For millennia, a unique Middle Eastern culture – the Marsh Arabs – thrived in the marshlands of southern Iraq.
Where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers drain into a vast marshland, providing abundant fish, water for life and irrigation of crops, and reeds with which to built traditional houses and to feed livestock; this is truly a waterworld amid the surrounding desert.
But in modern times, this lush land and ancient lifestyle were nearly exterminated … by Saddam Hussein.
Following the unsuccessful Shia tribal revolt in the marshes after the first Gulf War (1991), Saddam systematically tried to drain all the marshland, and destroy the local culture. Severe environmental damage was done. But I believe in recent years this has been reversed and the marshes are recovering again.
Arrival in the town of Chebayish, saw disbelief and questioning by local officials.
Why are you here? “To see the marshes …” Eventually, was allowed to stay overnight. In the only place in town. A large scruffy dormitory full of single men. It was a restless, noisy night as guys came and went at all hours and then woke early with the dawn call to prayer.
The afternoon had seen an invitation to drink – Arabic-style, sweet black – tea.
Men in robes and head-dress sitting on carpets around the edge of a small communal hall, traditionally made of arched reed roof-and-walls.
Later around dusk and walking along the waterfront, bewildered looks. Some smiles; but some young kids threw stones.
The plan the following day had been to walk many kilometers along the dirt embankment road that cuts across the vast marshlands. But soldiers wouldn’t allow this.
And there were plenty of them to deter this adventure. Checkpoints every 5 km or so along the only road out of town.
The marshes had been a favoured hiding place for army deserters seeking refuge from the brutality of the long Iran-Iraq War (which had just finished 6 months earlier).
That next morning walking past an army truck, in the back, two soldiers guarding 4 men in ragged uniforms. Deserters ??? All of them stared at this stranger. I waved. Smiled, yelled. “Hi guys! How are ya?” At that passing moment, all six faces lit up in warm unison.
Some time into the shared taxi ride from Chebayish, I got the driver to let me out. Well away from army checkpoints I wandered along the quiet embankment road.
And took these photos of locals, amid the marshes.
Travels in Iraq – 1989
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