Travel in southern Iraq

pic25beadsGéraldine Chatelard, a friend from Jordan, sent me a write-up of her recent visit to southern Iraq. She has kindly allowed me to reproduce parts of it here, with her own photos. Names have been removed or altered and I have skipped over some parts that could identify people who might not wish to be identified.

Géraldine is a social anthropologist and historian of the contemporary Middle East, who has worked with academic institutions and international organisations on issues to do with Iraqi culture and refugees for many years. She was invited to Iraq, and was able to travel with the protection and support of local people and the Iraqi government. Do not take her account as implying independent travel in southern Iraq is easy or safe for everyone. It is neither.

I sought Géraldine’s permission to publish her account here for interest’s sake – professional concerns aside, this is definitely a travel story worth telling – and in the hope that one day, perhaps, southern Iraq might again be open to visitors, for mutual benefit. It’s a fascinating account, not intended for publication, a bit rough around the edges, but I think utterly absorbing.

Thesiger aside, for further reading on the Iraqi marshes, click here for a recently published account by writer Tor Eigeland of his 1967 visit. Enjoy. Matthew Teller.

A Short Visit to Southern Iraq, 2014

By Géraldine Chatelard

© Géraldine Chatelard. Copyright Protected. Ask Permission Before Copying Text Or Images.



[Ahmed] is driving me down from Najaf, where I just spent ten days, to Basrah. It is drizzling after a few days of heavy rain. He shuns the old road leading directly to the south and takes east to reach the new Baghdad-Basrah highway at Diwaniyah. The sky is grey and the landscape muddy, hopelessly flat, and dotted with unfinished concrete buildings. As we pass near the Euphrates, an area of rice cultivation colours the land with patches of bright green. Upon reaching the highway I discover that we still have another 400 km to go across the Mesopotamian plain. Except for the occasional checkpoints, there is little to keep my attention up. I quickly doze and wake up before Nasiriyah, just in time to spot a construction protruding at a distance on the left of the highway: the Ur ziggurat. It conjures up a vision of the ancient landscape of marshes with cities built on hills in view of each other.

I look for more of the ancient mounds, but highway bridges at regular distance seem to be the only elevated features in the landscape. Ahmed tells me later that the road was built by Yugoslavia and its quality largely better than any other roadwork undertaken since.

It takes us about 6 hours to reach destination. The approach to Basrah is marked by the Rumailah oil fields spitting gas flare in the grey sky. The periphery of Basrah is all work in progress with new buildings springing up in the middle of wastelands, particularly near the so-called Third River built defiantly by Saddam just after his withdrawal from Kuwait at a times when southern Iraq had been declared a no-fly zone and the country placed under international embargo.

We pass the new stadium, in a beehive shape, recently constructed as part of a grand sports city to host the 2013 Gulf Cup of Nations which in fact took place in Bahrain as the Basrah facilities were not completed.

[My contact] picks me up near the office where Ahmed needs to collect some papers, and takes me to the hotel known as the Sheraton although it has not been under the management of said company for decades. It is located on the western bank of the Shatt el Arab and heavily protected by guards and cement blocks. The UN rent the second floor as offices and accommodation. The place is full of Italians attending an investor conference. I meet some UN people who have come from Baghdad for a meeting. They are forbidden to go out by the UN security which deems all of Basrah outside the hotel as “red zone”.

The closest the hotel gets to international standards is that by accepting payment with major international credit cards. There is also an ATM machine. There is however no espresso coffee available, and Ahmed is clearly disappointed to learn that the bar was closed down a while ago and the place is totally dry, like most of Basrah incidentally.


Later in the afternoon, [my contact] takes me to a bridge overlooking the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates.


On the way we pass several canals filled with waste, a march organised by the Sadrist Movement in honour of Fatima Zahra, and the 1930s building hosting the administration of the port. I later learn that it was designed by the same architect who designed the Baghdad train station which I like so very much. Unfortunately it is too dark to take pictures. [My contact] says that the managing authorities of the port appreciate the building’s heritage value and want to maintain it.

As previously arranged, we then go to visit a friend X, who interned last year at my office. X has postgraduate degrees in Assyriology and international law. Quiet but passionate, X so badly wanted to go to southern Iraq that X applied for a job as an analyst with an international private security company in Basrah. Here X is now in a small compound inside the Basrah Operation Command, that is the large military base located at the very beginning of the Shatt el Arab. Our entry into the base had to be prepared in advance by sending copies of our passports and car number plate. Once let though the checkpoint, we reach an area surrounded by a wire fence and closed by a locked metal gate. X stands inside waiting for us and it is impossible not to think that we are on a prison visit.

X is part of a 15-member team that provides daily security reports to international oil companies operating in southern Iraq. Their sources are the media and information fed by the Iraqi army command. The team cannot go past the perimeter of the military base, which includes the historical Shatt el Arab Hotel built by the British in the 1930s, and reoccupied recently by the army of Her Majesty. X works in shifts of 2 months, 7 days a week, and is then allowed one month off, out of Iraq. They live in prefabs in a small garden. The place must be terribly hot in the summer. Their work space looks like a hangar, and X recalls that the roof is so thin that heavy rain, and even recently a cat, pour in. I ask what is the rationale for keeping their operations in Iraq whereas they could locate their staff anywhere else. Officially, this is all about the credibility of the company that claims to produce analysis from the field. This is also the reason for forbidding the staff to go out: like the UN, they have a zero risk policy.

X and colleagues spend their days following news reports of security incidents, which is what informs their perception of Iraq. Busy manufacturing an image of Iraq as insecure, they seem even more remote from the country than UN international staff in the Baghdad Green Zone, where at least some maintain contacts with Iraqi partners who have other concerns than security issues. They are incredulous and envious of our programme to visit the Marshlands yet also agree that there is no objective security threat to us out there.


In the morning, more people arrive and our group keeps growing. Around noon, [my contact] takes us on a short visit of Old Basra, the remains of a remarkable ensemble of Ottoman shanashil houses with a canal passing through them.


Their past splendour is in disarray: domestic sewage and solid waste fills the canal, the shanashil are crumbling, electricity poles and wires scar the view, and new concrete buildings are starting to spring up. The rest of the city is not in better shape. It looks poorly managed, especially when it comes to waste. There is a constant smell of sewage and it must be putrid in the summer. However, building work is ongoing everywhere.

We visit the House of Culture, a restored courtyard house, which also temporarily hosts the office of the Antiquity Department. Quality of the restoration appears better than what I have seen in Najaf at the newly opened Khan Shilan heritage museum. Original material has been used, the idea of adaptive reuse is there, but there remains some issues like an aluminium and plexiglass roof covering the courtyard.


The Department of Antiquities and Heritage has just launched a project to restore 37 houses in old Basrah. A second phase should cover all the 400 buildings registered and which are government-owned but not necessarily uninhabited. We visit the first house under rehabilitation, which used to host the DoA. It is a beautiful two-storey U shaped building opening into a large back garden surrounded by high walls. Quality of the work is uneven with cement used to lay the bricks and painted wood for window frames and doors on the ground floor. They are well aware of the shortcomings. If well restored, Old Basrah has a great potential to make it to the World Heritage Site list: nowhere in the Gulf area is such a remarkable urban ensemble from the late Ottoman period still standing.


We continue our city tour with the island (or peninsula) where the former palace of Saddam Hussein stands to be transformed into a civilisation museum, with the collaboration of the British Museum. A first phase of structural work has just been completed. The building is massive and it is striking to think that it was built in 1992, just after international sanctions were imposed. Saddam had his name engraved more than 1000 times on the building.

We have lunch on a floating Lebanese restaurant, Al Karam, that takes us on a 2 hour cruise downstream on the Shatt el Arab. Abadan lies in the distance on the east bank past a large strip of land that used to be covered in thick palm groves and was one of the main killing fields during the Iran-Iraq war.


On the west bank, palm trees are still surrounding lavish villas and canals. Save for the many rusted boats wrecks, one can easily imagine Basrah’s heyday.



We drive in convoy to the East Hammar Marshes which lie within the Basrah Governorate, and reach the embankment at a facility recently built by the Ministry of Water Resources (Center for Restoration of Iraqi Marshlands or CRIM) at Marsa al Zawareq. The facility consists of a large building in concrete imitating a grand mudhif, gazebos shading concrete tables and benches, and a pier. The purpose and function of this visually and environmentally invasive ensemble is unclear but testifies to a widespread trend in the region: to physically inscribe government-driven development initiatives in the landscape in the form of large buildings. We see a similar facility near Chebayish. They stand in sharp contrast with modest local housing made of a mix of cement blocks, mud and reed.

The East Hammar is the only saline marsh with a distinct ecosystem. Reeds are short, human population scarce; however we come across some water buffalo and motorboats loaded with reeds. Oil derricks can be seen in the distance.

Towards the end of the boat trip, we pass an area where a large three-storey concrete building stands just on the bank, apparently the HQ of a local company. I ask about the land ownership regime and do not get a clear answer: government owned lands claimed by local tribes or given out to investors, private ownership… It seems realistic to anticipate that large tracts of land will be developed in the near future and the area built up. This impression is largely confirmed elsewhere during these three days. So much for those who romanticize the revitalization of the marshes as a return to a pristine environment and traditional lifestyle. Land and water are now up for grabs by investors, and the natural parks that are being planned in 4 marsh areas may well represent the only chance to maintain a small part of natural habitat.

We disembark for a short while near a small settlement of concrete houses where men are baking carp and flat bread on an open fire fuelled with dried buffalo dung.


The technique resembles closely that of the ‘arbud bread baked by the bedouin in southern Jordan and the Sinai, and also the Tuareg in the Sahara, except that here the flat bread rests on a layer of reeds rather than sand.


Women among us are invited into the house and spend a little time sitting with the lady of the house and a teenage daughter full of vitality although she looks malnourished. The house is built of cement blocks and covered with a tin roof full of holes. The floor is of mud covered with plastic mats. A kitchen, a storage room and a bedroom/living room are organised around a small open courtyard. Furnishing is basic but includes a proper bed. The family raises chickens and ducks. Later along the banks near settlements we also see geese. I am told that only Maadan keep buffaloes, whereas several of the small settlements we pass are not inhabited by Maadan and therefore only cows are bred.

A local coordinator, who has been working in the Marshes for many years, tells me about the disruption in the social fabric local inhabitants have experienced due to displacement, and the difficulties facing those who have returned into what is today a different natural and social environment. We also talk about changing patterns of authority and the fact that local people are disenfranchised and neglected by governmental authorities with extremely poor levels of services ranging from scarce health and education facilities to lack of waste management.

A colleague remarks that he has not seen evidence of unsustainable fishing (using electricity and poison) which was widespread in recent years. It is apparently the result of a programme implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture that has allowed households to dig ponds near their settlements so as to farm the fish they sell. This initiative begs a number of questions: what is the process through which the agreement was reached between a government institution and local communities; is there something to learn from it as regards community engagement; what is the environmental impact of domestic-level fish farming but also at larger commercial scale; are there regulations and are they respected as regards fish type and density, nutrients, disposal of pond water, invasive species in the marshes, etc.

We have lunch at the office and eventually drive back to Basrah.


We depart for Ur in the Governorate of Nasiriyah along the same highway I took coming down from Najaf. Our convoy is composed of 5 cars, mostly large overspeeding SUVs. [My contact], who is driving a Nissan saloon, reaches 180 km/h but still cannot keep up with them. We take a detour through Suq Ash Shuyukh. The surroundings of the city look as neglected as all the other Iraqi cities we have seen or will see with the exception of Amarah.


The surroundings of Ur are also unsightly, with a mock Mesopotamian entry porch to the site that prevents a clear view of the ziggurat, and ubiquitous electricity poles and wires along the access road.


At Ur, our whole group is invited up to the summit of the ziggurat. The views from the top are great over the site and beyond, however there are also traces of erosion and instability after the heavy rains of these past few days. Ascending the ziggurat is akin to a national ritual, and it does not seem to have occurred to anyone that it carries conservation implications.


As expected, the site appears in very poor state of conservation, with no visible ongoing initiative. The recent rains have infiltrated the ziggurat and all standing buildings. The arch of the Edublalmakh temple seems about to collapse. The site is dotted with unsightly electricity poles, rusted barriers and information panels, and picnic shades.

After checking into the hotel in Nasiriyah and having lunch, we head to Eridu, some 30km to the west on a bad half paved half track road. The landscape is breathtaking although the sky is grey and low: thanks to the recent rains the plain is green with short grass. Sparse pools of water allow us to mentally reconstruct the ancient Mesopotamian landscape of marshes surrounding the elevated cities. The tell is covered with scattered small shells, Ubaid pottery sherds, inscribed clay tablets, and fragments of cut semi-precious stones. It is also surrounded by several instances of unexploded mines or hand grenades. I am really taken by the site and wish I could spend the night there in silence.


Driving east from Nasiriyah towards Chebayish along the pilgrimage route that takes visitors to Karbala during the celebration of Arba’in (that marks the 40th day of mourning after the martyrdom of Imam Hussain), the road is lined with toilet blocks built by local residents for pilgrims, to whom they also provide free food and lodging.


I like the two pictured, with ‘men’ and ‘women’ written on them. Birds are for the women. I also wonder were human waste goes, together with the solid waste that litters the road sides along irrigation channels.

A local ornithologist takes us to a small mazar (shrine) in an area where the Central Marshes begin. The amount of litter in the vicinity of the shrine is staggering. Absence of waste management and sanitation appear as the most visible issues plaguing the country’s urban and rural areas.


Along the road, unfinished housing units were built for population displaced under the previous regime in the context of the drainage of the marshes, and expected to return. Along the road we see several landfills with abandoned building material which were supposed to become more housing complexes. Who conceived these projects, and what happened to them?


Chibayesh lies on the northern bank of the Euphrates and provides the main access to the Central Marshes through canals linked to the river.


We are first taken for a short courtesy visit into one of the large mudhif (reed guest-house), well equipped with lights and fans. Although I have seem many pictures of similar structures, I am struck by the size and height of this one, and the quality of the light that filters through the reed lattices.


After several speeches and glasses of strong sweet tea, we walk to the riverbank to board motorboats (mashhouf) that take us along a short canal lined with informal houses built half of cement bricks, half of reeds.




We quickly reach a large waterway among the reeds, with an occasional water buffalo’s head peering out of the water.




We pass boats with or without motor loaded with reeds, and a large silver dome in a distance to the east.


As the dome gets bigger, it no longer appears above the reed cover but behind an undulating curtain in a series of repeated identical images. It is the shrine built to commemorate the martyrs from the Marshes who fell during the repression of the 1991 intifadah. Pilgrimage and procession routes together with shrines to holy men and martyrs are today creating a new religious geography of southern Iraq and a new sense of community through shared practices and the extension of hospitality to pilgrims who are hosted and fed for free throughout the two weeks of Arba’in. This would make for a fascinating ethnography.


As the waterway widens, we arrive in view of several small ishan, or protruding archaeological mounds topped with makeshift habitations and animal, mostly buffalo pens. Several families live there atop layers of dried animal dung and reeds. They all returned from displacement although it is unclear if this is the place where they were forced out from.


We go back to Chibayesh via a vast expanse of water then narrow waterways leading into town. We reach a canal where young boys swim and along which reed mats are stored to be sent out for sale: with fish, they represent the main export of the marshes. Several large mudhif are built along the river bank and I am assured that the know-how about reed architecture is still passed on.

Along the bank of the river and main canals are comfortable modern houses. However, the periphery of the town in the direction of the marshes is flooded and covered with informal housing. Electricity poles have been recently installed. I am not sure they are serving the houses nearby.

We are treated to a lavish lunch of masguf (grilled fish) in the the same mudhif we were received initially in and which one of the locals calls a “Sumerian mudhif”. The local cleric, an affable man in his forties, is seated in front of me. I strike a conversation, meaning eventually to ask him if he has studied at the Najaf hawza, but I start with asking if he is from the Marshes. He answers “I am a Sumerian”… I wonder how these good people would react if I argued that the myth of Sumerian ancestry was part of the nationalistic discourse constructed and infused into Iraqi minds by Saddam and his regime. As the Marshes are being revived, manipulating the people’s psyche is proving more longlasting than environmental engineering.

Leaving Chibayesh to go east towards Maysan, we make a short visit to a mud house built to host guests. It is a good attempt to revive traditional techniques. I am told that they have ordered a brick-making machine from abroad that will be used for demonstration purposes so as to encourage locals to choose mud rather than concrete bricks. Unfortunately, a small percentage of cement was used to lay the bricks, a common mistake made even by the best intentioned initiatives.

When reaching the Basrah-Baghdad highway the landscape changes and is dotted with the smoking chimneys of brick factories. It looks hellish, and makes me think of Isengard’s valley in The Lord of the Rings. We reach Amarah before dark and are struck upon entering the city by how clean the roads are. Garbage collecting bins are in use; the city seems to have a proper waster management system. The Governor is none other than Ali Dwai, portrayed in the NYT.

We check in at the Garden of Eden hotel situated on the western bank of the Tigris near a brand new amusement park. The park is in full swing, at least from my hotel window.


A less than one hour drive takes us to a village that gives access to Umm al Na’ej lake, what remains of the once vastest expanse of marshes extending all the way to Basrah some 150km to the south. We are received in the mudhif of a section of the Al Bu Mohamed tribe. Tribes members, though they are not Maadan, were also displaced by the drainage, and built concrete houses upon their return. Somewhat further outside the village, a few households live in reed huts and breed buffaloes. Are they Maadan? How are social relations, hierarchy, patronage and access to resources organised between the different groups? Where did people return to and with which implications?

For lunch we are offered delicious wild qattan fished in the lake. Until then I had refrained from eating fish whenever it was on the menu as I cannot bear the idea of fish farmed in unhealthy conditions. We are also presented with two types of rice bread, a thick one and another very flat one. None are very pleasant to eat as they are dense and chewy.


Past the last army post, we board fiberglass motorboats. The lake is as vast as the eye can see, with a line in the horizon which I take to be the dam built by Iran in the Howeizah Marshes. It is in fact a thick reed barrier, beyond which lies the border and where we are not allowed to penetrate. This marsh is supposed to have more birds than the others we have seen, but either because we are not lucky or out of season, we do not see many except black-and-white pied kingfishers which are everywhere perched on the reeds and tamarisks and do not fly away at our approach. The ornithologist explains that they are not threatened, as fishermen need them to spot concentrations of fish. Many round or oval shaped floating islands are spread across the lake.

I talk to my local contacts about undertaking a study of human use of, and dependency upon natural resources, comparing the situation before drainage and displacement and today. I am told that there is good quantitative socioeconomic data available, and local youth would be willing to get involved. A colleague expresses interest in a comparative approach, which could further extends to a comparison between two communities, one in Huwaizah, the other in the Central Marshes.

It occurs to me that this place on the Umm el Na’aj Lake could soon become the next stage of my slow but steady move east from France to Palestine, then Jordan, and Iraq, getting ever closer to Iran, where my interest for the region started in the early 1980s.