Travelling to Iraq – let the waters rise

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 where 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; we see 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 today know as money was first developed in Sumer 5 000 or so years ago.

Archaeologists have been excavating in the area for about 200 years, and hundreds of thousands of tablets have been discovered with Sumerian cuneiform, writing using a reed stylus on clay tablets. Cuneiform has been readable by experts for 150 years or so, meaning that today we know a lot about Sumer and its people.

I was also keen to take in the Marsh Arabs, the people who have lived in the marshes here for thousands of years with their water buffalo on islands constructed from reeds and soil, a unique lifestyle. As is well-known, Saddam Hussein went to war with the people of the south in the early 1990s. Because they used the marshes to hide from his army, he had them drained.

The marshes, which were 9 000 square kilometres in extent before being drained, were turned into wasted desert with only 10% of the marshland remaining, 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.

By invitation only
But can you actually go to Iraq, and just how safe would such a trip be? I asked the Iraqi embassy in South Africa about safety. "Can you call back tomorrow?" a woman answered. I did and was told a visit would be "fine".

I monitored news reports. There seemed to be daily bombings in the capital Baghdad but none further south where I would be. But then I noticed there were also bombings in Basra, where I would probably spend time. One line I read was that in Baghdad there were 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 the 1970s to study in the United States, returning after the fall of Saddam. Alwash, who set up Nature Iraq, a not-for-profit environmental advocacy and research entity, has won awards for his role in restoring the marshlands. A news report quoted him saying that if a bomb exploded and you were 100 metres from the bomb, you'd be okay.

I mailed Alwash. He invited me to stay with Nature Iraq at a facility it has in the marshes. It supplied me with a letter of invitation which I sent with my visa application to the Iraqi embassy in Pretoria. I only knew from one day to the next that I had the visa.

Insurer Discovery declined to supply travel insurance saying "Iraq is a war zone", but our travel agent got cover of R50-million ($5-million), including for war and terrorism, for a payment of about R1 000 ($100). This compares with travel insurance for recent foreign trips I have made of R1-million ($100 000).


You cannot be picked up at the main airport building at Basra. There is a four-kilometre dead zone where only accredited taxis, are allowed. You get to meet the party who is picking you up in a car park after the taxi ride.

There were three queues at passport control; one each for Iraqis and foreigners while another said visas. I stood in the foreigner queue, feeling a little superior: I already had my visa. But no, when I got to the officer he told me to go to the visa queue.

In the ensuing delays at least eight people handled my passport at one time or the other. I was asked to show my letter of invitation. It was as though, even though I had a visa, I was going through a second process.

"Who is meeting you?" the officer in charge asked. I told them they were meeting me at the car park. "He must come here," he told me, fully knowing this was impossible. I got a message through to Nature Iraq who asked a contact who works in the airport building to intervene on my behalf. About two hours after landing I was through passport control.

Garden of Eden
Ahmed and Sayed, employees of Nature Iraq, met me at the car park outside the airport. We headed towards Qurnah at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. "This is the Garden of Eden," Ahmed said. I know that numerous sources reckon it to be located somewhere here.

I looked out at Eden, which seemed similar to Lagos, Nigeria, also an oil-rich state with rundown infrastructure. The roads were pot-holed, the traffic frenzied and disorderly, the motorists using the verge when the traffic backs up. Shops on the side on the road offered everything from construction materials to car repair. Small herds of sheep hovered around feeding troughs, waiting to be sold.

There were carcasses of dead vehicles, pools of fetid, stagnant water and more litter than I have seen anywhere in one single place. And rubble. Iraqis don't clear rubble. It is moved to the sidewalk where it remains. There are some sidewalks which are free of rubble, but not many. The first section of the road was wall-to-wall soldiers, standing with or near armoured cars with mounted machine guns. They thinned out after a while, but we still came across armed roadblocks every 5km or so.

In the distant background, gas, the by-product of bringing oil to the surface, was being flared. Elsewhere this gas is increasingly in demand to run gas-fired economies; here it is burned.

We drove to El Chibaish, 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 the Euphrates and Tigris. The Nature Iraq offices in El Chibaish would be my home for the next few weeks.

Two Turkish video journalists, Yavuz Phllukcu and Omar Gunes, had arrived just before me, keen to show the negative effect a new dam under construction in Turkey will have on those downstream. The two countries are neighbours, but have little to do with one another, evidence of which is that these two had paid the same amount to fly from Istanbul to Basra as I had paid to fly all the way from Johannesburg to Basra.

Marsh restoration
Jassim Alasadi, the director of Nature Iraq at El Chibaish, took the three of us into the marshes. We drove a few blocks to the promenade, which 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 Tigris. They run for hundreds of kilometres, ensuring their waters remained channelled in the rivers and could not spill out into what was previously marshland.

After he fell, locals took spades and dug a channel at this point so that the marshes could once again get water. Azzam Alwash raised money from the Italians, who had been stationed at Nasariya, 100km west of El Chibaish, during the US-led invasion. He 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.

A Madan homestead with a tandoor bread oven.

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 skilfully through the reeded wonderland. There were muddy islands with odd structures, which seemed to have no purpose. Then we came around a corner to find two women, completely in black, 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 while 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 real new thing the people own, which 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 hashish (cut reeds). Some marsh dwellers previously had electricity, but now there is none. The toilet, as ever, is a quiet spot, but they do have cell phones and so are connected to the wider world.

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

I managed two visits to Ur near Nasariya, an early city-state, which has the only existing ziggurat anywhere. Ziggurats pre-date the Egyptian pyramids, although this one was was more or less fully reconstructed this century. The Ur ziggurat, which dates from about 4 000 years ago, was 26 metres tall but so far has been reconstructed to 17 metres with more work still to be done.

On one visit to Ur, our group was the only party there. But Uruk gets even fewer visitors, about 100 a year. It was known as Unug by 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, his struggle for immortality, lived here and had some of the walls built.

Today Uruk is just mounds – well, 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 with the distinctive script. A readable message from the past.

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. We had been eating flatbread – khubz – made in this way where the dough is stuck to the side of the hot clay oven, every day at El Chibaish.

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 is possibly the most enigmatic place I have yet visited.

Ongoing violence
Early in the new year, Islamist extremists took control of Fallujah, about 500 kilometres up the main road from El Chibaish and just 70 kilometres from Baghdad. This was met with dismay in the United States; it had taken the loss of one-third of Americans killed during the US-led invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s 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 state execution.

Most commentators see the success of the extremists – usually called al-Qaeda locally – as a failure of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to adequately 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. Numerous 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 in 2007 to win control of the area.

Not only are the tribes well-armed and organised. They live by customary law, which trumps civil law in cases, including traffic deaths, where one tribe will pay a penalty of as much $100 000 to another faction 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 in which I was staying a sheikh was in jail as part of a truce in a war between two rival factions.

US invasion
I wanted to know from Iraqis what they thought of the US invasion. Quite early in my visit I ran into Ihsan Alassadi, one of nine sons of the headmaster of a school in the town, who lived in El Chibaish. One of the sons, Thasen, had joined a political party in opposition to Saddam and was killed by the security police for this.

The Shias had risen up against Saddam in the early 1990s, at about the same time as the US-led invasion. Saddam responded by unleashing his forces on the Shia opposition, many of whom retreated to the usual place of refuge from tyrants – the marshes.

Women checking fishing nets. 

Ihsan and some of his family fled, joining tens of thousands of refugees in camps in neighbouring countries. About two-million Iraqis became refugees during this time. Ihsan spent time in Saudi Arabia before being invited to stay in Australia. He now returns annually to the family home.

I asked him about the second US invasion, beginning in 2003. He asked, in reply, who had armed and supported Saddam, including with weapons of mass destruction, notably chemical weapons? The inference was that the Americans had created the problem of Saddam and they needed to fix it. The same applied in the case of Osama bin Laden, who had been armed by the Americans in Afghanistan, we were told.

We met Ihsan's brother, Salam, who took a different tack, deciding to fight rather than flee. He joined Hezbollah and fought Saddam's armies first in the region and then in Baghdad. "Saddam hated people," he told us. "I think he also hated himself."

Death row
Salam was captured and sentenced to death, spending time on death row. The condemned were hanged in batches twice a week. "We knew we were right," he said. "We said hang us. Choose us."

Salam's sentence was commuted. He spent nine years in jail, being released in 2002 by Saddam just before he was finally brought down. Salam went to the notorious Abu Graib, where he had been imprisoned, to the death chamber. The rope was still hanging. He cut a section for himself and brought it home. At the end of the interview he went to the room next door and returned with the rope: it was thick and looked hardly used.

If the Iraqis I spoke to have any criticism for the Americans it is around their role in shaping a new constitutional order for the country. They wanted a secular constitution, but one which 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 the rule by civil institutions.

No women
The most shocking 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, while 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 managed not one conversation with a woman and saw just one woman who chose to show her hair. I was admittedly not in Baghdad, but Basra and Nasarisya, both of which I visited several times, are sizeable Iraqi cities. Women were also grossly under-represented in the government buildings I visited.

A common view is that women were more visible even in the Saddam days. This is backed by books such as Gavin Young's Return to the Marshes (1977), where 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 in any way. 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 the Iraqis faced as Saddam turned his army on them and the associated economic hardships which resulted, have led the women particularly to withdraw inward, to cut themselves off from the world outside.

Oil money
Oil revenues are pretty much the sole source of income for the Iraqi government, comprising about 90% of all revenues. Chinese state-owned companies increasingly dominate this sector, according to the New York Times, being more prepared to function in an insecure state and tolerate the low returns after the high taxes the Iraqi government imposes.

There is a limited private sector 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 virtually nothing. I scrutinised the products which came my way, but outside of bottled water found just about nothing that carried the label "Made in Iraq".

(All photographs by Kevin Davie)

One particularly sad vignette was a small plant in El Chibaish, funded by the Italians, to process buffalo milk. The aim was that it would increase demand for buffalo milk products, raising earnings for the Madan. But five years later the plant has never operated. You can see ancient motifs from thousands of years back of milk processing in these parts, but a dispute between two authorities over who will control the plant keeps this operation shiny, clean and dormant.

Saddam has not gone. He lives on in his bureaucratic rules, which ensure that it is often difficult to get even simple things done. I had a month-long visa for my trip and did not change my travel plans, but was made to apply for a second visa while I was there.

This took six trips of 240 kilometres from El Chibaish by myself and officials from Nature Iraq. It also required a blood test even though I had my health card vetted by the Iraqi embassy before it granted me a visa. Then I was stopped from leaving the country because I did not have an exit visa. I had to uncheck my luggage and cancel my flight.

Delayed departure
The next day Jassim Alasadi and I drove to Basra, only to be told that the official who had signed off on the second visa had to sign for the exit visa too. The official, Ramen, drove down to Basra. Then we were told my file was locked in a storeroom and the official in charge of the store was not there. It was not known if and when he would return. The office closes at 2pm each day. It was getting on to 12.30pm.

Jassim was looking green by this time. "This is a miserable country," he said. It is frustration such as this which leads many Iraqis to advise their children to leave the country as soon as they can.

My heart went out to Jassim. He doesn't volunteer this information, but a day or two earlier I was able to get him to talk about being tortured by Saddam's people. He had his legs burnt and beaten until he was unconscious. He was hospitalised and had lost the use of his legs. His interventions more than most have helped restore the marshlands on which tens of thousands of people depend for their livelihood. Now his countrymen were embarrassing him to his core.

A bald and greying man stood opposite me in the corridor, observing. "Everyone is in a hurry," he said. I recognised him from a previous visit. He was the one who had told Ramen I needed to get a blood test and fill in forms for the second visa. Now it turned out he spoke really good English, possibly the best English-speaker I had encountered in Iraq. If he had disclosed this a few weeks back, I would have told him that I did not intend changing my travel plans and as such my first visa did not need to be changed, saving myself and Nature Iraq considerable inconvenience.

"I really like the Iraqis I have met," I told him, "but not the bureaucrats. You treat the people appallingly."

"We do what Baghdad tells us," he said, and walked away.

Lords of indolence
The social contract usually implies people pay tax and officials regulate on their behalf. Here no tax is paid – the oil revenues do this job. A chunk of this money is paid over to the bureaucrats to keep them in make-work. This is the only significant employment category outside of the police and the army, which employ about a million people.

In Return to the Marshes, ​Young described the Madan's water buffalo as lords of indolence, the marsh dwellers spending their days cutting hashish to present to the beasts for supper even after they had had a full day in the marshes chomping reeds. The bureaucrat, lording over the empire which is his particular stamp or the signature he places on a form are also lords of indolence, but with this difference: the buffaloes produce milk. I can't think what good these make-workers do.

There were three other possible storerooms that Jassim checked for my file. An official called the wayward official on our behalf but he was not answering his phone. At 1pm the day was saved by Ramen, who remembered that my file had a black spine.

The storeroom was opened again for us: black spine files were a small minority and before too long Jassim had my file. Now it was just a matter of getting six officials in different offices on the same floor, to sign. Ramen had to make a thumbprint and we were good to get the final, seventh signature. Jassim walked the corridor towards the stairs, triumphantly holding my passport in the air.

He opened it and checked the visas. The first said simply: Visa; the second: Arrival. This one: Exit and re-entry.

What would I give as advice to prospective visitors to Iraq? I could easily say don't go, but I would not apply this to myself. I remain fascinated by its ancient story and besides, I have friends there now too.

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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.

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