In dry Iraq, an artist wants to preserve the traditional gondola

Climate change and modern technologies threaten the meshhouf. In Baghdad, on the waters of the Tigris, Rachad Salim is fighting to preserve these boats which have been sailing “since the time of the Sumerians”.

Sailing on the Tigris Baghdad, young Iraqis lead traditional boats. In drought-hit iraq, the show is designed by an artist who wants to preserve these marsh gondolas, whose tradition dates back to the Sumerians. We must saveextinction an essential facet of our civilization, which has existed for four or five millennia», argues Rachad Salim, 62-year-old painter and sculptor, founder of the NGO Safina Projects.

Because the Meshhouf, this elongated gondola, built of wood and equipped with a tapered end, has kept the “same form since the time of the Sumerians», a prestigious Mesopotamian empire irrigated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq. From 2018, Rachad Salim went in search of the latest Meshhouf manufacturers. He finds them in Huweir, a locality in the south bordering the famous Iraqi marshes.

To rescue this boat from oblivion, which had been threatened since the 1980s by the proliferation of motorized boats, he placed orders for Meshhouf, joined nautical clubs or founded teams to teach young people how to operate it. On a spring afternoon in Baghdad, some of them in their twenties sail on 18 boats, on the occasion of a river show presented during a cultural festival. Equipped with a paddle, with strokes from left to right, they struggle to stay the course.

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“Communicate” with nature

Among the participants, some have only been rowing for a month, such as Omar Youssef, 21, who practiced solo windsurfing and sailing for five years. “These disciplines depend on the wind, you have to keep the balance with your body“, he explains. His new sport makes him work “shoulders and arms“. The Meshhouf is part of “the country’s history and heritage“, he underlines.

To date, seven clubs have been founded, in Baghdad, in the central province of Babylon and in southern Iraq, with funding from the United Kingdom and the Aliph Foundation, the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in the in conflict. The initiative enables young peoplecommunicate with the environment“says Rachad Salim. In an Iraq hit by climate change and drought, he laments the state “creepyof the rivers, in terms ofwater salinity or pollution“.

Nephew of the famous sculptor and painter Jawad Salim, this artist born into an Iraqi-German family is pionate about vernacular Iraqi art. In 2013, aboard traditional boats, he took part in a 1,200 km expedition on the Tigris, from southern Turkey to the far south of Iraq, organized by the NGO Nature Iraq. This was not his first adventure. In 1977, he was the youngest crew member of the Tigris, a huge reed ship of Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl, which traveled 6,800 kilometers on the high seas in 143 days.

From southern Iraq via the Arabian Sea, the Pakistan and finally Djiboutithe journey was intended to prove that the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia,Egypt and the Indus Valley were in contact via the seas.

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As for the Meshhouf, Rachad Salim wants to resuscitate the Guffa, a round boat similar to a large wicker basket, whose size can exceed two meters in diameter. But he would also like to find financially viable solutions to sustain his project and guarantee “jobs“.

400 kilometers further south, the 40-year-old Zouheir Raisan remembers how, as a child, he helped his father and his brothers to make Meshhoufs in Huweir, the size of which varied between five and 11 meters. “It’s been 30 years since we stopped“, he adds. But for four years, he has resumed this craft. In the shade of a traditional reed structure, the mudhif, he saws boards and helps his cousin nail them to a Meshhouf.

But he did not give up his job as a truck driver because it is impossible for the moment to live from his secondary activity. “Demand is not enough“, laments this father of eight children. “I could not meet the expenses of my household. Countries come in search of this heritage, to encourage its rebirth“, he recalls. “Why don’t we bring it back ourselves?»

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