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The Ma-Adan sustained

an ancient culture in an unusual land

until they were crushed

by Saddam Hussein



An almost completely self-sufficient civilization. 

AMID THE RUINED TEMPLES of a civilization abandoned 4,000 years ago in southern Iraq, archaeologists on a 1968 expedition noted a striking parallel: Fragments of the long-extinct Sumerian civilization they were unearthing seemed to depict the present-day lives of the nearby tribal people.


They speared fish from slender wooden boats, herded water buffalo and fashioned fantastic vaulted houses from the few building materials the marshes had to offer: reeds, clay and buffalo dung.


Their secluded villages dotted the vast marshes and stream-braided lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Dwellings and barns straddled the waters on fixed islands laboriously constructed from layer upon layer of hand-woven reed matting and mud.


"I was absolutely intrigued by what I saw," said Edward Ochsenschlager, an archaeologist who spent the next 20 years studying the modern marsh dwellers, an Arab people known as the Ma'adan.


Until drawing the wrath of Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s, the Ma'adan had managed against great odds to perpetuate their unique culture largely unchanged for 5,000 years. After the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam retaliated against the local resistance to his regime, ordering engineers to sever the flow of life-giving water to the marshlands.


Edenic wetlands that once gave refuge to a rich fishery and rare smooth-coated otter, sacred ibis, Goliath heron and other disappearing creatures have become lifeless, nearly waterless, salt-encrusted mudflats, according to accounts by Western observers after the unseating of Saddam.


Marsh-dwelling people, who numbered about half a million in the 1950s, have dwindled to as few as 20,000 in Iraq, according to the United Nations. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 have fled to refugee camps in Iran.


A restoration effort, called the Eden Again Project, in June hopes to send a team to begin studying how to reverse the destruction. Supporters are counting on the proven resilience of the Ma'adan culture to accomplish a return to the marshes.



The staying power of the Ma'adan may have come from a social structure built around absolute bonds of obligation to family and tribe. A harmoniously intertwined relationship with the wetland environment also made each tribe self-sufficient -- and capable of withstanding the outside world's intrusions and deprivations.


"They led hard lives, but admirable lives," said Ochsenschlager, an emeritus professor in the anthropology department of Brooklyn College in New York.


The village Ochsenschlager and colleagues first encountered in 1968 lay sheltered within a broad, shallow marsh with a deep canal closing the circle. To reach the closest outpost of the outside world required a 2 1/2-hour ride by motorized boat followed by a 15-mile walk or car ride.


Villagers made the trip only when necessary to sell livestock, hand-woven carpets and reed mats, and to buy certain necessities from outside, including spices, aluminum cookware and guns.


Almost everything else, the marshes produced. Sturdy reeds reaching 20 feet became raw material for homes, baskets and boats, while tender reed shoots provided plentiful forage for water buffalo. Muddy streambeds yielded clay for sun-dried bricks. Bitumen, a tarry material from shallow oil deposits, served as a waterproofing agent for rafts and roofs.



Reed-building reached its height of excellence in cathedral-like structures, called mudhif, reserved for sheiks, who led the tribes. Builders lashed tall and seasoned reed shafts into thick bundles that they bent into arched supports for the vaulted roof. They sheathed the walls with reed mats, some woven with a filigree of gaps for sunlight to filter through to the cool, carpeted interior.


Villagers built less grand family dwellings by the same means. A typical house stood about 10 feet tall and 20 feet long. They were built to last decades, but Ochsenschlager said he saw villagers take apart, move and reassemble a five-arch reed house in less than a day when threatened by rising water.


Families finished the inside with reed mats and wool carpets, a cooking hearth and a bench or reed screen defining separate sides for men and women. The back side of the house served as workshop or a barn for water buffalo, which lived in an almost symbiotic relationship with their keepers. Archaeological evidence suggests that people brought water buffalo to the marshlands around 3,500 B.C.


After a day of foraging in the marshes, water buffalo might join a family around the courtyard fire -- and gain relief from mosquito persecution, Ochsenschlager said. "They'd get their heads right down over your shoulder to get as close to the fire as possible," he said.


The Ma'adan would NEVER eat buffalo meat.

Water buffalo cows produced milk, and a family might sell animals to outsiders for slaughter, for instance, to gain cash for a son to buy his bride or to settle a dispute with a rival tribe. But the Ma'adan never ate buffalo meat.


The most important thing buffalo provided was dung, Ochsenschlager discovered. The marsh Arabs mixed dung with reeds to make fuel for cooking and heating fires. The slightly acrid smoke also repelled flying insects. They also used dung to waterproof roofs and poultice wounds.


Sprawling wetlands nourished by the two great rivers supported a magnificent fishery, best represented by the shabbout, or barbel, which could reach 200 pounds. Marsh dwellers were providing nearly two-thirds of the fish consumed by all Iraqis during the mid-1980's, according to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. By they time, most fishermen in the marshes had abandoned traditional spears and begun using modern nets.


Rice growing amid the wetlands provided another diet staple. Some marsh tribes also cultivated date palms, tomatoes and melons. In lean years, Ochsenschlager saw families resort to eating reeds.



Researchers found numerous parallels between the modern and ancient marsh dwellers. The distinctive arched reed buildings are well-represented in the archaeological record. Ochsenschlager's team found impressions left in sediment showing how Sumerians wove their baskets from reeds. The pattern matched the work of modern weavers.


Shards of sun-dried mud pottery exhibited the same style as jars produced by living potters. Models of ancient boats closely resembled modern, bitumen-coated wooden boats that the Ma'adan poled through the water.


Ochsenschlager and colleagues drew upon their study of the Ma'adan to inform speculation on how the Sumerians lived and worked. For instance, by observing how much time and effort it took a weaver to finish a particular kind of basket, the researchers could estimate the economic value of such an artifact in ancient Sumeria, probably the first civilization to invent the plow and develop a written language.


Devotion to old ways also left most settlements with no modern health care or sanitation. Women collected water from rivers and streams and filtered it in ceramic vessels packed with charcoal. Villagers dug pits to bury what little garbage they generated. Dogs lived off the garbage -- and consumed human waste that villagers left in the open at a comfortable distance from their homes.



The marshes provided ample refuge for rebellious tribes increasingly at odds with outside authorities, from British colonial rulers to Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards. One day during Ochsenschlager's first year at the excavation site, the crew heard faraway drum sounds, a warning from a neighboring tribe of the approach of outsiders.


"The entire group of local men who worked for us dropped what they were doing, picked up their guns and cloaks and disappeared into the marshes," he said. Men who were drawn to cities for work often returned to the marshes after running into trouble with the government


Threats from outside were starting to take a toll by the time of Ochsenschlager's first encounter with the Ma'adan in 1968. The government was in the midst of a campaign to get rid of sheiks, eroding traditional leadership. Traders were increasingly demanding money for some commodities and refusing barter.


Dam and irrigation projects executed in the 1970s cut the annual flow of water in the Euphrates by more than one-third. That began the depletion of the marshes, reducing permanent wetlands and spring floods that had carried nutrient-laden sediments.


The coup de grace came after the 1991 Gulf War, when Shiite Muslims in the south rose up against Saddam. After their defeat, the regime's soldiers burned and bombed marsh villages, while its engineers completed massive dikes and canals to divert the entire flow of the Euphrates away from the marshes.


Satellites beamed ghastly images of the unfolding ecological catastrophe. By 2000, marshes that had covered nearly 4,000 square miles -- comparable to Florida's Everglades -- had almost disappeared.



The Eden Again Project is urging U.S. and Iraqi officials to start releasing water from the Tigris River to portions of the marshlands as early as November.


"We think we can restore significant portions of the marshes," said Suzie Alwash, a California woman who runs the project with her husband, Azzam Alwash, a civil engineer from Iraq.


Experts aren't sure of the prospects for restoration and the return of the marsh Arabs. Alexandre Tkachenko, a specialist in Middle East economics at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, said a crucial question is whether restoration can co-exist with large-scale irrigation and oil drilling in a post-war Iraq desperate for economic development.


Another question is the willingness of young Ma'adans to return to their traditional way of life after a decade dispersed in distant cities and refugee camps.


"The implications for the return of marsh dwellers to their original area of residence are extremely negative," said Ernestina Coast, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, in a report on the Ma'adan refugees.


In a survey of refugees in Iran, only about one in five of those younger than 30 expressed a desire to return to Iraq. More than half of young people designated "elsewhere" as their preferred future residence.



The Oregonian
May 14, 2003

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