In When all the Lands Were Sea Tor Eigeland tells us the story of his 1967 mission as a photojournalist to chronicle the lives of the Ma’dan people, also known as the Marsh Arabs. They lived between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in traditional Mesopotamia where the ‘Garden of Eden’ was said to have been.
Their 5,000 year old culture was seldom seen by foreigners and he explains all the red tape he had to go through to eventually get the permit. When he finally does hire a boat and get out to the marshes the people treat him as an honored guest and he gets to really see their culture and way of life.
Water buffalos are an integral part of life for the Marsh Arabs - they use their dung as fuel for their fires and they make dairy products from their milk. The Ma’dan spend much time fishing, grow rice and make houses and mats out of reeds. In their watery world they canoe everywhere, even sometimes to their neighbor’s houses as each one is usually on its own little reed island.
It’s a heartening story to see a bit of their culture, for as you may know, in the 1990’s Saddam Hussein drained the marshes that were their lifeblood and burned the reeds that they’d built their homes with. He was trying to wipe them out entirely as they had helped some of the others in the south to rebel against him.
The result was desertification and what was called by the UN Environmental Program “one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters.” A 5,000 yr old culture was destroyed. Many of the Ma’dan ended up in refugee camps in neighboring Iran. Most of southern Iraq lost their dairy products, fish, and rice cultivation. Several animal and botanical species became extinct and migratory birds disappeared, disrupting wildlife across Eurasia and Africa.
There were some attempts to restore the area after Saddam was ousted, but so much had changed - including the water becoming so salty that it’s undrinkable -that it was not successful and there are very few people there now.
When all the Lands Were Sea is an important book because it gives you a glimpse of a world that doesn't exist anymore through Eigeland’s pictures.
When all the Lands Were Sea, Tor Eigeland, Interlink Books, 2015