Preserving the unique culture of Iraq’s Marsh Arabs

(13 Oct 2017) LEADIN:
Some of Iraq’s oldest inhabitants are working to preserve their unique history and culture, which was nearly destroyed by former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Marsh Arabs have farmed on the wetlands in southern Iraq for hundreds of years but were nearly driven out when Hussein ordered the marshlands to be drained.
Sunset over Iraq’s marshlands – declared a UNESCO World Heritage site last year.
It’s home to Marsh Arabs, an indigenous group who have lived and farmed off the land for centuries.
Life in these areas centres around the public hall – mudhif in Arabic – which is the symbol and pride of the tribes.
Here, they settle community affairs, exchange information and welcome guests.
But most of the original iconic reed structures were destroyed during brutal purges by Saddam Hussein in a bid to flush out political opponents.
The marshlands were bombed and drained by the former Iraqi leader and only began to come back to life after he was toppled in 2003.
Different tribes have since rebuilt the mudhif, scouring the marshes for reeds to construct these huge halls on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates.
In the Bani al-Asad tribe mudhif, tribal leader Lubnan Khaiyoun explains that the reed hall design has been handed down through the generations from the Sumerians, whose archaeological remains lay nearby in cities like Ur and Uruk.
Woven mats of reeds form the building envelope. Some of the mats are woven with perforations like a mesh to allow light and ventilation.
Members of the same tribe gather to discuss news, debate politics and solve issues in the shade of the columns of reeds and palm thatches.
“You see, we meet daily, every day we meet here. What’s happened to you, what’s happened to me, we tell it all even political issues in the country we talk about and discuss them, both the good and the vicious,” says Khaiyoun.
Marsh Arab populations have fallen dramatically since the military purges.
When Hussein drained the wetlands, tens of thousands of people were displaced. After his overthrow, residents destroyed the dams blocking the flow of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers and water returned to the area.
The population is now around 60,000 from a peak population of 500,000 accoridng to estimates in an UNDP report.
Along the river lie many other halls like the mudhif of the Bani Hashem tribe which has marble floors inlaid with intricate patterns.
Marsh Arab Ali Mohsin says it takes a lot of skill and effort to build a mudhif.
“When you want to build a hall this big and in this style, one finds a lot of reeds from the marshes. This takes many efforts and requires difficult transportation of the reeds until you can weave them together to make reinforced, small and medium-sized sections.”
Lots of reeds must be gathered and since there are no standard architectural plans, the builder must have a good head for design and clear instructions from predecessors.
“The entire engineering project in all its stages requires someone with real skills. It’s never done by a regular guy,” says Mohsin.
A cultural legacy continuing to be passed down for the next generations.
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