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The Marsh Arabs

  • ISBN13: 9780141442082
  • Condition: NEW
  • Notes: Brand New from Publisher. No Remainder Mark.

Product Description
During the years he spent among the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq—long before they were almost completely wiped out by Saddam Hussein—Wilfred Thesiger came to understand, admire, and share a way of life that had endured for many centuries. Traveling from village to village by canoe, he won acceptance by dispensing medicine and treating the sick. In this account of a nearly lost civilization, he pays tribute to the hospitality, loyalty, courage, and endurance of the people, and describes their impressive reed houses, the waterways and lakes teeming with wildlife, the herding of buffalo and hunting of wild boar, moments of tragedy, and moments of pure comedy in vivid, engaging detail.

The Marsh Arabs


  1. This author represents an era that preceded western involvement in the Arab world. It is both facinating and sad to read a good writers’ account of his personal love of this mode of life and realization that it’s almost doomed.
    Rating: 5 / 5

  2. Wilfred Thesiger led a remarkable life, and through his books has bequeathed an important legacy- the documentation of ways of life that are gone forever. His book, “Arabian Sands,” which describes his two crossings of the Rub al Khali (The Empty Quarter) in the late `40’s is more famous, but this book, which documents his time with the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, from 1951 to 1958 should command equal attention and respect. In terms of explorers, he is unique as the “Lone Ranger,” traveling without Western colleagues, relying almost exclusively on the inhabitants of the remote and often desolate areas he chooses to explore. Whereas “Arabian Sands” details two epic journeys, in “The Marsh Arabs” Thesiger lives with the native inhabitants in their unique environment, and develops relationships which span the better part of a decade. While he is meticulous in describing the conditions of the natives, only occasionally does he reveal his true motives for such a life. An exception appears in “The Marsh Arabs”: “My own tastes went, perhaps, too far to the other extreme. I loathed cars, aeroplanes, wireless and television, in fact most of our civilization’s manifestations in the past fifty years, and was always happy, in Iraq or elsewhere, to share a smoke-filled hovel with a shepherd, his family and beasts. In such a household, everything was strange and different, their self-reliance put me at ease, and I was fascinated by the feeling of continuity with the past.”

    As Thesiger elsewhere states, he was probably the first (and sadly, the last) outsider with both the inclination and opportunity to live among the Madan (the natives of the Marshes), as one of them, before Saddam Hussein irrevocably ended their way of life by draining the marshes as a grand reprisal for an attempted revolt. Their way of life had been largely unchanged since the fifth millennium B.C. In another chapter on the historical background he states: “Other races too, had invaded Iraq during the same two thousand years.” He did not live long enough to add to his list… “and the Americans and their so-called coalition..” One would think that the book would be more widely circulated today for that reason, and the fact that Thesiger “does nuance.”

    Thesiger states that he is not a specialist in any given area, and therefore can, in my opinion, convey the life of the people of the marshes in a more genuine way. He gained the initial trust of the inhabitants in the most unlikely way – although not a trained doctor, he safely performed circumcisions on the adolescent boys. He also carried a bag of medicines that he could properly administer, much to the gratitude of the natives. By sharing their hardships, way of life, and mastering the language, he further ingratiated himself with them. He documents an Islam that is anything but monolithic in its beliefs. He states that in Southern Iraq far more pilgrims had been to Meshed (in Iran, where the shrine of Imam Ali Ar Ridha, the eight Imam, is located, gaining the honorific “Zair.” As a non-Muslim I was denied admission to the shrine, and I suppose the honorific, in 1971.) Furthermore, he makes the interesting point that the Hazaras of Central Afghanistan do not earn an honorific for the pilgrimage to Meshad, but do for going to Karbala in Iraq, and the reverse is true for the Shia of Iraq. As Thesiger states: “It appears to be a question of distance.”

    Thesiger describes family life, the tribal feuds, and the dependence of the agricultural economy on the annual floods, with the winners and losers, depending on the height of the floods. There are (dangerous) wild boar hunts. He describes the “mustarjil” who are born a woman, “…but she has the heart of a man, so she lives like a man.”

    The book contains numerous extraordinary black and white photos whose uniqueness and quality exceed the ones in “Arabian Sands.” Of particular interest are the ones of the “mudhif,” a large community structure build entirely of reeds, which can be disassembled and moved. The “Gail at Hama” (#41), and “In the Heart of the Marshes” (#27) are also brilliant.

    Thesiger’s perspective was partially formed at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, and his “fading days of the British Empire” attitude mars an otherwise excellent account. For example, he travels with a “young Kurdish servant” from Kurdistan, and is given to blanket assertions like “All Arabs are snobs” (p 52). He shows particular affection for his “canoe boys,” which is reflected in numerous pictures.

    Overall though, an extraordinary feat, and a solid book that should be read by all who now have an interest in Iraq.

    Rating: 4 / 5

  3. Having lived in Arabia for many many years, I was fortunate to be in the area before Saddam wiped the Marsh Arab culture out. Thesiger took beautiful photographs and wrote wonderful stories of these people. All I have is his books and one of their hand-woven fish baskets — they would send fish to our local markets in them. How sad this world is that few even know this culture existed…and, really, such a short time in the past.
    Rating: 5 / 5

  4. Thesiger’s account of his visits to the marshlands in the 1950s and early 1960s, though perhaps not as well written as his crossing of the empty quarter or Gavin Maxwell’s own account of the Iraqi marshlands, still remains a classic of modern exploration literature. His presage about what would soon happen to the marshes and their inhabitants is haunting, for as Nik Wheeler (photographer in Gavin Young’s “Return to the Marshes”) recently wrote in my “Wetlands of Mass Destruction: Ancient Presage for Contemporary Ecocide in Southern Iraq”: “Wilfred Thesiger was unfortunately quite prescient when he wrote in the mid-sixties that ‘Recent political upheavals in Iraq have closed this area to visitors. Soon the Marshes will probably be drained; when this happens, a way of life that has lasted for thousands of years will disappear.'” And tragically, it has.
    Rating: 4 / 5

  5. Wilfred Thesiger led an amazing life. He was one of those Englishmen who are happiest when living far away from the comforts of modern life in dangerous surroundings with seemingly “primitive” people. Following many years living with the Bedu of the Empty Quarter, Thesiger traveled to Iraq to immerse himself in the life and culture of the Marsh Arabs.

    What he found was a fusion of Arabic/islamic culture into a older life style which had existed for well over three thousand years, hunting and gathering within the Marshes which form the end of the Tigris and Euphrates river systems. What he found was a culture which was rich in protocols and customs, no less advanced than that of modern man, but rather a culture superbly adapted to the life within the marshes, a culture whose key feature of hospitality which is seemingly lacking from our modern life.

    And ultimately he finds the tragedy of a society which in the short term was being subsumed by western value and greed for possessions and which would ultimately be destroyed by a dictatorial government who would drain the Marshes in retribution for the locals support of an attempted coup.
    Rating: 5 / 5


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