Ma'dan (Marsh Arabs)

views updated

Ma'dan (Marsh Arabs)

LOCATION: Iraq (marshes at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers)
POPULATION: Fewer than 20,000 (2003 estimate)
RELIGION: Islam (Shia Muslim)


The Ma'dan, or Marsh Arabs, is a distinct group of people who originally inhabited the marshy area at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq before the marshes were destroyed by irrigation projects developed by the Iraqi government. A seminomadic tribal people, the Ma'dan once lived in reed huts built on floating islands of reeds, and made their living by herding water buffalo, fishing, and hunting wild boars and waterfowl. Their houses were elaborately woven with Gothic-like arches made of bundles of reeds tied together at the top. This same kind of house had been built since the 4th millennium BC.

The term, Ma'dan, means "dweller of the plains." The tribal form of the Ma'dan took shape during the 17th century ad. Ma'dan culture is based on the culture of the Bedu (or bedouin, see Bedu) nomads of the desert, adapted for life on the watery marshes. Until the late 20th century, the Ma'dan way of life had changed little in thousands of years. However, the Ma'dan people encountered prejudice from other Arabs, and beginning in the 1970s, the marshes they had inhabited for 5,000 years were slowly destroyed for political and economic reasons by the Iraqi government. The waters of the Tigris and Euphrates were diverted in order to irrigate lands converted to agriculture and, after the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein systematically drained the waters as a form of punishment for the Shia Muslims who opposed his regime.

The U.S.-led invasion in 2003 removed Saddam from power and efforts to restore the marshes are underway. However, the damage done to the Ma'dan way of life in the 1990s is expected to take several decades to repair. In addition, the marshes have become extremely dangerous to inhabit as fighting among rebel groups in Iraq has intensified and moves the country toward civil war. In 2008, the marshes in a war-torn Iraq were used as a hiding area for criminals and rebels opposing the provisional Iraqi government installed by U.S. occupation forces. Many Ma'dan are believed to have joined insurgent movements in Iraq. Some are followers of the Iraqi Hizbullah organization, while others belong to Moqtada al-Sadr's movement and wield control in provincial areas under the provisional government organized by U.S. forces occupying Iraq.


The marshes where the Ma'dan once lived were created by the annual floods of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The marshes covered about 15,540 sq km (6,000 sq mi) and were divided into three parts: the Eastern Marshes east of the Tigris, the Central Marshes west of the Tigris and north of the Euphrates, and the Southern Marshes south of the Euphrates and west of the Shatt al Arab (the river formed by the union of the Tigris and Euphrates). Melting snow on the mountains of Iran and Turkey would cause the waters to rise on the rivers and in the marshes. The annual flood on the Tigris River typically reached its height in May. On the Euphrates River the floods peaked in June. From June on, both rivers would begin to fall, reaching their lowest levels in September and October. The water levels then would begin to rise slightly in November, increasing gradually throughout the winter.

The marshes were covered with rushes and reeds. Qasab, a kind of giant grass that looks like bamboo, covered most of the land and grew as tall as 7.6 m (25 ft). Natural islands, some floating and some anchored, dotted the waters, and the marshes were alive with wildlife, including turtles, frogs, various waterfowl, wild boars, and hordes of mosquitoes in the summer. Eagles were a common sight, soaring in the skies above the marshes. Summers were hot and humid; in the winter, the water was icy and the winds were cold. A strong wind, called the "forty days' wind," blew throughout the month of June. Some historians believe the marshes were the Garden of Eden from the Bible.

In the 1970s, the Iraqi government began to expand irrigation projects that disrupted the natural flow of water into the marshes. The efforts were continued more aggressively after the 1991 Gulf War, partly to punish Shia rebels who had risen against Saddam Hussein. By 2003, the marshes had become a desert, villages of Ma'dan had been attacked and burnt, and the water was reportedly poisoned. Most Ma'dan today are believed to live in lower income Shia communities in Baghdad or have emigrated to Iran, with a few thousand believed to have returned to their traditional homeland. Those Ma'dan who have returned to the marshes lack clean drinking water, sanitation, health care, and nutrition.

Some human rights experts have estimated that the Ma'dan population in 2003 was less than 20,000, compared with 500,000 in the 1950s.


The Ma'dan speak a form of Arabic that is generally considered a "lower" form by other Arabic speakers. Arabic, spoken by 422 million people worldwide, has many distinct dialects, so that people living as few as 500 km (about 300 mi) apart may not be able to understand one another. The written form of Arabic is called Classical Arabic, or, for today's literature and press, Modern Standard Arabic. It is the same for all literate Arabs, regardless of how different their spoken dialects are. Arabic is written from right to left in a unique alphabet that makes no distinction between capital and lower-case letters. It is not necessary for the letters to be written in a straight line, as English letters must be. Punctuation rules are also quite different from those of English.

"Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are As-salam 'alaykum, "Peace be with you," with the reply of Wa 'alaykum as-salam, "and to you peace." Ma'assalama means "Goodbye." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is 'Afwan; "yes" is na'am and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are wahad, ithnayn, thalatha, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, thamanya, tisa'a, and ashara.

Arab names consist of their first name, their father's name, and their paternal grandfather's name. Women do not take their husband's name when they marry but rather keep their father's family name as a sign of respect for their family of origin. Many Ma'dan have rather unusual names, especially for Muslims. The names Chilaib ("little dog"), Bakur ("sow"), and Khanzir ("pig") are common, even though Muslims consider those animals unclean. Other names include Jahaish ("little donkey"), Jaraizi ("little rat"), Wawi ("jackal"), Dhauba ("hyena"), Kausaj ("shark"), and even Barur ("dung"). Ma'dan often give unattractive names to children to ward off the evil eye, particularly to sons whose brothers died in infancy.


The traditional Ma'dan believed in jinn, bad spirits who could take the form of humans or other animals. Unique to Ma'dan folklore are two marsh monsters: the anfish, a giant serpent with hairy skin, and the afa, a giant serpent with legs. Both were said to live somewhere in the heart of the marshes, and both were deadly.

The Ma'dan also believed in a place called Hufaidh, an island of paradise located in the southwest part of the marshes, although no one knows exactly where. According to legends, the jinn could hide the island from human sight. On this island were palaces, palm trees, pomegranate orchards, and huge water buffalo. It was believed that anyone who saw Hufaidh was bewitched, and no one would be able to understand the person's words afterward.


Today, most Ma'dan are Shia Muslims, although they are not strict about following Muslim practices, such as praying five times a day facing Mecca. Karbala and Najaf are the Ma'dan's holy cities: Husain was killed and is buried in Karbala, and Ali the Saint's tomb is in Najaf.


Most Ma'dan observe Islamic holidays, such as Ramadan, Id al-Adha, and Id al-Fitr, which are based on a lunar calendar and thus fall on slightly different days every year. Most Ma'dan wish to make a pilgrimage to the city of Meshed, where the shrine of the eighth imam, Ali ar Ridha, is located. Anyone who makes this pilgrimage is given the title of Zair. Few Ma'dan have the economic resources to make the traditional Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.


Ma'dan boys are traditionally circumcised at puberty, but many boys refuse because of the frequent occurrence of infection afterward.

After a death, some Ma'dan dye their turbans dark blue to signify mourning. Others put mud on their heads and clothes.


Ma'dan follow the traditional Arab code of honor, but with somewhat less dedication than other Arabs. Hospitality is considered a point of honor, and the Ma'dan welcome all guests and provide food and housing without expecting or accepting any payment. It is considered an insult even to thank a host for a meal, let alone pay for it, because it implies that the host is not considered generous enough to simply offer a meal (or bed, or other hospitality) to a guest. A host also never helps to carry a guest's belongings out of the house (although he or she will help to carry them in) because that would imply that the host wanted the guest to leave.


Before the destruction of the marshes, the Ma'dan marsh villages consisted of houses built of reeds, with reed mats covering the floors. These houses were built on artificial islands created by enclosing an area in the water, large enough for the house and a yard in front, with a fence of reeds about 6 m (about 20 ft) high. Reeds and rushes were packed inside of this fence. Then, when the stack of reeds and rushes reached above the level of the water, the original fence reeds were broken and laid across the stack. More rushes were piled on top and packed down tightly. The house was then built on this foundation. This type of house was called a kibasha. A more permanent site was produced when mud from the floor of the marsh was used to cover the foundation. The mud was then covered with more layers of rushes. This more permanent type of house was called a dibin. If the family that built a dibin left it unoccupied for more than a year, they lost their right to it and anyone could take possession of it. Shops within the village were marked by a white cloth fastened like a flag to a reed stuck into the roof of the building.

Traditional Ma'dan marsh houses had no electricity heat, running water, or indoor plumbing. Water was drawn from the marshes around the home. The Ma'dan did not build latrines. People simply squatted among the rushes, or over the side of a canoe, to urinate or defecate. In spite of this lack of sanitary conditions, the Ma'dan were a remarkably healthy people and experienced few occurrences of dysentery or cholera.

Food consisted of the wild boars and birds hunted with the gun, as well as crops, such as rice, that could be grown in the marshes. Personal possessions included a few water buffalo, a gun, some blankets and cooking utensils, and a reed canoe coated with bitumen (tar).

Within the marsh village, there was almost always a guest house, or a mudhif. The mudhif was usually owned by the village sheikh, or leader, and was often built on a grander scale than the simpler huts of the villagers, although the basic design was the same. No visitor was ever refused hospitality and, as in villagers' homes, no payment was accepted for lodging and meals in the mudhif.

All transportation in and around the marsh village was by canoe, either paddled or, more often, punted with a long reed. Called mashuf, the canoes were made of reeds covered with bitumen (tar). Children four or five years of age had their own mashuf and could pilot them skillfully. The Ma'dan created "roads" in the marshes by driving water buffalo through the reeds when the water was low to make a track. As the water rose, the track was kept open by the coming and going of the mashuf.

Unfortunately, these traditional marsh villages were destroyed as the marshes were drained by the government. Most of the Ma'dan who have migrated to Iraqi cities or to Iran now live in more urban dwellings. Some have converted their marsh lifestyle to a more conventional form of agriculture and rural living. A few thousand Ma'dan are believed to have returned to the marshes since 2003. However, many Ma'dan seem to have no wish to return because of the difficulty of the traditional lifestyle.


The traditional Ma'dan way of life was organized as a tribal society made up of various groups of families who shared a common lineage, with each family group headed by a sheikh (leader). Marriages were arranged by parents, although a couple had some choice in the matter. Paternal first cousins had the first claim to a young woman for their bride. Another who wished to marry her must have her paternal first cousin's father's agreement to give up his son's right to her. In traditional Ma'dan homes, men and women did not eat together and all meals were conducted in silence. All talking was done before and after the meal, never during it. Men and women were generally segregated in public life as well, although young children would play together.

Today, very little is known about the family life of the Ma'dan since their displacement from the marshes. It will take time for the marshes to recover and to learn whether or not the Ma'dan traditional way of life will be restored.


Traditionally, men wore a long, thin shirt that reached to their calves or ankles. In the winter, they sometimes wore a jacket over it. They also wore the traditional Arab head cloth, usually without a rope to hold it in place (they simply tie it around the head). All grown men had short mustaches. Women wore dark robes that covered the entire body. Ma'dan women were generally not veiled, although they did cover the head with a long cloth or shawl. Only children wore colorful clothes; adults always wore plain light or dark clothes. Men usually wore white and women wore black.

Since their displacement from traditional marsh villages, it is not clear whether most Ma'dan prefer the traditional garments of their culture, or if they, perhaps, have fully adopted the styles popular in their new home towns.


The traditional staple foods were fish and curdled water-buffalo milk. Some Ma'dan also grew rice. Bread was cooked over a fire on round clay platters. Today, Ma'dan diets are most likely linked to what foods are available in their new home towns.


There were no schools in the marshes. While most Ma'dan parents wanted their children to have the advantages of a modern education, not all could afford to send them to the schools in the surrounding cities and towns. At the town and city schools, Ma'dan children were taught that their life in the marshes was primitive and backward, and some became become discontent at home. Many ended up living marginal lives in the cities and towns, too well educated to be satisfied within the marshes, yet not well enough educated in the ways of town life to be successful there. These prejudices against the Ma'dan way of life have prompted many of the now displaced Ma'dan to integrate more fully with the Arab traditions, including those of formal education, that flourish in the areas to which they have located.


Ma'dan culture was been largely inherited from the Bedu (or bedouin- seeBedu ). A traditional dance of the Ma'dan is known as the hausa. It is a type of war dance performed by men in which they dance in a circle holding their rifles over their heads and firing them.


In the marsh villages, Ma'dan traditionally supported themselves by fishing and by hunting wild boars and birds. They also kept small herds of water buffalo, which they used for milk. Some Ma'dan also grew rice. Fish were traditionally caught with a five-pronged spear thrown from the bow of a canoe. A more modern method was to stun them with poisoned bait, usually shrimp, laced with datura (a member of the night-shade family) that would be tossed onto the surface of the water. Only professional fishers, referred to as berbera, used nets. In the traditional marsh villages, collecting the grass used as fodder for the water buffalo was a constant chore, usually assigned to young boys. Weaving reed mats for sale in the surrounding towns was a common source of extra income for the Ma'dan.


In the marsh villages, hunting was both a necessity for survival and a favorite sport among the Ma'dan.


The Ma'dan love to sing and dance and often entertain each other in this way. They also play a game called mahaibis, or "hunt the ring." The players divide into two teams. The team that has the ring sits in a row with their hands under a cloak. One member of the other team stands in front of them and tries to guess who has the ring and in which hand. The game often ends in noisy disputes and accusations of cheating.


The most common crafts among the traditional Ma'dan are the building and repairing of canoes, the weaving of reed mats, and blacksmithing. Ma'dan blacksmiths make fishing spears, reed splitters, sickles, and nails for the canoes. Some of the Ma'dan weave cloth. They make woolen cloth that both men and women use for cloaks.


The Ma'dan historically have been despised by other Arabs and suffered much abuse in the course of their history. The marshes are a perfect place to hide out, so soldiers and criminals are constantly invading the Ma'dan's territory. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), many Ma'dan were driven out of their homes, their few possessions were stolen, and their water buffalo were slaughtered for food by the armies. These practices continued through the 1990s, and much of the Ma'dan way of life has disappeared.

Most Ma'dan are believed to live in lower income Shia communities in Baghdad or have emigrated to Iran, with a few thousand believed to have returned to their traditional home-land. Those Ma'dan who have returned to the marshes lack clean drinking water, sanitation, health care, and nutrition.


The displacement of the Ma'dan from their homeland in the marshes has caused the traditional tribal structure to deteriorate. Little is known about the conditions of Ma'dan women. Nearly 4.2 million Iraqis have fled the war-torn country and an additional 2.2 million have left homelands within the country for cities and urban areas. The Ma'dan are among this group of displaced individuals and, until the situation in Iraq can be stabilized, the survival of both Ma'dan men and women is highly at risk.

Sex roles in many Arab cultures are clearly defined: women manage the household while men tend to affairs outside of the home.


Docherty, J. P. Iraq. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Fulanain [pseud.]. The Marsh Arab, Haji Rikkan. Philadelphia, Penn.: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1928.

Hammer, Joshua. "Return to the Marsh: The Effort to Restore the Marsh Arabs' Traditional Way of Life-Virtually Eradicated by Saddam Hussein-Faces New Th reats," Smithsonian 37:7 (October 2006), 46-56.

"Iraq: Millions in Flight: The Iraq Refugee Crisis." Amnesty International 24 September 2007. (5 August 2008).

Norton, Andre. "New Evidence Shows Marshlands Draining Away," The Middle East No. 227 (October 1993), 22-24.

Thesiger, Wilfred. The Marsh Arabs. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1964.

Santora, Marc. "Marsh Arabs Cling to Memories of a Culture Nearly Destroyed by Hussein," The New York Times April 28, 2003, A10.

—revised by H. Gupta-Carlson