In The Marsh Arabs, Wilfred Thesiger describes his intermittent eight-year stay with the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq during the 1950s. The marshlands consist of a 6,000 square area of wetlands where the Tigris and Euphrates close in on each other and eventually meet before flowing into the Shatt Al-Arab waterway, pass the city of Basra, and merge into the Arabian Gulf. Regarded by many historians as the location of the Biblical Garden of Eden and Great Flood, the area is known as the cradle of civilization. The Sumerians established a thriving civilization in the area, establishing an elaborate irrigation system that allowed the culture to flourish. Their descendants are the modern-day marsh dwellers.
Seeking to lose himself in a place untrammeled by the trappings of modern civilization, a place where people live as they have lived for many thousand years, Thesiger found what he was looking for in the marshlands. He lived among the Marsh Arabs for the better part of eight years, traveled from one village to the next in his tarada (canoe) with his skilled canoe boys; stayed at the village mudhif (guest house); enjoyed legendary Arab hospitality; ate meals and drank endless cups of coffee and tea with his hosts; hunted alongside them for game, pigs, boars, and other wildlife; witnessed the hardships of drought and flooding on their crops; participated in a mourning ceremony; and observed them building their incredible structures made of tightly bound reeds. In short, Thesiger experienced life with the Marsh Arabs as it had been lived for centuries. During that time, he made many friends and provided rudimentary medical assistance to the indigenous population who lined up to meet him with their ailing relatives when they learned his tarada was coming to their village.
Thesiger provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of the Marsh Arabs. In addition to the detailed descriptions, he includes several pages of invaluable black and white photographs which help the reader visualize the people, structures, activities, and environment. His immersion in the culture is all the more impressive because he does not exhibit the prejudices of a technologically advanced culture against a people living under very primitive conditions. Nor does he idealize the Marsh Arabs as “noble savages.” He provides a balanced perspective, admiring many of their qualities while recognizing their failings.
The Marsh Arabs live under a brand of justice that can be harsh and frequently cause bloody family feuds since the aggrieved party has the right to demand blood money or kill the killer. Justice is usually dispensed by the tribal leader who settles disputes and metes out compensation and a punishment that is frequently violent and lacks compassion. But these are also a caring people, coming to the aid of one another in times of difficulty; caring for their disabled; and affording great respect to the mustarjil—a man born in the body of a woman. The mustarjil is accepted on equal terms as any male and is treated accordingly with no hint of stigmatization or marginalization.
With the 1958 revolution and the overthrow of the monarchy, Iraq descended into a period of chaos and lawlessness. The rise to power of Saddam Hussein presaged a reign of terror. Saddam drained much of the marshland, destroying a culture and an ecosystem that had remained virtually unchanged for many thousand years. Attempts are currently being made to restore the marshlands, but the way of life that thrived in this environment is probably lost forever.
Thesiger concludes his book with the words, “. . . another chapter in my life had closed.” But what has been closed is more than a chapter in the life of one man. What has been lost is the remnants of an ancient civilization—a devastating loss from which we can never fully recover.