Azzam Alwash remembers the marshlands of southern Iraq as a magical place, where he would spend long days gliding through the thick reeds by boat with his father. But for decades now, the area has been under threat, so Azzam has become part of the effort to save the natural wonder before it’s too late.
This episode was produced by Dana Ballout, Alex Atack and Tamara Juburi with fact checking by Deena Sabry. Sound design and mixing by Alex Atack and Mohamad Khreizat.
A special thanks to Azzam Alwash for speaking to us.
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Find a transcript for this episode at our website, kerningcultures.com/kerningcultures.
Note: our transcripts are made with a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may not reflect the audio with 100% accuracy.
DANA BALLOUT: I’m Dana Ballout, and this is Kerning Cultures. Today is a slightly different episode. Its shorter and about one man’s love for a really special place in the world. A place that was once known to some as the “Cradle of Civilization”.
AZZAM ALWASH: The word Iraq means to me: The marshes. It’s impossible to describe the marshes in words. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So I’ll try to paint a picture for you. Imagine you’re in a hot desert and all of a sudden you see on the horizon this green – wall of green – that if you kind of step up, you can see the green extending all the way to the end of the horizon.
DANA BALLOUT: Azzam Alwash grew up in Iraq in the 1960s. His Dad was an irrigation engineer. And it was kind of an ordinary job, except for the fact that he worked in a pretty extraordinary place.
AZZAM ALWASH: Imagine yourself then riding a boat, surrounded by reeds that extend into the sky. Water underneath you so clear that you can see the fish. And every now and then, the boat goes out into a wide lake and your movement disturbs birds, and birds in the thousands – tens of thousands – will fly into the sky, making the sky black from their density. The air comes into your face, dying it and cooling you.
And you will reach the centre of the marshes. And there, I could leave you for four hours just enjoying the sound of the wind going through the reeds. The noise of the wings of the ducks as they go up in the air, even the noise that the fly makes as it approaches you is magical.
To me, the marshes are not just a beautiful place. To me, the marshes represent a place where I used to be with my father alone, where I had his attention. You’re feeling warm. You’re feeling happy with your dad. Your dad’s attention is all to you. It’s a special place for me more than because of nature, because it’s my connection to a warm place in my childhood.
DANA BALLOUT: These marshes once covered a huge 15,000 square kilometre area in southern Iraq – to the north of Basra and bordering Iran to the east. They make up the final stretch of the fertile crescent, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers deposit into the sea. And throughout history, societies have flourished here. Fields like philosophy and mathematics are said to be have been born in this area.
AZZAM ALWASH: About 7,000 years ago, mankind found these lakes and said, ‘I don’t need to go hunt and gather food. I could live here year round, fishing is aplenty, I don’t need to go out and hunt. I can fish. I can grow rice and wheat around the surroundings of this.’ So essentially what happened is that the edges of these marshes were place where first mankind settled permanently in one place, living off of nature, living as one with nature and understanding the rhythms of nature and in a sense, shaping nature, while nature shaped their way of life.
On the edges of these marshes is where mankind built the first permanently occupied cities. It is where the letter was invented. It is where Abraham was born. It is our connection to the early Sumerians.
And so, we hark back to the era when mankind lived in harmony with nature. Off of nature, but part of nature – not it’s controller. In a sense, these marshes don’t just belong to Iraqis. They belong to the rest of the world.
DANA BALLOUT: For centuries, the marshes have thrived in a natural ebb and flow. In the spring, snowmelt from the mountains of Kurdistan causes floods in the south of Iraq. The marshes then become a natural basin for the water and with it, fertilise the surrounding land.
But in the last 100 years as careless regimes have come and gone, this ecological gem has become increasingly threatened. Slowly at first, then all at once. During the British mandate, parts of the wetlands were destroyed while drilling for oil. But nothing had a more destructive effect than Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1990s.
AZZAM ALWASH: During the 1990s – right after the 1991 intifada, Saddam decided that these marshes could become – or have become – a base for his opposition. Now put yourself in the mindset of Saddam: He just came out of a war, survived the war. He wants to stay in power. So he understood instinctively that the presence of a militia could become destabilising or could be the worst way of destabilising his control.
DANA BALLOUT: The communities living in the marshlands were singled out. There was torture, mass arrests, enforced disappearances.
Saddam Hussein’s assault on the marshes and the people who lived there was motivated by a few things: Many of these communities were Shia’a, and the marshlands had provided refuge for political opponents of the regime.
Then in 1991, Marsh Arabs took part in a rebellion against Saddam Hussein’s government. So, in retribution, he ordered the construction of a series of dams and dykes designed to starve the marshes of their livelihood; of the water.
ARCHIVAL RECORDING: That’s one of Saddam’s canals: designed to capture the water, take it to the area past the marshes, and dump it in the Persian Gulf.
AZZAM ALWASH: Every large piece of equipment was mobilised for the purpose of drying the marshes. And so they built thousands and thousands of kilometres of embankments to keep the water of the Tigris and Euphrates inside these, and basically directed the water into the desert, away from the marshes and deprived the marshes of their source of water. So, by redirecting the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates away from marshes, he managed to dry an area that has never been dried in history. And in fact, as a result, a civilization that has lasted 7,000 years was no more.
DANA BALLOUT: The UN called it the worst engineered environmental disaster of the last century. In the 90s, the population of the marshes shrank to a fraction of what it was – about 90% of the marshes were starved and destroyed. This once lush landscape became a dried out wilderness.
ARCHIVAL RECORDING: (Man speaking Arabic) The water has been dried up completely, and people were unable to live in the marshes…
DANA BALLOUT: And with no way to make a living, thousands of people were displaced. Families who had lived in the marshes for centuries started leaving their homes behind to move to bigger cities like Basra or Baghdad, or across the border to Iran. And many of them lived in poverty. Saddam Hussein had made the once fertile crescent almost unlivable.
We’ll be back after the break.
DANA BALLOUT: When we left off, the marshes were facing a crisis. Azzam had been living in the US for two and a half decades at this point. He had an American wife, his kids were American citizens. As he put it in one interview – he’d achieved the American dream. But his homeland and this place he adored was dying. And he didn’t want to be a bystander from across the ocean.
AZZAM ALWASH: So in 1999, I began working on trying to put the spotlight on the drying of the marshes. And I was saying that the restoration of the marshes in possible when other people were saying it’s impossible to restore the mashes.
DANA BALLOUT: So he moved back to Iraq, and started his organisation Nature Iraq, and campaigned for the marshes to be reflooded – to be brought back to life. With his family still in the America, Azzam threw himself into his work and his mission to bring back at least some of the marshes’ former prosperity. To try and return it to the place he once experienced with his father. If you watched a nature documentary about the marshes in the 90s or early 2000s, there’s about a 100% chance Azzam was featured in it.
ARCHIVAL RECORDING: (Newsreader) Dr. Azzam Alwash often visited the marshes as a child 30 years ago.
He was everywhere – telling anybody who would listen about the destruction of his homeland.
ARCHIVAL RECORDING: (Azzam Alwash) It’s the worst crime of the century, the worst environmental crime of the century – not to speak anything about the humanitarian aspect of this.
DANA BALLOUT: After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Azzam started to see things turn around. With the regime gone, foreign money started pouring in from the UN and others. And with that money, programmes to reflood the marshes. Diggers tore down the embankments and dams that had choked the wetlands, and in the winters, water gradually began to flow through them again.
(Azzam Alwash) We’re coming to it.
(Newsreader) Oh that’s where you knocked the hole in the dyke!
(Azzam Alwash) That’s right!
DANA BALLOUT: People who had long since left the area came back to help with the effort, moving back into their old communities.
ARCHIVAL RECORDING: (Azzam Alwash) Indeed, I got the last laugh!
AZZAM ALWASH: When the marshes were restored, they came back at an age of modernization. So people don’t have to live inside the marshes anymore. They can live on cities on the outside of the marshes and then ride the boat. And within 15 minutes they could reach what used to take four hours to rach by polling. The world is a big village anymore. You know, living inside the marsh does not mean that you disconnect from civilization. You could be part of civilization while enjoying nature. And frankly, they’re not living there to enjoy nature. They’re living there to live off of nature. So, I romanticise the life of the marsh, but it is in fact a harsh way of life.
DANA BALLOUT: Reflooding was also a slow process. water levels only ever got to about 75% of what once were been before Saddam Hussein’s destruction. The marshes were also returning to a different world than they had once thrived in. In the decade since they’d dried up, temperatures in the region had increased.
ARCHIVAL RECORDING: (Newsreader) A recent drought has caused the levels of both the Tigris and the Euphrates to fall.
DANA BALLOUT: Iraq and the Middle East also happen to be one of the place in the world most affected by climate change.
ARCHIVAL RECORDING: (Newsreader) Over the past two years, rainfall has only been about 30-40 percent of normal levels.
AZZAM ALWASH: Climate change is a threat, definitely a threat. Not only to Iraq, but the entire region. And frankly, if we don’t start addressing it today, we will have – not only we – but the world will have a problem. The effects of climate change on Iraq and the region are going to be doubled. It’s not just a negative effects associated with the weather phenomenon, but also the fact that our economy is going to be hurt majorly.
DANA BALLOUT: The climate crisis isn’t the only threat. Upriver, the Turkish government is underway with a massive hydroelectric project – building dams that would keep water in Turkey, away from the marshlands.
So right now, the future of the marshes is uncertain. With all of these converging threats, its hard to see a world where they return to the state they were in, during Azzam’s childhood. But he remains hopeful.
AZZAM ALWASH: The restoration of these marshes is not the only the responsibility of Iraq. The maintenance of these marshes into future is not only the responsibility of Iraq; it’s the responsibility of the world to help Iraq keep these marshes alive.
DANA BALLOUT: And you said you have children of your own. Have you taken them?
AZZAM ALWASH: Unfortunately the situation in Iraq has not allowed me to take them to the marshes yet and I certainly hope that one day I will be able to visit the marshes with them. And then maybe then they will understand why it was missing in their teenagehood.
DANA BALLOUT: You think a big part of your life’s mission has been the marshes and it kind of took away from…
AZZAM ALWASH: Unfortunately I feel at a loss. Iraq and the restoration of the marshes have not been without a price for me personally. I lost important moments in my children growth. I missed their first dates. I missed their – what do you call them? – their spelling bee wins, their proms, their birthdays. I’ve tried to come back, but it’s two opposite sides of the world. And so I was missing in action during their teenagehood. And here is what makes me emotional. The fact is if I knew what the price would be, I would still do it. Because frankly, it’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than my own personal happiness. In a sense, yes. I can not tell you that I’m altruistic. It has worked towards my ego. I mean, as a professional, I’ve had a rewarding career over the past 18 years, working for the marshes and the water and the restructuring of Iraq – on a professional level. But on the personal level, the price was heavy. I hope to make it up to them. I hope to be there when the grandchildren are growing. And I hope I can take them – both the grandchildren and my children – to the marshes and show them the results and show them pictures of when it was dried when I first arrived, and I hope they can forgive me.
DANA BALLOUT: This episode was produced by me Dana Ballout, Alex Atack and Tamara Juburi. Fact checking was by Deena Sabry, and sound design and mixing by Alex Atack and Mohamad Khreizat. Our team also includes Nadeen Shaker and Zeina Dowidar.
A special thanks to Azzam Alwash for speaking to us so candidly.
You can find a transcript of the episode at our website; kerningcultures.com.
We’ll be back next week. Thanks for listening.