The ancient reed houses linking Iraqis to the past

The large buildings, with their barrel-vaulted ceilings, are a symbol of pride

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Knowledge of how to design and build traditional Iraqi reed houses has been passed down from generation to generation in Meeri Najim’s family, forming a lineage of skilled craftsmen stretching back hundreds of years.

One of a handful of artisans from the marshlands of southern Iraq, Mr Najim today works in much the same way as his Mesopotamian ancestors. The group of craftsmen consider themselves the guardians of their unique history and culture which was nearly decimated by former dictator Saddam Hussein.

“The joy I feel whenever I construct a reed house is indescribable, despite the exhaustion we go through,” Mr Najim, 58, told The National.

“This is our heritage, history and identity and we have to adhere to it and protect it regardless of the difficulty we face,” he said.

For Marsh Arabs, or Madan people, the reed house, called a mudhif in Arabic, is more than just a public hall where tribes welcome guests, settle community affairs, hold religious ceremonies and exchange information. These large buildings, with their barrel vaulted ceilings, are also a symbol of pride for these tribes.

The earliest evidence for the construction of reed houses is more than 5,000 years old. A drinking trough, found in Uruk in southern Iraq and now displayed in the British Museum, was carbon dated back to 3,200BC and shows a typical mudhif surrounded by flocks of sheep and lambs.

But Mr Najim's journey to joining the ranks of Iraq's reed house builders was an unlikely one.

Graduating from the Industrial High School in the southern province of Dhi Qar as a 19-year-old just as the war with Iran was breaking out in the 1980s, he was immediately conscripted into the army.

He took part in the fighting until the war ended in 1988.

At the end of his military service in 1990 he embarked on constructing reed houses, working with his father and siblings.

Back then, demand for new reed buildings was weak amid UN-imposed economic sanctions and destruction at the hands of Saddam, who ordered the marshes be drained in 1991 to punish the communities there for protecting insurgents.

The drainage reduced the wetland, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, to less than half its 1991 area of 15,000 square kilometres, driving thousands of its inhabitants out of their land.

But with the revival of the marshland, thought to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden, after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled the Saddam regime, demand started to pick up.

“With the improving of the economic situation after 2003 and the return of many of us to marshes after they were re-flooded, our business was revived,” Mr Najim said.

Demand was high not only in Dhi Qar, but also from other areas across Iraq. The clients were not only tribal leaders but also government ministries, foreign oil companies and businesses, who sometimes have mudhifs built on their sites to show their respect for tradition.

Mr Najim now has international clients, including in the UAE. Over the past five years, he has built three reed houses in private properties in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.

The process of constructing a reed house has 12 stages, from preparing the ground to furnishing, he said.

Depending on the size, it takes from a week to 50 days and the cost ranges from 4 million to 40 million Iraqi dinars (about $2,700 to $27,000).

The mudhif is made only from reeds which grow naturally in the marshlands. No nails, wood or glass are used in the construction.

Reeds around 10 metres long are neatly bundled together and planted in the ground in two rows. Then the small ends of these columns are tied to those of the opposite row, forming parabolic arches.

These arches are then fastened together by small bundles that are laid longitudinally on the roof. Hand-woven mats are then laid over the columns to form the roof.

At each end of the structure and from the sides, reed lattice panels are attached to allow both sunlight and airflow. Two large vertical bundled reed columns are attached to the entrance and the other end of the house, while small bundles are arranged in decorative patterns from both inside and outside.

For religious considerations, the entrance must face in the direction of Makkah and there is always an odd number of reed pillars.

The mudhif needs to be refurbished after seven years and rebuilt completely every 15 years. Mr Najim now receives an average of three orders a month for building or repairing reed houses.

“The process needs a lot of effort — from transporting, sorting and weaving the reeds — until you have the whole house ready,” he said.

“We see it as an engineering project that needs real skills to design and construct based on specific measures.”

He is afraid that his generation could be the last in this business.

“The young generation doesn’t have the dedication and patience for such work and instead they prefer easy jobs with the government,” he added, saying none of his four sons are willing to learn.

Mr Najim’s concerns are shared by many who have devoted themselves to the craft.

To encourage this essential part of culture and history and to protect it from disappearing, the non-profit, non-governmental organisation The Tigris River Protectors organises workshops for young people on traditional craftsmanship.

The initiative is part of an EU-funded project, Sumerians, to support socio-economic growth through eco-tourism and cultural heritage preservation in Dhi Qar, and to promote the province as a tourist destination.

It plans four workshops on building reed houses for 60 men between the ages of 18 and 30, Nasser Baqir Ameer, director of the NGO office in Dhi Qar, told The National.

Each workshop runs for two months and the participants are eligible for loans to start their own business in this field, Mr Ameer said.

“We are not only teaching them how to build real mudhif but also ones as art work to be used for decoration or sold as souvenirs,” he said. “When we link traditional craftsmanship to the source of living, that culture will flourish and be protected from disappearing.”

Among those who enrolled was Saif Al Deen Qadir.

Mr Qadir, 26, said he had been to find a job after graduating from a technical institute in 2019.

“Job opportunities are scarce in our city,” he told The National during his first day at the workshop.

“It’s a good idea to learn about our heritage, protect it and at the same time we can make money.”

Updated: March 15, 2022, 12:38 PM