Saturday, January 21

The Return of the Marsh Arabs

I have been entranced by stories of the Marsh Arabs since I first read Wilfred Thesiger's "The Marsh Arabs" in high school. An easy people to romanticize--a direct link to the ancient Sumerian empire*, living in the cradle of civilization on the very floodplains described in the Epic of Gilgamesh, they can be considered all of our ancestors--the Marsh Arabs were almost unknown even to their neighbors in Iraq and Iran until Thesiger published his account of living among them for eight years in the 1950s. (Speaking of Thesiger--one of the great explorers of the 20th Century, raised in the court of Emperor Melenik in Abyssinia and Eton, capturer of 2,000 Italians in World War II, killer of 70 lions, world-class eccentric, enthralling author, and indispensable photographic chronicler of ancient peoples and ways of life that would be eclipsed in one generation--his Telegraph obituary from 2003 is here). But back to the Marsh Arabs.

Jay Nordlinger has written an article about the recent fall and rise of the Marsh Arabs that deserves to be read. As it is not available online, I hope that he won't mind if I poach a little from his narrative to describe the horrors that this fascinating people endured under Saddam Hussein, and how their rapid recovery since his fall.

The Mesopotamian Marshlands--home of the Marsh Arabs-exist at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Many have imagined this area the site of the Garden of Eden. Until the early 1990s, this "Eden" was the Middle East's largest wetland, covering about 7,500 square miles. The Marsh Arabs . . . are among the oldest peoples on earth, dating back 5,000 years. . . . For all these millennia, they have lived in their marshes, gliding in their skiffs, called "mashoofs," and dwelling in their reed huts. . . .

The marshes were always a mysterious place, a haven and hideout for rebels, bandits, dissenters. When the Shiites failed in their uprising against Saddam after the first Gulf War [thanks Bush 41 and Powell], many of them sought refuge in the marshes. And the local residents, hating the regime . . . sympathized with them. . . .

What happened next is a picture of pure evil; it can scarcely be absorbed. In a massive push called the Third River Project, the regime created dams, dikes, and canals--and dried up the marshes. . . . With amazing speed, this vast wetland became a desert. The plants died, the animals died, water was nowhere. . . . Saddam destroyed a full 90 percent of the Mesopotamian Marshlands, establishing a military zone in their place. . . .

The elimination of the marshes caused the people to starve, flee, or die--and Saddam did all he could to make sure they died. He poisoned the lagoons; he shelled villages; he set reedbeds ablaze; he imprisoned, tortured, and executed; and he attacked these Iraqis with . . . chemical weapons.

Saddam's attempted genocide (a word often carelessly applied, but perfectly accurate here--there were 250,000 Marsh Arabs in 1991 and only 75,000 in 2003) was closely observed by an impotent West. Mr. Nordlinger describes the moving reporting done by Time and the New York Times documenting the swift decline of Marsh Arabs and the destruction of their home in the early 1990s.

Thankfully, the story did not end there. Until Saddam's removal it was impossible to begin to reverse the human, cultural, and environmental destruction. Since his fall, however, the Marsh Arabs, with coalition support, have enthusiastically set about that task. Nordlinger quotes from the New York Times's James Glanz:

. . . When Mr. Hussein's government fell in April 2003, villagers went to [a particular dike] and gouged holes in it using shovels, their bare hands and at least one piece of heavy equipment, a floating backhoe. Since then, something miraculous has occurred: reeds and cattails have sprouted up again; fish, snails and shrimp have returned to the waters; egrets and storks perch on the jagged remains of the walls, coolly surveying the territory as if they had never left.

This inspiring story should not make us forget Saddam's wickedness, the effects of which will never be wholly overcome. Although 40% of the marshlands have been reflooded, only half of that--one fifth of the original area--has been revegetated. And "[t]here are problems with the water: very salty and not as life-giving as it was." Serious concerns, but the people themselves are optimistic--100,000 exiles have returned since Saddam's fall. Even the polarizing journalist and indefatigable critic of America Robert Fisk is optimistic. My heart bled at the thought of the Marsh Arabs' brutalization under Saddam and it soars to learn of their resilience. If you read Thesiger as a boy, then you'll understand.

* Compare the stone images of Sumerian reed houses with the photos by Gertrude Bell from the 1910s and Thesiger from the 1950s on this excellent page. The arial photo of a floating village is particularly extraordinary.