A programme about the pitiful state of modern Basra ten years after the US-lead occupation of Iraq found fridges stacked up in shops, useless thanks to repeated electrical cuts. The drone of petrol generators filled the air, a deafening accompaniment to the 50-degree heat. The presenter, Hugh Sykes, had no trouble digging up horror stories. A bridge very recently built is already crumbling. “Even engineering has gone backwards,” someone wailed, cursing local corruption. Interviewees openly wept. This was a stunningly depressing vision.
But then he reunited with Hamid and Matrud, two farmers Sykes had already met a decade earlier growing cucumbers in the remains of the enormous marshlands 40 miles north-west of Basra, an area believed to be the original site of the Garden of Eden. Much of it was drained into a desert by Saddam in the 1990s as a punishment to the indigenous Marsh Arab tribes, who had risen against him in the aftermath of the first Gulf war. Although satellite photographs show that some marshland has recovered – there are patches of vivid green replacing the dead brown of Saddam’s deliberate desert – the water that has come back is salty because so many dams have been constructed upstream, mostly in Turkey, and there isn’t enough flow of fresh water from the Tigris and Euphrates to flush the natural salt from the marshes. No more cucumbers, no nothing. “Never again, here, the cathedral halls which were constructed with reeds celebrated by Wilfred Thesiger . . .” remarked Sykes, with such an intense wistfulness most of the words were made on one memorable extended out breath.
Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs (1964) is more famous though less accomplished than Gavin Maxwell’s 1957 A Reed Shaken by the Wind (Maxwell obtained his first otter in these very marshes: a cub called Chahala, “the size of a kitten with a delightful malty smell”). Maxwell was Thesiger’s travelling companion but is not mentioned once by Thesiger in his account. Thesiger lamented for the rest of his life the suburbanisation of this untamed, 3,000-square-kilometre watery place. And here was Sykes doing precisely the same, using the same language, 50 years later. That’s an unusually long extended out breath –but it seems a place unwilling, despite all efforts, to capitulate fully to any destructive force.