEX: I’m pretending I know a penny black is here, but I didn’t. I had to ask him later; it’s basically the first stamp ever issued anywhere in the world. So 1840, issued in the UK, has a picture of Queen Victoria’s head on it.

AMMAR: And for stamp collectors, it’s basically, you know, number one of one in the world, the first stamp ever. 

ALEX: So, 1977 on this trip to London, Ammar bought a penny black and a two penny blue which was the second stamp to ever exist.

AMMAR: I paid 120 pounds for them in 1977. 

ALEX: In today’s money, that’s like £750 pounds.

AMMAR: Yes, which, for a 13 year old constituted my life savings. But I kept them with pride. I still have the two penny blue.

ALEX: And part of the reason this stamp is worth so much money is because it’s rare, and in stamp collecting, rarity is pretty much prized above anything else. And rare can mean a few things – either it was a stamp that there weren’t very many of them produced… or it can be that there was some kind of mistake on it, like a misprint.

AMMAR: For stamp collectors, that’s what you look for. You look for a mistake that gets a stamp withdrawn and makes it very, very rare. There a US stamp that was, I’m trying to remember when it was, it was sometime, I think, late 1930, 20th century with a biplane on it and the plane is upside down.

ALEX: It’s printed just the wrong way around?

AMMAR: Everything else, it says US postage on it, the number of the 20 cents or whatever cents it is, everything’s perfectly okay. But the plane is upside down. 

ALEX: In the stamp collecting word, that stamp is called an Inverted Jenny,

AMMAR: And I think only six of those stamps ever went out into the real world. All the others were destroyed, but six of them exist.

ALEX: A couple of years ago, one of them was bought by an anonymous buyer at auction in New York for just under $1.6 million dollars.

AMMAR: They’re worth millions, they’re worth absolutely millions of dollars to collecter because once again, rarity has value.

ALEX: So in the 1960s, people from outside the stamp collecting world started to notice this too, that rarity has value. One of these people was this guy called Finbar Kenny. 

AMMAR: He was a businessman and he wanted to tap into stamp collecting all over the world. 

ALEX: He was an American, worked in the stamps section at Macy’s department store, in the stamps section, and he saw an opportunity to make money.

AMMAR: And the only way he could tap into it was to basically produce his own stamps, but he could have as an individual citizen. So he needed to find a legal entity, a country or an Emirate, or whatever it might be that would allow him to print stamps.

ALEX: At the beginning of the 60s, the Trucial States were using their own stamps for postage – before that they’d used British stamps. But this guy Finbar Kenny – who, by the way, one academic I spoke to said he was basically just a crook, he approached the Trucial States’ leaders with a proposal.

AMMAR: He came to the small Emirates, and he would pay them a annual stipend for the right to publish stamps in their name. And keep in mind in the early sixties – this is pre oil, we were, I mean, literally hand to mouth existence in the Gulf. My generation were born in mud houses and we remember days before power and before electricity and whatnot. So pre-oil and pre money, our rulers would tap into any resource that would allow them to have an income that they could then use for practical purposes – running hospitals and schools and building roads and whatnot. So individually, all Emirates, I think with the exception of Abu Dhabi, entered into an agreement with this American chap. And started – and allowed him to print stamps. So the stamps would be printed, they’d be sold without us ever seeing them. Because they had nothing to do with us, but they would carry the name of the individual Emirates.

ALEX: It’s not even clear if he ever actually visited the Trucial States – he probably didn’t – but he was kind of like a stamp market stock trader. He’d keep an eye on trends in the US market, print whatever people were interested in buying as Trucial States stamps, and sell them to stamp collectors in the US.

AMMAR: let’s say he knew that people were collecting stamps with John Kennedy’s picture on them. So because of that, suddenly there’d be a definitive set of stamps from Ajman and from Fujairah and from Ras al Khaimah all with John Kennedy’s face on them, that he would then sell to collectors all over the world –

ALEX: Because they were in demand in collectors market?

AMMAR: Exactly. And if trends were Rubin’s paintings, Sharjah would issue a set of Rubin’s paintings. If the trend was for – anything from triangular stamps, round stamps, stamps with a hole in the middle, whatever he thought he could sell, he would.

ALEX: I read things like Alice in Wonderland, rockets, ski slopes…

AMMAR: You name it. But it had nothing to do with the country.

ALEX: The Emirates would take a percentage of the profits, but through this scheme, I think it’s fair to say Finbar Kenny was making a killing. And there’s a name for this; it’s called ‘stamp pandering’. I spoke to the guy who coined the phrase.

JOEL: So I call it stamp pandering because the stamps are designed, not for a local residents, not for local residents who want to send a letter or a package – they’re designed for collectors.

ALEX: This is Joel Slemrod, he’s a professor of economics at the University of Michigan in the United States. His specialty is taxation and tax avoidance, but he’s also a stamp collector.

JOEL: I’ve been a stamp collector for oh, probably 60, 65 years. And I was always waiting for a chance to find the intersection between those two interests of mine.

ALEX: He started studying this thing he called stamp pandering in 2008, when he wrote a paper about it.

JOEL: One of the things I look at is I try to understand what about a country make stamp pandering attractive. And some of the things are not particularly surprising, that this is more attractive to poorer countries. They find it difficult to raise money in other ways.

ALEX: He studied a bunch of countries that have acted as stamp panderers over the years.

JOEL: Disney characters are very, very prominent. 

ALEX: The country of Chad issued stamps with Marilyn Monroe, 

JOEL: I doubt Elvis visited Burkina Faso but the stamp agent that was producing their stamps thought it would sell.

ALEX: Chechnya had stamps with Groucho marks on it, Mongolia issued stamps with the Three Stooges. 

JOEL: Montserrat issued stamps with Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s guitarist. 

ALEX: Oh my gosh, that’s really obscure.

JOEL: Yeah. I can’t explain the fascination with American culture, but it does exist. 

ALEX: And you see this on Finbar Kenny’s Trucial States stamps from the 60s as well. I ordered a bunch of them on eBay for like £2 including postage. There’s a Picasso painting printed as a Fujairah stamp, there’s another with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the American flag on the moon. At the time, a New York stamp dealer told Aramco magazine that it’s almost impossible to keep up with Trucial States stamps because there are just so many varieties. Joel told me that Ajman alone printed nearly 1,500 different stamp designs in the mid-60s.

ALEX: So I read that the Emirates – I think Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah, they made profits of about £70,000 in 1960s money, which is, I just ran it through inflation calculator. And that’s about £1.4 million in today’s money. Does that sound like, is that possible that they would have raised that much money in the 60s from stamps?

JOEL: Yeah, absolutely. It’s possible.

ALEX: Wow. 

JOEL: A lot of stamp collectors in the world. Yeah. I think that’s absolutely possible.

ALEX: It’s hard to come to any definitive figure here. But one source I found said that at its most profitable, in 1966, the Emirate of Ajman made most of its revenue from stamps. They put it at £70,000 a year in them mid-60s.

ALEX: It’s hard to imagine today especially somewhere in the UAE, which has so developed over the last 40 years, but it’s hard to imagine a state being able to run hospitals, roads, all of this infrastructure, on the back of stamps.

AMMAR: On the back back of stamps, I know it was a different world. And he came with what looked like a no brainer – money for nothing effectively.

ALEX: But the money for nothing didn’t last long.

JOEL: Well there certainly seems to have been a backlash. At one point in the sixties, the American Philatelic society, which in the US is the leading Association of stamp collectors, they actually started to publish something called the black blot list, which was a list of countries and stamps of countries, which they thought collectors should be wary of.

ALEX: These stamps from the UAE became so well known as fake rarities that they earned a nickname; dunes, as in sand dunes, I think the thinking behind that one was they’re as common as sand dunes in the Trucial States. Not a great nickname, doesn’t make a ton of sense. But it caught on so much that the New York Times wrote an article about it in 1988, they said that Finbar Kenny’s stamps are quote “shunned by buyers and sellers, the products of an extravagant stamp-issuing policy, or lack of one.”

So for most collectors, they’re only really interested in stamps that were or would have actually been used as postage stamps, which means that Finbar Kenny’s stamps are basically just novelty items.

AMMAR: Because they were never used for the purposes of which – they were never used as postage stamps.

ALEX: Sure, okay. I think that’s what I’m asking is so they have to be, they have to, for them to be legit in the philately world, they have to actually be functional. And there’s a recognition that if they’re produced for the sake of like appeasing collectors, then they aren’t –

AMMAR: They have no value. Well, just to a stamp collector like me, they have no value because they’re – they were not for lack of a better word. They were never real. Real stamps are used and they’re used to transport something. So that was one set of stamps that were issued and I don’t regard them as stamps attached to us, but they’re part of our history and it’s a sort of interesting story. 

ALEX: In 1971, the Trucial States became the United Arab Emirates and they started printing their own stamps, and the illustrations on those one were more relevant to the country, so in one you have a picture of Dubai airport to commemorate its’ opening, May 15th 1971. There’s another one with Deira clock tower… there are portraits of the leaders from each Emirate.

But that isn’t where the story ends for Finbar Kenny. After the UAE became the UAE, he took his stamp scheme to the Cook Islands in the Pacific, and there he set up a similar scheme to the one he’d been running in the Trucial States, and shortly after, stamps became the Cook Islands biggest export – about 20% of government revenue.

But then, maybe unsurprisingly, he got wrapped up in a political scam related to voted fraud and eventually dropped off the radar. These days stamp pandering isn’t so much of a thing anymore, but there a few modern day schemes that you could say are pretty similar – where countries without steady economic income streams will hack a popular trend and bank in on their status as a country.

JOEL: One of my favorites is the Pacific Island country of Tuvalu. Tuvalu for awhile, they might still do it. I don’t know. For awhile they sold the rights to their internet domain name, which just happens to be .tv – which you can see is very attractive. When they did this they got 15% of their gross domestic product from selling the rights. Not 15% of their tax revenue. That’s 15% of their GDP. So that was a big chunk of change.

ALEX: Ammar doesn’t collect stamps anymore, but he still has his collection – two shelves of big binders full of plastic sleeves that he’s kept since he was a kid.

AMMAR: And every once in a while, I’ll still go back to being, you know, that little kid in Deira who would sit on the floor on the carpet and open the album and look at the stamps. And make sure they’re all in the right order, they’re facing the right way because I think, like I said, it’s, it’s commemoration.

ALEX: I know that you, you, that your rare stamps are worth a lot of money, but I get the impression it’s not really about that?

AMMAR: No, it’s not that the entire stamp collection put together that I have, it’s not worth money, but to me, I can literally close my eyes and be a child again. I remember putting these stamps into the albums as a six year old as a seven year old as an eight year old, I remember exchanging a stamp with a friend where I had two of it and he didn’t have one and I’d give him one, I’d give him one stamp if he gave me and so on. So all of those memories for me are invaluable. So yes, they’re not worth much in money, but it’s like your family photographs. They’re worth a lot to you.

DANA: Kerning Cultures is a production of the Kerning Cultures network, which means we have lots of other shows in Arabic and in English that I think you’ll love.

To find out more, search “Kerning Cultures Network” on your podcast app, or visit www.kerningcultures.com.

This episode was written and produced by Alex Atack and Abde Amr and edited by me, Dana Ballout. Editorial support from Zeina Dowidar and Nadeen Shaker, and fact checking by Percia Verlin. Sound design was by Mohamad Khreizat and Alex Atack.

ALEX: Special thanks this episode to Dima Yassine, Tarek Atrissi, John Andrews, Ammar Shams and Joel Slemrod.

Joel has a new book out, it’s a collection of surprising and funny historical stories about tax. It’s called Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom through the Ages.

DANA: We’ll be back with a new episode next week. See you then.