Formed by the overflow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the marshes of southern Iraq once constituted the largest wetlands in western Eurasia and have been inhabited since at least the time of the Sumerians in the late sixth millennium B.C.
As recently as the 1970s, these marshes encompassed6,000 square miles and supported a thriving community of 250,000 to 400,000 indigenous inhabitants. In the mid-'70s, photographer Nik Wheeler documented their way of life, and his remarkable photographs from that era are the focus of "Iraqi Marshlands Then and Now: Photographs by Nik Wheeler," on display at the Fowler Museum at UCLA from Dec. 14 through March 22, 2009.
Commonly known as "Marsh Arabs," the herding and fishing people of the Iraqi marsh region lived on islands made of mud and compacted reeds. Even their houses and community halls were made of reeds gathered from the marsh, creating the beautiful vernacular architecture captured in Wheeler's photographs. Also on display are intimate scenes of everyday life in the area, along with majestic overview aerial images of the region taken during Wheeler's second trip there, in 1975, when the government provided him with access to a Russian-built helicopter.
In the 1980s, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's engineers began building massive canals to drain the marshes, ostensibly to bring development to the region, but also as a means of controlling the local population. Following the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the Shiites of southern Iraq rebelled against the Sunni-dominated regime. Hussein retaliated with a campaign todecimate the predominately Shiiteindigenous population of the marshes,bombarding villages, killing livestock andminingthe water with explosives. By the time he was overthrown in 2003, fewer than 80,000 people were left in the marshes, and water covered less than20 percent of the original area.
Efforts are now underway to rehabilitate a portion of the marshlands, and recent photographs by Mudhafar Salim show some of the early results. Salim is a researcher for the Iraq Nature Conservation Society and senior author of the Arabic-language field guide "Birds of Iraq."
Nik Wheeler's wide-ranging photographic career includes war coverage, international politics and travel photography. He made his first trip to the marshes of Iraq in 1974, on an assignment for National Geographic. After the publication of that article, written by Gavin Young, Wheeler and Young collaborated on the book "Return to the Marshes," published in 1977. Wheeler is based in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"Iraqi Marshlands Then and Now" will be on view in the Fowler Museum's Goldenberg Galleria. The Fowler is open Wednesdays through Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. and Thursdays from noonto 8 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. The Fowler Museum, part of UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture, is located in the north part of the UCLA campus. Admission is free. Parking is available for a maximum of $9 in Lot 4. For more information, the public may call 310-825-4361 or visit www.fowler.ucla.edu.
Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009
Photographer Nik Wheeler and Azzam Alwash, director of the Eden Again/Nature Iraq program, discuss the history and present-day conditions of the Iraqi marshlands with UCLA anthropology professor Susan Slyomovics. The event is co-sponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies.