One of the Oldest Remaining Cultures – The Marsh Arabs of Iraq

For millennia, a unique Middle Eastern culture – the Marsh Arabs – have thrived in the marshlands of southern Iraq.

Living in a vast wetland that collects the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, people had an abundance of fish, water for life and irrigation of crops, and reeds with which they build their traditional houses, and also, to feed livestock.

It was a simple, self-sustaining, timeless corner of the world.

But in modern times, this massive marshland and its culture were nearly exterminated by Saddam Hussein.

marsh arab girl in front of reed family home iraq

A young girl stares at the foreigner unsure what to think as her mother and relatives also gaze in wonder. Marshes of Southern Iraq 1989.

Following the unsuccessful Shia tribal revolt in the marshes after the first Gulf War (1991), Saddam systematically tried to drain all the marshland. And he tried to 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.

marsh arab southern iraq 1989

FLASHBACK to Iraq – 1989

My arrival in the town of Chebayish, saw disbelief and questioning by local officials.

Why are you here? “To see the marshes …”

Eventually, I was allowed to stay overnight. The only place in town was a large scruffy dormitory full of single men. 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 with menĀ in robes and head-dress, seated on carpets around the edge of a small hall made entirely of reeds in the traditional arched roof style.

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.

marsh-arab-scenes-iraq-1989The marshes had been a favored 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, and in the back two soldiers guarded 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 working amid the marshes.

marsh-arabs-in-boats-iraq

Locals collect marsh reeds on their canoes. But it’s an effort getting them thru the narrow waterway cut into the embankment; a long causeway that Saddam built into the marshes and is the only way in by road.