A community in Houston, Texas, built an ancient town hall of reeds from Iraq’s marshlands, creating new and renewed connections.
Iraqi American Israa Mahdi had never seen a mudhif, an ancient reed hall indigenous to the marshes in the southern part of her homeland—until she helped build one on the Rice University campus in Houston, Texas, last summer.
“I never had an opportunity in Iraq to go visit the marshes,” said Mahdi, a Baghdad native who emigrated to the United States at age 19 in 2009.
She was among dozens of Arab and non-Arab volunteers who constructed the mudhif, a structure dating back 5,000 years to the time of the Sumerians and the dawn of the written word, that was the centerpiece of the Senan Shaibani Marsh Arabs Project, which opened to the public in September. Before it closed in December 2023, UNESCO inscribed the practice of building the mudhif on its Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
Despite putting down roots and building a family in Houston, Mahdi said she had found “something missing” from her life. The Marsh Arabs Project filled that gap and gave others new insights into her country.
“The mudhif project put the soul back into my life,” she said. “It’s a great feeling. It makes me proud of my country, proud of my Sumerian history, proud to be here.”
Built entirely from Phragmites reeds that grow in the marshes between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the mudhif traditionally serves as a hall for senior male village members to consult with their leader, or sheikh, a place to celebrate holidays and hold wakes, and a guesthouse for visitors.
The project was led by two local organizations, Archaeology Now and the Arab-American Educational Foundation (AAEF), and backed by a number of community groups and businesses, including Aramco, publisher of AramcoWorld.
For many Iraqi Americans it offered their first look at part of their culture. It also gave other volunteers and visitors insights into an ancient society that has succeeded in sustaining itself but is threatened with extinction today.
“The mudhif is amazing,” said Melissa Carroll, a Houstonian who attended an open house with her husband, John Eikenburg, and their son in September. “It’s a living-history museum, a living artifact. It tells a story about maintaining a culture.”
Retired Houston real estate agent Leslie Cauffman was equally impressed. “It’s fascinating,” she said. “I wanted to see its architecture, how it was built. It’s really natural.”
At first glance, the ancient structure standing on a grassy lot next to a huge arts building looked like a mirage. But up close it was certainly real. The volunteers who built it during the city’s long, hot summer could vouch for that.
Opening day in the fall featured tours, samples of cuisine from the marshes and hosa (celebratory chanting and dancing). Some Iraqi Americans choked back tears as poet Muhannad Neamah, who hails from Baghdad and now lives in Houston, celebrated the structure at the opening and spoke longingly of the “home” that he and his compatriots had left.
The project also included visits to the mudhif by middle school students from Houston schools, a talk about the biodiversity of the marshes and a “Culinary Adventure” evening featuring dishes and drinks from the marshes.
Becky Lao, executive director of Archaeology Now, the Houston affiliate of the Archaeological Institute of America, said the idea for the project took root in 2021 when she learned about mudhifs from archaeologists in the United States and Britain and discovered that some Marsh Arabs live in Houston.
“It’s not often that you find a tradition that is 5,000 years old” with ties to the local community, Lao said. “Here we are, anchored in the nation’s most diverse city, and we work to tell the stories of the people who fill this space.”
The initiative quickly gained support from AAEF President Aziz Shaibani, a longtime Houston resident who became its lead donor. The project is named after his late son, Senan, who was “driven by his love for Iraqi culture,” he said.
More than 4,000 Iraqi Americans live in Houston, Archaeology Now said in a grant application for the project to the city. Of those, “six or seven” are Marsh Arabs, said Aqeel Alazraqi, a volunteer who grew up in Nasariyah on the western edge of the marshes and whose family owned a mudhif.
The city gave $10,000 for a Rice University film student to document the project. It will go into a Rice archive “to preserve knowledge of mudhif construction—currently only known to elders in Iraq—helping to preserve heritage, cultural identity and community cohesion,” according to the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs.
The AAEF viewed the project as a way to ensure that “accurate information about Arabs, Arab civilization and religions of the Arab world is portrayed to children, students and adults—the public at large,” said Ruth Ann Skaff, AAEF secretary and a volunteer. “It’s been electrifying to see people from all sectors of Iraqi life work together on the mudhif project. It was a collective effort, a labor of love.”
Volunteer Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi American civil engineer who has worked to protect the marshes through his nongovernmental organization Nature Iraq, said something similar: “The Iraqi hands that built this mudhif are not Sunni, not Shi‘a, not Turkoman. They all came together to preserve a symbol of Iraq.”
Project organizers teamed up with Alwash early on to help bring the effort to fruition. He called the reed buildings examples of “sustainability before sustainability was a word.”
They are living examples of “Sumerian engineering, determined over eons of trial and error,” he said. “They knew how to live with their environment. … If we want to live in our environment as the world changes, we need to relearn our history because the blueprint for our future is rooted in our history.”
“If we want to live in our environment as the world changes, we need to relearn our history because the blueprint for our future is rooted in our history.”
—AZZAM ALWASH, NATURE IRAQ FOUNDER
The reeds in the marshes grow up to 7.5 meters (24.6 feet) tall, and bundles of reeds make up the thick columns that form the mudhif’s arches. The bundles are aligned in facing pairs set in meter (3.28 feet)-deep holes that are slanted slightly outward. Then they are bent toward each other and bound together at the top, creating a pretensioned arch that gives the building stability—and a spacious, cathedral-like interior.
The ropes that bind the reeds into columns are made of crushed reeds, as are the mats that form the roof and sides of the mudhif. This latticelike work is done mainly by women.
A few families in the marshes ply the mudhif-construction trade. The lifespan of a mudhif is about 15 years.
Project organizers had to clear some daunting hurdles to keep the undertaking afloat, almost from its inception.
When they couldn’t locate a local builder or clear a path through government bureaucracies to harvest enough reeds as originally planned, Alwash came to the rescue.
“We’re going to do something that’s never been done before,” he said. The reeds would be gathered in Iraq and shipped to Houston, and a master builder would come from the marshes to guide construction.
Then, just after the paperwork for the builder to fly to Texas was completed, he decided he did not want to leave the marshes. Alwash volunteered to manage mudhif construction. Although he’d never built one himself, he had commissioned three in Iraq.
“Here we are, anchored in the nation’s most diverse city, and we work to tell the stories of the people who fill this space.”
—Becky Lao, Executive Director of Archaeology Now
Next, the ship carrying the container of reeds from Iraq caught fire in the Suez Canal and its cargo had to be transferred to another vessel. That snag and other delays meant the start date for construction had to be pushed back.
Finally, when the container arrived in Houston, Customs agents tore apart its contents. The reeds had been packaged in components “like a box of Legos,” said Lao, but what arrived was “basically a container of sticks.”
Last June, despite heavy rains and scorching heat, the work got going. The task lasted about five weeks, or twice the time it takes skilled builders in the marshes. “We’re a bunch of amateurs,” Alwash said with a grin. But he still gave the project a “90 percent” grade.
British explorer and writer Wilfred Thesiger would immediately have recognized even the “90 percent” mudhif. “Kicking off my shoes, I passed between the pillars. Eight feet in girth, each pillar was formed by a bundle of giant reeds, the peeled stems bound so tightly together that the surface was smooth and polished…,” he wrote in The Marsh Arabs, a book about his time in the region in the 1950s.
“We considered the mudhif kind of a sacred place, a very special meeting place, not just a place for chitchatting,” said volunteer Alazraqi. For him it represents the center of the community and a symbol of the tribe. “If you have a problem you have to go to the mudhif to discuss it and the elders would make a decision,” he said.
“We considered the mudhif kind of a sacred place, a very special meeting place.”
—volunteer Aqeel Alazraqi
The mudhif has no door; thus, it is never closed, and the entryway is low so that anyone coming in “must kneel … as a sign of respect to the mudhif.”
No one lives in a mudhif, but villagers in the marshes reside in smaller versions of the reed structure called surefas, Alazraqi noted.
The structure is built aligned with the prevailing winds, said Alwash. That helps keep the inside much cooler than outside, where the mercury can exceed 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer.
The mudhif and the culture it represents are severely threatened.
The project screened the 2011 BBC film Miracle in the Marshes of Iraq, which focused on the work led by Nature Iraq to revive the wetlands after Saddam Hussein’s campaign to drain them—to deny rebels a place to hide after the Gulf War—in the early 1990s. He built dikes that shut off water from annual spring floods that replenish the marshes.
That dried up 90 percent of the 20,000 square kilometers (12,400 square miles) of marshes, turning them into deserts of cracked mud. Close to 200,000 people were displaced, according to a Human Rights Watch report in 2003.
The marshes partially recovered after Saddam’s ouster in 2003 when, along with Iraq Now, the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization and several countries launched projects to revive them.
According to the UN, by 2005 the marshes had been returned to some 40 percent of their total original size in three locations that have been made national parks and regained some of their population. The overall marsh region was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016.
Work to protect the marshes continues, but it’s dangerous. Nature Iraq’s project manager was kidnapped early last year. He was released after two weeks and had undergone torture. Alwash last visited the marshes early in 2023 but considers it too dangerous now to return.
The drought and upriver dams are still endangering the marshes. Lao fears they “might disappear” soon.
Alwash was more upbeat but stoic: “There is hope. There are solutions [for protecting the marshes] when the political will is available. My fear is that the culture that took thousands of years to develop around the marshes is disappearing.”
He told the volunteers that they can keep an ancient heritage alive.
“What makes this project important is spreading knowledge, but more important is the preservation of what it takes to build a mudhif,” he said. “Everybody who participated in that work has the knowledge. We preserved it. You are now the custodians of this knowledge, and it’s your job to pass it to the next generation to keep it alive.”