Between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in what was once the centre of Mesopotamia, lies an area of wetland known as Al-Ahwar of southern Iraq. It was on this spot, between the 4th and 3rd millennium BCE, that Sumerians built their houses from reeds native to the marshlands, an ancient architectural practice still followed today. Under a constant threat of drought, the marshes hold the livelihood of thousands of families currently living there, herding buffalo, fishing and collecting and selling reeds as a way of life.

In this work, Re-Imagining Return to the Marshes, I offer a critical response to the book Return to the Marshes, by Young and Wheeler (published in 1977). A book that has been influential to my visual imagination of the Iraqi Marshes.

I intervene, intrude, and interrupt their pages with my own photographic documentation of the Iraqi marshes, as well as archival images sourced from Iraqis in Iraq and the diaspora. This work presents my own and archival images from fellow Iraqis as a way of further re- imagining and reclaiming narratives of these marshes.

*For this exhibition, I am presenting a few of my images of the wetlands along with imagined layouts from the upcoming book. This project is a work in-progress.



The first image is divided into two sides. On the left, there is a small, dated photograph that is juxtaposed to the back of a light brown book cover. The photograph, while being positioned in the center of the canvas, creates a strong focus for the observer through the sharp rectangular edges, positioning and contrast of the colours with the background. On the right is a blank white page with the following question in the center: “Can histories be colonized even in imagination?”

Further detailing the photograph on the left, is an archival photo from the 1970’s. There are 3 Iraqi individuals sitting in a relaxed state on a boat in the Marshes. They are visitors- internal tourists to the marshes, noticeable with their modern-city styled clothing. Though the boat is not visible, there is a woman in the foreground of the photo with two men beside her. The woman is wearing a purple patterned headwrap, a medium-brown deep scoop t-shirt, a tonal yellow-brown polka dot skirt, with a narrow scarf draped around her neck. Beside her, sitting in the middle of the boat, is a middle-aged man with medium-length black hair. He wears a light blue button up t-shirt with jeans of a similar but slightly darker colour. At the end of the boat is a gentleman with a parted and slicked combover hairstyle, black glasses, and a dark green sweater that is layered over a white collared shirt. Unique to this photo is the varying postures of each person. They all demonstrate a tranquil-like posture, with the woman looking into the camera lens but leaned back on one arm and cross-legged, the man in the middle is side-sitting while looking out to the Marshes, and the last gentleman is pictured looking at the water. The photograph of these three internal tourists in the Marshes were selected by Tamara to symbolically play on her identity as also being from Iraq, but feeling like a tourist that balances an outsider gaze.   


On this page, there is a layout of two single photographs on the left and right side of the book. The photographs are superimposed on a matte-grey background, with each photograph positioned in the middle, outlined with a thin white border. On the left is an archaeological Sumerian figurine, which is juxtaposed with a Modern Marsh Arab, both of whom are ancestrally connected and said to live in the same geographic area respective of time. This point is further emphasized by a short caption on the left side of the left image which states, “An ancient Sumerian figurine in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, and a Marsh Arab who lives today were Sumer once was.” 

This image is of a Sumerian figurine from the museum of Baghdad. The figurine is a clay-like grey statue that was sculpted from the waist up wearing what appears to be a hat which accompanies his long beard that ends at the sternum. He has a thin to muscular build and has both of his arms bent and in front of him. 

To the left of the image are two short paragraphs, one in English and the other in Arabic. The English iteration on top states: “An ancient Sumerian figurine in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, and a Marsh Arab who lives today were Sumerian was.”

Standing on a higher ground than the background, Tamara photographs a modern Marsh Arab boy from 2018. He has curly hair and wears an Adidas jacket with a colorful beaded necklace. The sunlight is strong in this image, highlighting the variable colours on the garments, as well as the shadows of curls that are reflected on the boy’s face. He stands with his arms behind his back, looking directly into the lens-ever so slightly squinting with the bright sunshine in his face. In the background, out of focus and far out in distance, is the scenery of a river, the edge of a boat, and several homes. This image was taken in Chibayish, Iraq, and is the main town on the outskirts of the Marshes. 


In this standalone photograph taken by Tamara, she captures a long dirt road that extends through the middle of the Marshes. The colours of the image are lightly muted with differing shades of browns, blues, and hints of greens. Unique to this photo is the perspective, as the point of view positions the observer in the middle of a lengthy road. We witness the height of the reeds on the left, and patches of water on the right. This road was created during the ex-president, Saddam Hussein’s era, which also gives the historical symbolism of construction that oppressed the residents. In the far distance, The road extends several kilometres, and in its width, it is wide enough for tanks and military arsenal/personnel to be transported.   


On this page, there are four photographs, and two major descriptions that appear on the left. Strikingly, the composition of this page places a muted tonal image of stairs in the background, that is superimposed with brighter and vibrant pictures in front. The general layout of this page is: on the left side, there are two images that appear in a textbook fashion with captions, and on the right, a well-lit photo of a staircase that is smaller in dimension to showcase the background image.

On the top of the page on the left, there is a title and subtitle that has been covered with a thick black line. This is Tamara’s artistic intervention, in which she stated, “I’m not censoring the whole book, I wouldn’t do that, I want to have a conversation with the book.

 Below, there is a caption in an aesthetically classic textbook manner that was written by Tamara which states, “Below: The Sumerian Ziggurat of Ur and its royal cemetery were excavated by British archaeologist Leonard Woodley in the 1920’s while Iraq was still a British colony. The Sumerian treasures that were stolen from the royal cemetery can now be seen at the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania.” As part of Tamara’s artistic intervention, the addition of the caption was designed to fulfil often missing (stolen) histories when describing The Sumerian Ziggurat of Ur. This caption is paired with a photograph by Tamara of the Ziggurat. The perspective is around 100 feet away from the Ziggurat, displaying the long road and sandy-rocky surrounding. The Ziggurat is a large pyramidal structure with a far-reaching staircase running through the centre. It is a light brown-greyish colour, and is illuminated by the intense sunlight.

 Underneath is a photo which was taken by Tamara, that depicts an image of what was the Ziggurat of Ur and the royal cemetery on a bright sunny day. In the middle is a man in blue clothing named Abu Jassim, in which he stands beside sandy grey brick structures, the remnants of what was once a mausoleum. Given the distance of this photo, Tamara illuminates the size of the structure by demonstrating how small Abu Jassim stands in the center.

On the right side and the background of this page, there are two photographs superimposed on one another. Uniquely, the photograph on the right was taken by Tamara, and is from the same vantage point as the one underneath. They each illustrate the same staircase going up the Ziggurat, except Tamara’s photo was taken in 2018, and the background photo is from 1970’s. Strikingly, Tamara’s photograph showcases grey stones with a bright blue sky, whereas the photograph underneath has warm-brown hues.


In this standalone image, Tamara captures a picture of a house in the Marshes. On first glance, it appears as though t this structure was created through materials foraged in the locale.  Centered on a dirt road surrounded by water, the house is made of reeds. The reeds are peering from the top of the house and is tightly wrapped with a large white tarp-like cloth that was sewn together. On the ground, in front of the home, there is a large, grey satellite dish, with a large antenna that extends through the top of the home. A single tree branch in front of the home that is tied with barbed wire from a wooden post on the side, which is mostly used for structural purposes. In the background is the relative isolated scenery within the Marshes as both sides of the home are surrounded with water and small patches of dried-grassy land. Beside the home, there is a small boat, representing a common mode of transportation for people in the Marshes. Notable in this image is the white-very light grey sky, creating an atmosphere that appears right before or after rainfall.


On this page, there is a spread of four pictures, symmetrically laid out in a two-by-two format with a thick black border separating each photograph. Together, these images have a faded aesthetic, with emphasis on a center subject, and lots of negative space to illustrate the reeds in the landscape.

  On the upper left, is a woman standing amidst a large collection of reeds, as she breaks them with both hands. In the background, there is a clay-like structure that is emitting fire. This fire is fueled by the reeds collected by the woman to be an apparatus on which to make bread. The woman is in a fully black outfit with a headscarf and a floral black and faded red jacket. Her left hand is positioned over her face, with the reeds only allowing a slight peak of her eye, gripped with hands detailed in red nail polish, adding an extra dimension of colour to the faded photograph.

  On the upper right, there is a man standing with his back facing the camera, in a faded black, cape-like top. He is standing on a military road, landscaped by wet-muddied ground, looking at the reeds in front of him.

  The lower left photograph is a house made of reeds. It is a larger sized structure compared to someone’s home, and thus represents the guest house, a tradition of individuals in this area.

Most eye-catching to this photo is the intricate weaving of reeds in the construction of the home. The braided-like patterns are neatly and tightly created to form a house structure that has many differing structural supports such as columns and roofing. Done exclusively with reeds, this style of home has been a practice of the Sumerian people for thousands of years.

  The bottom right photo, not taken by Tamara, consists of a younger and older woman standing on a medium-sized boat that is carrying reeds in the middle of the marshes. Both women are holding separate ores as they traverse the waters of the Marshes. This photo was taken during the 1970’s, and it showcases both women smiling. The one on the left wears a black headscarf and a long blue shirt, and the woman on the right is wearing a black headscarf with a long purple shirt.


In this image, we see the edge of a piece of land located in Chibayish that is surrounded by the Euphrates River. On the left, there is the foundation of a reed house that is under construction, and many brown-green shrubs surrounding it. In front the foundation is a medium sized fence that is held by multiple brown and white stakes.  


Mona, 12, pushes along the river

Mona, a strong 12-year-old adolescent, pushes her boat over the river. The artist has superimposed this image to fit a two-pages photo of the original book, achieving an extraordinary effect of fusing the past and the present. The background belongs to the original book and there’s a glimpse of a net that suggests that the person in the old boat was fishing. Mona’s image replaces part of the original boat, and with her colorful clothes she diligently carries out her everyday duties.

Mona’s unusual strength takes the spotlight in this composition, to emphasize the importance of women’s work to keep the community alive. They learn from a very young age how to milk the buffalos. They also collect and sell reeds and go fishing. Muna’s energy is just an expression of the strength of other women. When Mona grows up, she will also have to take care of the children, as other women in the community do, adding up to their everyday tremendous number of tasks.

The landscape has changed, though. In the original photo, several houses are built near the shore, while in the most recent image there are mostly buffaloes grazing. Tamara shared that the population of the village has decreased significantly, as the new generations have moved to the cities for several reasons, mostly related to climate change and environmental degradation caused by the construction of dams. Many people came back during the occupation of the US, when the dams were reopened, and the flux of water increased. However, the quality of the water has changed: it used to be sweet water and now it is salty. There’s a constant threat of not being able to sustain this way of life. They thrive as much as they can.


Crowdsourced images of the 1960’s are superimposed over the archival image of a man standing on his boat, wearing a dishdasha, which is a traditional tunic. He is also wearing a turban and he is watching towards the camera, holding an oar. The houses behind him suggest the larger population that was still on the shore. Some clothes hang outside the homes as an expression of the everyday life in this area.

  This photo is superimposed over an image of the 1977 book. In the background, a flock of pelicans fly over the shore. This composition documents the changes in the population of the village, and how it has transformed over time with the constantly changing water levels and number of inhabitants. At the present, though, the original fauna of the region has decreased considerably: the birds and the fish that used to populate the marsh have also suffered the effects of climate change as has the quality of the water in the area.  Tamara felt that the combination of images evokes the evolution of the region throughout time.


In this photo of 2018, Tamara captured the image of a man making his way towards the homes of the nearby town of Chabayish. The man is dressed in a suit and is heading downhill while he speaks on the phone and tries to keep his balance in the unpaved streets of the village. This town is a very important place for the people of the marsh, as it is the nearest place where they can access schools and other essential services. This is a colourful photo, where a blue sky complements the many bed sheets that are hanging outside to be refreshed. The brick houses seem to be unfinished, particularly the roofs. However, the windows are charming and big enough to allow the light and the air to bring joy to their homes. Most of the homes have one floor and they have colourful water reservoirs. Most houses are not painted, but they are quite clean and the blankets are very warm and full of colours. Although they are probably made in China, they are quite popular in the Middle East to stay warm on cold winter days.


This is a set of six images, where some of them are archival and some of them are original to the book Tamara used as a primary inspiration. These are arranged in two columns: the left column belongs to Young’s book, while the right column includes archival photos that were kindly shared by a graphic designer’s grandfather. He visited the area in the 70’s, and these images helped Tamara achieve the goal of presenting two different perspectives of the region during the same period.

In the first photo on the left, the book presents a small wooden hut next to one made of reeds. The book’s description reads: “New building and the traditional style.” On the right, Tamara chose a photograph of a reed home next to the river and included her friend’s description: “A reed house on the Majad District of Sahin Marsh.” Both houses are just next to the river. The archival photo shows a bigger home made of reeds, and there’s a boat just in front of it. The descriptions next to each photo are both in English and Arabic.

At that time, the blankets, the mattresses and the pillows were made locally, and this is clearly mentioned both in English and Arabic next to the second photo in the left column. They are colourful, but in this image, they are inside a room, and they have a distinctive design of flowers and geometric motives. Next to this photo on the right, there are four people walking in the marsh, next to the houses. Two of them are clearly women: an adolescent and an older lady. A text next to the photo mentions: “I remember this like it was yesterday, we were being invited to have breakfast with this man [referring to the man in the photo].” This was in the Bisan District of the marsh Hor Il Sahin (Mohamed Al-Jaff). The same text is written below in Arabic. The family is next to their home made of reeds, and a boat at the shore appears in the lower part of the image. These are two perspectives of the domestic life of the people who inhabited the marsh at the time.

The third left column photo’s description reads: “Flour mill in operation.” A man and a woman are standing next to it, working, while four women in the back, all of them dressed in black, are doing other tasks related to the operation. They are all inside a house where the photographer played with the shadows and light to create a balanced composition. Next to this photo, in the right column, the archival image presents four adolescents standing over the roof of a boat that is floating in the river. Three of them are looking at the camera, while one of them looks to the side. They are all wearing the traditional robe or dishdasha. The photographer describes the image as follows: “Young boys, residents of the Bisan District, stand on their father’s boat.” Each text is in both in English and Arabic. 


Over the two-page image of a lonely boat at daybreak, Tamara superimposed in perfect harmony a photo she took of an adolescent returning from a long night fishing in the river. The young man is sitting in a stone near the shore, wearing fishing boots and the usual modern gear to carry out this task: pants and a windbreaker. His hair is short. He is smiling at the camera with a fresh look, despite the long hours of work catching fish in the river. This specific image fits perfectly with the rocks at the shore of the Euphrates River and evokes how the past and the present are still recognizable in the same space. The image in the back shows an empty boat with some hints of early sunlight. The clouds reflect in the river and the scene contrasts with a brighter image at the same hour, which catches the freshness of a proud young man. Tamara mentions that the original photos at the time did not include many people, or any information about who they are and what they are doing. They are mostly landscapes. The artist wanted to add the human beings who give life, joy and content to an otherwise lonely scene, and she wanted to reflect the warmth she received from everyone she met during her travels to the area. There are no captions for this photo.


Tamara took this photograph in 2018. At the centre, a man is standing, looking to the right. He is wearing the gray traditional tunic or dishdasha and a turban. He has a white beard and is trying to make his way through the reeds. Tamara mentions that walking in that area is quite a peculiar experience, as the soil is so humid and soft, that the feet slightly sink into the land with every step. These are floating islands in the marsh, and everything is covered by reeds. Tamara explains that they represent one of the main forms of subsistence for the inhabitants of the marsh. The water buffaloes are also quite important for these people, and they are very calm: the herds leave in the morning and come back at sunset, without anyone taking care of them. They just know what to do. They have not arrived yet in this image, though. It is possible to perceive what is probably a house or a fence made of reeds. An electricity generator is almost hidden behind the reeds, and there are some other objects that speak about the daily life of the three families who live on this island: a red and white blanket is airing out over a pile of bundles of reeds. The ephemeral character of the lands implies a constant renovation with new materials from time to time, but the process is always the same. 


In the background, there is a misty scene in the marsh. There are buffaloes drinking from the Euphrates River, while four men standing in two boats appear to be talking. A couple of houses made of reeds are next to the shore, and a campfire is burning in the lower left part of the photo. In the distance, it is possible to distinguish some trees on the other side of the river. The image is placed over two pages, and the original photographer captioned it as “A cold morning at Rufaiya.” Below this text, there was some random historic information that Tamara chose to delete, since she wished to highlight the image of a woman standing on a small pile of bricks. This small space is surrounded by water, and the woman is carrying over her head a rustic laundry container, in which she carries the blankets that she has just washed. The author includes the following text next to the photos: “Basna is the mother of five daughters and four sons. Here, she has just finished washing blankets in the river of the ‘Hailab’ marsh.” In this way, Tamara brings to the attention the present everyday life in the marsh and gives prominence to the hard work of the women in the area. She wishes to draw attention to the person who is in the photo. While the original image renders the human beings involved in the 1970’s photo anonymous, Tamara emphasizes who this woman is and what she achieves as a regular part of the household chores. Basna’s image has some hints from the changes in the landscape: the buffaloes graze in the distance, and a pair of ducks swim placidly just next to her. The constant changes in the weather and the amount of water in the Euphrates River have changed the landscape in a significant manner. But the way of life stays much the same for the inhabitants of the marsh. 



In this combination of old and new visions of the marsh, Tamara chose an image of a landscape that remains mostly unchanged and included a photo she took of a fisherman standing on his boat, working. Both images are displayed in two pages, and Tamara’s photo is in the foreground, superimposed with some transparency with the background. The original photo of the book does not include any person, and both show the vastness of the territory, where the wetlands share their aquatic richness with the humans that live there, proud and generous like the lifestyle they have chosen to keep since time immemorial.