family house marsh arabs iraq 1989

Marsh Arabs of Biblical Iraq

Saddam's Iraq - 1989

Sharp questioning and disbelief as puzzled officials deal with my arrival in Chebayish.

Why are you here?

“To see the marshes …”

Eventually, they allowed me to stay overnight.

But the only place in town was a scruffy dormitory full of single men. Guys came and went at all hours and then woke early with the dawn call to prayer.

shia muslim women in canoes with reeds marsh arab culture iraq 1989
Marsh Arab culture depends on the waters – for transport, work and resources.

For over 2000 years, a way of life has thrived in the marshes of southern Iraq

For this is the location of Babylon and ancient Mesopotamia and land of mud-brick ziggurats, such as the stepped pyramid ruins of Abraham’s city at Ur.

Further south, the Marsh Arabs live amid the wetlands where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers merge in southern Iraq, and here today’s Shia Muslim tribes continue an ancient lifestyle dependent on the waters of these mighty rivers.

Away from the surrounding desert of Iraq, this world of greenery and fresh, flowing water welcomes flocks of migratory birds and ducks.

marsh arabs of southern iraq family outside reed house iraq 1989
A young girl stares at the foreigner, unsure what to think as her mother and relatives also gaze in wonder in marshes of Southern Iraq.

The marsh vegetation provides all the elements for life – fish, water for agriculture, palms and reeds to make housing, canoes and feed for livestock.

For centuries, it had been a simple way of life sustained by the waters and largely forgotten by time.

Saddam Hussein nearly destroyed the marsh Arab culture

Following an unsuccessful Shia rebellion brutally crushed by Saddam Hussein (after the first Gulf War in 1991), the Iraqi dictator then began systematically draining the marshes to punish the people.

He inflicted severe environmental damage.

But I believe in recent years, this has been reversed, and the marshes are recovering again.

shia iraq marsh arab woman and kids 1989
Shia mother and kids in marshes of Iraq.

Amid the Marsh Arabs at Chebayish

The afternoon saw an invitation to drink – Arabic-style sweet black – tea with men in robes and head-dress, seated on carpets around the edge of a small hall made entirely of reeds in the traditional arched style.

Around dusk and walking along the waterfront, I get bewildered looks. Some kids threw stones; others posed happily for my camera.

My plan had been to explore the causeway cutting across the marshlands. It was the only road out.

But soldiers would not allow it.

women paddles canoe amid rivers of marsh arab village in iraq 1989
Avoiding ducks, a woman paddles her canoe amid the riverways of the Marsh Arabs region.

The marshes had been a refuge for army deserters during the long Iran-Iraq War

And this war had only finished 6 months earlier.

The next morning, I was wandering beside a parked truck and there in the back were two soldiers guarding four men in ragged uniforms. Deserters?

They stared at me.

So I waved, smiled and yelled: “Hi guys! How are you?”

Six smiles suddenly flashed my way.

canoes and fishermen marsh arab culture in Iraq in1989
Marsh Arabs of Iraq: fishermen and canoes amid the waterways of reeds.

I left Chebayish in a shared taxi.

But later, the driver to let me out on the causeway – far from any army checkpoints.

And there below the embankment, Shia men and women amid the marshes, plying their canoes crammed with cut-reeds; at this moment, people living in a world seemingly untouched by time.

Travels in Iraq – 1989

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