Originally published May/June 2013.
According to Enûma EliŠ, in the Bronze Age Babylonian creation story, the world began when the god Marduk built a platform of earth and reeds in the primordial marshes, where all the lands were sea. Such a place still existed as recently as half a century ago.
”These precious images stand as a monument, a rare and ethnographic record of a lost world. They bring us back to a time and place where people lived in harmony with their environment and respected the balance the natural world needs to thrive.”
Marshes once occupied 20,000 square kilometers (7700 sq mi) of southern Iraq, and in October and November of 1967 I had the good fortune to spend more than a month there, in what was then one of the most unspoiled parts of the world. At times it seems hard to believe, but today’s Iraq was once the center of the Eurasian universe. Mesopotamia and Sumeria were cradles of civilization, developed here thousands of years ago.
Mesopotamia means “the land between the rivers,” and the rivers are the Tigris and the Euphrates. Within their confluence lay vast marshlands with lakes, channels and rivers, islands, forests and vast beds of tall reeds, some three and even four times the height of a person. Some say the Garden of Eden was here.
Beyond the marshlands, along its edges, there are still visible traces of Sumerian cities like Uruk, Ur and Larsa. Those civilizations died and vanished—with one exception: Within the Marshes lived people calling themselves Ma‘dan, which loosely means “plains dwellers”; they are commonly known in English as Marsh Arabs.
Although they speak dialects of Arabic, many of the Ma‘dan may well be direct descendants of the Sumerians. The estimates of their numbers at the time of my visit ranged from 250,000 to 500,000.
Since I had heard that the last western writer to be allowed to visit the Marshes was Wilfred Thesiger—author of the masterpieces Marsh Arabs and Arabian Sands—back in the 1950’s, I expected that official permission to go there would be hard to obtain. Indeed, it took three weeks, and the necessary papers were ultimately issued thanks to the intervention of the mayor of Baghdad himself. The Iraqi government was already threatening to drain the Marshes, thereby extinguishing an ancient way of life. This added to the strength of my desire to go there.
My original plan was to paddle off with a guide, in a large, marsh-type canoe, from the little trading village of Majar al-Kabir. To keep everything simple, I had hoped to limit the cargo to myself, a guide, my cameras, two shotguns and—in case I tired of the local diet—200 tins of nutritious Norwegian sardines which, inexplicably, I found in a local grocery shop.
The authorities, however, insisted that I take an armed soldier along—for protection, they said. I knew that the Ma‘dan loathed anything that looked like government authority, and I knew the soldier could make it harder for me to do my work.
The canoe had to be changed for a flat-bottomed motorboat, which came with a boatman-guide-interpreter, Ibrahim, who had grown up in the Marshes and learned English in an American-owned sugar factory. Our soldier turned out to be well on in years, with a kindly wrinkled face and a nearly antique rifle. In his motley brown uniform, he was hardly a ferocious sight.
Ibrahim at this point mentioned that he might want an assistant boatman, but I cut him off by telling him that, if so, I wanted an assistant cameraman as well—and perhaps the old soldier should have a sub-soldier… Fortunately, that made him roar with laughter, and on that note, we sputtered out of Majar al-Kabir and headed south down the muddy river toward the marshes.
Since it was a beautiful, cool, early spring morning, and since I thought I had left the frustrations of Iraqi officialdom behind, I finally felt happy and was looking forward to adventures to come.
The euphoria was not to last. Barely a few moments later, we spotted a cloud of dust behind us on the riverbank and saw a Jeep chasing wildly in our direction, the driver leaning on its horn. A man in the Jeep stood up, waving frantically. We pulled over to the bank and waited.
The Jeep stopped, and a youngish, swarthy man jumped out. He was dressed in a cheap-looking black suit, white shirt, black tie and black polished shoes. Without hesitation, explanation or apology, he said, “Salaam alaykum,” boarded our boat, sat down and lit a cigarette.
I stared at him, speechless. The man was wearing the informal uniform of the dreaded Iraqi secret police, including the pistol bulge under his jacket. Just as obviously, he was joining us. I knew it was useless, but to make myself feel better I feigned a burst of fury. Ibrahim shrugged and whispered to me: “When we get to the villages, we’ll park them on the islands, give them cigarettes to smoke and food, then get our own canoe and we can do your work.”
Ibrahim’s solution would prove workable, and I should add that after the initial high tensions, the policeman actually warmed up, became almost friendly and left me alone to do my stuff.
By the time our little regiment settled down and got somewhat acquainted, we had left the muddy river and entered a narrow, deep, clear waterway surrounded on both sides by towering reeds, some as tall as seven or eight meters (23–26'). Everyone fell silent. We had entered the marshlands.
At first, the chugging of the engine and the shrieks of unseen birds were the only sounds. Then, a bit further on we spotted a number of graceful canoes darting in and out of the reeds. These were the first Ma‘dan we saw. They were busy collecting reeds and picking edible plants, and some were spearfishing.
A few, however, turned their boats and slipped away as soon as they spotted the uniform among us—afraid, apparently, that we might be out to enforce Iraq’s compulsory two-year military service law.
Soon, in some odd way, word of what we were flew on birds’ wings ahead of us. When people realized that this was a photographic expedition for a foreigner and not a police raiding party, they no longer slipped away.
The canal widened, and we entered a lagoon. On its right side I saw the reed huts of a village, Al-Sahein. We waited on the outskirts to give the headman time to get organized to receive us. That is the custom in these parts, Ibrahim told me.
I soon learned that, for the hosts, this meant getting a fire going, rounding up a few packs of cigarettes, putting rice on to boil, getting the women to bake bread, killing a chicken or two or rounding up some fresh fish, sweeping out the mudhif, or guest house, and putting clean reed mats and rugs on the floor.
While waiting, I had lots of time to observe the village. Each hut was on a little island, some made from bundles of reeds piled on top of each other. The architecture is ancient and the shape of the structures dates right back to the Sumerians.
Big and small canoes crisscrossed the village, punted or paddled by men, women and even small children. Among the huts, swimming, floating or climbing clumsily onto the islands, were the huge water buffalo without which the Marsh people could not survive.
Domesticated in this area by the Sumerians about 4000 BCE, the big black beasts provided milk, yoghurt, meat, leather and, very importantly, dung for fuel. Pats of dung were plastered all over the outside walls of the reed huts to dry. Smelly? I never noticed any unpleasant odors.
At last, a mashuf, a canoe, headed toward us, and an elderly man jumped on board, shook hands all around and said: “Please, please—you’re welcome to our mudhif.” We politely refused, giving him a chance to get out of it, but of course not meaning a word of our protestations.
When the old man insisted, we happily went along. With him in the lead, we headed for one of the biggest islands, dominated by a splendid, large mudhif. The headman, in reality a shaykh even though the Iraqi government had officially banned the title, helped us ashore and led us to the spacious reed house.
We kicked off our shoes and entered. Sure enough, a fire was lit and the ritual Arab coffee pots were ready. We all sat down and began to ask each other, “How are you, how is your family, your crops, your animals?” over and over and over, as is the custom.
In the Marshes, as in many other parts of the Arab world, it was customary to serve guests bitter, unsweetened and very strong coffee flavored with cardamom. Normally it was served by one man who filled and refilled the small cups. Only a few drops were served at a time, and you usually drank three small servings before indicating, by shaking the cup, that you had had enough. By this time your nerves might be tingling from the caffeine.
Our host also put a full package of cigarettes in front of every guest, an exceptionally generous gesture. After coffee there was very sweet tea in glasses, and then more tea and endless smoking as the conversation started, stopped and started again.
These long periods of silence never bothered the Ma‘dan. I found it an attractive trait. There was an unending procession of men coming and going the whole time; women kept peeping in through the entrance.
An enormous tray of boiled rice was brought in, followed by another tray containing fried fish and bowls of soup. The bowls were passed around so everyone could gulp down a hefty swallow. Some of the soup was then poured over the rice, and bowls of fermented water-buffalo milk were passed around.
We and a few prominent men of the village ate first, sitting cross-legged in a circle on the reed mats. You eat everything with your right hand. The way to do it is to shape and knead a little ball of rice in the palm of your hand and then, with your thumb, elegantly flick it into your mouth. I noticed that the men discreetly watched me clumsily shoving little balls of rice into my mouth with my fingers. An embarrassing amount of it dropped on the mat each time. This evoked a few chuckles, but most were too busy eating.
Our gracious host in this case did not eat or sit down but hovered, watching over us, ready to assist. Seeing my troubles, he helpfully sent for a spoon which, to everyone’s delight, I turned down. Ibrahim, trying to make me feel better, said, “Before you know it, you’ll be one of us.”
We finished and went outside to wash our hands. One by one, we were handed a piece of soap and water was poured from a jug over our hands to rinse them. In the mudhif, our places around the food were immediately taken by the women, children and others lower on the Ma‘dan social scale. In a matter of moments, that mountain of food was gone.
All the meals we had were served on a bed of rice. There would normally be some kind of vegetables cooked along with the other food. Some spices were used and I must say the food always seemed tasty. This may have had something to do with the fact that I was always hungry.
The main reason for this state of affairs was that, when a senior person had finished eating—usually in about half the time it took me—he would immediately get up, and so would everyone else. Normal protocol, but I was invariably only half-full.
Nonetheless, during my time in the Ma‘dan I felt healthier than ever before. As for the Ma‘dan themselves, I did not see much evidence of disease, contrary to reports by Thesiger and others. Of course, fish, rice and vegetables with occasional meat constitute a healthy diet on top of a physically active life. But then there is the men’s smoking…
Our lunch, as ever, was followed by more sweet tea, more cigarettes and more talk. Even if one doesn’t smoke, on occasions like these it was a polite ritual, the thing to do, just like drinking the coffee and the tea.
Very little of the conversation was personal, but the host did extract from us the reason for the trip, which reassured him as to our innocent purpose. And word travels much faster in the Marshes than our boat.
A couple of hours before dark, we pushed on, not so much because we wanted to, but to save the shaykh from bankruptcy. He had already spent a small fortune on entertaining us, but custom obliged him to repeat if we stayed on. We did not pick up the cigarettes he had put in front of us, and I left a few tins of Norwegian sardines as a gesture.
Practically the whole village turned out to wave as we wound our way out of this little Mesopotamian Venice. It was a warming experience.
Our days were spent like this. We chugged on through reed beds, reed forests, canals, lagoons and lakes. Near their settlements, people young and old were forever busy gathering reeds, harvesting edible plants and fishing with spears or nets.
The people who lived near the edges of land bartered or sold the fish as well as mats that they made from the reeds. This was the only means they had of obtaining essential goods from outside: wood to build and bitumen to seal their boats, sugar, salt, ammunition, tobacco and a few textiles.
Where we didn’t see people, we spotted ducks, white pelicans, herons and a multitude of birds I did not recognize. Herds of water buffalo roamed unattended, either wading slowly or swimming peacefully where the water was deep enough.
As we floated around from one place to another, visiting and observing, it became very clear to me that although the Ma‘dan inhabit a world “where all the lands were sea” and Bedouin lived in one where all the lands were sand, similarities between the Ma‘dan and the desert nomads were considerable. I had spent time with the Bedouin of Saudi Arabia, and every day some detail of the Ma‘dan way of life reminded me of them.
One day we arrived at the village of Al-Chiddee. Barking dogs announced our arrival: Here, every home had its watchdog, and they meant business at any time of day, but especially after dark. Visitors were ill-advised to enter one of the homes without one of the family to calm the dog, or without carrying a very heavy stick.
Our boatman was related to the village chief, so this time we floated straight to his house without waiting outside the village. This jolly old Marsh man somehow knew we were coming and had all prepared. Dressed in the regional bisht, or cloak, and ghutrah (head scarf), he and the whole family were standing outside waiting for us.
Although women were much freer to be friendly here than in other parts of the Arab world, this was the first and only time I shook hands with the women of the family. The jovial chief’s wife even sat in the mudhif with us for brief periods as we ate our way through another feast, this time with chicken as the main course. It was usually one or the other, and occasionally lamb.
Since we were invited to stay in this mudhif for more than one night, the chief’s family unloaded everything from our boat and piled all the gear and provisions into the mudhif. They did not want anything to be stolen while we were his guests, he said—not that this would be likely to happen.
I was discovering what my main troubles would be in the Marshes: lack of sleep and lack of privacy. I needed the sleep because I would get up at dawn to photograph—and the days out in the Marshes got very long.
No way! Having distinguished guests, none of the village men felt like paddling home to sleep. They could do that after we left. So the festivities, the sitting and the talking, went on until about two or three in the morning, when I fell asleep sitting on my sleeping bag.
At 5 a.m. the sun and I got up. Our host was up organizing breakfast. I slipped out the front entrance with my camera gear and the now-friendly watchdog at my heels. For the first time I understood what others had told me about the “timelessness” of the Marshes. There was a dark pink glow in the morning mist that covered the water.
Nothing stirred. A few frogs were croaking far away, but there was no other sound. The reed huts and islands were reflected sharply in the water. Beyond, I could vaguely see the tall reeds and, just above, a flock of pelicans flying from nowhere to nowhere.
Then, a soft swooshing sound. A fishing mashuf appeared out of the reeds, its sharp, elegantly curved prow slicing through the water. The fisherman greeted me quietly and I greeted him back. But the spell was not broken. The water buffalo had started to stir, and some slipped quietly into the water. Smoke started to curl out of some reed houses; a few quiet voices could now be heard. I was working my camera as if in a trance.
Day by day, my life settled into a pattern of sorts. Before and sometimes after breakfast, Ibrahim and I would borrow a canoe and paddle off by ourselves, and I would take photos, talk to people and observe life in the Marshes, leaving the army and secret police to sleep, eat, drink tea, coffee and smoke all day long. For all practical purposes, they had ceased to exist.
When the sun rose too high and the light became too harsh for good photography, we would all pile into the boat and chug on to the next place along the way, often shooting ducks for food. They were plentiful and made for a good addition to our diet as well as gifts to our hosts.
Throughout the Marshes I found a people with a keen sense of humor, and as we sat around in the evenings, they invariably got a great kick out of my trying to do things their way, and my feeble attempts at speaking their Arabic. Some of the men also taught me a few rude words. Whenever I used them it had an immediate ice-breaker effect. It invariably cracked them up.
One day we came close to getting into the middle of a family dispute that could have evolved into a bloody feud, turning one village against another. Perhaps it did. I’ll never know.
On arriving in a tiny village in the central Marshes, we soon sensed that something was wrong. The basic niceties of serving coffee and tea were just barely observed. Meanwhile canoes were zipping back and forth, and there was a general feeling of excitement which was even evident to me, an outsider.
We saw boar tracks, we heard them at night, but we had no luck until the last night in the Marshes.
As we uneasily ate a small meal, Ibrahim learned that a girl from that village had married a boy from a nearby hamlet the night before, an arranged marriage. As it turned out, the girl had a childhood boyfriend in her home village whom she dearly loved and wanted to marry, but her parents had insisted on the arranged union.
As Ibrahim discovered, the girl had gone through the marriage ceremony but had paddled off from her new husband in the night to take refuge with her boyfriend.
This meant a serious loss of face for the family. A number of water buffalo, money and possibly other things were at stake as reparation if she did not return. The two village councils were to meet to discuss it, but in the meantime guns were being loaded. So, yes, trouble happens everywhere, here in “paradise” as well.
It was suggested to us that it would be advisable to move on. And so we did. We never found out how this crisis was resolved.
Possibly the biggest curse of the Marsh people were the giant wild boars that roamed the marshes by the thousands. Evil-tempered brutes, they often attacked without provocation if startled, or even if not. About one-third of all the injuries and deaths in the Marshes were caused by these creatures, which the Marsh Arabs, as Muslims, can’t even eat.
Since nothing made the Marsh Arabs more grateful than to have some of the boars killed, we were looking out for them every day. Besides, I very much wanted to just see one even if we could not kill it. We saw boar tracks, we heard them at night, but we had no luck until the last night in the Marshes.
We had traveled all day in little canoes in heavy brush and reeds where pigs had been observed the previous day. We found nothing, and at dusk decided to return to our boat.
To my left, at the far end of a shallow, flooded area, I saw some water buffalo move and pointed them out to Ibrahim. Startled, he froze and said, “That’s no water buffalo. That’s boars.” There were six of them, three so big that they could easily be mistaken for water buffalo in the dark.
Ibrahim readied his gun; a local Marsh man who accompanied us that day did the same. I grabbed two cameras and a 300mm lens.
“They are getting ready to attack,” whispered Ibrahim and cocked his gun. I leaned my telephoto lens on Ibrahim’s shoulder and began popping off frame after blurry frame, never taking my eyes off their ugly curved tusks. It was so dark now we realized it would be crazy to try to shoot except strictly in self-defense. It was also far too dark for photography.
All we could do was to wait and not move. Then one of the boars snorted, and they all turned and trotted off into the reeds.
There were deep sighs of relief all around, and I realized I felt shaky, actually trembling. Those few scary moments have remained etched in my mind forever. The incident also served to remind me that there really is no paradise anywhere, although the Marshes had moments when I thought I might have found the real thing.
It was a colossal privilege to be able to share an ancient lifestyle that no longer exists, and I have never forgotten the generous hospitality and kindness of the Ma‘dan people.