ALTERNATE NAMES: Marsh Arabs
LOCATION: Iraq (marshes at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers)
RELIGION: Islam (Shi'ah Muslim)
The Ma'dan, or Marsh Arabs inhabit the marshy area at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. They are a seminomadic tribal people with their own distinct culture.
Ma'dan culture is based on the culture of the Bedu (Bedouin) nomads of the desert, adapted for life on the watery marshes. In general, the Ma'dan way of life has changed little in thousands of years. The pattern for simple reed canoes has been passed down from generation to generation. Their methods of hunting fish and the intricate designs for the woven walls of their houses have both existed for generations.
The marshes where the Ma'dan live are created by the annual flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Covering about 6,000 square miles (15,540 square kilometers), they can be divided into three parts: the Eastern Marshes east of the Tigris, the Central Marshes west of the Tigris and north of the Euphrates, and the Southern Marshes south of the Euphrates and west of the Shatt al Arab river.
The marshes are covered with rushes and reeds. Qasab , a kind of giant grass that looks like bamboo, covers most of the permanent marsh lands. It can grow as tall as 25 feet (7.6 meters). Natural islands, some floating and some anchored, dot the waters of the marshes. These islands are called tuhul. Their ground looks solid but it is actually very soggy.
There is no current population count for the Ma'dan. The fighting in the marshes during the Iran-Iraq war (1980–88) drove many Ma'dan from their homes. Others have left the marshes to live in the cities and towns on the "mainland." The Ma'dan and their ancient way of life may soon disappear altogether.
The Ma'dan speak a form of Arabic. (Theirs is generally considered a "lower" form by other Arabic speakers).
"Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are as-salam alaykum, "peace be with you," with the reply of walaykum as-salam, "and to you peace." Ma'assalama means "goodbye." "Thank you" is hukran, and "you're welcome" is àfwan; "yes" is na'am and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are wahad, ithnayn, thalatha, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, thamanya, tisa'a, and ashara.
Arabs' names consist of their first name, their father's name, and their paternal grandfather's name. Women do not take their husband's name when they marry but rather keep their father's last name.
Many Ma'dan have unusual names, especially for Muslims. Often, they give unattractive names to children to ward off the evil eye, especially for sons whose brothers died in infancy. The names Chilaib ("little dog"), Bakur ("sow"), and Khanzir ("pig") are common (even though Muslims consider those animals unclean). Other names include Jahaish ("little donkey"), Jaraizi ("little rat"), Dhauba ("hyena"), and even Barur ("dung").
The Ma'dan believe in jinn, bad spirits who can take the form of humans or animals. Unique to Ma'dan folklore are two marsh monsters: the anfish, a giant serpent with hairy skin; and the afa, a giant serpent with legs. Both are said to live somewhere in the heart of the marshes, and both are considered to be deadly.
The Ma'dan also believe in a place called Hufaidh. It is an island paradise located in the southwest part of the marshes, although no one knows exactly where. The jinn can hide the island from human sight. On this island are palaces, palm trees, pomegranate orchards, and huge water buffalo. It is believed that anyone who sees Hufaidh is bewitched. Afterward, no one will be able to understand anything the person says.
The Ma'dan are Shi'ah Muslims. However, they are not strict about following Muslim practices, such as praying five times a day facing Mecca. Karbala and Najaf are the Ma'dan's holy cities.
Most Ma'dan observe Islamic holidays, such as Ramadan, Eid al-Adha, and Eid al-Fitr. Few Ma'dan make the traditional Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Instead, most wish to make a pilgrimage to the city of Meshed. The shrine of the holy man (imam) Ali ar Ridha is located in Meshed. Anyone who makes this pilgrimage is given the title of zair.
Ma'dan boys are traditionally circumcised at puberty. However, many boys refuse because of the frequent occurrence of infection afterward.
After a death, some Ma'dan dye their turbans dark blue to signify mourning. Others put mud on their heads and clothes.
Ma'dan follow the traditional Arab code of honor, but with somewhat less dedication than other Arabs. The Ma'dan welcome all guests. They provide food and housing without expecting or accepting any payment. A host never helps to carry a guest's belongings out of the house because that would imply that the host wanted the guest to leave. Almost every village has a guest house, or a mudhif .
It is customary for a Ma'dan in a boat to offer the first greeting to a person on the shore. Similarly, a Ma'dan traveling downstream greets those traveling upstream.
The Ma'dan live in houses built of reeds, with reed mats for floors. There is no electricity, heat, or running water. All water is scooped out of the surrounding marshes. Ma'dan have few possessions, typically just a few water buffalo, a gun, some blankets and cooking utensils, and a reed canoe coated with bitumen (tar).
Houses are built on artificial islands created by enclosing a stretch of marsh with a fence of reeds about 20 feet (6 meters) high. Then reeds and rushes are packed inside the fence, becoming the foundation for the house. If the floor sinks or the water level rises, more reeds are added to the floor to bring it back up above water level. This type of house is called a kibasha .
A more permanent site is produced when mud from the floor of the marsh is used to cover the foundation. This type of house is called a dibin . If a family leaves a dibin unoccupied for more than a year, they lose their right to it and anyone may take possession of it.
Ma'dan homes have no indoor plumbing or toilets. In spite of this lack of sanitary conditions, the Ma'dan are a remarkably healthy people.
Each family group is headed by a sheik (leader). Marriages are arranged by parents, although a couple has some choice in the matter. Paternal first cousins have the first claim to a young woman for their bride. The father of an eligible paternal first cousin must grant permission in order for a young woman to marry anyone else. Polygyny is acceptable (up to four wives) but is rarely practiced.
Sex roles are clearly defined. Women do all the cooking and fetch the water. Men hunt and herd the water buffalo. Women never milk the buffalo. Men never pound or grind grain or make dung cakes for fuel. Ma'dan men and women do not eat together and are generally segregated in public life (although young children play together). Girls and women always sit behind boys and men in a canoe.
Children are called "chicks" by the Ma'dan.
Men wear a long, thin shirtlike garment that reaches to their calves or ankles. In the winter, they sometimes wear a jacket over it. They also wear the traditional Arab head cloth, usually without a rope to hold it in place (they simply tie it around the head). All grown men have short mustaches. Women wear dark robes that cover the entire body. Ma'dan women generally do not wear veils. However, they do cover their heads with long cloths or shawls. Only children wear colorful clothes; adults always wear plain light or dark clothes. Men usually wear white and women wear black.
The staple foods are fish and curdled water-buffalo milk. Some Ma'dan also grow rice. Bread is cooked over a fire on round clay platters. Men and women eat separately, and meals are always eaten in silence. All talking is done before and after the meal, never during it.
There are no schools in the marshes. Most Ma'dan parents want their children to have the advantages of a modern education. However, not all can afford to send them to the schools in the surrounding cities and towns. Their experience at these schools causes some young people to become unhappy with their lives and they leave the marshes.
Ma'dan culture is largely inherited from the Bedu (or Bedouin, a nomadic Arab group). They love to recite poetry, sing, and dance. Men do a war dance called the hausa. They dance in a circle holding their rifles over their heads and firing them.
Most Ma'dan support themselves by fishing and by hunting wild boars and birds. They also keep small herds of water buffalo, which they use for milk. Some Ma'dan also grow rice. Fish are traditionally caught with a five-pronged spear thrown from the bow of a canoe. A more modern method is to stun them with poisoned bait tossed onto the surface of the water. Only professional fishers, referred to as berbera, use nets.
Collecting the grass used as fodder for the water buffalo is a constant chore, usually assigned to young boys. Weaving reed mats for sale in the surrounding towns is a common source of extra income for the Ma'dan.
Hunting is both a necessity for survival and a favorite sport among the Ma'dan.
Singing and dancing are popular forms of entertainment among the Ma'dan. They also play a popular Arab game called mahaibis, or "hunt the ring." The players divide into two teams. One team gets the ring. Its members sit in a row with their hands under a cloak. One member of the other team stands in front of them and tries to guess who has the ring and in which hand.
The most common crafts among the Ma'dan are building and repairing canoes, weaving reed mats, and blacksmithing. Ma'dan blacksmiths make fishing spears, reed splitters, sickles (curved cutting tools), and nails for the canoes. Some Ma'dan weave woolen cloth that both men and women use for cloaks.
During the Iran-Iraq war (1980–88), many Ma'dan were driven out of their homes. Their few possessions were stolen, and their water buffalo were slaughtered for food by the armies.
Dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are reducing the flow of water to the marshes. This threatens the Ma'dan's territory and way of life. Since 1992, the Iraqi government has begun extensive irrigation projects that have included plans to drain the marshes. Young Ma'dan are leaving the marshes to live in the towns and cities. For all these reasons, the Ma'dan's numbers are decreasing rapidly.
Fulanain [pseud.]. The Marsh Arab, Haji Rikkan. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1928.
Hassig, Susan M. Cultures of the World: Iraq . New York: Marshall Cavendish Corp., 1993.
Thesiger, Wilfred. The Marsh Arabs . New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1964.