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Thursday 22 October 2015

FFB: A Reed Shaken by the Wind

Gavin Maxwell is best known for his book Ring of Bright Water. In 1956, he decided to write a book about the marshes of Iraq and joined explorer Wilfred Thesiger to tour round various villages in their canoe, a tarada. Maxwell’s book A Reed Shaken by the Wind (1957) relates his experiences during the seven weeks. Thesiger also carried with him a large medicine chest and administered to many ailments, often rectifying ghastly surgery by itinerants. Towards the end of their tour, Maxwell expressed a wish to own an otter as a pet, and Thesiger found him a baby European otter, which unfortunately died after a week. As he was preparing to go home Maxwell received another otter that Thesiger had obtained. This he named Mijbil and it survived and proved to be a previously unknown sub-species which was named after him, Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli (colloquially, “Maxwell’s Otter”).  His book Ring of Bright Water describes how he raised Mijbil in Camusfearna (Sandaig) on the west coast of Scotland.

The Observer described A Reed Shaken… as ‘a delight when books of travel are written as well as this.’

Maxwell’s prose is eloquent and descriptive, laced with humour and poignancy. It was no easy journey through the marshes, either. He was not immune to the depredations of insects. He thought he was merely plagued with fleas, however, he ‘now I realised that I was also lousy, and that two separate armies were fighting for possession of my skin.’

The scenery was remarkable, reeds stretching to the end of the world, it seemed. ‘The earth seemed flat as a plate and stretched away for ever, vast, desolate and pallid: pale bulrush stubble standing in water that reflected a vast pale sky… Wind gusted through the reeds, ruffling the water into flurries of small ripples. A chorus of strange sounds from the stiff withered sedge stumps, groans and whistles, bleats and croaks, and loud crude sounds of flatulence…’

Sounds played an intrusive part, too, whether that was the far-away crying of wild geese, the constant sound of village dogs, or ‘the tumultuous voices of the frogs, turning the marshes into a cauldron of sound,’ unbroken. He would wake to the sound of ‘dogs barking or fighting, or the exuberant quacking of domestic ducks, or the harsh challenge of a cock to the coming day.’

The life of the marsh Arabs has been threatened by civilisation – and some areas have been drained (drainage began as early as the 1960s but accelerated in later decades). And yet one has to wonder at the life they led then: Bilharzia of the marshes was a parasite that ravages the pelvic region of human hosts; they cultivated water buffalo for milk and dung: the latter was gathered by the women only, for it is an unclean task; blood feuds would be settled by the payment of women; water snakes were hated and feared; injuries from the tusks of wild pigs were commonplace. ‘The young girls are often vividly beautiful, with the enormous liquid eyes that have been so often compared to those of a gazelle, a delicate golden skin, and hair that – when not dyed with henna and twisted into an ugly elaboration of many short plaits – is usually arranged in a short fringe over the forehead, fine blue-black, and gently waving…’ Later their faces may be disfigured by scars from the disease known as Baghdad boil. And then their faces are tattooed…

Accommodation and ablutions were not to be envied. The houses were made of reeds, cemented with dung and mud. In one house he slept while ‘swarms of bats flitted among the dim columns above, casting huge upward shadows on the arch-tops.’ And in another village he lay down to sleep ‘with a buffalo at my head, her warm breath stirring my hair…’

Water buffaloes are the marsh-man’s economy and life revolves around them. Maintained for their milk and their dung – they drink the milk sour or as curds or make butter churned by swinging the milk rhythmically in the suspended and dried skin of a sheep or a still-born calf. Dung is used for fuel and water-proofing. Dung fire smoulders with a smoke dense, acrid and suffocating.  Men sit on the leeward side of the fire to avoid streaming eyes.

The buffaloes were well cared for, and ate green reed shoots – hashish, literally grass - at night.

Wild pig was the most common animal in the marshes: ‘… a raging tornado of slashing tusks that rip the flesh like knives and leave white bone open to the sky.’ If the victim fell on his back, he was likely to die if gored – suffering often fatal injury to face, throat and stomach; if he lay on his face, he just might have survived. Many villagers carried scars of past gorings.
Celebrations could involve weddings, engagements, dancing, and births. Sometimes celebrations got out of hand, such as letting off a great brass-bound muzzle-loading shot-gun, blasting at the ceiling of the house. ‘The report was followed by a long shower of broken reeds and debris; then, in a moment of dead silence, a large bat fell with a clang on to the coffee pots.’ Later, after more celebrating, the lantern was turned out, ‘and the fire became trodden under by the stamping feet, and the darkness was punctuated only by the flash of the guns, each followed by a spatter of loose fragments from above. When it was all over there were a great many holes in the roof, and everyone got rather wet during the night…’ But the celebrations had been a great success!
At the time, Iraqi national service was compulsory. They’d draft dodge by paying a neighbour to borrow a child who is obviously below the requisite age, and this child impersonated the boy called up. The recruiter accepted this; however, when he returned in two years’ time, when another child had been borrowed, sometimes the substitute child was even younger! ‘The official expresses wonder and amazement at the ingenuous Peter Pan, and a dispute begins’… which was resolved with a little money changing hands.
A fascinating book in many ways of a time gone by, written with an excellent style: ‘During the slow icy hours between midnight and dawn, hours when the brain may sometimes outrun the plodding of reason and escape from habitual and safe corridors of thought to catch perilous glimpses of truth, some part of me was trying to interpret and give meaning to my presence here in the night and the cold on the bank of a strange river.’
No need to ponder the reason for living; simply delve in and wonder at the hardship of the marsh Arabs of Iraq last century.
Maxwell died of cancer in 1965, aged 55.
Maxwell’s book Lords of the Atlas: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua, 1893-1956 (1966) is a fascinating look at the history and politics of Morocco during that period.

Wilfred Thesiger’s book Desert, Marsh and Mountain (1979) is a compilation of his travels and may be of interest to armchair explorers and travellers too.

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