4 out of 5 stars
They were flying over an endless desert at 220mph. It stretched to the horizon from both windows. Rather than feeling excited about the flight into Baghdad, Maxwell felt a touch of fear. This journey had begun a couple of years before when he had written to the man sitting alongside him on the plane, they met in London. He explained there would be no home comforts and it would be incredibly tough travelling. In the end, he agreed to take him the next time he was going there. That man dozing alongside him was the legendary explorer Wilfred Thesiger and this was to be Maxwell’s first trip to the marshes of southern Iraq.
It was a place where outsiders were treated with suspicion, and not many ventured into their waterscape made up of a mass of tiny islands in a maze of reeds and swamps. They stopped for a few days in Basra where they were joined by the lads that Thesiger used to help him navigate the wilderness. They then all piled into a car and headed south before turning off the road and heading to where the lads had left their canoe. Finally, he was heading into the marshes.
Under a storm sky this landscape, too, could seem bleak and terrible, but now it seemed a wonderland, and the colours had the brilliance and clarity of fine enamel.
He would accompany Thesiger as he visited the various places that he wanted to go on this visit. They would only stay one night before moving on to another home so they didn’t become too much of a burden on their host. Moving across the water in a shallow draught canoe when the wind was blowing a gale is a bit nerve-wracking; especially if the local guides seemed to be worried too.
Maxwell is quite a good shot on land, shooting coots and ducks while sitting cross-legged in a gently rocking canoe is another matter. Sometimes he got lucky and sometimes he didn’t. As honoured guests, they attend weddings, watch dancers and share stories around the buffalo dung fires in the evenings. He watches how they construct their houses, and make the reed matting that is used for all manner of things.
It was a landscape as weird as a Lost World, and through it flew birds as strange and unfamiliar in flight as pterodactyls; snake-necked African darters, pygmy cormorants and halcyon kingfishers
The is the final book following on from Thesiger’s classic and Gavin Young’s Return To The Marshes in the triage of books I read about the Marsh Arabs. I think that I liked them all about the same but for a variety of different reasons. Thesiger and Young came across as more seasoned travellers, but in A Reed Shaken by the Wind, you got the sense that Maxwell was a little out of his depth travelling in the region for the first time.
Whilst he may have been outside his comfort zone, his prose can be magnificent at times. He has an eye for details about the people, their sparse but simple homes, the weather and the watery landscapes they are traversing in the canoes. I felt more of a sense of how it felt to be in the region more than with the other two authors. It was here too that he was to become the owner of an otter cub, Mijbil and the author of a book that would make him famous.