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Fowler Exhibit Showcases Marsh Arabs and Their 'Floating Houses'

Fowler Exhibit Showcases Marsh Arabs and Their 'Floating Houses'

Photographer Nik Wheeler, a Vietnam War photographer, photojournalist and now a freelance photographer, took the iconic National Geographic images of the Marsh Arabs, or Mad'an.

Wheeler's photos are salvage photography, preserving fading and dying cultures, and places and peoples of the past.

Additional photos accompany this article in UCLA Today.

By Alison Hewitt

A NEW IRAQ exhibit at the Fowler Museum plays against expectations of dry deserts by featuring the nearly extinct culture of the Marsh Arabs and their floating houses.

Roy Hamilton, the exhibit's curator, waxes poetic when remembering the National Geographic article from the '70s that inspired the exhibit.

"It was a fascinating article showing a way of life adapted to living in marshy waterways, living on essentially floating reed houses built on reed islands," Hamilton said. "The architecture was very beautiful."

The exhibit, featuring the decades-old magazine photos, is a look back at the once-flourishing Marsh Arab lifestyle before Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein embarked on an extermination campaign against the area's Shiite population. The marshes were drained and mined, and where more than a quarter million people once lived, less than a third have returned.

Photographer Nik Wheeler, a Vietnam War photographer, photojournalist and now a freelance photographer, took the original and iconic National Geographic images of the Marsh Arabs, or Mad'an. Today, he describes the marshes in southern Iraq with a sense of fondness and loss. "It's a place that was very unique in the world, especially in the Middle East, where it's very sandy and dry, and not thought of as having a water-borne community of people living on islands and poling about in canoes, fishing and raising water buffalo."

The marshes, know as Hor by the Mad'an, are formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers a few hundred miles south of Baghdad in southern Iraq. It was a difficult place to visit even before Hussein targeted the marshes, Wheeler recalled.

"In the '70s, the Iraqi government said the marshes were a refuge for draft-dodgers and political malcontents, and said it was too dangerous to visit," the photographerr said. "But on top of that, the logistics of getting in were impossible. There were no restaurants to eat in or hotels to stay in, so unless you had contacts inside the marshes, there was no way to get around and nowhere to eat or sleep."

But Wheeler managed to visit in the '70s, when the Mad'an way of life was unique and pristine, with few intrusions from the modern world, he said.

One of the most captivating features in the exhibit is the photographs of the houses, built entirely from local materials in the marshes. Wheeler recalled watching the Marsh Arabs, travel in wooden canoes to cut reeds, dry them and then bundle them together.

"The houses are made only out of reeds," Wheeler explained. "They made columns from the thick, giant rushes and gather 30-40 of them together to make pillars, and interweave them for a skeleton frame. They added reed mats, and even the decoration on the front of the homes is fancy lattice work made of the reeds. There's no glass, no nails, no wood." Even the islands the houses rest on are made of compacted mud and rushes.

These scenes contrast starkly with recent photos (primarily by photographer Mudhafar Salim) showing the destruction and later attempts to rebuild. Visitors see that a way of life that was perfectly adapted to the environment was destroyed, and that politics can wreak environmental and ecological devastation, said Hamilton, the Fowler's curator of Asian and Pacific collections.

"Unfortunately, it's hardly a way of life that's viable anymore," Hamilton added. "It's more of a window into a way of life that once existed."

UCLA Anthropology Professor Susan Slyomovics, who will participate in a public conversation on the exhibit with Wheeler on Jan. 11, said Wheeler's photos serve the practical purpose of serving as a model for the restoration of the region. But there is also the "obvious beauty" of the pictures, she said.

"Wheeler's photos are salvage photography, preserving fading and dying cultures, and places and peoples of the past," Slyomovics said.
 
Wheeler held out hope that the marshes could recover, and noted optimistically that the recent photos show that the Mad'an still practice their tradition of building all-reed houses.

"I hope people come away from this exhibit with a certain nostalgia for that way of life, which still exists in a very limited way today," Wheeler said. "I hope it will make them think about the value of having civilizations that are so strikingly different from the modern way of life, that are in harmony with their natural surroundings."
 
The exhibit, "Iraqi Marshlands Then and Now," runs through March 22 at the Fowler on UCLA's campus. Admission is free. For more information, call 310-825-4361 or visit the Fowler's website.

Center for Near Eastern Studies