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John P. Jones III
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Wilfred Thesiger led a remarkable life, and through his books has bequeathed an important legacy- the documentation of ways of life that are gone forever. His book, "Arabian Sands," which describes his two crossings of the Rub al Khali (The Empty Quarter) in the late `40's is more famous, but this book, which documents his time with the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, from 1951 to 1958 should command equal attention and respect. In terms of explorers, he is unique as the "Lone Ranger," traveling without Western colleagues, relying almost exclusively on the inhabitants of the remote and often desolate areas he chooses to explore. Whereas "Arabian Sands" details two epic journeys, in "The Marsh Arabs" Thesiger lives with the native inhabitants in their unique environment, and develops relationships which span the better part of a decade. While he is meticulous in describing the conditions of the natives, only occasionally does he reveal his true motives for such a life. An exception appears in "The Marsh Arabs": "My own tastes went, perhaps, too far to the other extreme. I loathed cars, aeroplanes, wireless and television, in fact most of our civilization's manifestations in the past fifty years, and was always happy, in Iraq or elsewhere, to share a smoke-filled hovel with a shepherd, his family and beasts. In such a household, everything was strange and different, their self-reliance put me at ease, and I was fascinated by the feeling of continuity with the past."
As Thesiger elsewhere states, he was probably the first (and sadly, the last) outsider with both the inclination and opportunity to live among the Madan (the natives of the Marshes), as one of them, before Saddam Hussein irrevocably ended their way of life by draining the marshes as a grand reprisal for an attempted revolt. Their way of life had been largely unchanged since the fifth millennium B.C. In another chapter on the historical background he states: "Other races too, had invaded Iraq during the same two thousand years." He did not live long enough to add to his list... "and the Americans and their so-called coalition.." One would think that the book would be more widely circulated today for that reason, and the fact that Thesiger "does nuance."
Thesiger states that he is not a specialist in any given area, and therefore can, in my opinion, convey the life of the people of the marshes in a more genuine way. He gained the initial trust of the inhabitants in the most unlikely way - although not a trained doctor, he safely performed circumcisions on the adolescent boys. He also carried a bag of medicines that he could properly administer, much to the gratitude of the natives. By sharing their hardships, way of life, and mastering the language, he further ingratiated himself with them. He documents an Islam that is anything but monolithic in its beliefs. He states that in Southern Iraq far more pilgrims had been to Meshed (in Iran, where the shrine of Imam Ali Ar Ridha, the eight Imam, is located, gaining the honorific "Zair." As a non-Muslim I was denied admission to the shrine, and I suppose the honorific, in 1971.) Furthermore, he makes the interesting point that the Hazaras of Central Afghanistan do not earn an honorific for the pilgrimage to Meshad, but do for going to Karbala in Iraq, and the reverse is true for the Shia of Iraq. As Thesiger states: "It appears to be a question of distance."
Thesiger describes family life, the tribal feuds, and the dependence of the agricultural economy on the annual floods, with the winners and losers, depending on the height of the floods. There are (dangerous) wild boar hunts. He describes the "mustarjil" who are born a woman, "...but she has the heart of a man, so she lives like a man."
The book contains numerous extraordinary black and white photos whose uniqueness and quality exceed the ones in "Arabian Sands." Of particular interest are the ones of the "mudhif," a large community structure build entirely of reeds, which can be disassembled and moved. The "Gail at Hama" (#41), and "In the Heart of the Marshes" (#27) are also brilliant.
Thesiger's perspective was partially formed at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, and his "fading days of the British Empire" attitude mars an otherwise excellent account. For example, he travels with a "young Kurdish servant" from Kurdistan, and is given to blanket assertions like "All Arabs are snobs" (p 52). He shows particular affection for his "canoe boys," which is reflected in numerous pictures.
Overall though, an extraordinary feat, and a solid book that should be read by all who now have an interest in Iraq.
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Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003) was one of those Englishmen who spent most of his adult life in the third world, living as the natives do, and documenting his experiences and their lives. In his life he published many books about Africa, Arabia, and the Middle East, and it is unlikely the two best-selling ones, ARABIAN SANDS (1959) and THE MARSH ARABS (1964) will go out of print in the foreseeable future. THE MARSH ARABS takes place in the southern quadrant of Iraq, where Thesiger spent most of his time between 1951 and 1958. The area at that time consisted of almost a complete network of swamps with the Tigris bisecting it and the Euphrates undergirding it, and included numerous tributaries and some man-made channels and canals. All the inhabitants spoke Arabic, but not all were ethnically Arab, and certain tribes and sub-tribes lived in an uneasy enmity with others. The most secluded of the marshland tribes were virtually self-sustaining, living in semi-permanent housing made of tall reeds and bulrushes, traversing the area in canoes for which only the wood had to be imported. Some groups fished with spears, some with a low-level poison that stunned the fish -- only the lowest groups on the social ladder used nets. Tribes nearer the edge of the marsh and closer to transportation were better integrated into the Dinar economy, and often sold herringbone-weave mats made of rushes and reeds. But the region as a whole enjoyed near-total political autonomy: most matters of crime and punishment, of apportionment of land for rice-farming and sharing of crops with owners were overseen by local sheikhs. In this period only capital murder and mandatory conscription came under the control of the government, and those not in all cases.
As he did all his career, Thesiger lived with all the marshland Arabs as one of them, sharing their housing, learning their social rituals, kinship patterns and religious observances, admiring how nimbly the natives handled the native canoes in all manner of wetlands, then moving on. He even took on several teenaged boys as oarsmen and traveling companions and (wisely) paid the young men enough to keep them well, but not a fixed salary so that it would be their pleasure to serve him. In all things Thesiger proved intrepid. Although he had had no formal medical training, it fell to him as an educated Englishman to perform medicine on every group he and his entourage visited, especially the ritual circumcisions so central to Moslem life. While Thesiger suffered along with the others the routine ailments of mosquitoes and water-borne illnesses, hot steamy summers and windy, rainy winters, he also delighted in their delights -- a crack shot, he enjoyed tracking down the varied waterfowl and boars that ate the local crops and terrified the residents. (Because of Moslem dietary restrictions, no one could eat those wild pigs.)
Even in the Fifties the marshes were being slowly drained due to irrigation projects, and Thesiger bemoaned the loss of some of the area's young men to an inferior education that would alienate them from their subsistence backgrounds yet send them to big cities like Baghdad and Basra ill-equipped for anything more than menial work. The real cultural genocide got going under dictator Saddam Hussein, in the 1990s, with the deliberate draining of the marshes, a sad epilog to Thesinger's narrative detailed by Jon Lee Anderson in his 2007 Introduction to this book. Ostensibly Saddam did this to improve living standards but more likely to crush a way of life that had enjoyed its semi-autonomy from the Iraqi central government. This was also a signal ecocide of an area many had considered to be the original model for the Garden of Eden, a kind of terrain and lifestyle rare on our planet. Since Saddam's fall and execution, engineers have been busy trying to restore this one-of-a-kind region, but it is expected that the restored marshland will be no more than thirty percent the size it was when Thesiger lived there in the Fifties. THE MARSH ARABS is a classic book among a relative handful that deal with the inhabitants of a region that has not been as well documented as some other Middle Eastern climes such as the empty-quarter desert. Along with Anderson's sad but detailed Introduction, several interior maps are quite helpful and Thesiger, a crack photographer as well as shot, supplies over 100 beautiful and documentary black-and-white photos for the book. Highly recommended, whether your pleasure is anthropology, ecology, history, or just the kind of armchair fun to be had when Englishmen head out into the noonday sun and write about it.