Where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet, in what used to be the center of ancient Mesopotamia, is an area of wetland known as the Ahwar of southern Iraq. The locals glide down the waterways on handmade boats, and water buffalo move through the water. It was on this spot, between the fourth and third millennia BCE, where Sumerians built their houses from reeds, a practice still followed today. Some even believe that this region, also referred to as the Iraqi marshlands, was once the location of the world’s first and only utopia: the biblical Garden of Eden. If that were true, though, much has happened since the fall of man. In the 1950s, the government started draining the land to create profitable farmland, but oil drilling began not long after. And then in the 1980s and 90s, while at war with Iran, Saddam Hussein destroyed some of it in order to prevent his enemies from hiding out there. It wasn’t until he was overthrown during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that efforts to repair the ecosystem finally took hold—the locals toppled the dams, people returned. And it took more than a decade after that, in 2016, for UNESCO to at last name the area—“three archaeological sites and four wetland marsh[es]”—a world heritage site. According to World Heritage Outlook, however, “three out of four components are still not designated as protected areas,” and with government funds still going toward oil drilling, and not conservation, water remains not so readily available. But the people here—the Marsh Arabs—have not given up hope for what this was for their ancestors: a paradise.
On a misty morning this March, I found myself in these Iraqi marshlands, with the family of Sayyid Raad. They live off the land, away from the modern conveniences of the city, and very much believe in the benefits of doing so. I watched them milk their buffalo like clockwork. Nihaya, which means “end” in Arabic, a girl around ten years old, walked around with the confidence and ease of a seasoned herder. She milked one buffalo, and then moved on to the next. Her father and older siblings—Hoda, Ahmad, and Murtadha—did the same. The women here in particular, like Nihaya, are strong. They spend their days working—mostly herding and milking buffalo, collecting reeds to sell, and fishing.
I spent that night sleeping in the family’s reed house. (Many families of the same tribes live around one another in such structures.) A buffalo that scratched his back on the makeshift door all night guarded theirs. When I woke up, Sayyid Raad’s wife, Halima, was making everyone breakfast as her two-year-old slept next to her on the floor. After eating, I stepped out of the house and discovered that all of the buffalo had left to make their daily journey through the marshes. Before dark, they’d return—as if they, just like Sayyid Raad’s family, believed always in coming back, to this paradise that once was.