Chibayish, a small district in the Mesopotamian marshes, is a bit different from the rest of Iraq. The region, in the Shiite heartland, seems to have always stood apart, a haven in a war-torn country, an oasis in the desert.
I learned about the Mesopotamian marshes while living in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq. When I decided to head south, most of my Kurdish friends didn’t really see the point. Most of them didn’t even know the marshes existed.
These marshes are a mythical place. The Bible locates the Garden of Eden here. Many scholars describe it as the cradle of civilization. It’s the place where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet and divide into dozens of channels before flowing into the Persian Gulf.
I flew to Basra, Iraq’s second largest city. The name evokes images of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Today, Basra is run by the powerful Hashd al-Shaabi, the Shiite popular mobilization units that serve as an umbrella organization for disparate groups like the Badr and Hezbollah. In Basra, a local friend didn’t really see the point of going to the marshes either. “What is there to see up there?” he asked as we ate baklava.
The Mesopotamian marshes are made up of three separate marshes: the al-Hammar, the al-Hawizeh, and the Central marsh, where Chibayish is located, right on the bank of the Euphrates. Iraq’s marshes used to be a tourist hotspot in the 1970s and the 80s. Domestic and foreign visitors would come to observe the rich wildlife: dozens of species of birds, foxes, and lions. They’d visit the neighboring Sumerian archeological sites, and enjoy the relatively cool weather. The area—up to nearly 8,000 square miles of water, reeds, and islands—is inhabited by the Ma’dan, known as the Marsh Arabs.
To flush out the guerrillas and punish the tribesmen who had helped them, Hussein drained the marshes