Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Marsh Arabs are the inhabitants of the lowlands of southern Iraq, the former Mesopotamia, whose families have lived in the area for thousands of years. Marsh Arabs participated in a rebellion against Saddam Hussein immediately following the First Gulf War. The marshlands, known as the Tigris-Euphrates alluvial salt marsh, had for some time been considered a refuge for elements distrusted by the Hussein government, and, in centuries past, refuges for escaped slaves and serfs.
Traditionally, the society of the Marsh Arabs is split into two groups based on occupation. The group known as the Ma'dan breed and raise buffalo, while the majority cultivate crops such as rice, barley, wheat and millet and some sheep and cattle. The farmers look down on the Ma'dan, viewing them as inferior in both birth and occupation. More recently a third main occupation has entered Marsh Arab life; the weaving of reeds on a commercial scale. Long used for personal use, reed mats have recently become a commercial commodity all across southern Iraq. Though often paying far more than the agriculture, weavers are looked down upon by both Ma'dan and farmers alike, though financial concerns mean that gradually it is gaining acceptance as a respectable profession.
As with most tribes of southern Iraq, the sheik of a Marsh Arab group will collect a tribute from his tribesmen in order to maintain the mudhif, the tribal guesthouse which acts as the political, social, judicial and religious centre of Marsh Arabic life. The mudhif is used as a place to settle disputes, carry out diplomacy with other tribes and the gathering point for religious celebrations and prayer. It is also the place where visitors are offered hospitality . Most Marsh Arabs are Shia Muslims.
After the First Gulf War (1991) Saddam Hussein aggressively revived a program to divert the flow of the Tigris River and the Euphrates River away from the marshes, to harness their waters for irrigation. The plan also systematically converted the wetlands into a desert, forcing the Marsh Arabs out of their settlements in the region. Less than 5% of the marshes remain today.
The marshes are showing signs of revivification, as water is restored to the former desert, but the restoration of the ecosystem may take far longer to rebuild than it took to destroy. Only a few thousand of the nearly half million original inhabitants remain. Most of the rest that can be accounted for are refugees living in other Shi'a areas in Iraq, or have emigrated to Iran.
Life on the Edge of the Marshes: A twenty year long ethnographic study conducted by Edward Ochsenschlager. As well as documenting the traditional way of life of the Marsh Arabs, it also made comparisons with ancient Sumerian cultural practices.
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