On my most recent trip to the swamp of Mesopotamia, in March, I arrived for Sayed Hitam’s breakfast. The epidemic had kept me away for over a year.
The sun was just rising, the sky pink and golden. Hathum, Hitham’s wife, stood smiling near his reed’s house. “Tea is ready, bread is ready,” he said. “come on in.”
We sat on a worn carpet around a glowing kerosene heater, sipped tea and dipped the flat naan hana and just baked it in hot buffalo milk. “What took you so long, EMI?” Saeed asked with a tone of reprimand. “We haven’t seen you forever.”
Actually. Ever since I started documenting the area in late 2016, I was the longest a year without coming to the Mesopotamian swamp.
At the time, when journalists and photographers were roaming the north of Iraq, where the Battle for Mosul was fast, I took the opposite route and headed south. I was looking for another view of the country, I was separated from the war for the last year and a half.
It was a moment of real discovery for me – one of those few times when you connect With a place, with a people.
The Mesopotamian marshes, a series of wetlands that sit near the southeastern border of Iraq, feel like an oasis in the middle of the desert – which they are. The ruins of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, Uruk and Eridu are close by. The extensive area known as the cradle of civilization saw early development in writing, architecture, and complex society.
Squads are home to people called Ma’dan, also known as marsh Arabs, who live deep in wetlands, mostly in settlements as buffalo breeders, most of whom arrive by boat. . Others live in small towns along the banks of the Tigris or Euphrates rivers, which feed the marshes.
Many of Ma’dan left decades ago, when the marshes were destroyed by war, famine, and repression.
During the Iran-Iraq War, between 1980 and 1988, the wetland’s proximity to the Iranian border transformed the region into a conflict zone, a theater for bloody fighting. Later, in the early 1990s, following a Shi’ite rebellion against his Ba’ath party, Saddam Hussein deliberately drained the region – where many of the Shia rebels had fled – as a punishment and inciting rebellion There was a way of
Until the United States-led invasion in 2003, the swamp turned into a desert for more than a decade.
By then the damage was done. By the early 2000s, less than 10 percent of the region’s original wetlands existed as working marshland.
Today, again flooded and partially restored, the marsh is once again under threat – from climate change, a lack of ecological awareness at the local level and, perhaps most dramatically, the construction of dams in Turkey and Syria and From the rebellion in Iraq.
In 2018, an excessively hot summer caused a severe drought following a lack of rain. In some areas, the water level fell more than three feet.
“That’s it,” I think I remember, as the small boat crosses the swamp where corpses of young buffaloes float in the water. Buffalo breeders like Saeed Hitam lost about a third of their livestock, and many had to leave when the areas were turned into deserts. They moved to the poorer suburbs of Karbala, Basra or Baghdad – or still to neighboring cities.
But then, after a few months, the water started rising. People returned. I photographed the renovation, just as I had photographed the drought a year earlier. But then it felt – it still feels – as the sword of Damocles hangs over the region.
The stakes are high, both ecologically and for the people who live here. If the already overcrowded swamps dry up again, there may be no option but to move away from a peaceful enclave in a peaceful land near Mayden.
Nevertheless, I kept coming back. Over the years, I have seen droughts and abundance, cold and winters. I have seen children born, and watched them grow up. I have followed Saeed Hitam and his family as they moved around the swamp, the location of their new home was dependent on the water level – and was built every time out of the reeds.
I am also used to giant water buffalo, locally known as jams, which represent the main source of income for most Ma’dan.
The buffalo initially scared me. But I have learned to walk through a flock of horns, to smell them, to domesticate fluffy, friendly calves – who try to lick my hands like oversized dogs.
When I told Saeed my progress, as we wrapped in breakfast, he burst into his wonderful, brilliant laughter. “You still don’t know anything, EMI,” he said. “You can’t even tell Pisces Jam in the herd
Then, grim, and still smiling, he said: “It’s fine. You have time to learn.”