In 1824, J Baillie Fraser (Scottish traveller and novelist (1783 - 1856)) brought the Marsh Arabs to the fore when he described them as the 'stoutest fairest and comeliest of all Arabs' and admired their 'openness', 'frankness' and 'civility'. He was also moved enough to comment upon the emancipated women whose 'beauty moreover was not to be surpassed in the brilliant assemblies of civilised life!'.
This is high praise indeed from a man who lived in a society who had yet to recognise the full potential of women and was indeed itself a century away from giving women the vote. However, 175 years later, the Marsh Arabs (also known as the Mi'dan) are again drawing the attention of the West, yet sadly for all the wrong reasons. But we are getting ahead of ourselves...
Who Are the Marsh Arabs and Where Are They?
The Marsh Arabs, put simply, are a semi-nomadic people whose unique way of life, until recently, has remained unchanged for 5000 years. Until the 1980s, there were around 100,000 Marsh Arabs who inhabit the wetland region of the confluence of the mighty Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq. The land that they once called home used to cover an area of 600,000 square miles.
The Marsh Arabs are directly descended from the Sumerian and Babylonian cultures which have long since disappeared from the area the Mi'dan currently inhabit. As an ethnic group, they predate the flood described in the Sumerian epic Gilgamesh and they have been left, more or less, to their own devices. All the great empires that have traipsed through the area have left the Marsh Arabs alone. The inhospitable marsh lands have proved effective in keeping the Marsh Arab culture intact and unwanted visitors out.
Sadly, very few Marsh Arabs currently live in Iraq: the wars with Iran and the crisis over Kuwait meant that their culture and land was invaded by hostile forces that were completely incompatible with their way of life. If this weren't sad enough, the Iraqi government has decided that it is the pinnacle of wisdom to drain the marshes and turn the land over to agriculture.
The effect has been devastating.
The Marsh Arabs have been persecuted by the central government and forced, sometimes violently, to leave their land. Many have had to seek sanctuary in neighbouring Iran. The stories of Iraqi brutality and violence against the Marsh Arabs abound and accusations of cultural genocide are increasing in vehemency. Another tragic outcome is the fact the land that once supported a unique biodiverse system is now a cracked, crusty and barren landscape. No agricultural plan has been initiated and, until recently, the world did not know the extent of what had happened.
What Makes them Unique
The Marsh Arab culture is unique in that it has remained relatively unchanged for over five millennia. They have learnt to master an inhospitable landscape while retaining a reverence and respect for the environment that houses them. They have founded a society and economy based on reed gathering (and crafts surrounding this), fishing and the herding of water buffalo which is environmentally sound.
The humble reed plant is actually pivotal to the Marsh Arab way of life and is the cornerstone of their culture. The reeds in the marshes were prolific and exceptionally large which allowed the craftsmen of the tribes to create ornate canoes and barges to travel around the marshes. What is truly unique, though, and something that hasn't change in five millennia, is the fact the Marsh Arabs constructed huge, cavernous structures from these reeds known as 'Mudhifs'. We knows these mudhifs are as old as their civilisation because seals surviving from the Sumerian age depict these structures. The buildings would often need one hundred workers to complete them. To protect these ornate edifices from the destructive elements of the marshes, they would be set upon a bank of woven reeds which would raise them above the waterways. It would also mean that the houses could be moved if need be. The Marsh Arabs continued to build these structures up to the time they were ejected from their homeland.
The one aspect of Marsh Arab life that has changed over the past 5000 years is religion. The Marsh Arabs are Shia Muslims (unlike the ruling Iraqi government which is Sunni) and practice the doctrines of Islam with as much devotion as their urban counterparts1. Their way of life though means that they have to spend a lot of time in private prayer, something that is often looked down upon by urban muslims2. The Marsh Arabs do, however, make pilgrimages to Mecca and fulfill other holy doctrines prescribed by leaders of the Muslim faith.
Help Is at Hand
The AMARA Foundation is a charity that has been established to help the displaced Marsh Arabs maintain their unique lifestyle while campaigning on an international level on behalf of the displaced. It is largely thanks to them that the world now knows of their plight.