About the Marsh Arabs

March 2017: Sadly, I was introduced to the cultures of Iraq because of the Gulf War, when I was in Junior High. I remember seeing images of Beduin nomad camel caravans’ side by side with American tank convoys and pictures of floating reed villages in green, lush swamps in the middle of the desert where two of the most important rivers of the world combine, Tigris and Euphrates, to create one of the largest marshes in the world along the Iraq and Iran border region. The floating reed villages were the homes of the Madan people, an ancient people said to be the descendants of one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, the Sumerians. The Sumerians are believed to be the inventors of the written word.

The Madan have lived in the marshes of southern Iraq for thousands of years and have learned to build floating islands, and houses made out of reed from the marsh grasses. At one time their boats were even made out of reed but are now more modern wooden or aluminum boats.

The Medan raise water buffalo, many with beautiful blue eyes in the marshes for milk, yogurt and sometimes for meat. The buffalo are raised almost as family members and are treated with great pride and love. In addition, to raising buffalo, the Madan also harvest the fish of the swamps and sometimes hunt the birds too. But populations of both are too rare to rely on.

The Madan are conservative Shiite Muslims and were always persecuted by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Saddam looked at the marshes, home to up to 200,000 Medan as wasted land and water that could be used for other purposes. As a result, he started to drain the marshes which led to a low-level insurrection and then during the war in the 80s between Iraq and Iran, Iranian fighters were harbored by marsh Arabs in the dense and vast swamps. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was infuriated by this and retaliated by killing thousands of Medan by poisoning their water and draining more swamps leading to what many describe as the greatest environmental catastrophes in the 20th Century. After the removal of Saddam, US and NATO forces helped undue the systemic drainage of the marshes and water returned to the marshes. But what was once 200,000 Madan living traditionally in the marshes with photos from the 70’s showing vast artificial reed islands of Medan dotting the landscape is only a few thousand now and even they are highly sensitive to the fluctuating levels of the marshes that ebb and flow depending on demand elsewhere in Iraq.

 

How to Get to the Marshes

Map of Guinea

In late 2016, I reached out to different Iraqi ministries, and travel agencies about visiting the Medan but received no reply. Iraq was fighting a war against ISIS, which taken over the city of Mosul and huge areas of the north from Syria. Tourism was not a high priority, and the country was deemed too dangerous to visit still. Although visiting the Kurdish north was easy, to visit the rest of Iraq and is almost like going to a different country. A visa was required and almost impossible to obtain. To get a visa, I needed an Iraqi sponsor. Then after online research I found a nature organization of Iraqis whose goal is to preserve the nature of the country, and this included the marshes of the Medan. The organization worked very closely with the Medan according to their website and the president was an Iraqi man who also lived in the USA part time. I reached out to my Kurdish friend who I met during my first trip to Iraq, in 2013 and he mentioned that the organization had an office by his work and that he would stop by to speak to them. He was able to get some contacts there who were willing to help me, and they put me in contact with the president who I spoke to on ethe phone and before I knew it, I had a sponsor. For the next few months, the Iraq nature organization visited ministry after ministry at no cost to me to obtain al of the necessary paperwork and permissions for me to obtain my visa. Finally, I was given the visa approval letter and I was able to submit for a visa in Washington DC, which was approved.

To get to the marshes, I flew to Basrah via Dubai. The Basrah immigration hall was very crowded and chaotic. All foreigners were forced to remain in a small room until their sponsors arrived to pick them up. My sponsors from the Iraqi nature Organization arrived, I was processed through immigration and released into the country under the guardianship of my sponsors. From Basrah, we drove a few hours north to the gateway to the marshes-Al-Chibayish.

 

Basrah and Southern Iraq

Southern Iraq ia mostly Shiite, and large parts of it are controlled by Shiite militias that have more lyalities to the Iranian government than to the Iraqi one. The Shiites were targeted ruthlessely by Saddam and thousands were killed by his armies under his regime. During the NATO war, many of the Iranian loyal Shiite militias turned against US forces and heavy fighting ensued. During my trip, I was well aware that there would be certain Shiite militia groups that would happily kidnap me in the south of Iraq. During the time of my visit, fighting had peaked with ISIS in the north of Iraq in Mosul. The Shiites are sworn enemies of ISIS and the southern Shiite militia groups were sending military convoys full of soldiers north to fight ISIS. Many of these convoys passed me. many of these soldiers would not return. Billboards along side the highway displayed images of Shiite mrtyrs who had died fighting ISIS. The images, mostly of young men showed them valiantly brandishing large weaopnry dressed in military fatigues. The south is very conservative and most women wore black abayas while men wore white dishdashas. 

Basrah Street Scene Martyr Billboards

Basrah Street Scene Martyr Billboards

Al-Chibayish

Al-Chibayish is a small village mostly of the Medan, who either have stopped living in the marshes or move back and forth between the village and the marshes. It is a small village full of tea cafes, and small shops and markets surrounded by the marshes and the Euphrates River.

In Al-Chibayish, I stayed in the Nature Iraqi Organization office, which had a few beds for its employees. While in Al-Chibayish, I followed the Nature Iraq employees as they conducted their business. They were very proud to introduce me to others in town as an American who was interested in the Madan and everyone in Al-Chibayish was extremely hospitable and everywhere I went I would not be allowed to pay for anything.  Everyone would ask me where I was from and I would say USA and the response would always be, “we love Merika.” Al-Chibayish felt very safe, and I had no safety concerns in town but when Nature Iraq staff were not available to be with me, they as a precaution would always send someone with me as an escort. One time, one staff member even sent his 12-year-old son to escort me as I walked around town exploring.

Euphrates River

Me wearing my Iraqi friends’ traditional clothes

As an avid international tourist, I provided many eco-tourism ideas to the nature Iraq Organization especially since I felt it could really benefit the culture and livelihoods of the Medan people. I was invited to meetings with regional sheiks inside the traditional reed houses where we would sit on the floor, drink tea and discuss ideas.  A few Iraq tourist ministers from Baghdad joined one meeting. It was really interesting to be a part of these meetings. Every time a sheik would arrive at the reed house, everyone would stand and one by one greet each newly arriving person with a strong handshake with the other hand on the heart, and an Islamic greeting.

Mudhif-Traditional reed house

Another Mudhif-Traditional reed house with Pictures of Ruling Sheiks on the Walls

I visited some of the tea houses with my 12-year-old escort, and I would try and order tea but every time a nearby Madan man would pay for it and thank me for visiting his town.

Local man at tea house

Local man at tea house

Nature Iraq Organization has very close ties to the Madan people and is constantly forging closer ties with them to check on their needs and to mediate between the federal government and the regional sheiks. We would travel to the different outlying Madan villages and be invited in for huge meals. There would never be any women involved in these meetings. The women would prepare the food and the men would site, eat it and discuss business.

Me meeting with local Medan

huge lunch with Medan in a modern house

The Marshes

I visited the marshes on 3 different days.  One reason why it was easy for insurgents to hide in the marshes during Saddam’s time, was because outsiders would not be able to navigate the extensive marshes especially since there are few prominent landmarks and it is easy to get stuck lost or stuck in shallow waters. For this reason, it is always good to have a good boat man, and we had one of the best. The trips would always start with us meeting this Medan boatman, who knew the marshes better than anyone. Traditionally the boats are made of reed but these days most boats are wooden. We had a small motor but in the shallow or water choked with reeds, the boat man would use the large poll to push us through the water.

Medan boatman

Medan Boatman

The Medan graze water buffalo in the marshes and treat the buffalo like family members. During the day the buffalo graze and at night they are brought back to an island and kept in an enclosure. The buffalo are used to make milk, and yogurt mostly but can also be used for meat but rarely. The buffalo are actually quite beautiful and most have blue eyes.

Water buffalo

Blue eyed water buffalo

Blue eyed water buffalo

To me these giant lumbering beats were intimidating, and they were uncomfortable around me too. The Medan children had no reservations around them however and would crawl all over the big bulls as if they were docile golden retrievers and the buffalo paid no notice. The moment I approached without the children present, the buffalo would rise up to threaten me, sending me darting backwards.

Medan children with a water bufallo on a floating island

me and Medan children with a buffalo

Women in colorful dresses and hijabs would paddle small wooden boats around the marshes collecting reeds that they would use to build their houses, islands or feed buffalo or to sell in the village to other Madan for them to feed their buffalo.

Medan woman collecting reeds

Sunrise

Man fishing

Woman collecting reeds

Collecting reeds

Collecting reeds

The marshes are a migratory stop for many birds that cross the vast deserts of Arabia in their migratory routes, while other birds live in the marshes permanently. It was amazing to be in such a lush and lively environment brimming with wildlife in the middle of a desolate desert. Sadly, the birds are overhunted, and their habitat is under attack and many of the species that live in the marshes are endangered.

Kingfisher diving for a fish

A Medan boat with birds that he had hunted with a pellet gun

The mother of this bird was killed and the baby orphaned. The hunter was holding the bird and will likely raise it and eat it later

Houses made out of reed can be found deeper in the marshes where the Medan people live. We encountered some on floating man-made reed island while others were built on the remnants of the road or levees that Saddam built into the marshes in effort to dominate and destroy them. The levees and roads have been dynamited by NATO forces and Medan people to allow the marsh waters to flow again.

Reed house

New reed house and floating island of reed being contructed by medan

Medan man living on one of the roads that saddam built into the marses which was dynamited and now an island of concrete in the marsh

Medan man living on one of the roads that saddam built into the marses which was dynamited and now an island of concrete in the marsh

The Medan people with Sumerian ancestory have beautiful features of olive colored skin and green or blue eyes

In one of the southern marshes, we visited really impressive floating islands of reed and giant marsh houses. It was march and the temps were soaring in the 90s. The houses didn’t have any electricity to provide cool air or even any ventilation other than small amounts of wind off of the water. According to the Medan the weather in March is cool and that in the summer months it reached 120 F. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to live under those conditions. One family just purchased a generator and portable air conditioner for his house that he planned to install.

Medan family living on a floating reed island

Medan home inside the reed house

Medan man with his buffalo on a floating reed island

medan girl greeting me on her island of reed

Inside the reed house. 

Spending the Night with a Medan Family

before the trip, I asked the Nature Iraq director if I could spend the night with the Medan on one of their islands. The director said it was possible but that no foreigner had ever stayed with them before, and this was a new request. he warned the Madan are very conservative and that some families may be sensitive to unrelated men spending the night especially if there are women present. He was after a few weeks able to find a family that agreed to host me. The family included a man, some young children and a wife. A nature Iraq employee and I would sleep on our sleeping pads in the corner of the reed house while the family would sleep in another corner. I slept on a sleeping pad with a mosquito net as did the family. This was for good reason because once the sun sets, the mosquitos on the marshes are horrendous. It was an amazing experience to stay with the Medan and observe their way of life.  I was able to spend more quality time with the Medan and see how they live their lives and have a chance to listen to some of their superstitions. At night we sat on the edge of the island next to the marsh listening to humming of insects while the Madan man told me stories of jinni or ghosts in the marshes. My Iraqi English-speaking friend would translate for me. The Madan believe that there is jinni that scour the marshes at night looking for the souls of the living to devour. The Madan man also told me stories of how there are ancient Sumerian treasures buried in the marshes and that many still remain and that during the war, treasure hunters and even American soldiers seized some of the treasures.

 

Girl collecting reeds

Medan House where I slept

Rounding up the buffalo at sunset

Inside the Medan house at night

The medan boys I chased around the island

Nighttime-the glare is from the oil flares burning off extra gas hundreds of miles away

Breakfast time

The only decorations on the walls inside the Medan house were of the family children with their water buffalo

House where I stayed

 Ziggurat of Ur

On my last full day in Iraq, I visited the ancient city of Ur near Nasiriyah. The giant ziggurat of Ur was a must-see destination for me. The ziggurat and city are thousands of years old and mentioned in the bible. Sumer is one of the first human civilizations and where tablets with some of the earliest forms of writing have been found. 

Ziggaret of Ur

Active excavation in Ur revealing ancient stone tablets

me next to Some kind of male wedding party at the Ziggaret while I was there. Some of the members took photos with me

Male wedding party at Ziggurat of Ur

Sad Update About Nature Iraq

Years later  when I returned to Iraq in 2023, I discovered that Nature Iraq no longer existed, and Alwash, its President had been charged with corruption by the government of Iraq and had fled to the USA. I also found out that Jasim, the manager, a friend of mine who I spent a lot of time with during my trip had been kidnapped by un-named assailants and tortured for two weeks before being released. All indications are that Nature Iraq was targeted by the government because it was emboldening the Medan people to stan up for themself. Water in this part of the world is gold and Nature Iraq, which had a message of conservation for the nature of the marshes and to preserve the lifestyle of the Medan, which often opposed federal strategies and big business interests regarding water use, made some enemies with powerful groups. Sadly, as is often the case around the world with environmental activists, they are either beaten and intimidated or murdered. Luckily powerful sheiks from the south around the marshes came forward in protest demanding the release of Jasim. This protest seemed to work because soon after he was released on to the side of the road in the middle of the night. His kidnappers are still unknown. 

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