OIL IN WATER
After a breakfast of rice with buttermilk, chicken soup, flat bread and strong, bitter coffee, Robbie and Amara boarded Sayyid’s flat boat and with Sayyid at the helm, set out on a journey to look at the recently refreshed marsh towns. Sayyid poled the boat through the water, skimming past huge clumps of papyrus and cattails.
Robbie watched the scenery change, enchanted by his surroundings. The fear that had sat in the pit of his stomach during their midnight exodus from Baghdad and which caused the bile to rise to his throat with every human encounter had hung an “out to lunch” sign on his esophagus, but given that the sun had barely crept above the giant forests of reeds, an “out to breakfast” sign would have been more apropos.
Robbie had cloaked himself in the customary robe and turban of the Iraqis and upon Amara’s urging, had remained silent the entire trip. Amara told the various drivers that she was taking her mute brother to Al Huwayr, a boat building town near the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where they intended to buy a mashuf and return to Zayad, their recently reflooded ancestral home. Already, Amara said, their uncle and aunt and three children had returned. The ruse had worked and here among the bulrushes and papyrus, Robbie rubbed elbows with the ghosts of the last five millennium along with a way of life he hoped wasn’t dead, but merely on life support, and like the reflooded marsh town of Zayad, could be resurrected and helped to thrive again.
“These are the biggest reeds I’ve ever seen,” Robbie said.
“It is called qasab. It is a phragmites, like you see at your American bays. But these plants have been allowed to grow undisturbed, and without pollution,” Amara said. “They can grow as large as twenty-five feet. We use them for many things, our mashufs, our huts. Too, we build our mudhifs from them. These are large building where many people can gather. Like your community center.”
“This portion of the Al Hawizeh marsh is all that’s really left of twenty thousand square kilometers of fresh water marshes,” Sayyid said. “You know this measurement? It is the maybe seven hundred miles. My people lived here for centuries,” Sayyid said. “We believed we were comfortable. We believed we were safe.”
“Here they raise cow and oxen and water buffalo and spend much time in prayer,” Amara said.
“Water buffalo?” Robbie said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real one.”
“The water buffalo are very important to our way of life,” said Sayyid. “Early each morning the young boys take them to the feeding grounds. They do not return until the evening. All day they spend with the water buffalo.”
Amara laughed. “My grandfather told me a story that once he was up all night with a sick buffalo. He covered it with a blanket and nursed it back to health with a bottle and songs.”
“He sang to a buffalo?” Robbie asked.
“Yes. It is not uncommon. The Ma’adan depend greatly on the buffalo for their existence. He gives milk, among a great many other things and they thank God for this by treating the animals like family. It is not like America.”
“How do Americans treat their buffalo?” Sayyid asked
“I won’t tell you what happened to our buffalo,” Robbie said. “But I guess the modern-day equivalent would be the cow. We have two kinds, dairy and meat. The dairy cows have a cushy life compared to the meat cows, but nobody sings to them. At least not that I know of. Although I did hear once about a farmer who played music to his watermelons.”
Sayyid laughed, then grew quiet as he poled the boat through the water. “These marshes are all that is left. The Al Hammar and Central marshes are gone. Vanished. Like my people who inhabited them.”
“They will come back, Uncle. When the water returns, they will come back.”
“If God shall be willing,” Sayyid said. “You know this group? Assisting Marsh Arab Refugees? The AMAR Foundation they call themselves.”
“Yes. And I have read about another group,” Amara said, “called Eden Again. The head of this group is an American, born in Iraq. They seek to return the water, to bring back the fish to the marshes. It is this group we come to work with. To offer our assistance,” Amara turned to Robbie and squeezed his hand, “at great personal risk.”
“How do you plan to help?” Sayyid asked. “No doubt you will use your schooling that was so important to my brother.”
“Yes, uncle. I am sure they will need another biologist. And Robbie knows something about…” she turned to him for assistance.
“Environmental science. Back home I’m working on a degree,” Robbie said. “For the first time I have a good reason for it.”
“Uncle, may I?” Amara reached for the pole and Sayyid relinquished it with a smile, exchanging places with Amara in the boat.
“I know who you wish to find. Tomorrow I will take you to them. But today, we tour Al Hawizeh. It will be something for you to see,” Sayyid said, turning to Robbie. “This place is like nowhere else in the world. What Saddam has done is a crime against God and nature. He seeks to destroy the Ma’adan by destroying their way of life. But my people have inhabited these waters since the beginning. This is the Cradle of Civilization where the world began. Saddam thought to make history. And what has he done?” Sayyid spread his hands wide to emphasis his point.
“Not just genocide, but ecocide, uncle,” Amara said.
“Yes.” Sayyid turned to Robbie. “History will not be kind to him. But you have caught him. Now there is hope.” Sayyid returned his hands to his lap and gazed out over the water. “I am not a naive man. I do not dream that it all will be returned.” Sayyid gazed after the reeds and bulrushes as the boat glided past. Robbie noted the comely, proud profile.
“Do you find it strange that they should take your name?” Sayyid asked Amara.
The AMAR Foundation. Do you find it strange?” The marsh narrowed and Amara directed the boat toward a dense forest of reeds. “They say a man’s name predicts his future.” Sayyid raised his eyebrows in speculation. “Perhaps this is your destiny, Amara. To save your ancestors. To restore their lands.” Sayyid stood and took the pole.
“I can do it,” Amara said, but he motioned for her to sit down so she did.
“So much like my brother,” he mused. Amara smiled, trailing her fingers in the water.
The flap of wings, the sounds of fish surfacing and retreating, the smell of dense, wet vegetation, and a million hues of green, fanning out across the landscape all formed a backdrop to the peace rising up in Robbie’s soul. He felt the adrenaline and terror ebbing away with each rhythmic pull of Sayyid’s pole and that, coupled with a full belly, conspired to put him in a state of calm, the likes of which he had not experienced since he came to Iraq. A turtle jumped off the marsh and into the water. Amara pointed and turned to see if Robbie had noticed it, but like the baby Moses adrift in a bed of papyrus, Robbie now lay hidden and in the safety of the marshes, he slept.
to be continued. . .