Once again, the proof was there: Iraqis are proud of their country and go great lengths to help the foreign visitor to see the beauty of his land and to feel welcome. We are sitting on a sofa in a hotel in Nassiriyah, and the hotel manager, whose English is limited, connects us with a friend through his phone. Thus, we arrange a visit to the Mesopotamian Marshes the next day, and we get his number which we can call any moment we need it. It takes our shared taxi a while to fill up, and then we are on the way to Chibayish due east. However, the other passengers get off in Al Fuhud, and our driver stops at the east of town, and we are guided into another, empty taxi. He drives us straight to Chibayish, but four kilometres before town, the guard at a checkpoint does not allow us through. Even calling our helpline doesn't solve the issue, and in the end, the taxi driver just puts our bags on the road and disappears. We call the guy who is supposed to show us the marshes, end up getting a ride from a random car (suddenly, the guard doesn't have any objection against us going into town) and before we know it, we are at the main crossroads. We are immediately called, and a few more kilometres on we arrive at the family home of our guide.
Just after finishing our tea, we are taken to a mashoof, the traditional boat used by the Marsh Arabs. After all the driving and walking around Iraq and its cities and ancient ruins, it is time for something else: a boat ride into the wetlands of Mesopotamia. I have been looking forward to this for the last days, and sit on the first bench in the wooden boat. The sun is shining, and we are on our way north: I am truly excited! Soon enough, I realise that I have made a major mistake. Our speed means that the January cold is constantly piercing our skins; it feels even colder because of the droplets that fly through the air. I am shivering, but at the same time, I don't want to miss a thing of the Mesopotamian Marshes and am on the constant lookout near the bow of the boat. On both sides of the waterway, the reeds are high, effectively reducing our world to a narrow strip of water surrounded by brown-green reed and blue sky above.
There are many birds, we see water buffaloes cross the waterway, drive along a more open stretch of water, to arrive in a small settlement. Meanwhile, the guide, who is a local, tells us more about the history of the Mesopotamian Marshes. The Marsh Arabs might well be the far descendants of the Sumerians who lived here several millennia ago. For various reasons (obtaining land for agriculture, suppression of the minority people), the marshlands have been drained since the 1950s. Fortunately, water has been coming back since the ousting of Saddam who persecuted the Marsh Arabs. We stop at a settlement where people live in ramshackle huts: temporary dwellings for people who all have a real home in Chibayish or other villages. We see beautiful kids, their cattle, and try to imagine what their lives here must look like before we head back. We see various Marsh Arabs on their mashoofs on the waterways, make a brief stop at a manmade islet with a reed hut on it, before we head to the Monument of the Martyrs of the Marshes. A huge metallic dome towers above the reeds. Outside, we find many tombs; inside, portraits of fallen leaders. Two of them are the high-ranked Iraqi and Iranian commanders who were killed by a US strike: the anniversary of the crime will be remembered a few days after our visit. We climb the tower for unobstructed views over the Mesopotamian Marshes on all sides before we head back to the family home where a river fish is soon burning on an open fire for our lunch.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
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