Published April 21, 2023
A dozen or so volunteers, sweating on a warm spring morning in southeast Houston, knelt at the base of a long row of tall, spindly plants known as common reeds, or Phragmites Australis. The volunteers cut through the tough stalks with saws or hedge clippers, then arranged the harvested reeds into bundles that another group tossed into the back of a U-Haul truck.
As they worked, these men, women and a few children laughed and chatted, switching easily between Arabic and English. Despite the heat and humidity, many ignored the bottles of water stacked on top of a car trunk because they were fasting for Ramadan, when observant Muslims don’t eat or drink during daylight hours.
Motashar Alamyan, 50, a Houston limousine service owner, wasn’t among these volunteers, but he grew up in a house made from the same species of reed they were harvesting. It’s a plant that’s ubiquitous in the marshes of southern Iraq near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
“All of the houses were made from reeds,” recalled Alamyan, who lived in the marshes until he left Iraq in 1991 during the first Gulf War. “There were no roads. You had to take a boat to reach the houses there.” Most families owned a water buffalo to supply milk or to be sold for income. They ate the abundant fish that flourished in the shallow waters and watched enormous flocks of migratory birds soar overhead.
Today, this ancient culture is threatened with extinction.
In the early 1990s, then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein set out to suppress opposition to his Baath Party among the Marsh Arabs by destroying their environment. He spent a fortune building embankments and canals that diverted water from the marshes, turning much of the area into a desert. Since Saddam’s downfall and death, efforts to restore the marshes have been hampered by sectarian violence, political turmoil, climate change and upstream water management policies that inhibit the flow of water to the marshes. Alamyan, for his part, is not optimistic.
“It’s too late,” he said. “There’s no water.”
The volunteers harvesting reeds near the banks of Sims Bayou in Houston were participating in a project that aims to spread awareness of the imperiled Marsh Arab culture and push back against the forces threatening it. The highlight of the project will be the construction of a mudhif – a large structure made of reeds that serves as a community center in the Iraqi marshes – on the campus of Rice University. Standing 15 feet tall, 15 feet wide and 27 feet long, the structure will be made entirely of reeds, said Becky Lao, one of the project leaders.
The reeds harvested near Sims Bayou on a recent morning will not be part of the mudhif; instead, they’ll be used for educational and crafts projects for visitors to the structure. Before starting their work, the volunteers assembled, slapping bugs from their ankles, to hear an unwelcome announcement from Lao, the executive director of the Houston affiliate of Archaeology Now, a national nonprofit that seeks to promote awareness of world cultures through archaeology.
Lao told the volunteers that the ship bearing the mudhif components from Iraq had been stuck in the Suez Canal for 12 days, delaying its scheduled arrival in Houston from late April to May 10. This led the project leaders to delay a planned gala opening of the mudhif, with guests including Mayor Sylvester Turner and other dignitaries, until September. Over the summer, Rice will hold classes and lectures in the mudhif, Lao said.
Among the volunteers was Dina Abbood, who was born in the Iraqi city of Basra. She moved to California 11 years ago and, more recently, to Houston. She said she learned about the mudhif project from members of the local Iraqi community and wanted to do her bit to help.
“I like to support the community,” she said, “and this will draw attention to the culture of Iraq” – a country many Americans associate chiefly with television images of barren deserts, toppling sculptures, clashing armies and burning oil fields.
The Houston project, whose sponsors also include the Arab-American Educational Foundation, will provide one of the first opportunities for Americans to see and experience an authentic representation of an ancient culture with immense historical significance. The endeavor has faced a series of challenges. Phragmites Australis is considered an invasive species here, but the project organizers still had to obtain permits from the Harris County Flood Control District to access the agency’s right of way and harvest the reeds.
Initially, organizers planned to bring a master builder from Iraq to construct the mudhif in Houston, but the builder balked at making the trip. So he built the columns and other components with reeds gathered in Iraq and loaded them onto a ship bound for Houston, where they are to be assembled into final form on the Rice campus.
Alwash said the construction process hasn’t changed for thousands of years. The reed stalks are bound together into columns, taking advantage of an engineering principle that makes materials that are weak individually stronger when connected. They are tied together with twine made from reed fibers. Matts for the floors are woven from reeds.
“It’s reeds upon reeds upon reeds,” Alwash said.
Omar Aldabagh, a leader of Houston’s Iraqi American community, is a native of Baghdad who was admitted to the United States as a refugee in 2007 and lived in Boston and Washington, D.C., before moving to Houston five years ago. He sees the mudhif project as a valuable tool in his ongoing efforts to promote Iraqi culture, heritage and history. He estimates that 12,000 to 15,000 Iraqi Americans live in the Houston metropolitan region. Although he never lived in the marshes, Aldabagh said, he and most other Iraqis were familiar with the area.
“Pre-war and pre-Saddam, people were traveling and many people were aware of the history of the marsh,” Aldabagh said. “I was always fascinated with the people who lived there and how they kept their culture and how they kept the land. They fought for it.”
Part of that struggle was documented in a 2011 BBC film, Miracle in the Marshes of Iraq, which documented efforts to restore the wetlands and wildlife habitat Saddam had destroyed. The star of the film is Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi engineer and environmental activist who has overseen years of efforts to replenish the marshes and make it possible for many who had fled the area to reclaim their former way of life.
“The word ‘Iraq’ brings to me images of reed forests, images of plentiful fishing, images of birds filling the sky, lakes extending as far as the eye can see,” Alwash says in the film. “I hope the west will get to see my version of Iraq.” He pauses. “Soon.”
In a recent interview with the Houston Landing, Alwash was less sanguine.
“If anything, we have gone backwards” since the film was produced, he said. Dams built upstream in Turkey have dramatically reduced the flow of water into the marshes. The marsh population has dwindled. Water quality has deteriorated, supporting only such species as catfish and carp. As he confronts these setbacks, Alwash sees more at stake than the lifestyles and livelihoods of those who live in the marshes.
“Our view,” he said, “is that the marshes do not belong to Iraq. They are the cradle of Western civilization. Along these shores, mankind learned how to grow food, how to write letters.”
Scholars differ on the origins of the Marsh Arabs, but it’s clear that the culture dates back thousands of years – perhaps to the ancient Sumerians, who developed the earliest known civilization some 6,500 years ago in Mesopotamia, now southern and central Iraq. In the film, Alwash notes that some biblical scholars believe the area that includes the marshes was the site of the Garden of Eden.
Alwash plans to give a lecture in Houston as part of the mudhif project: “By spreading the word about the marshes, I am hoping to get the help of the world.”
Any project in the Middle East, of course, is vulnerable to the political turmoil of that perennially volatile region. On Feb. 5, an environmental activist associated with Nature Iraq, the nonprofit spearheading the Marsh Arab project, was kidnapped and tortured. He was later released, and organizers of the Houston project hope he will be able to join them here. His abductors have not been officially identified.
Luis Duno-Gottberg, a Rice University professor who has helped organize the mudhif project, said the kidnapping illustrates the risks associated with environmental activism.
“These projects that deal with the protection of the environment are not only urgent but also dangerous,” he said. “This incident just comes to show the risks that these people face, and we care about that because it’s not something that’s happening exclusively in Iraq.”
Amid the violence, destruction and frustration inherent in this story, a small moment of triumph stands out. Near the end of the 2011 documentary – which required massive security protection throughout the production – the participants set out to find an elusive bird, the Basra reed warbler, which had all but vanished from what was left of the marshes after Saddam’s campaign of destruction. Cruising along a narrow channel in a small boat, one of the crew spots a nest – but it’s unclear if it’s inhabited. Then, a tiny face and beak gradually come into focus in the camera’s telephoto lens. It’s a Basra reed warbler. Later images show chicks in the nest.
“Its unspectacular appearance belies the magnitude of the moment,” BBC journalist David Johnson says in the film. “This bird, which breeds here and virtually nowhere else, embodies the spirit of the Mesopotamian marshes. If it can recover, then it speaks volumes for the whole rehabilitation project.”
A little bird with unimpressive plumage. A plant that looks like a big weed. An ugly mammal known as a water buffalo. These are not the images commonly associated with the Garden of Eden, or with other conceptions of paradise on Earth. Yet the Iraqi marshes, even in their diminished state, radiate a distinct kind of beauty, a reminder that it’s still possible for people to live in harmony with nature. The nonprofit leaders, scholars, Iraqi Americans and others collaborating on the Houston mudhif project believe that if people with influence can see and cherish this beauty, they won’t allow it to vanish.
Mike Snyder is a Houston-based journalist who worked for 40 years as a reporter, editor and columnist at the Houston Chronicle. He can be reached at email@example.com.