Originally published March/April 1982.
In 1951—just 30 years ago—explorer Wilfred Thesiger (See Aramco World, July-August, 1981) entered Iraq's 6,000 square miles of canals and reedbeds known as the Marshes, and later, in The Marsh Arabs, presented another of his evocative descriptions of one of the world's wildernesses.
Memories of that first visit, 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..."
To Thesiger, life among the Marsh Arabs today would still be familiar. But to a man passionately opposed to what is called progress, it would also come as a dreadful shock—as Michael Spencer suggests in this article written after his first visit to the Marshes last year.
During my first visit to the Marshes, Ali, my boatman, and I were invited to stop in amudhif, or guest house, in Grimsley, a village named after a British consul stationed nearby when Iraq was a League of Nations member. I asked for a drink of water. Surely, said our host and went off to get it.
It was, I thought dreamily, just the way Thesiger had described it: a barrel vaulted reed house, buffalo splashing and snorting in the still, clear water, two cloaked women poling their mushhuf between the reed houses and, the final touch, the rhythmic beat of pestle and mortar as someone pounded fresh coffee beans...
But then my host returned and handed me a glass of cold, icy water. "Shukran?" I murmured - and paused. Cold? Icy? In the Marshes? I looked at the glass. Yes, indeed. Ice cubes.
By then Abu Kdir was grinning. "Come and see," he said and led me to the adjoining house, explaining that these days, with his son earning good wages in Basra, well.
I was not listening, however. I was staring, perplexed, at a cable pushed incongruously through the reed matting and, plugged into it, not only a refrigerator, but a TV set. Obviously the Marshes of Iraq had changed since Thesiger's day.
These changes, as Thesiger's book shows, are recent. With access always difficult, the Marsh peoples were able to preserve, until the 1950s, isolation and a unique way of life that, in some respects, goes back 7,000 years. In later, turbulent times, the Marshes also provided a place of refuge-and, sometimes, of rebellion. One example is the Chaldeans who defeated the Assyrian king, Sargon, in the seventh century B.C. Another is the Zanj. A rebellious army of slaves that challenged and nearly upset the ninth-century Abbasid Caliphate, the Zanj had their stronghold in the Marshes, and even the mighty Ottoman Empire never quite succeeded in its attempt to control the area.
Situated in southern Iraq, the Marshes straddle the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and their confluence: the waterway called the Shaft al-' Arab. Although exact figures are difficult to obtain, they once covered an area of perhaps 15,540 square kilometers (6,000 square miles) in a rough triangle formed by the towns of Amara and Nasiriya and the city of Basra.
Today, though, this area is shrinking as dams and irrigation projects further upstream siphon off a vast volume of water and, as a result, lower the river's level.
Nevertheless, the Marsh is still lovely. Some parts are permanent marsh, others seasonal - flooded only in spring and summer-but all, in flood, a maze of channels and waterways, many made by driving buffalo through the reedbeds when the water is low. There are also lakes large enough to lose sight of land on, and areas in which the reeds are so thick and high that it is impossible to see more than a few yards ahead. Villages dot the marshes in clusters of anything from half a dozen to 200 dwellings, and wildlife—especially birds—is plentiful.
The Marsh Arabs call themselves Mi'dan, a collective word for the various tribes and clans that live in this waterlogged area. With periodic additions from the multitude of civilizations that held sway in Iraq's stormy past, they are not an ethnically distinct people. They are, moreover, often scorned by townspeople as primitive and backward, and they, in turn, regard city dwellers as unscrupulous money-grabbers who have forgotten the rules of hospitality and good manners. They proudly insist that their customs and culture are truly Arab, and that the challenge of the marsh life sets them apart.
In the past, the Mi'dan grew rice, wheat and barley in the seasonal marshland, but this is not common any more. Indeed, I saw sacks of flour and rice from Texas being sold in the village stores. The basic diet still consists of rice, bread, fish and buffalo milk, but, today, substitutes and new delicacies are readily accepted. Mi'dan tribesmen still tend water buffalo and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future; to the Mi'dan this is a labor of love. On the other hand it is still labor: hours must be spent each day cutting the thin, green reeds that are the buffalo's chief fodder.
Another important part of their economy is fishing. Scorning nets, the Mi'dan fish skilfully with long, wood-shafted tridents, an energetic activity that involves exhaustive runs through sometimes waist-deep water for hundreds of yards in what often proves to be a fruitless—or rather fishless—chase.
One day, for instance, I went fishing with Salim and Ahmed, two young Mi'dan boys with small but athletic bodies and strong, white teeth that flashed when they smiled. We paddled to a place where the water was low and trapped in long pools reflecting the powder-blue sky and the soft greens and golds of the reeds fringing the edges, and they waded in looking for fish that had been trapped in the pools by the receding water. Laughing at their near-misses and shouting encouragement, I watched them spend the entire afternoon in pursuit of the elusive fish, but when the sun began to tinge the water red and orange, they had only three small carp between them.
The Mi'dan, of course, do not live in tents but in the intricately designed and well-constructed reed houses that are the pride of the Marsh Arab. These structures differ in shape and size, according to their purpose, but the most striking of the designs is that of the mudhif, or guest house, built only by prominent members of the village as a place where travelers and visitors can rest, eat and refresh themselves while they exchange the latest news and gossip. By chance, I went to one village - Dibin—just as a family was building a mudhif to replace their old one.
Years before, the foundations of the mudhif had been laid by fencing off an area of marsh and filling it in with reeds and mud until the surface was above water and dry-an "island". Subsequently, if the water level rose, more reeds were added to the surface and some of the older islands protrude about two meters (six feet) above the water. Construction, therefore, began by wedging the thick, six meter qasab reed (20 feet) into the surface of the island, the first step in making columns of these reeds; the next is to bundle them together in taut "cables" and bend them into arches.
The work is strenuous and the humidity, that warm spring day, made their faces glow with small beads of perspiration. Every half hour, in fact, the men had to stop for rest, innumerable cups of coffee or tea, and cigarettes. After several days though, the mudhif began to take shape: 11 arches curving gracefully over an area five meters (16 feet) high and 15 meters (50 feet) long. Next, the workmen, crouched on scaffolding also made of the reed bundles, attached mats, woven of fine reeds by the women and children, to the exterior of the frame and at each end, built arched doorways supported by twin pillars. Finally, inside, they spread mats and cushions on the floor, leaving an open patch of dry mud in the center as a fire-place, and the mudhif was complete. I felt privileged to be among the first guests.
In The Marsh Arabs, The siger compared the mudhis to Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals, an impression, he said, "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." I agree. But then I agree with almost everything Thesiger said about the Marsh Arabs.
In fact, I think it the definitive work on these unique people and I carried a copy with me on my visits to the marshes, where it excited great interest among the villagers when, poring with delight over the photographs, they recognized places and objects familiar to them. One photograph of a naked boy fishing always gathered a crowd, though most assured me, "We don't dress like that any more."
This is true. Among the changes that have occurred is a less casual approach to dress.
There are, in fact, remote parts of the Marshes where very little has changed since Thesiger lived there and glumly predicted that the life-style of the Mi'dan as he saw it could not last much more than 20 years and certainly not 50 years. Indeed, the Mi'dan have proven more resistant to the insistent forces of technology than Thesiger expected, though telephone and electricity poles snaking their way through the water are no longer a rare sight and both television aerials and outboard motors are becoming more common.
Another change—a result of a government decision to promote the welfare of the Mi'dan—is the introduction of schools and medical services.
Significantly, more young Mi'dan are leaving the area to work or to further their education in the towns; few are expected to return to the lives their fathers led. These trends are, no doubt, irreversible—a universal adjunct to development in rural communities—yet the bonds of family and tradition, stronger among the Mi'dan than elsewhere, help the Marsh Arabs maintain their customs and way of life and have definitely slowed the pace of change. For instance, while outboard motors are regularly used on the main channels between villages, they seldom seem to disturb the tranquillity of the villages themselves, paternal authority remains unchallenged even when children exceed their parents in earning power.
Furthermore, many who leave the area will long to return, for the Marshes have a beauty that is not easily found elsewhere in Iraq. Despite the extremes of climate—winter temperatures below freezing, sweltering summers with days of 50 degrees Centigrade (120 degrees F) not uncommon—the Marshes have a magic that is hard to forget. In spring, the waters are high and fresh from the thaw in the north and the green reeds, pushing through the golden stubble of the old, are vibrant with new life. The colors are muted and soft, with the occasional pink-and-blue surprises of water lilies in bloom. Pelicans waddle in flotillas through water so clear that you can see carp and catfish feeding among plants on the bottom, while flamingoes and giant heron wheel in the warm, scented air and the only noise is the splash of your paddle and the hoarse croaking of frogs in the reedbeds.
On the other hand, the Marshes are shrinking. Villages that, 10 years ago, were surrounded by water now sit like beached shipwrecks in a sea of dry land. Because arable land is scarce in Iraq, drainage schemes, aiming at the fertile soil under the water, have begun to bite into the marshland. The village of Huwair, for example, once sat on an island in the Marsh, but today the land around the village is given over to regular agriculture, and the lovely reed houses have given way to brick ones.
Fortunately, the village still has access to the Marshes; in the high water season a creek and flooded pathways between the columns of the date palm plantations lead to the Marshes.
This access is important because Huwair is a major boat building center for the Marshes, and it was there that I spent some days watching the craftsmen fashion the mushhufs and the larger, high-powered taradas.
The boats are built in workshops under reed awnings with a minimum of tools: a hammer, a saw, a bow drill and an adze. No measuring instruments are used, the craftsmen relying on eyesight alone for lengths and angles. In the first stage, the outline of the bottom of the boat is fixed on the ground in string. Then transverse slats—of Euphrates poplar—and a center beam are shaped to fit the design, and the hull is built up with thin planks.
Finally, the boat is waterproofed with tar from troughs in among the boatsheds, steaming over low fires and filling the air with a smell reminiscent of fresh-laid roads; the tar is applied by dipping two rolling pins in the trough and smoothing the substance over the hull of the boat, giving it a distinctive black hue.
The result: the mushhuf is a craft ideally suited to marsh travel, having a very small shallow draft. It is difficult for a novice such as myself to keep his balance in a mushhuf, but the Mi'dan, who play in the mushhufs before they can walk, move around the boats with the easy grace of tightrope walkers.
My visit to the Marshes ended on an afternoon in late March, when I had to go to Basra and take the train back to Baghdad. The sky had become prematurely dark and a warm breeze was gathering momentum, dragging a veil of dust and sand with it into the thickening air; the first of the summer dust storms, it bent the palms as easily as reeds, and a weak sun cast a primeval light.
As we drove along the levee that served as a road I saw a small Mi'dan village huddled tight against the wind, bathed in the unearthly light of the storm. It was an ancient scene, awesome and disquieting: man struggling with the merciless forces of nature that sought to snatch away his shelter - and perhaps his life. And though I knew that the Mi'dan would survive that storm, I also knew that when the dust cleared, the 20th century would still be there, an inexorable threat to the grand simplicity of their rather special lives.
Michael Spencer is a free-lance writer-photographer, based in London.
This article appeared on pages 32-36 of the March/April 1982 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1982 images.