Return To The Marshes by Gavin Young

4 out of 5 stars

Young was in Basra working for a shipping company in 1952 when he heard that the great Arabian traveller Thesiger was in town. He managed to wangle a meeting with him via the British Consul and over lunch told him about his dream of travelling across Saudi Arabia on the back of a camel. Expecting encouragement from him, he was rebuffed and told that he would never get a visa for the country. At that moment, the thought of sitting in an office for the rest of his working life almost became too much of a burden to bear. Instead, Thesiger suggests a trip to the marshes. He was going there tomorrow, but would be back in six weeks, for a bath and could take him then.

He had never heard of the place, but six weeks later he is climbing out of a taxi, alongside a tribute of Tigris. Alongside the bank is a long slender black canoe with some lads sitting in it. He is told to carefully climb in as it can tip. In no time at all, they are gliding silently through the water. Greetings were exchanged with other canoes that they passed. There was a word from the lad paddling in the front and they turned a corner and Young had the first glimpse of the home of the Madan. The following morning they would travel far deeper into the marsh.

It was the beginning of a series of friendships that would last all his life. Like Thesiger, he grew to love the watery landscape and most of all the people. It was a harsh life there, aa lot of the people he knew or saw had some form of injury or illness. Even though it was tough there, the people seemed happy, but he could sense that pressure from the outside world starting to seep in, men were starting to use nets to fish rather than the more traditional spears, guns that had been looted from various armies had changed the dynamics between the various tribes to a certain extent.

He returned many times to the marshes, but the last time he went before this book was written was in the early 1970s. His memories flood back as he pulls up in a taxi in more or less the same spot as he did all those years ago. Fear mixed with elation as he wondered how it would have changed over that time…

I really liked this book, like Thesiger he is a sensitive traveller, accepting of the hospitality that he is generously offered and wanting to help and spend time with the people of the marshes. It is partly a history of the region, how it moved through its various changes before adopting Islam from the Arabs before it moves onto his travels around the place with Thesiger and then by himself a few years later. He has a perceptive eye for the people and the wildlife as he travels around the marshes in his own boat with locals acting as guides. The final part of the book was excellent; he heads back after a large number of years and not only does he find the people that he knew from the 1950s, but they remember him. His writing style is a little warmer than Thesiger and it is a good companion volume to The Marsh Arabs and A Reed Shaken By The Wind. You get a sense of the events and places that all three authors saw from a subtly different perspective.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    How lovely to have that overlap with Thesiger – and how nice that he’s a bit warmer than him!

    • Paul

      Review is written too for the final book in the triage, A Reed Shaken In The Wind which I will publish very soon.

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