Iraq’s iconic southern marshes draw visitors from around the world but up until now they had nowhere to see how ordinary people lived in this area – until one local student started showing off his collection.
In the museum that Raad Habib al-Asadi built. (photo: Niqash)
It might seem like a strange habit for young man but Raad Habib al-Asadi has been collecting primitive tools from around his neighbourhood for the past few years – and his neighbourhood just happens to be Jabayesh, in Iraq’s famed southern marshes. Jabayesh lies about 95 kilometres east of Nasiriyah, the capital of Dhi Qar province, and covers an area of about 600 square kilometres.
Ever since he had been a child, al-Asadi had studied the nature around him and history was one of his favourite subjects too. He began to notice that the tools used by some of the people around him were strikingly similar to those of the ancient Sumerians who inhabited this area around 3500 BC.
“So I started to use part of my student allowance to buy the old tools that, to me, seemed to document the lives of the people of the marshes,” al-Asadi told NIQASH. “I was then able to document the way people lived here, through the tools they used, the jobs they did and the clothes they wore.”
Finally, after amassing a sizeable collection, al-Asadi decided to display all of the goods in a museum that he and his family built, now called the Iraqi Marshes Museum.
“This museum is preserving a very iconic heritage,” Amer Abdul-Razzaq, the director of the history museum in Nasiriyah, told NIQASH. “When you preserve artefacts from the lives of the people in the marshes, you are harking back to the ancient Sumerian age, and we wholeheartedly support the idea.”
Al-Asadi’s father sold some of his sheep and some of his ancestral tribal land in order to fund the construction of the museum and make his son’s dream come true. The museum is built out of reeds and papyrus in keeping with the styles of the ancient Sumerian reception halls, even though, measuring about 30 meters by 10 meters, the museum is bigger than the originals would have been.
“Foreign tourists often come here to visit archaeological sites and they are also interested in how ordinary people live here,” al-Asadi’s father, Habib, explained. “That’s what motivated my son to document the lives of the people in these ancient marshes.”
Even though Iraq’s marshes were declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2016, plans to invest in tourism facilities in this area or in the welfare of the locals have not progressed much, due to both political and security issues. Many of the locals here still live low-income, agrarian lifestyles and must deal with poor state services.
On display in the museum are the 400 items in al-Asadi’s collection. They include cooking utensils, reed-cutting tools and the equipment used to build boats or dwellings.
"Some of the pieces are very old,” al-Asadi explained. “Such as the millstones used to grind grain and the copper cooking pots, which date back 300 years, as well as a special pot used for bathing and children’s shoes.” Also on display are taxidermy models of birds native to the marshes, some of which are endangered. Al-Asadi hopes that their presence will remind visitors of the importance of preserving local nature.
The young man also started to collect women’s jewellery, ornaments and gemstones. The stones have a special significance, al-Asadi explains. “This agate was thought to create spiritual ties,” he points out one rock, “and others were used to treat diseases and snake bites.”
It hasn’t been easy to get the museum going: Al-Asadi used part of his university bursary to fund the museum and he thinks it probably cost him around IQD70 million (around US$58,000) altogether. A telecommunications company topped up his budget with another IQD20 million donation (around US$16,600) and to cover his remaining costs, he borrowed money that he is still currently repaying.
Visitors to the museum are asked to pay a donation of not more than IQD2,000 (US$1.60) to enter. That sum is supposed to help fund the museum’s daily costs. At the same time though, the museum, which has been open for around nine months now, didn’t get too many visitors over summer because it was so hot and humid in the area. So al-Asadi had to pay the salaries of the three part-time staff there out of his own pocket as well as pay back his loan. None of that has prevented him from continuing to look for more tools and artefacts to add to the museum’s collection though.