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Adventure in Old Iraq

"All day we had ridden across a flat plain, and the dust rose from under the horses' hooves and choked us. The rains had failed, as they so often did, and the plants that had come up lay crumbling on the gaping soil. There was not a bush, even a rock, to serve as a landmark to measure our slow progress towards the horizon. Our saddles, of the usual Arab design, were as hard as boards.
      We camped that night among the Bazum, sleeping on the ground in the sheikh's guest tent after an enormous meal of rice and mutton. Except that it was supported on eleven poles and was far larger, the tent did not differ from the other black goathair booths pitched all around us. Open along one side, all faced the same way and most had a shackled horse or two picketed in front. A solid mass of sheep and goats pressed around, and often partly inside, each tent. I had watched them being driven in at sunset by the shepherd lads, each flock moving in a golden aura of dust. Throughout the night their bleating made a background noise against which the barking of dogs rose and fell.
      I was on my way south from Iraqi Kurdistan, where I had gone to try to recapture the peace of mind I had known in the deserts of Southern Arabia. There I had lived with the Bedu for five years, and with them had traveled ten thousand miles across country where no car had ever been - until seismic parties, the vanguard of modern progress, began to arrive in search of oil.
      Next day we rode on again, southward this time towards the Marshes across the unchanging plain, stopping at midday at some tents to feed ourselves and change horses. ... The sun set and there was still no sign of the Marshes nor of the villages for which we were bound. It was dark when we saw lights moving in the distance. The Bazum had warned Maziad bin Hamdan, sheikh of the Al Essa, to expect us, and he had sent out a search party at dusk. They led us to his encampment on the edge of the Marshes. Beyond the tents we would sense rather than see water. ... The guest tent was lit by a hurricane lamp and filled with men, most of them armed with rifles. They rose as we came in. Maziad showed us to a place opposite the hearth. While we were served with coffee and tea, Maziad asked the conventional questions about our health and journey. Everyone sat very still and upright and no one else spoke.
      We were in the presence of desert Arabs, who are always formal in public and conscious of their dignity. We fed at last, it seemed hours later, from an enormous platter heaped high with the usual rice and mutton. ... We ate first with some old men, and as soon as we had all finished Maziad summoned others by name to take our places. As host, he himself stood until all had finished. They fed in relays and when the last was done he called in children from the dark outside the tent. The smallest, quite naked, cannot have been more than three. They stuffed themselves with the rice that was left and gnawed at bones that had already been picked clean. Then they cleared the dishes, scooping what was left into bowls they had brought with them. The bones were thrown to the dogs.
      After the meal, Maziad showed us to a nearby cabin, neatly built of reeds and matting, where mattresses and color quilts were spread for us to sleep - an unexpected privacy for which [my traveling companion] and I were both grateful. All night the wind, cold off the dark water, blew through the lattice, and half asleep I heard waves slapping on a shore.
      As I came out into the dawn, I saw, far away across a great sheet of water, the silhouette of a distant land, black against the sunrise. For a moment I had a vision of Hufaidh, the legendary island, which no man may look on and keep his senses; then I realized that I was looking at great reedbeds.
      A slim, black, high-prowed craft lay beached at my feet - the sheikh's war canoe, waiting to take me into the Marshes. Before the first palaces were built at Ur, men had stepped out into the dawn from such a house, launched a canoe like this, and gone hunting here. [Archaeologist Leonard] Woolley had unearthed their dwellings and models of their boats buried deep under the relics of Sumeria, deeper even than evidence of the Flood. Five thousand years of history were here and the pattern was still unchanged.
      Memories of that first visit to the Marshes have never left me: firelight on a half-turned face, the crying of geese, duck flighting in to feed, a boy's voice singing somewhere in the dark, canoes moving in procession down a waterway, the setting sun seen crimson through the smoke of burning reedbeds, narrow waterways that wound still deeper into the Marshes.
      A naked man in a canoe with a trident in his hand, reed houses built upon water, black, dripping buffaloes that looked as if they had calved from the swamp with first dry land. Stars reflected in dark water, the croakings of frogs, canoes coming home at evening, peace and continuity, the stillness of a world that never knew an engine. Once again I experienced the longing to share this life, and to be more than a mere spectator
— excerpted from The Marsh Arabs, William Thesiger, British adventurer and author. From 1951 to 1958 Thesiger spent time among the Marsh Arabs, who were little known even within Iraq. They lived in reed houses, standing on reed stilts at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Thesiger described the soundscape of this marshy and ancient tangle as "the massed voices of frogs" amid reed beds "that stretched to the world's end."

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