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Arab al-Ahwār

(Arabs of the Marshlands)



The great Assyrian king, Sennacherib, pursuing the Babylonian king, Merodach-Baladan (703BC), in his own words ….

“He fled like a bird to the swampland. I sent my warriors into the midst of the swamps where they searched for five days, but the King of Babylon could not be found….”


They are in a sense our connection to the birth of civilisation, folk who first found a method to perform large-scale organized agriculture and irrigation. It is said that their ancestors first developed writing and the alphabet and that they are the ones who invented the wheel. On their lands have risen and fallen 12,000 years of Sumerian, Assyrian, Chaldean, Persian and Arab civilisations.

The land that they live in is a triangular wetland situated where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers join up to form the river Shatt al-Arab, that continues on 200 kms south and discharges into the Persian Gulf. This triangle was once vast, covering an area the size of the American state of Massachusetts, an oasis to aquatic wildlife, filled with lush reed beds, water buffalo, lions, foxes and otters. It was also one of the world’s most important way-stations for migratory birds.

So packed with exotic flora and fauna were these marshes that Biblical scholars, studying the Book of Genesis, believe that this was the original site of the Garden of Eden. Wikipedia says ‘Eden’ is an ancient Aramaic word meaning “fruitful, well-watered.” Well-watered marshlands..hmmm..kinda ties in, doesn’t it?

The people who live there are difficult to fathom, in today’s world. Fabled for their hospitality, they will pawn all their belongings if they have to, just to make you comfortable and give you a decent meal. They reaffirm the commonly held belief that the poverty somehow spawns sharing and generosity. (I have seen that in India on numerous occasions, once when I was invited into the home of our Muslim maid servant for a meal. It was Id and she had prepared seviya kheer, a sweet condensed milk and vermicelli dessert, especially for us. They didn’t have spoons and so she made her 10-year old run quite a distance to a neighboring hut to get us some. The kid ran back breathlessly, holding up two dirt-encrusted tea spoons, grinning from ear to ear in triumph).

Hospitality is something that the west lacks. Completely. If I go over to my neighbors’ for some reason, I am likely to stay at the doorstep, communicating with them through a door that is open only a crack. Why? Simply because this is supposed to be an ‘unplanned’ contact. In India, this is unthinkable. Whatever the time of the day or night, you will be made to feel welcome. Your neighbor will insist you come in, take off your shoes and make yourself comfortable. And if they happen to be at dinner, they won’t let you go without a bite of whatever they are having. Kids at the table will be asked to vacate to make room for you and they will, smilingly. I am certain this is the culture that exists with the Marsh Arabs too.

The marshlands of Iraq were ground zero for the world’s three most prominent religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, cousins who profess to have the same beliefs and not only have a time-share plan on the same one God, but also on their prophets (it is just the nitty gritty that makes them kill each other). The same Biblical scholars also believe that it is here in these wetlands, that the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, (mentioned in the Bible as Ur Kaśdim) once existed, where Abraham, the first of the three biblical patriarchs, was born.

Perhaps they lived uncomfortably close to the divine and he didn’t like sharing the podium? Be that as it may, one would think that, with all those holy heavyweights in their long history, as well as the 12000-year long cycle of civilisation, the people who inhabit this land would have a jump-start on the rest of us and be the elite of the earth. Instead, they are the world’s most wretched, the most persecuted and desperately poor bunch of sods today. Goes to show what can happen to you if, God forbid, you have a messiah born where you live. If you see a baby with a halo in your neighborhood, run for it. You don’t need the salvation, trust me.

The folk that this piece is dedicated to are truly the damned – the Marsh Arabs, or Ma’dan, of Iraq.

Marsh Arab Village

The marsh Arabs and their wetlands(Photo source:Wikimedia)

marsh arab fisher women

Marsh Arab fisher-women with a haul of reeds with which they make all sorts of stuff, including their huts and mudhifs. A mudhif is a kind of townhall where folk meet over a cup of tea (Photo source:Wikimedia)

mudhif under construction

A mudhif under construction (Photo source: Wikimedia)

A mudhif, guesthouse made entirely out of reeds

This is what a finished mudhif looks like (Photo source:Wikimedia) 

marsh arab girl

A marsh angel

For centuries, the region’s outlaws and rebels hid in the marshes’ maze of reed beds and lagoons since it was easy to get lost in them. In a sense, those wetlands formed the Iraqi equivalent of Sherwood Forest.

After the first Gulf War ended in 1991, Dubya’s Dad, George H Dubya, did something that was typically Republican in it’s stupidity – as soon as Saddam Hussein’s forces withdrew from Kuwait, the Americans packed up and left. Saddam couldn’t believe his good fortune and even took it as some divine message that he could carry on being the tyrant he was.

When the Kurds in the north and the Shias in the south rose up in revolt against him, believing that he was weakened and that they now had a real chance of overthrowing the regime, Saddam hit back hard.

The rebels, left on their own without the protection of the Allied forces of the UN, had greatly underestimated Saddam’s resolve. His soldiers pursued them south to the marshlands where they had been given refuge by their Shiite brethren, the Marsh Arabs. The poor marsh Arabs were just trying to be hospitable as was their culture but in doing so, they signed their own death warrants.

Saddam’s retribution was swift. First he ordered a constant artillery bombardment from field guns placed just beyond the marshlands. Then came butterfly mines disguised as toys, clothes, food and everyday items like matches and cigarette lighters that the locals thought were aid being parachuted from helicopters by international aid agencies. When helicopters flew in, the women and children rushed forward thinking that bags of food were going to be dropped. Instead, the dolls, bread and clothes that rained down, blew up in their faces the moment they picked them up from the ground.

Here is where the garden variety dictator would have probably said enough. But not Saddam, who liked to see himself as a modern-day version of the great Assyrian conqueror, Sennacherib, who was famous for his brutality and had a maxim – take no prisoners, nothing should remain standing. The quote you see under the bas-relief at the beginning of this piece, is revealing. After Babylon fell to the vast armies of Sennacherib, he boasted, “I leveled the city from it’s foundations and consumed them with fire. I tore down their temples and ziggurats brick by brick and dumped the rubble in the Arahtu Canal. And after I destroyed Babylon, smashed it’s Gods and massacred it’s population, I tore up it’s soil and threw it into the churning Euphrates and from there it was carried down to the sea.” Phew!

Tell me you would want to mess with a piece of work like Sennacherib and I’ll say you’re out of your mind. Interestingly, if one were to try and fathom the reasons for Sennacherib’s extreme brutality, I am sure that it had nothing to do with either revenge or hatred. It was just the way Sennacherib and his people were built in those days. And unfortunately still are, in that region of the world. Except that now, they don’t have to feel sorry. They have found a crutch, an alibi, called Islam.

Seeing the puny butterfly mines and the killings that they wrought in mere twos and threes, Sennacherib’s ghost must have appeared in Saddam’s dreams one night. The old conqueror must have growled,” We gotta talk, kid. You’re bein’ too wimpy, for Nebuchadnezzar’s sakes. Hit the mo—er f—ers where it hurts.”

Saddam must have arisen, shaken and stirred and decided upon something that he had tried on a lesser scale in the 1970s, something more Sennacherib-esque – he ordered dams, dykes and canals to be built in order to divert the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates away from the marshes and deprive the inhabitants of their livelihood. Also he reasoned that a dry barren landscape would help flush out the rebels.

Thousands of miles of embankment were built by Saddam’s engineers, the dirt for which had to be trucked in from hundreds of miles away to the middle of this water world. Within a month the water level around the marshes had dropped three feet, laying bare the silt and killing the fish and the turtles that the region teemed with. The sustenance that the Marsh Arabs drew from this vast eco-system, disappeared.

marsh map - hassan partow GRID-Geneva

By the end of 90s, only a tenth of the marshlands, remained intact. The rebels were long gone, either killed or having fled to nearby Iran and the original inhabitants, the Madan, had shrunk from 250000 to just about 30000. The UN called it the greatest deliberately engineered environmental disaster of the 20th century.

One man, an Iraqi-American and Goldman Prize-winning environmentalist by the name of Azzam Alwash, took it upon himself to return to Iraq after Saddam was defeated in 2003. Alwash’s goal – to restore the marshes to their original pristine beauty and bring a smile back to the faces of the marsh Arabs.

Alwash had a connection – as a child, he had spent many days out in the marshes with his father, who was head of the irrigation department in the area during the early 1960s. When his father took him along on his inspection tours by boat through the marshes, Alwash would look over the side of the boat into crystal clear waters that teemed with large fish which swam brazenly up to the boat and gazed at him with undisguised curiosity.

When Hussein rose to power, Alwash moved to the US to avoid joining the murderous Baath Party. He went on to earn advanced degrees at prestigious schools, began a successful career as a civil engineer and married an American woman, raising two daughters in an affluent Los Angeles suburb. From afar, he followed with horror and disbelief the news reports that trickled in about the destruction of the marshes by Saddam Hussein.

In 2004, Alwash founded the non-profit Nature Iraq and put his engineering expertise to use, surveying the region and developing a master plan to restore the marshes. He appealed to the Iraqi environment and water resource ministries to educate government officials about the environmental, social and economic benefits of restoring the marshes. His work was not only politically challenging, it was dangerous as well, the possibility of being kidnapped and held for ransom and/or assassinated looming large.

Azzam Alwash with marsh arab

Azzam Alwash with his Marsh Arab host, inside a mudhif (Photo courtesy:Wikimedia)

Azzam Alwash with Obama

Alwash, being recognized, honored by President Obama (Photo source:Wikimedia)

Despite the stress of working in highly volatile surroundings, Alwash’s work paid off. The fabled Mesopotamian marshes are starting to flourish once more. Almost half of the original area is now flooded again and the Sumerians whose ancestors invented the wheel, have begun to rebuild their lives.

In 2013, the Iraq government voted to designate the marshes as a protected reserve and named them the country’s first national park. The Marsh Arabs still have a long way to go before the marshes are back to how they were before. They may not ever be restored fully, given the toxins and salt that were deposited during the draining of the marshes.

At least one thing is back in abundance – the guileless smiles on the faces of the Ma’dan.