The almost forgotten charm of the Marsh Arabs of Mesopotamia
The two great rivers of ancient Mesopotamia, Tigris and Euphrates, rises in the Taurus mountains in southern Turkey, and after flowing through Turkey and then Syria, enters the vast desert kingdom of Iraq. Before it flows into the Persian Gulf, the rivers split into dozens of small streams and channels that meander across an enormous plain in southern Iraq forming what once used to be the largest wetland ecosystem of Western Eurasia, covering some 20,000 square kilometers. In this vast fertile region, civilization was born some 5,000 years ago. After the Sumerians and Akkadians withered away, some of its descendants took to living in the marshlands. They are called Marsh Arabs or the Ma’dan.
The Arabs and the desert are an almost spontaneous association of ideas but, for the by now almost disappeared Ma’dan, certainly wrong. Their name means “inhabitant of the plains”, a term used in a derogatory sense by tribes living in the desert.
In reality the Ma’dan have lived for centuries in the marshy areas formed by the thousand rivulets of the delta of the most important rivers of ancient Mesopotamia. Over the centuries these people developed a unique culture centered on the marshes’ natural resources. What remains today of a millennial ecosystem, almost completely destroyed by an insane policy in the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein drained the marshes and internally displaced hundreds of thousands of people, is located in the southeastern part of Iraq, on the border with Iran.
The Ma’dan live in secluded villages scattered throughout the marshes that’s only reachable by boat. They make elaborate reed houses called mudhif constructed from reeds harvested from the marshes where they live. They were never a single people, but constituted a community composed of different tribes, which over time had developed a shared culture, capable of exploiting the natural resources of the wetland in which they lived.
They took care of agriculture, mainly cultivating rice, but also barley, millet and wheat, for the breeding of water buffaloes, and fishing, practiced with poisoned spears. Net fishing was dishonorable, only allowed to a “low social” tribe. As much as 60 per cent of all fish caught in Iraq’s inland waters came from the marshes. Even the production of mats for commercial use was frowned upon by the more traditionalist Ma’dan, despite being an activity that employed one-third of the swamp population at the end of the 20th century.
According to some scholars, the inhabitants of the plains would descend from the ancient Sumerians, both for the similar way of practicing agriculture, and for building houses. The typical Ma’dan house, called mudhif, was built on a kibasha, an island of artificial reeds, and the house itself was made of arched reeds. However, despite these cultural legacies, it is unlikely that the Ma’dan, of which we have historical knowledge from the ninth century, can descend from the Sumerians, who dissolved as a distinct ethnicity, as early as 1800 BC.
More likely, the Ma’dan descend, at least in part, from the Bedouins of the desert, with whom they share many cultural aspects.
However, everything changed in the 1990s.
Following the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein began draining the marshes in an attempt to flush out the guerrillas who had rebelled against his regime, and also as a collective punishment for the entire population for harboring the rebels. The marshlands had for some time become refuge for Shiite rebel groups and other characters persecuted by the government. On Saddam’s order engineers began to build large embankments and dug new canals to reroute the rivers and divert waters away from the marshes causing irreparable damage to these huge, rich wetlands. Moreover, the Iraqi army burnt the villages down and forced the inhabitants out of the marshland. The diabolic plan, according to a series of propaganda articles by the Iraqi regime, was to convert the wetlands into a desert.
In 1950, the marshes of ancient Mesopotamia numbered about half a million inhabitants, today it is estimated that around 1600 people still live in traditional huts.
After Saddam’s defeat and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the drainage process was interrupted, and many areas returned to being invaded by water. Some of the Marsh Arabs returned to their homeland and destroyed the dams the dictator built to block the rivers.
However, it is very difficult for the Marsh Arabs to return to live a life characterized by extreme poverty, lack of health and education services, problems that make the Ma’dan resettle a population of “disinherited”: recent drought and continued upstream dam construction and operation in Turkey, Syria and Iran have reduced the amount of water reaching Iraq and the marshes have again decreased in size.