Adventure in the marshes. Going South to Basra passed the confluence of Euphrates and Tigris.

As recently as two years ago, going to Basra would have been out of the question for a group like us. Between Nasiriya and Basra there are the marshes. Traditionally, this area has had the poorest and least educated population of Iraq mixed in with a large immigrant population. Since the marshes are unmanageable to people from the outside (a bit like the mountains in Afghanistan, I imagine), they have been a favorite refuge for rebels, dissidents, criminals, etc. Clashes between Saddam’s regime and this region were frequent; cycles of rebellion and retaliation followed. Geoff reported that the tanks at the check points along the road to Basra typically pointed their guns into the marshes rather than to the road. That says it all.

But since last year, things have calmed down. Not only were we able to drive through the marshes, we were allowed to rent boats and do an excursion into the area! After the experience at the Ali Shrine, today’s ride through the marshes will count second after Ali, if not first! I can’t think of any region in the world quite like this. 10-12 feet deep channels run through reeds that grow at least another foot or two above the water level. Reeds are harvested and used for the construction of unique traditional houses. Water buffalo are raised in this area and people live on small mud islands either isolated or in small, small village clusters. An amazing range of birds live in this area as well.

The women were put in a boat in which three carpets had been rolled out over the benches to sit on. The guys had to sit on the wooden planks. Of course, our two regular guards were with us, one per boat and to top off the crew, one of the machine gunned dudes also rode along. We try to ignore them as much as possible. The ride can be quite precarious depending on the speed and the tilt of the boat. Let’s just say that most of us got wet one way or another and all of our lenses were splashed full of water. The marshes are crisscrossed by hundreds of channels which the fishermen know just like we would know the roads in a city. Everyone else trying to find their way around would be hopelessly lost. The landmarks are just too subtle. It was striking to see that men as well as women worked these boats, operating the long, wooden poles to maneuver the boats around manually. Each boat is also equipped with a small motor. The water buffalo roam freely right in the middle of shallower areas grazing.

The village we drove through had people living in houses right next to their animals. Dogs and geese were part of the scene and the presence of a car indicated that there was at least one “road” passable enough to connect the village to the mainland. Road in that case would mean a mud ramp wide enough to allow single-line motorized traffic. No electricity, and nothing that would follow – Internet, TV, refrigeration, light. How people live like this is utterly unimaginable for city folks like me. I am not sure the people especially like this way of life, but for an outsider like me, there is a certain romantic aspect in looking at this lifestyle and woe over the fact that it is fast disappearing.

The government has used locks to block access of water to the marshes. In response to rebellions vast regions have been drained to control the uppity population and incredible damage has been done to the environment. Much has been filled up again, but we also passed regions in which obviously marshes used to be and nothing more than cracked dry land remains. Many of the reed houses are also replaced by brick and clinker constructions. Still, from what remains today, we really got an amazing look into a way of life which is recorded on ancient cylinder seals of ancient Mesopotamia!

Another highlight was to see the confluence of the two mighty rivers which gave this entire region the name “Between the Rivers” or Mesopotamia: Euphrates and Tigris, at Al Qurna. On the Tigris side, a small park marked a very strange place. A tree is venerated there which supposedly was planted by Adam? Huh? It is indicating paradise. Please don’t ask… None of this made sense to me, but there it was. Abraham had visited the site as well, just in case Adam was not enough…

Basra, our final destination for today, is another town that was until just recently off limits even for seasoned Iraq travelers like Geoff. As a Saddam stronghold in an otherwise Shiah region, tensions and especially anti-foreign sentiments rank high. We are not allowed to go out here at all. I don’t mind. We have a decent hotel and it was high noon for laundry and catch up writing the blog. I am constantly falling behind no matter how hard I try. Too much going on!

Geoff managed to replenish our supplies of beer and whiskey catching a moment of confusion. Our hotel booking had been mixed up – or was this a deliberate relocation to blur our trails? – and momentarily we only had one guard with us. Geoff just took off, leaving the guard in an utter predicament. If he had gone after Geoff, he would have abandoned the rest of us. He decided to stay…

And so, with a swig of whiskey and a strip of chocolate, the day comes to an end.

Good night.

1 comment so far

Add Your Comment
  1. My dear Elisabeth- I am with you all the way! I cannot wait to see photos of this particular
    ‘Marsh” adventure. I think I would like to kyak with you there some day, right? Be safe and keep blogging!