A Q&A with Steve Lonergan about THE GHOSTS OF IRAQ'S MARSHES

“I view the people as custodians of this great wetlands ecosystem”

A Q&A with Steve Lonergan, co-author of The Ghosts of Iraq’s Marshes (AUC Press, 2024).

In 2005, I was invited by the Canadian government to lead a project working with Iraqis on the restoration of the Marshes. Despite having read the original UN report on the demise of the Marshes two years before, it was only after the project began that I realized the magnitude of the environmental and humanitarian disasters that accompanied the draining of the wetlands by the Iraqi regime in the early 1990s. After the US invasion in 2003, former residents took the initiative and began destroying dikes, allowing water back into the Marshes. Our initial meeting for the Canadian project was held in Amman, Jordan, and among the eighty Iraqis in attendance was an irrigation engineer working in the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources named Jassim Al-Asadi.

The project ended in 2010 when the Canadian government decided to cut back on foreign assistance to Iraq. Ten years later, I was curious as to whether conditions in the Marshes had improved, particularly given the growing number of upstream dams and the increasing frequency of drought.

Through mutual friends, Jassim and I reconnected and decided to write a book that included not only the history, geography, and mythology of the Marshes but also incorporated personal stories of hardship and survival from former Marsh dwellers. Keith Holmes, who was responsible for compiling an atlas of the marshes as part of the original Canadian project, was brought in as a collaborating author.

Can you elaborate on the collaborative process of writing and researching this book? 

When we began working on the book, Jassim and I would talk for approximately an hour every week and all conversations were recorded. My knowledge of Arabic was limited to a few words and phrases. Jassim could read English quite well but struggled a bit with speaking. This made for a few—often funny—misunderstandings.

He also preferred to write in Arabic. When he composed a story or a more detailed response to one of my questions, I would translate the text and write up a rough English version before returning it to him for comment. Sometimes, we repeated this process three or four times before we were both satisfied. My initial thought was that he would be both a co-author of the book and an intermediary in the research. I would design interview questions and he would, in turn, meet with Marsh residents and record their responses.

As our partnership and friendship developed, it became clear to me that Jassim’s personal stories were quite remarkable. In my writing group, people kept asking for more. They enjoyed hearing about the mythology, history, and geography of the region but they loved hearing about Jassim. As a result, he became both the subject of many of the stories and a co-author.

How did you approach researching the historical events surrounding the creation, destruction, and revitalization of the Marshes, especially considering their isolated nature?

There are excellent satellite images of the Marshes dating back to the early 1970s. These allowed us to confirm the spatial extent of the Marshes during the crucial period when it was drained by the Iraqi regime. There are also reasonable records of discharge and water depth at various stations along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for the last half-century.

For earlier periods, we drew inferences from explorers’ journals, British archives, and Ottoman accounts of trying to control the tribes in the Marshes and fighting battles in the wetlands, but none of these provide much useful information on creation and destruction cycles. The geological record, however, gives us a general sense of how the Marshes were formed and the cycle of floods and droughts, while paleoecology and archeology provide data on Marsh extent over long time periods. We know, for example, that five thousand years ago the Marshes extended to the cities of Ur and Uruk. The ancient city of Uruk is now sixteen kilometers southwest of the Euphrates River. Anecdotal information from the stories of Marsh dwellers, while not verifiable, did help us complete our understanding of the Marshes as a dynamic ecosystem.

In your portrayal of Jassim al-Asadi and other Marsh dwellers, what elements of their stories did you find most compelling?

The lives of Jassim, his ancestors, and other Marsh dwellers were intricately linked to the natural cycles of creation and destruction that plagued the Marshes since their inception. I view the people as custodians of this great wetlands ecosystem that is now under assault from political, economic, social, and natural forces. Their story is one of struggle and survival that goes back thousands of years. As Iraqi forces moved to quell the insurrection in the south in 1991, many were forced to escape through the Marshes and ended up spending years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. Adel al-Maajidy spent five years in the camp before being granted refugee status in the US. I interviewed al-Maajidy at his home in Dearborn, Michigan, with his two daughters present. They had never heard his story and were as excited and moved as I was to hear him recount his time in the Marshes and his escape from Iraq. 

Jassim has worked most of his life to ensure the preservation of the Marshes. He helped to have the region designated a World Heritage Site in 2016 and is a leading authority on the Marshes, appearing often on radio and TV in Iraq. Not everyone appreciates his high profile and in February of 2023, he was kidnapped and endured torture and near starvation for sixteen days. And yet, he continues to advocate for the Marshes. There are many stories in the book about hardship. Many were forced to leave, while others did not survive. The struggles of Marsh dwellers over the past fifty years parallel the all-out assault on the Marshes during the same period. And yet, a portion of the Marshes and the people who lived there survived. I find this simply amazing. 

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