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The Marsh Arabs Hardcover – 16 Oct 2000
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Praise for The Marsh Arabs:
H.D. Ziman, Daily Telegraph
‘Here is the fascination of a stange land and the power to convey it.’
Praise for Among the Mountains:
‘A matchless portrait of a vanished world’
‘Here is true grandeur in the landscape and true dignity in the man’
‘The photographs alone make it worth a place on the traveller’s bookshelf’
From the Back Cover
Wilfred Thesiger lived among the Marsh Arabs for eight years, sharing a threatened way of life which had lasted for millennia.
There was hardly a village in the Central Marshes – an area covering some 6000 square miles around the junction of the Tigris an the Euphrates – which Thesiger did not visit, however small. This is a landscape of islands, some fo them floating, many of them man-made; of lakes and waterways; where the reed houses are of a unique an impressive architecture; where the economy of the inhabitants is based largely on their herds of water buffalo. They fish, shoot wildfowl and hunt the enormous and dangerous wild pigs that ravage their crops. Travelling from village to village with his medicine boxes and his team of canoemen, Wilfred Thesiger came to know these people and their way of life intimately.
There are times of excitement and hardship, accidents, blood feuds, there are episodes of tragedy and happiness and moments of pure comedy. Not only does Thesiger evoke with great beauty the landscape and its teeming wildlife, but he brings to vivid life the friends he made among the Marsh arabs – the sheikhs, his canoemen and their families. Few travel books have described an area and its inhabitants with such knowledge or such evident sympathy.
H.D. ZIMAN, 'The Daily Telegraph'
"Here is the fascination of a strange land and the power to convey it."
"The greatest of living explorers."
RAYMOND MORTIMER, 'Sunday Times'
Top customer reviews
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Moving, charming, honest and a sad prediction of the near-loss of an entire tribe and way of life.
His travels in the Iraq marshes can never be repeated. This is a well documented story of a way of life changed forever. Written by a brave and fearless man.
As Thesiger elsewhere states, he was probably the first (and sadly, the last) outsider with both the inclination and opportunity to live among the Madan (the natives of the Marshes), as one of them, before Saddam Hussein irrevocably ended their way of life by draining the marshes as a grand reprisal for an attempted revolt. Their way of life had been largely unchanged since the fifth millennium B.C. In another chapter on the historical background he states: "Other races too, had invaded Iraq during the same two thousand years." He did not live long enough to add to his list... "and the Americans and their so-called coalition.." One would think that the book would be more widely circulated today for that reason, and the fact that Thesiger "does nuance."
Thesiger states that he is not a specialist in any given area, and therefore can, in my opinion, convey the life of the people of the marshes in a more genuine way. He gained the initial trust of the inhabitants in the most unlikely way - although not a trained doctor, he safely performed circumcisions on the adolescent boys. He also carried a bag of medicines that he could properly administer, much to the gratitude of the natives. By sharing their hardships, way of life, and mastering the language, he further ingratiated himself with them. He documents an Islam that is anything but monolithic in its beliefs. He states that in Southern Iraq far more pilgrims had been to Meshed (in Iran, where the shrine of Imam Ali Ar Ridha, the eight Imam, is located, gaining the honorific "Zair." As a non-Muslim I was denied admission to the shrine, and I suppose the honorific, in 1971.) Furthermore, he makes the interesting point that the Hazaras of Central Afghanistan do not earn an honorific for the pilgrimage to Meshad, but do for going to Karbala in Iraq, and the reverse is true for the Shia of Iraq. As Thesiger states: "It appears to be a question of distance."
Thesiger describes family life, the tribal feuds, and the dependence of the agricultural economy on the annual floods, with the winners and losers, depending on the height of the floods. There are (dangerous) wild boar hunts. He describes the "mustarjil" who are born a woman, "...but she has the heart of a man, so she lives like a man."
The book contains numerous extraordinary black and white photos whose uniqueness and quality exceed the ones in "Arabian Sands." Of particular interest are the ones of the "mudhif," a large community structure build entirely of reeds, which can be disassembled and moved. The "Gail at Hama" (#41), and "In the Heart of the Marshes" (#27) are also brilliant.
Thesiger's perspective was partially formed at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, and his "fading days of the British Empire" attitude mars an otherwise excellent account. For example, he travels with a "young Kurdish servant" from Kurdistan, and is given to blanket assertions like "All Arabs are snobs" (p 52). He shows particular affection for his "canoe boys," which is reflected in numerous pictures.
Overall though, an extraordinary feat, and a solid book that should be read by all who now have an interest in Iraq.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on November 15, 2008)
This book has some amazing pictures of a way of life now gone forever and introduces us to some of the people who lived it.
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