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Today, Nathan is the Prefect and Deputy to the Chancellor of the brand-new American University of Iraq in Sulaimaniyeh (AUI-S), and he has arranged my letter of entry—required to gain admittance to Iraq. Anna lives in Sulaimaniyeh working as a project manager at Nature Iraq (NI), an Iraqi NGO focused on the protection and restoration of the environment and the cultural heritage of Iraq. Under the guidance of its director, Iraqi-born Azzam Alwash, NI’s primary project has been working to restore Iraq’s extensive marshes. Once the third-largest wetlands in the world, most of the marshlands were purposely destroyed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1990s in retaliation for the Shiite uprising during the first Gulf War.
Anna introduced me to Alwash in January 2005 in Amman. I was on my way to Baghdad to cover the first Iraqi election. The three of us shared tea in a downtown restaurant. The combination of Alwash’s PowerPoint presentation, with its amazing satellite, aerial, and ground-level images showing the before and after effects of restoration efforts, his fiery, impassioned stories of a resilient, determined people—the Marsh Arabs—whose culture his father had introduced him to as a child, and his obvious reverential affection for their culture left me captivated. “One benefit, one positive story that may be coming out of the liberation of
Iraq is the fact that we’re working on resuscitating a 7,000-year-old culture,” said Alwash with eyes aglow. “There is a clay tablet from 3,000 BC documenting reed construction methods that are still being used today.” When the last US bomb fell back in 2003 (maybe even before), Alwash, working along with others, began encouraging the taking down of the artificial barriers that had literally drained the ancient marshes, allowing them to be reflooded.
Born in Kut, Alwash moved with his family to Nassiriya, on the edge of the marshes, when he was nine months old. They lived there for eight years before moving to Basra and then to Baghdad. After being pressured to join the Baath party, Alwash, a Shiite, moved to the US in 1978. But it was the marshes—8,000 square miles of wetlands the size of the state of Massachusetts—that called him back.
Alwash’s words remain permanently etched in my memory: “It is one of the few places on Earth where human beings have completely integrated themselves into their environment. Talk about sustainable! The life of the Marsh Arabs is completely dependent on the reeds. They are the skeletons of life, [as is] the water. Water feeds the reeds. The Tigris and Euphrates are headquartered in the mountains of Turkey and northern Iraq. Snow falls, spring comes, snow melts. This humongous amount of water comes rushing down in the spring. Between February and May, 70 percent of the water flow occurs. It comes rushing in with silt and clay, bringing life—timed perfectly for the coming of the reeds from hibernation, the fish coming up from the Gulf for spawning, and the migration of birds from South Africa back to Siberia. The reeds feed the water buffalo. People use [the reeds] to build their homes, furniture, to feed their fires.”
The silt and clay brought by the yearly rush would push out the brackish water left over from the previous year and create islands made of reeds and mud that accumulated over generations and expanded the marshes. Some of the islands, explained Alwash, are sprung loose by the spring influx of water and air, and left to float freely in the marsh lakes. This rush of water historically also brought with it pollution, which was filtered out by the marsh reeds and allowed cleaner water to flow into the Persian Gulf. Saddam’s drainage, which included the building of dams in the north, destroyed massive areas of the marshes. Before restoration efforts began in 2003, polluted water could be found six to seven miles out into the Gulf.