Revolution, chaos, and
Will occur in the country.
A dreadful man,
son of nobody,
whose name not mentioned,
As king he will seize the throne.
he will destroy…
the people of the land…
The marshes and rivers
Will fill up with sand.
-from “The Epic of Gilgamesh”
Saddam Hussein almost did fulfill this ancient prophecy. But now, like the 500-year cycle of the Phoenix to be reborn and live again, these 3,500-year-old Mesopotamian (the land between two rivers) marshlands and their inhabitants, who date back to the Sumerian civilization, are being reborn and will live again in all their lush simplicity. The word “restore” can’t be used in this instance, since this return is simply allowing nature, which had been thwarted, to return to her task. Now, through the photographs of photojournalist Nik Wheeler, currently on exhibit at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, it’s possible to experience this natural phenomenon.
On January 11th, the Fowler Outspoken Program presented Nik Wheeler in tandem with Dr. Azzam Alwash, who is the director of Eden Again/Nature Iraq. Through a presentation of Mr. Wheeler’s photographs and their history, followed by Dr. Alwash who examined the history of the marshlands where he grew up, we were given an update on their present-day conditions. It was an awe-inspiring and touchingly hopeful afternoon.
It began with Nik Wheeler as our guide. Mr. Wheeler’s wide-ranging photographic career includes war coverage, international politics, and travel photography. He has been recording political and cultural history for decades, beginning with his work during the Vietnam war. His first trip to the marshes of Iraq in 1974 was on an assignment for National Geographic in which he documented the marshlands and its inhabitants with his remarkable photographs — the focus of Iraqi Marshlands Then and Now: Photographs by Nik Wheeler. After this publication, Mr. Wheeler and Gavin Young collaborated on the book Return to the Marshes, published in 1977 by Collins. His own experiences there are again captured on film and were substantiated by the experiences he shared with us during the lecture.
Formed by the overflow of where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet, the marshes of southern Iraq once constituted the largest wetlands in western Eurasia and have been inhabited since at least the time of the Sumerians in the late sixth millennium BC. As recently as the mid-1970s, the marshes encompassed six thousand square miles, slightly smaller than the state of Delaware, and supported a thriving community of 250,000-400,000 indigenous inhabitants.
Commonly known as “Marsh Arabs,” these herding and fishing people of the Iraqi marsh region lived on islands made of mud and compacted reeds. Even their houses and community halls were made of local reeds gathered from the marshes and resulted in remarkable buildings creating the beautiful vernacular architecture captured in Mr. Wheeler’s photographs from the mid-1970s. These photographs included: intimate scenes of everyday life in the area, showing fishing from small canoe-type boats with three- or five-pronged spears (while standing!); herding their beloved water buffaloes, who provide them with milk for cheese and dung for their fires, through the water to grazing land; women cooking what looked like huge pancakes; and lastly, the village clown who dresses up as the bogey man at night to frighten the delighted village children. Photographs of these daily activities are combined with majestic overview images of the region taken via aerial photography during Wheeler’s second trip there in 1975, when the government provided him with access to a Russian-built helicopter to tour the area. What we saw in these photographs is expressed in the title of Robert L. France’s book, which Mr. Wheeler contributed to – Wetlands of Mass Destruction: How the Hussein Regime Destroyed the Mesopotamian Marshes and their 5,000-Year-Old Ma’dan Culture. The tribulations of the Gulf Wars almost ended this way of life.
Dr. Azzam Alwash then joined us to explain the logistics of what has been going on. Dr. Alwash was born in Kut, Iraq and spent his youth in Nasiryah, where his father was a district irrigation engineer. In 1978, Alwash left Iraq, immigrating to the United States where he received his college degrees in Southern California, and has since spent his time working with the Army Core of Engineers on this project. This damage to Iraq’s storied Mesopotamian marshlands, which some legends identify as the Garden of Eden, has required a diversity of work in the retrieval and restoration of this precious, irreplaceable natural wonder of our rapidly diminishing world.
His important account investigates the ruin of these Mesopotamian marshes — historically one of the world’s most important wetland environments — along with the decimation of the Marsh Arabs. This area, with its importance as an ecological and unique cultural jewel, was targeted for destruction under Saddam Hussein’s reign through a series of constructed dams and water diversions designed to eradicate the remaining marsh dwellers. Interspersed with ancient Mesopotamian inscriptions and Old Testament quotations, this is a sobering account of the deliberate destruction of the environment for the purpose of ethnic cleansing. It resulted in an environmental disaster of vast proportions, including dust–bowl desiccation within the former wetlands, a destroyed date palm industry, a drinking water crisis, wrecked laboratories, and a pressing need to train a new generation of environmental researchers.
President Saddam Hussein’s engineers began by building massive canals to drain the marshes, ostensibly to bring development to the region, but also as a means of controlling this local population. Following the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the Shiites of southern Iraq (who include the Marsh Arabs) rebelled against the Sunni-dominated regime. Hussein retaliated with a campaign to decimate the predominantly Shiite population indigenous of the marshes, bombarding villages, killing livestock and mining the water with explosives. By the time he was overthrown in 2003, fewer than 80,000 people were left in the marshes, and water covered less than twenty percent of the original area.
A USAID-sponsored project to restore the Southern Iraq marshlands since 2003 has proven that “these people, like most rural populations, are survivors, and with a little help, they will be able to return to their rice farming, fishing, and mat-making from freshwater reeds.” The current efforts that are now underway to rehabilitate a portion of the marshlands, and recent photographs by Mudhafar Salim, show some of the early results.
In a final wistful photograph for the afternoon, there was a grinning Dr. Alwah and our previously seen village clown/bogey man happily posing together after a passage of ten years later. Ah, the Janus face of modernity.