Posted by: biblioglobal | March 18, 2017

Iraq: The Marsh Arabs (Book-from-every-country #104)

432391The Marsh Arab is a travelogue written in the 1950s by Wilfred Thesiger, a white British man who graduated from Eton and Oxford. It has many of the flaws you might expect from such a book. I wanted to read it anyway because I was intrigued to learn more about the lives about the Marsh Arabs (Thesiger mostly refers to them as the Madan, but that is apparently no longer the preferred term.)

I was surprised to learn that Iraq had extensive marshland in the first place, though I guess I shouldn’t have been, given the importance of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the history of Iraq and of the world. Much of life in the marshes revolved around the wetland grasses, particularly the common reed, Phragmites australis*, which can grow to 20 feet tall:


Phragmites australis

The people living in the marshes used the grasses to build up small islands high enough out of the water to build on. (Though sometimes if too many people came to visit, the floor would sink below water level.) They used the grasses to build their houses and to feed their buffalo.

Source: Wikipedia, by Hassan Janali, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - Digital Visual Library

Thesinger frequently stayed in a visitor’s house, a mudhif. But I suspect they weren’t always quite as large and pristine as this one.

To travel anywhere, often even to get to the neighbor’s house, they used canoes. Sometimes the boats were also made of reeds, but mostly they were made of wood brought from elsewhere, because wood made better boats. The Marsh Arabs had a way of life that was specifically adapted to their environment. At the same time they shaped their environment, for example by maintaining open water paths through the marshes to allow their boats to travel through.

Something that is striking to me is that the more I learn about the world, the more I realize how many cultures have an understanding that gender is more complicated than a simple male-female binary. It’s only mentioned for a page or two in this book, but among the Marsh Arabs it was apparently accepted for some who were born as women to take a male role in society and be referred to by male pronouns. Similarly, in at least one case, someone born as a male was accepted as a woman within the village. This reminded me of the Albanian book I read, Sworn Virgin, which focused on an Albanian tradition in which a woman could take on a male role in society. I’m also aware of the idea of a “third gender” in Zapotec culture in Mexico and of Hijras in India. These other norms of gender don’t necessarily match the modern idea of transgender, but in Western European/American culture it is easy to think of transgender as some newfangled idea that is just made up. When you look around the world though, you can see that many cultures have understood that gender is more complicated for a very long time.

I’m writing about the Marsh Arabs in the past tense because in 1992, Saddam Hussein, worried that the marshes were harboring rebellion, had them all drained and life in the marshes came to an end. Since 2003 however, the marshes have been recovering and are now back to about 50% of their original area and some people are moving back. There’s a neat article in The Guardian about it from just a couple of months ago. Sadly, the marshes probably won’t ever reach their original extent. Dams upstream, increased water consumption, as well as declining rainfall mean that water flow through the Tigris and Euphrates is much lower than it used to be.

*I was particularly interested in how Phragmites was such a fundamental part of life in the Iraqi marshes because I once spent a summer doing research on Phragmites. But I was studying the negative effects of Phragmites! The history of Phragmites australis in the United States is interesting. If you go to a wetland in the U.S. and see grasses growing well over your head, they are probably Phragmites. Although it is a native species, it suddenly started taking over in many wet areas just a few decades ago. Before that it had mostly just grown on the borders between wet and dry areas. At first scientists weren’t sure what had happened. Had the native Phragmites evolved and become a much better competitor? It turns out that the Phragmites taking over the wetland is actually the Eurasian subspecies of Phragmites. So it isn’t an non-native species, but it is an non-native subspecies!



  1. This is so interesting! There is a third gender in Samoa, the fa’afafine (assigned male at birth, but identifying as female); I encountered fa’afafine characters in several of my Samoan books and one of my French Polynesia books. I have to admit being quite surprised to hear about it in Iraq, which obviously means I need to reexamine my prejudices.

    • I was surprised too. The Marsh Arabs seemed to have a fairly easygoing relationship with Islam for the most part- taking up the parts that are convenient to them and not worrying too much about the inconvenient bits. I haven’t come across the fa’afafine, interesting.

  2. This is so interesting! What is more, the fishing people on live off their boats on Indus river, near the Sindh Province of Pakistan and former undivided India, are also called Madan. Considering there is a theory that some tribe from Iraq/Mesoptamia came down more than 3000 years ago to settle, in norther Indian sub continent, I wonder if there is a connection. It is sad that there very homeland was destroyed and a unique culture is on the brink of disappearance!

    • Wow, that’s fascinating that they have the same name! I do wonder if they are related groups. I suppose it also could be that the word was shared and then applied to a different group of people.

      It is sad that their way of life was destroyed, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the wetlands are being restored and people are moving back.

  3. This is super interesting! How sad the the marshes were drained and all those people lost their way of life.

  4. I’ll be reading this!

  5. Marshes of Iraq…Home to hundreds kinds of birds and water buffalos. Reed, bamboo and papyrus houses that Marsh Arabs built…Hope area will be restored and recovered. Fascinating place.

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