Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Let the waters rise again, Iraq

Like many South Africans I normally head for the coast over the holiday break, but not this year: I went to Iraq instead.

I teach a course at Wits Journalism called The Story of Money, which looks at the development of money from the earliest settled farming times, when people started producing surpluses and needed methods to manage these surpluses.

In what is southern Iraq today, the first city-states sprang up as complex societies, producing the first craft specialists, taxation to fund public works and pay civil servants, the emergence of counting, writing, credit and debt. 

Interest was introduced, as were contracts and law, with courts being set up to administer the new civil justice. Much of what we know today as money was first developed in Sumer 5 000 or so years ago.

Archaeologists have been excavating here for some 200 years and hundreds of thousands of tablets have been discovered with Sumerian cuneiform, inscriptions made with a reed stylus on clay tablets. 

Experts have been able to read cuneiform for about 150 years or so, meaning that today we know a lot about the Sumerians.

I was also keen to meet the Marsh Arabs, the people who have lived in the marshes with their water buffalo for thousands of years on islands constructed from reeds and soil. As is well  known, Saddam Hussein went to war against the people of the south in the early 1990s, draining the marshes because they were used to hide from his army.

The reconstructed ziggurat at Ur.

The marshes, which were 9 000km2 extent before being drained, were turned into wasted deserts, leaving only 10% of marshland in an area adjoining Iran, where Saddam was unable to prevent water flowing in. I was keen to see both the marsh restoration project and visit Uruk, Sumeria's leading city. With a 5 000-year lifespan, Uruk is the most enduring city of all.

But just how safe would such a trip be I monitored news reports. There seemed to be daily bombings in the capital Baghdad, but none further south where I would be. There were bombings in Basra as well, where I would probably spend time. One report I read said that Baghdad had bombings and kidnappings; in Basra there were bombings, but no kidnappings.

You need to be invited to go to Iraq. Web searching brought up Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi who had left the country in 1976 to study in the United States. 

Alwash returned after the fall of Saddam and set up Nature Iraq, a not-for-profit environmental advocacy and research entity, winning awards for his role in restoring the marshlands. 

I mailed Alwash. He invited me to stay with Nature Iraq at a facility it has in the marshes and supplied me with a letter of invitation, which I sent with my visa application to the Iraqi embassy in Pretoria.

I did not know from one day to the next whether I would get the visa —but I did get it, and ended up flying to Basra in southern Iraq via Dubai. You cannot be met at the airport as no outside vehicles are permitted to drive to the airport building. You take a taxi for an expensive 4km ride through a set of security checks until you reach a car park, where Ahmed and Sayed from Nature Iraq met me.

My home from home would be El Chibaish, which is 120km from Basra. El Chibaish is on the Euphrates River and between two of the largest of the marshes, the Hammar Marsh south of the Euphrates, and the Central Marsh, between to the Euphrates and the Tigris. Jassim Alasadi, the director of Nature Iraq at El Chibaish, immediately arranged a trip into the marshes.

We drove a few blocks to the promenade that divides the town from the timeless Euphrates, where we met a boatman who took us into the Hammar Marsh. To get there, you go through a cutting in an embankment. Saddam put up these embankments on both sides of much of the Euphrates and the Tigris. They run for hundreds of kilometres, built to ensure their waters remained channelled in the rivers and that the marshlands were drained.

After Saddam fell in 2003 locals took spades and dug channels so that the marshes could once again get water. Alwash raised money from the Italians, who had been stationed at Nasariya, 100km west of El Chibaish, during the US-led invasion. Alwash used the first of this money to hire a mechanised earth mover to cut through the embankments.

Water began to flow into the parched, wasted landscape. The immediate result was troubling: the water turned a reddish brown, before settling to a more natural colour. But within months what had been barren, cracked soil returned to its watery paradise. The reeds grew. The fish came back – as did the birds and then the people.

Uruk, where the Sumerians invented writing with a guide.

The wider area of El Chibaish was home to 66 000 people before the marshes were drained, falling to just 6 000 as people fled the area, many making their way through refugee camps to foreign countries. The numbers now are similar – 62 000 – to what they were before Saddam's bulldozers moved in.

The boatman navigated us through the reeded wonderland. We came around a corner to find two women, cloaked in black from head to foot, in a canoe drawing in a fishing net. A little further on was the homestead of a Madan – buffalo breeder – family. A young man, surrounded by several children, waved us over.

The homestead is set on a reed island, providing a spongy base. There was one reed hut that provided the living area. Chickens roosted on the reeded floor. There was a place for a fire with a small kettle. 

I did not see any other implements. An adjoining reed hut stored grain and the buffaloes had a partly enclosed barn just off the main hut. There were no mattresses or any other bulky items. 

The Madan life remains nomadic for many. As the water level rises or falls, they put everything they own, including the dwellings, into the canoe and move to the next spot.

The only thing these people own that their ancestors didn't is an outboard motor for the canoe, giving them far greater range than previously and easier access to the market, where they sell fish, buffalo milk and cut reeds. Some marsh dwellers previously had electricity, but now there is none. But some do have cellphones and so are connected to the wider world. The toilet, as ever, is a quiet spot.

About 60% of the marshland has been restored, this being the limit of the reckoned available water. Debates rage between the water authorities nationally and regionally about what water goes where and a new dam on the Tigris in Turkey threatens both to flood part of the ancient town of Hasankeyf near Turkey's border with Iraq and to further restrict water flows to the south.

I managed two visits to Ur, an early city-state near Nasariya, which has the only surviving ziggurat anywhere. Ziggurats predate the Egyptian pyramids, although this one was more or less fully reconstructed this century. 

The Ur ziggurat, which dates from about 4 000 years ago, was 26m tall, but so far has been reconstructed to just 17m with more work still to be done.

On one visit to Ur our group was the only party there. But Uruk, further to the north, gets even fewer visitors, about 100 a year. It was known as Unug to the people who built it, the Sumerians, is called Erech in the Bible and is presumably where the modern "Iraq" comes from. 

The real-life king Gilgamesh, who inspired one of the greatest stories ever told, The Epic of Gilgamesh, lived here and had some of the walls built.

Today Uruk is just mounds – huge mounds, covered by endless broken pottery shards and some brickwork. 

I had been disappointed that in my time in Iraq I had seen almost no cuneiform, but here, where writing was invented, were bricks inscribed with the distinctive script: a legible message from the past.

A Madan homestead complete with a tanoor bread oven.

There was a large, broken bottom of a pot at one place. I asked the guide what it was. "A tanoor," he said, "for making bread." A 6 000-year-old clay oven. Every day at El Chibaish we had eaten flatbread – khubz – made in this way, with the dough being stuck to the side of the hot clay oven to bake

It may have been that I had gone to some risk and trouble to get to Uruk, or that the people who had lived there had gifted us so much, but the place seemed to have an extraordinary power about it, and it is possibly the most enigmatic place I have yet visited.

Early in the new year Islamist extremists took control of Fallujah, about 500km up the main road from El Chibaish and just 70km from Baghdad. This was met with dismay in the US; it had taken the loss of a third of all Americans killed during the US-led invasion of Iraq in the early 2 000s to capture Fallujah.

The ensuing violence in this province, Anbar, was to displace 120 000 people while I was in Iraq, adding to the already one million internally displaced Iraqis. 

The death toll from politically related violence in the 27 days of my sojourn was more than 900, excluding 26 deaths by execution.

Most commentators see the success of the extremists – usually called al-Qaeda locally – as a failure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to bring Sunni Muslims into his government. 

I would not want to present myself as an expert on Iraq after just four weeks in the country, but if only the solutions were this simple.

In an interview while I was there, Maliki identified dealing with the militias as one of his biggest challenges. Many Iraqi tribes – both Sunni and Shia – are well armed and forces in their own right. But as Maliki was saying this he was arming and bankrolling a Sunni militia in Fallujah, at local insistence, rather than sending in the army. The Americans had to do a similar thing back in 2007 to win control of the area.

Not only are the tribes well armed and organised, they also live by customary law, which trumps civil law in certain cases, including traffic deaths, where one tribe will pay a penalty of as much as $100 000 to another in compensation, on pain of retribution. 

Negotiations take place outside of any court process and the authorities are not involved, although, in the wider area I was in, a sheikh was currently in jail as part of a truce in a war between two rival factions.

If the Iraqis I spoke to have any criticism of the Americans it is around their role in shaping a new constitutional order for the country. They wanted a secular constitution but one that allowed religious freedom.  Rather, the structure engineered by the Americans put Islamist political parties in control, heightening any potential conflict between the Shia and Sunni nationalisms.

In the post-Saddam era the political void saw the tribal authorities come back into contention. Some see the tribes as stabilising an otherwise unstable polity, but the concoction the Americans oversaw favours tribal traditionalism and religious conservatism over rule by civil institutions. 

The security sector is large, with about one million people employed by the police and army. The private sector is limited and thousands of Saddam-era state enterprises were closed down after his fall as they could not pay their own way outside of his protection. Iraq now makes, packages or processes almost nothing. I scrutinised the products that came my way, but, outside of bottled water, found just about nothing with the label "Made in Iraq".

Oil revenues are pretty much the sole source of income for the Iraqi government, comprising about 90% all revenues. Many Iraqis are employed as civil servants, critics saying they implement Saddam-era regulation to ensure that Iraq has high levels of dysfunction. 

This was my experience. I stayed for just four weeks but had to apply for three visas, one to enter, one to stay and one to leave, requiring nine trips from El Chibaish to Basra, a journey of 240km each time.

The visa process was so complex and opaque that I was beginning to think that I would not be allowed to leave; that more and more hidden rules would be thrown up to make this impossible. 

Mail& Guardian editor Angela Quintal contacted the South African department of international relations and co-operation on my behalf as these difficulties became more intractable. South Africa does not have representation in Iraq, but a diplomat was ready to fly in from Oman to assist. But then, the next day, and not without more frustration, I got the exit visa and could leave. 

Despite the challenges I would go back. I remain fascinated by Iraq's ancient past and, besides, I now have friends there too.

A kanoo used to fish.All photography by Kevin Davie

Saddam still haunts women

The most disturbing thing to me about Iraq was the position of women. Where women are marginalised, this can be seen as the role of Islam, but this is not my view. Countries such as Turkey and Morocco, both of which I have recently visited, though hardly bastions or role models for the rights of women, show that women can be active participants in the economy and dress liberally if they wish, at least in the major centres.

In four weeks in Iraq I did not have a single conversation with a woman, and I only saw one woman who showed her hair. 

I was not in Baghdad, but Basra and Nasarisya — which I visited several times — are sizeable Iraqi cities, yet women were grossly under-represented in the government buildings I visited.

A common view is that women were more visible during the Saddam Hussein days. This is backed by books such as Gavin Young's Return to the Marshes (1977), in which he says that, after a period of being relatively covered until getting married, women would join their husbands and be as public and engaged as them.

Many marsh women retreated when they saw us coming. Few engaged with us at all. While the men gave friendly greetings from their boats, I don't recall a single woman doing this. They huddle in their cloaks, not acknowledging the world around them. 

One view is that the new conservatism results from Iraqis being refugees in Saudi Arabia and Iran, both relatively conservative Islamic countries. My own sense is that the repression these people faced as Saddam turned his army on them, and associated economic hardships, have led them to withdraw, to cut themselves off from the world outside. 

A long-form version of this story is online at


M&G Newspaper

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie is M&G's business editor. A journalist for more than 30 years, he has worked in senior positions at most major titles in the country. Davie is a Nieman Fellow (1995-1996) and cyberspace innovator, having co-founded SA's first online-only news portal, Woza, and the first online stockbroking operation. He is a lecturer at Wits Journalism. In his spare time he can be found riding a bicycle, usually somewhere remote.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

DA’s egregious sexual harassment case finally begins

The party is accused of protecting a councillor, who’s also implicated in R1.2m graft

The ANC, DA and EFF ‘oblivious’ to climate crisis —...

The Climate Justice Charter Movement has critiqued the manifestos of the main parties contesting the local government elections and found them ‘shallow’

More top stories

Countries bear cross-border responsibility for harmful effects of climate change,...

The UN committee has been accused of ‘turning its back’ on the children who filed a groundbreaking legal complaint with it against five countries

Magashule files notice to have corruption charges dropped

Counsel for the suspended ANC secretary general tells court the former Free State premier falls outside category of who can be charged for corrupt activities

R1.5-billion in funding approved for riot-hit businesses

Agencies emphasise that speed is crucial to rescuing firms affected by July’s unrest

DA’s egregious sexual harassment case finally begins

The party is accused of protecting a councillor, who’s also implicated in R1.2m graft

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…