Friday, May 4, 2018

The Boats of Iraq's Madan

Madan canoe
The Madan, or Marsh Arabs of Iraq, depended heavily upon their boats, including canoes like this one under construction. Note the heavy, closely-spaced, roughly-formed frames, inner planking at the tops of the frames, and heavy thwarts. (Click any image to enlarge.)
Wilfred Thesiger was an upper-class Englishman, born the son of a diplomat in Addis Ababa in 1910 and educated in England at the best schools. After conducting expeditions and serving in the diplomatic service himself in Africa, he served with distinction in the Second World War then became a wanderer in Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia, immersing himself in traditional, tribal cultures and writing about them – and perhaps gathering intelligence on the side.

In the early and mid 1950s, he spent many months living and traveling in the marshy lands between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Iraq. In his book about these travels, The Marsh Arabs, he explains that he found peace of mind living in undeveloped areas in general, and the less Europeanized and regimented, the better:
“(H)aving seen Iraqi Kurdistan I had no desire to go back. Travel was too restricted, rather like stalking in a Highland deer forest . . . . Admittedly the Marshes, for which I was now bound, covered a smaller area than Iraqi Kurdistan, but they were a world complete in itself, not a fragment of a larger world to the rest of which I was denied access.”
Thesiger was no anthropologist – The Marsh Arabs is a mixture of travelogue and memoir – but he was sensitive to culture and a keen and appreciative observer. Naturally, he saw, used, and reported on the Marsh Arabs' use of boats. Although every aspect of the lives of the Arabs who lived in the Iraqi marshes was regulated by their watery environment, we will concentrate on his observations directly related to their watercraft.

Madan house built of reeds
A Madan house, built of reeds and covered with mats, on a kibasha, or artificial island, also made of reeds and rushes. Buffalo were a mainstay for many of the Madan.
For context: The Marsh Arabs, or Madan, are Shia Moslems. (Northern Iraqis are Sunni.) Dotted with thousands of lakes and lagoons and cut through with innumerable permanent and seasonal waterways, large parts of the marshes dry out in summer and inundate after the rains begin further north. Many of the Madan’s homes and villages are built on tiny man-made islands, although a few areas of slightly higher elevation allow the construction of more permanent, conventional structures and small communities. Some of the Madan did not live in settled villages, but led completely nomadic lives.

A mudhif, or Madan meeting house
A mudhif, or Madan meeting house, where the public business and pleasure of the community was conducted. Thesiger was entertained in many of these, which also served as guest houses. They too were built entirely of reeds.
Although I write about the culture indiscriminately in the past and present tenses, much of the marsh life Thesiger described is now past, destroyed in part by Sadam Hussein’s campaign against the Madan, which saw the swamps largely drained and destroyed. Some restoration efforts, however, are succeeding in bringing back parts of the habitat and with it, the culture.

Boat Types

A balam with a load of reeds
A balam with a load of reeds.
With communities and individual homes sited on tiny, often temporary artificial islands, watercraft were used by everyone for every purpose, and small, plank-built one- and two-man canoes were ubiquitous. Larger boats were also common. Those used for the large-scale gathering of reeds and other commercial carriage were called balam, which were typically 30’ to 36’ long.

The graceful bow of a Madan tarada
A tarada, with its incomparably graceful bow.
Taradas, which were indistinguishable from balams except for one detail, could only be owned by sheiks. Thesiger describes one of the first he saw:
“She was a beautiful craft that could carry as many as twelve people. Thirty-six feet long but only three and half feet at her widest beam, she was carvel-built, flat-bottomed and covered outside with a smooth coating of bitumen over the wooden planks. The front swept forwards and upwards in a perfect curve to form a long, thin, tapering stem; the stern too rose in a graceful sweep. Two feet of the stern and of the bows were decked; there was a thwart a third of the way forward, and a strengthening beam across the boat two thirds of the way forward. Movable boards covered the floor. The top part of the ribs was planked along the inside and studded with five rows of flat, round nail-heads two inches across. These decorative nails were the distinguishing mark of a tarada . . . .”
Madan zaima, a reed bundle boat
In spite of its reed-bundle construction, the zaima was a true boat, with a hull that displaced water by virtue of its water-tight shell, not because of the buoyancy of its materials.
Because the marshes are treeless, wood is expensive and even a small plank-built boat was beyond the means of some. Giant qasab reeds (Phragmites communis), however, were ubiquitous, and they were used to build bundle boats called zaima. Typically 10’ long and 2.5’ in beam, they were coated on the outside with bitumen to waterproof them and extend their life. Even so, they would last only a year, because, unlike on plank-built boats, the bitumen coating on a zaima could not be renewed. Even during Thesiger’s visits, the zaima was falling out of use due to a preference for wooden canoes among even the poor.

Madan child with rudimentary reed raft
A young child's rudimentary reed raft.

Madan child with bundle boat
This older child's reed raft is a bundle boat, floating by virtue of the reeds themselves. But with its rising bow, it mimics the form of the plank canoes of his elders. 
Thesiger mentions two more boat types in passing. Children would build rafts of rushes and paddle around on them. And two-masted boats, apparently much larger than balam, were used to trade large volumes of goods downstream with Basra.

Soon after he had bought himself a balam for 10 pounds sterling to use in traveling about the marshes, Thesiger received from his sheik-patron the extraordinary gift of a top-notch tarada, 36’ long, which he used henceforth. He hired local youth as crew and kept them with him for extended periods. To increase their loyalty, he did not pay them or treat them like employees. He was, in fact, more generous to them than would have been reasonable on a salary basis, but the arrangement allowed them to assert that they accompanied him as a matter of choice, respect, and friendship rather than a financial transaction.

Thesiger's tarada in choppy water.
Thesiger's tarada in choppy water.
As the only individual who was not a sheik to own a tarada – and an Englishman to boot – Thesiger was a notable individual in the marshes. The highly esteemed boatbuilder who made his tarada also made him paddles uniquely painted red. The boat and its crew were easily recognized for its distinctive paddles.

Boat Construction

Madan balam or large workboat
Balams and taradas feature a multiplicity of relatively light, closely-spaced frames and heavy thwarts, with floorboards and end decks. The one in the foreground lacks the inner planking at the tops of the frames that Thesiger described in the quote above and that was also typical of the Madan's canoes.
No suitable wood was available in southern Iraq and every bit – even for items as small as paddles – had to be brought in from elsewhere. In boat construction, the preferred material for ribs was mulberry from Kurdistan. No mention is made of the type of wood used for planking, all of which was imported “from abroad.” The one key material that was obtained locally was bitumen, which was gathered from small pools where it naturally “bubbled out of the ground.” After being allowed to cool it was broken up into chunks for transport.

Balam under repair
A balam being recoated with bitumen.
Boats had to be recoated annually, as the bitumen cracked off. Cracks could be temporarily sealed by heating the bitumen with a torch of reeds. But for proper annual maintenance, the entire coating would be removed with a chisel. Fresh, solid bitumen would be placed on a sheet of metal and melted over a fire, then spread onto the boat one quarter inch thick. Thesiger reports that the Madan believed that a coating applied in winter did not last long as a one applied in summer. This makes sense, as the boat’s planking would be warmer in summer, helping prevent the pitch from cooling too quickly to adhere properly.

Many of the Madan raised buffalo, and some of them acquired such a taste for pitch that they would eat it off the boats if allowed. This habit was apparently restricted to certain communities – perhaps buffalo are just as regional in their tastes as humans – and where it occurred, boats would be moored away from the shore rather than pulled up where buffalo could get at them.

interior details of Madan boat
With a tool kit limited to an adze, a hand saw and a bow drill, workmanship on most boats was rough.

Madan balam boat
Nonetheless, Madan boats, especially the larger balams and taradas, were fine and graceful. (The stem appears to be badly cranked to port, however.)

Most carpentry for boat construction and repairs was done with an adze. Thesiger offers this brief, sadly incomplete description:
“We watched an old man start on a canoe. He outlined the bottom with transverse slats of wood, an inch or so apart, and then nailed a single long plank down the centre. While we drank tea he fashioned the ribs, selecting suitable pieces of wood from a pile beside him. He used an adze, and his only other tools, a small saw and a bow drill, lay on the mat beside him with a heap of nails.”
Madan canoe under construction
Early stage of canoe building, with the floors and central plank in place.

Of the zaima, however, he provides a more detailed description: 
“First he made half a dozen tight bundles of five or six qasab reeds rather longer than the length of the proposed boat, and fastened them securely together side by side to form the keel, leaving eighteen inches free at both ends, which he bent upwards. He next bent five long reeds into the shape of a U, passed the middle among the loose ends of the keel, and laced them back to the keel itself. He repeated the process at either end alternately, until he had built up the sides and ends of the hull. This framework he stiffened by tying into it a number of ribs made from two or three willow wands. Bundles of a few reeds, fastened one below the other along the inside of the boat, covered the top half of the ribs and formed the inner planking. Finally, he wedged three stout sticks across the boat as thwarts and secured their ends in place with lumps of bitumen. The zaima was now ready to be coated outside with bitumen.”
Propulsion and Travel

Madan poling and paddling a canoe
A canoe being poled from the stern and padded from the bow through vegetation.
Boats were propelled by both pole and paddle as the situation required. Small fishing canoes would be punted with a fish spear, butt-end down. The spears were made of reeds, 12 feet long with five-pronged, barbed heads. Paddles were “shovel-shaped pieces of board nailed to lengths of bamboo” (actually reeds, not true bamboo). Those poles which were not fish spears were also simply straight sections of reed. Even such crude paddles were expensive to replace, and their owners would typically take them from their boats when they were ashore to protect them. Likewise with poles to which their owners had become accustomed. This was not to prevent theft, per se. Rather, it was accepted practice that anyone could take any paddle or pole that wasn’t in its owner’s immediate possession.

The method of poling balams and taradas was distinctive. In a boat with four men poling, two were in the bow and two in the stern. They poled in time, all of the same side of the boat, switching sides together as needed. In smaller boats with only two poling, the action was also coordinated on the same side. When carrying a full load of reeds, however, the crew of a balam would walk the boat along the gunwale rather than stand in place to pole. This would allow them to apply the full power of their legs to propulsion rather than relying entirely on their arms and upper bodies.

Madan paddling canoes
The solo paddler in the foreground canoe sits high in the stern. The tandem paddlers in the other boat are paddling on opposite sides.

When paddling a balam, two men would sit in the stern on the deck, one in front of the other. One would sit on the forward thwart, and one would kneel in the bows.

Passengers always sat in the bottom. The place of honor for a passenger was nearest the stern, leaning against the rear thwart. 

Some passages through the reedbeds were kept open artificially by driving buffalo through when the water was low. Thereafter, regular boat traffic would keep them open. Even so, during the dry season many channels would dry up, requiring much dragging through mud or even preventing passage. Some areas of swamp were dammed to create water impoundments for grain growing during the dry season. These dams interfered with free movement of boats through formerly open channels, forcing users to negotiate narrow, rapid sluices both up- and down-current, or even to be dragged over the dams. With a loaded, 35-foot-long balam, this was a difficult chore.

We'll continue with Thesiger's The Marsh Arabs in a future post, looking at how the Madan used their boats.

Quotations and images from The Marsh Arabs, Wilfred Thesiger, Penguin Classics, 2008. Copyright 1959. Originally published by Longmans, Green, 1964. This author thanks the copyright holders. Should they object to this use, he asks that they contact him through the blog comments. Their wishes will be respected.

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