On my most recent visit to the Mesopotamian marshes, in March, I arrived at Sayeed Hitham’s for breakfast. The pandemic had kept me away for more than a year.
The sun was just rising, the sky pink and golden. Hana, Hitham’s wife, stood smiling near the door to their reed house. “Tea is ready, bread is ready,” she said. “Come on in.”
We sat on the worn-out carpet around a glowing kerosene heater, sipping tea and dipping the flat naan Hana had just baked into hot buffalo milk. “What took you so long, Emi?” Sayeed asked with a tone of reproach. “We haven’t seen you in forever.”
Indeed. A year was the longest I’d gone without visiting the Mesopotamian marshes since I began documenting the area in late 2016.
At that time, when journalists and photographers were flocking to the north of Iraq, where the battle for Mosul was raging, I took the opposite path and headed south. I was in search of another view of the country, something different from the war I’d been covering for the previous year and a half.
It was a moment of real discovery for me — one of those few times when you connect with a place, with a people.
The Mesopotamian marshes, a series of wetlands that sit near Iraq’s southeast border, feel like an oasis in the middle of the desert — which they are. The ruins of the ancient Sumerian cities of Ur, Uruk and Eridu are close at hand. The broader region, known as the cradle of civilization, saw early developments in writing, architecture and complex society.
The marshes are home to a people called the Ma’dan, also known as the Marsh Arabs, who live deep in the wetlands, mostly as buffalo breeders in isolated settlements, a majority of which are reachable only by boat. Others live in small cities on the banks of the Tigris or Euphrates rivers, which feed the marshes.
Many of the Ma’dan left decades ago, when the marshes were ravaged by war, famine and repression.
During the Iran-Iraq war, waged between 1980 and 1988, the wetland’s proximity to the Iranian border turned the area into a conflict zone, a theater for bloody battles. Later, in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of a Shiite uprising against his Baath Party, Saddam Hussein intentionally drained the region — where many of the Shiite rebels had fled — as a punishment and a way to stifle the insurrection.
The marshes turned into a desert for more than a decade, until the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
By then, damage had already been done. By the early 2000s, less than 10 percent of the area’s original wetland existed as a functioning marshland.
Today, after being re-flooded and partially restored, the marshes are once again endangered — by climate change, lack of ecological awareness on a local level and, perhaps most dramatically, by the construction of dams in Turkey and Syria and upriver in Iraq.
In 2018, an extremely hot summer followed by a lack of rain caused a serious drought. In some areas, the water level fell by more than three feet.
“That’s it,” I remember thinking, as the small boat crossed the marsh where corpses of young buffaloes floated in the water. Buffalo breeders like Sayeed Hitham lost about a third of their livestock, and many had to leave when areas turned into a desert. They migrated to neighboring cities — or farther still, to the poor suburbs of Karbala, Basra or Baghdad.
But then, a few months later, the water began to rise. People returned. I photographed the renewal, just as I’d photographed drought the year before. But it felt then — it still feels now — like a sword of Damocles hung over the region.
The stakes are high, both ecologically and for the people who live here. If the already-depleted marshes dry up again, the Ma’dan may have no choice but to leave, to cast away from a peaceful enclave into a troubled land.
Still, I’ve kept coming back. Over the years, I’ve seen drought and abundance, freezing winters and burning summers. I’ve seen children born, and watched them grow up. I’ve followed Sayeed Hitham and his family as they moved around the marsh, the location of their new home dependent on the water level — and each time built out of reeds.
I’ve even gotten used to the huge water buffaloes, known locally as jamous, which represent the main source of income for most of the Ma’dan.
The buffaloes scared me at the beginning. But I’ve learned to walk through a herd of horns, to let them smell me, to pet the fluffy, friendly calves — the ones that try to lick my hand like oversized dogs.
When I outlined my progress to Sayeed, as we wrapped up breakfast, he burst into his wonderful, exuberant laughter. “You still know nothing, Emi,” he said. “You can’t even tell the mean jamous in the herd.”
Then, serious, and still smiling, he said: “It’s OK. You have time to learn.”