The Marsh Arabs by Patrick Treacy
To the south of Baghdad lies the reed marshes between the deltas of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. This watery realm was first brought to the attention of the world by the fascinating novels of the British-African explorer Wilfred Thesiger.
The origins of the Maʻdān are still a matter of some interest. British colonial ethnographers found it difficult to classify some of the Maʻdān's social customs and speculated that they might have originated in India
In the late evening I reached the residential area of the city just west of Ashar and close to the waterway. The houses reminded me of some I had previously seen in Istanbul with latticed wooden balconies and high windows. I made my way by the white bricked houses to a place on the waterway where a few merchant ships tied up in safe anchorage waiting to go further downstream with some exports. Smoke bellowed from one of the crafts into a cloudless sky. The waterway here was lined with long rows of overhanging palm trees which were lightly straining in the gentle breeze. A few crewmen stood chatting around on the banks of the river and watching the fast flowing brownish current make its way to the sunny waters of the Persian Gulf. I am certain that few of them probably realised that the river had started its journey in the icy mountain springs of the far north in the old Soviet state of Armenia. The water lapped the mud cracked walls of the flat topped houses along its riverbanks and on its back it carried great tankers that brought Iraq’s oil to the cities and towns of Western Europe.
I walked to the railway station and asked a taxi to take me north to the little town of al-Qurnah. We found the town quite easily and then got directions of how to proceed further upstream to the Amarah marshes.
“Just follow the mosquitoes and you’ll find the marshes’’ joked some local people were casting some small nets on the riverbank, and they then added an afterthought something I was not supposed to translate I’m sure it was related to the smell of buffalo faeces. I chatted to two small boys who luckily introduced me to a local mashuf driver who was called Sayid. For a nominal amount he agreed to take a canoe upstream to one of the less touristic settlements near the town of Huwair.
“We not go very far tonight …continue in morning!” he said.
“Is it getting to dark for travelling?” I asked
“Khaa’if …big animals in the marshes” he continued, with an eerie silence.
The marsh environment meant that certain diseases, such as bilharzia and malaria, were endemic I was unable to determine exactly what these animals might be, but I thought it sounded a little bit African and possibly concocted for the tourists. Thesiger had written about wild boars goring people in the marshes but I thought that they had long since disappeared. The sun was setting as the two of us pulled the canoe into the shallow water and laid some cushions on the floor of the craft. Sayid stayed in the stern of the craft and poled us gently into the heart of the reedbeds. The driver agreed to ferry me over to one of the little villages and stay there until it was time for us to leave.
The Maʻdān speak a local dialect of Iraqi Arabic and traditionally wore a variant of normal Arab dress: for males, a long shirt or thawb (in recent times, occasionally with a Western-style jacket over the top) and a keffiyeh headcloth worn twisted around the head in a turban as few could afford an ʻiqāl.
“Are there any wild pigs in the marshes?” I asked, but Sayid only understood what I meant when I imitated the rudimentary noises of a wild boar. He poled further out into the reeds, the thrusting swings of his body silhouetted against the evening sun. I found out that a lot of marshland in the area was been drained by the government in order to reclaim the saltpans for agriculture. Sayid told me that as a result of the drainage scheme that it was becoming difficult to see any of the wild boar and ibis that used to frequent the area.
“Soon marshes all gone” he continued, flattening his outstretched hand as if to show that the shallow waters of the region were steadily getting lower and lower.
“Saddam take water out, he not put back”
“Everything now die here” he said with sadness in his eyes.
“What is the religion of the people who live out on the islands?”
“Muslim, everyone pray to Allah!” Sayid replied with a gesture of clasping his hands towards the sky.
“No Christians at all?” I said, aware that a considerable number of Christians lived in the city of Baghdad.
“Maybe” he replied looking idly into the water.
“And what religion are you?” I asked inquisitively
“What do you think of Saddam Hussein?” I continued probing a little deeper
“Saddam, he very big man” he said with a coy look on his face.
“Khomeini, fighting, fighting , bang, bang” he replied lifting out his long pole to show me his skill with an imaginary machine gun, while also giving me the sort of amusing answer that a innocent tourist wanted to hear.
As with most tribes of southern Iraq, the main authority was the tribal shaikh. To this day, the shaikh of a Marsh Arab group will collect a tribute from his tribe in order to maintain the mudhif, the tribal guesthouse which acts as the political, social, judicial and religious centre of Marsh Arabic life. The mudhif is used as a place to settle disputes, to carry out diplomacy with other tribes and as a gathering point for religious and other celebrations. It is also the place where visitors are offered hospitality.
It was so peaceful travelling out through the reed-beds listening to the calls of the pigmy cormorants as they dive-bombed the busy waters searching for their next meal. The orange rays of the evening sun danced lazily with the mists of the delta and seemed to set fire to the Iraqi landscape. We reached a part of the marshes where great herds of black water buffalo that were grazing in the shallows. It was near a division in the waterway, and Sayid pulled the mashuf over against the riverbank.
Although night was falling I was a little disappointed that we could not go any further. The reedbeds in the area were a dark emerald green and Sayid found it difficult to find a place to disembark. There were no sounds in the vicinity and I slowly began to sense that my oarsman may not be very authentic. I had visions of him robbing me and then leaving me to my fate on the small island. He would pole the craft back, tie it to the roof of his battered old Mazda pick-up and drive back to the comforts of his home.
“Are we stopping here?” I asked.
“Yes, my friends here!” he replied.
I listened to the silence of the falling night concentrating on his next move.
It happened so suddenly I was unprepared. There standing in the shadows was another man who had been watching our landing and helped us to bring the mashuf closer onto the shoreline.
“Alaikum as salam” he said eyeing me with some curiosity.