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Volume 17, Number 6November/December 1966

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In The Marshes Of Iraq

Written and photographed by Wilfred Thesiger

Wilfred Thesiger has never been at ease in today's world. As a boy in Ethiopia he couldn't wait to go wait to go into the jungle alone, As an adult he has spent most of his life in a restless quest for that deep, elusive satisfaction which for some men can be found only in those harsh, wild places of the world described by author William Mulvihill as "the great blank spaces where men died for uncomplicated reasons: thirst, hunger, heat and cold."

Thesiger first explored one of those blank spaces in 1931. On vacation from his studies at Oxford, he led a safari into the Danikil Desert in Ethiopia, an area where primitive tribesmen killed most strangers on sight and castrated the bodies. Later he served as a political officer in the wild Darhur area of the Sudan, During leave and on holidays he explored sections of the Saharan and Libyan deserts. Instead of satisfying him, however, those experiences merely whetted his appetite for more and aggravated his dissatisfaction with civilization. "I hated the calling and the cards, I resented the trim villas ... the meticulously aligned streets," he wrote. "I wanted colour and savagery, hardship and adventure."

Since adventure and hardship are rarely the lot of a political officer, Thesiger eventually resigned, frustrated and unhappy. Then, toward the end of World War II, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations asked him if he would cares to try to track down the breeding grounds of the desert locust. These grounds, he was told, were thought to be in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, one of the largest, hottest and, at that time, most remote, deserts of the world. For Thesiger it was the answer to a prayer. "All my past," he wrote, "had been but a prelude to the five years that lay ahead."

As indeed it was. Only a man who had spent most of his life in the wilderness, a man who rejoiced in the challenges of a savage land, could have survived those next five years. Living and traveling with the Bedouins, Thesiger explored the Empty Quarter from one frontier to another. He crossed and recrossed the area from east to west and west to east. On foot and on camel-back he traveled some 10,000 miles. He was "always hungry, and usually thirsty." He knew exhaustion and fear and the constant demands of "an alien people who made no allowance for weakness."

It was, Thesiger wrote later, "a hard and merciless life." Yet for him it was not a "meaningless penance," but rather a deeply satisfying experience which gave him a "freedom unattainable in civilization" and "the peace that comes with solitude." Not only did he accept hardships; he was unwilling, perhaps even unable, to give them up.

As it turned out, however, Thesiger had not escaped civilization; he had merely outdistanced it. Toward the end of his wanderings it caught up with him in the form of seismic exploration parties searching for oil in the most remote corners of Saudi: Arabia. "I went to Southern Arabia just in time," he wrote. "If anyone goes there now looking for the life I led, they will not find it ..."

Thesiger left the desert soon after to return to England and write Arabian Sands. But driven by an inescapable restlessness he was soon off again, this time to climb and ride through peaks of the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush mountains. From there he moved on to the oaken forests and deep gorges of Iraq's Kurdistan. Then, in 1951, he rode south to the Marshes of Iraq.

The Marshes of Iraq comprise one of the most interesting areas in the world. Drenched for centuries in the spring overflows of the historic Tigris and Euphrates rivers, they consist of some 6,000 square miles of reedbeds, lakes, bulrushes, canals and sedge. On the fringes of these Marshes, in historic and prehistoric Mesopotamia, civilization after civilization rose and fell like castles of sand on a turbulent shore: Sumerian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Persian, Greek, Roman and Arab. With each wave of conquerors, thousands of refugees fled into the trackless Marshes. It became, for a time, a sort of no man's land and a center of rebellion from which warriors sallied forth to battle whatever ruler then held sway in the Euphrates region. But as Iraq itself dwindled in importance—after the final devastation of the Mongols—so did the Marshes. Eventually there remained a curious mixture of Occidental and Oriental peoples. Some traced their lineage back to Alexander the Great, some to the Romans, others to Genghis Khan, and the Arabs. And of them all it was the Arab conquerors who left the deepest imprint on the Marshes. Shrugging off the glories of Parthian and Persian power, ignoring the fame of Rome and Greece, the Marsh people adopted Arabic as their tongue, Islam as their religion and the Bedouins as their heroes. Thus, hundreds of miles away from the sands of Arabia, in a land as alien to the Bedouin as the tundras of Canada, there grew up a culture based almost entirely on the ideals and beliefs of the peoples who inhabit the Empty Quarter.

Thesiger had never visited the Marshes before and the first impact was strong and lasting. "Memories of that first visit to the Marshes," he wrote, "have never left me: firelight on a half-turned face, the crying of geese ... canoes moving in procession down a waterway, the setting sun seen crimson through the smoke of burning reedbeds, narrow waterways that wound still deeper into the Marshes ... reed houses built upon water, black dripping buffaloes ... stars reflected in dark water, the croaking of frogs, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine. Once again I experienced the longing to share this life, and to be more than a mere spectator."

Six months later Thesiger returned to the Marshes to live. Captivated by the wild, free existence of the Marshes, as he had been by a similar life in the Empty Quarter, he wandered through this vast region off and on for seven years, staying first with this tribe, then with that, paddling his long, graceful canoe through narrow canals that curved in an eerie silence among towering reeds, hunting the huge, razor-tusked boars lurking in the reeds by the hundreds, and healing the infections and diseases of the Marsh tribesmen.

It was not a pleasant existence. He was plagued by mosquitoes. He suffered the appalling heat and humidity of the summer. He hunted constantly. He worked unceasing as a doctor. But it was what he wanted—a free life in a land where great beds of huge, pale gold reeds reached up out of calm lakes; where nearly every villager held out a welcoming hand; where ducks and cormorants and herons rose in vast flocks to the skies; where, in sum, a man could be free.

In these years Thesiger made friends and enemies, faced danger, hardship, suffocating heat and shivering cold, and got to know the Marshes as almost no one else ever has. Then one day in 1958 he had to return to Great Britain. He had planned to go back to the Marshes, but in his absence the political situation erupted. When the upheaval ended, he found himself barred from Iraq and the Marshes closed to further visitors. With little chance of ever returning there, he began, reluctantly, to sum up and set down his experiences. The result was the book The Marsh Arabs, from which these excerpts and photographs are taken.


Quotations and photographs are reprinted from the book, The Marsh Arabs, by Wilfred Thesiger, published by Longmans Green, London. Copyright © 1964 by Wilfred Thesiger. All rights reserved.

"As I came out into the dawn, I saw, far away across a great sheet of water, the silhouette of a distant land, black against the sunrise. For a moment I had a vision of Hufaidh, the legendary island, which no man may look on and keep his senses; then I realized that I was looking at great reedbeds. A slim, black, high-prowed craft lay beached at my feet—the sheikh's war canoe, waiting to take me into the Marshes. Before the first palaces were built at Ur, men had ... launched a canoe like this, and gone hunting here. Woolley had unearthed their dwellings and ... models of their boats buried deep under the relics of Sumerta ... deeper even than evidence of the Flood. Five thousand years of history were here and the pattern was still unchanged."

 "She teas a beautiful craft that could carry as many as twelve people. Thirty-six feet long but only three and a half feet at her widest beam, she was carvel-built, flat-bottomed and covered outside with a smooth coating of bitumen over the wooden planks. The front swept forwards and upwards in a perfect curve to form a long, thin, tapering stem; the stern too rose in a graceful sweep. Two feet of the stern and of the bows were decked; there was a thwart a third of the way forward, and a strengthening beam across the boat two-thirds of the way forward. Movable boards covered the floor. The top part of the ribs was planked along the inside and studded with five rows of flat, round nail-heads two inches across. These decorative nails were the distinguishing mark of a tarada which only a sheikh may own. Years later, in Oslo, I saw the Viking, ships preserved there and was at once reminded of the taradas in the Marshes. Both types of craft have the same beautiful simplicity of line,"

"There were sixty-seven houses scattered about the lagoon, sometimes only a few yards apart. From a distance they appeared to be actually in the water, but in fact each was constructed on a soggy pile of rushes, resembling a giant swan's nest, just large enough for the building and a space in front. Two , buffaloes stood before the nearest, water dripping from their black coats... Like those on the mainland, the houses were all made of mats, fastened over an arched framework of qasab. They were open at one end and we could look into them as we paddled past. Some were of a fair size; others were mere shelters..."

"The Majar river, a branch of the Tigris, divided below Majar al Kabir into the Adil and the Wadiya, both of which dispersed into the Marsltes about eight miles farther down, having by then lost much of their water in irrigation channels. We followed one of these channels until we joined the Adil, on which Majid's village lay..."

"The reed bundles to form the arches were planted opposite each other in two rows... A man then climbed onto a reed tripod and, as others pulled the tops within reach, bound them together. When the five arches were in place, the Suaid fastened on the the horizontal ribbing, threw the mats, sometimes only a single thickness, over the framework and tied them in position."

"Sitting in the Euphrates mudhifs I always had the impression of hi inside a Romanesque or Gothic cathedral, an illusion enhanced by the ribbed roof and the traceried windows at either end, through which bright shafts of light came to penetrate the gloom of the interior Both on the Euphrates and on the Tigris the mudhifs represented an extraordinary architectural achievement with the simplest possible materials; the effect of enrichment given by the reed patterns, came entirely from functional methods of construction. Historically, too, they were important. Long familiarity with houses such as these may well have given man the idea of imitating their arched form in mud bricks, as the Greeks later perpetuated wooden techniques in stone. Buildings similar to these mudhifs have been part of the scene in Southern Iraq for five thousand years and more. Probably within the next twenty years, certainly within the next fifty, the will have disappeared for ever."

"In the Marshes children often fashioned small rafts from bundles of bulrushes, sometimes turning up the end for a prow, and paddled about the villages on these primitive craft. I once saw an interesting type of coracle, called a zaima, on a branch of the Euphrates below Suq ash-Shyukh. Made of qasab (giant reeds) and coated outside with bitumen, it teas ten feet long and two and a half feet at its widest. The owner ... demonstrated how to construct one. First he made half a dozen tight bundles of five or six qasab reeds rather longer than the length of the proposed boat, and fastened them securely together side by side to form the keel... He next bent five long reeds into the shape of a U, passed the middle among the the loose ends of the keel, and laced them back to the keel itself. He repeated the process at either end alternately, until he had built up the sides and ends of the hull. 'This framework he stiffened by tying into it a number of ribs made from two or three willow wands ... Finally, he wedged three stout sticks across the boat as thwarts and secured their ends in place with lumps of bitumen..."

"Four years later, at the height of the floods, I happened to be crossing a great sheet of flood water, twelve miles wide and six feet deep, that covered the desert along the tees tern edge of the Marshes... Ahead I could just discern a line of palms, perhaps six miles away, marking the village for which we were bound. Behind us, the reedbeds were no longer in sight ... By the time we reached the village large waves were breaking on the shore, and the palm trees were bending to the force of the gale."

This article appeared on pages 8-19 of the November/December 1966 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1966 images.