The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger

4 out of 5 stars

Where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers meet used to be a Marsh. Mostly these places are uninhabitable, but in the case of Iraq, there were people there who had developed a way of life that fitted and suited their environment almost perfectly. They had lived this way for around 5000 years, absorbing changes that suited them but keeping their culture and spirit very much alive. That was before Saddam Hussein drained the marshes and did all he could to wipe them out.

Thankfully before their life disappeared completely, it was documented by various people, including the author of this book, Wilfred Thesiger. The middle east was a particular passion for him and his book, The Arabian Sands is his account of crossing the Empty Quarter. He has an affinity with the people of the region and this area of Iraq fascinated him. He visited many times between the years of 1951 and 1958 staying for extended periods of time and got to know the various tribes and people of this marsh.

Memories of that first visit to the Marsh have never left me: Stars reflected in the dark water, the croaking of frogs, canoes coming home in the evening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine. Once again I experienced the longing to share this life, and to be more than a mere spectator.

He visited on the native people’s own terms, sharing their meals, staying in their reed constructed accommodation. He was a modest guest, but the people of the marshes grew to trust this man and to a certain extent rely on the medicines that he bought with him. He tried to treat as many cases as he could, from cleaning wounds and treating illnesses and he came to realise that some of what he was seeing was caused by a total lack of hygiene. At one of the villages he was asked to circumcise a lad and he took more care than was usual and he healed quickly with very little paint. It would be the first of many hundreds that he would do.

He engaged some lads to help him get around the marshes in their long slim canoes called taradas. He didn’t employ them, a sensible precaution as it could have sparked jealousy with other members, but he did ensure that they were generously supported in lots of ways. Their intimate knowledge of the waterways was such they would be heading to a wall of reeds and as the almost touched them the narrow passage through would be revealed. If he were alone, he would never have spotted it. He bought himself a boat one year to find out soon after that one on the tribal leaders had had had one made for him.

He documents all layers of the life of these people, from the intertribal rivalries and the disagreements that sometimes happened, to the crops they grew, how they sealed the Taradas and the way that they built their homes. There is a substantial section of the amazing photos that he took of the people. I did find his writing a little cold and matter of fact, probably an effect of his upbringing, but you do get an underlying sense of how fondly he saw the people. It is an important historical document of a way of life that can never exist anymore since the Marshes were drained. Well worth reading.

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1 Comment

  1. Liz Dexter

    He is a bit cold but I’ve always seen that as him being quite old-school. A fascinating book I read before I kept a reading journal (shocking!).

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