The Ma'dan -- Iraq's Marsh Arabs
Part FOUR of a FIVE-part series on Iraq's ethnic minorities.
• Go to Part One: Iraq's Yazidis -- A Minority within a Minority
• See Part Two: The Turkomans of Iraq -- A Minority with Major Impact
• See Part Three: Iraq's Assyrians -- Four Beleaguered Christian Minorities
• See Part Five: "To Look Death in the Eye" -- The Kurds of Iraq
ALSO: Sunnis and Shi'ites for Beginners (Basic facts about these two sects of Islam)
Mesopotamia, the "Cradle of Western Civilization," lies in modern Iraq. "For thousands of years," wrote Mark Bregman in Science World, "at the confluence (meeting point) of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a vast network of freshwater lakes, marshes, swamps, and island forests blanketed an area of 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles), roughly the size of New Jersey."  And according to Joshua Hammer of Smithsonian magazine, this "complex ecosystem" has been "created by the annual flooding" of the two rivers and has "sustained human civilization for more than 5,000 years. Some of the earliest settlements of Mesopotamia--"the land between the rivers" (in Greek) -- were built on floating reed islands in these very wetlands. This was one of the first places where human beings developed agriculture, invented writing and worshiped a pantheon of deities."  The aquatic vegetation in these marshlands nourish nearly two thirds of the wintering waterfowl in the Middle Eastern region. 
These wetlands have also been the home of Iraq's Marsh Arabs -- the Ma'dan (the apostrophe is a sound much like the "tt" in many English speakers' pronunciation of "bottle") -- whose way of life is not much different from that of the first marsh dwellers in the third millennium B.C. Saddam Hussein's destruction of their environment came in four waves:
1) 1980s: Extensive draining of the wetlands for oilfield development construction projects.
2) 1980-1988: Mortar and artillery attacks during the Iran-Iraq War.
3) March 1991: Shiite rebels, urged on by U.S. President George H. W. Bush, rebelled against Saddam. American support never materialized, and tens of thousands of Shiites were killed by Iraqi helicopter gunships. Iraqi ground troops then pursued survivors into the marshlands, where they set fire to Ma'dan villages, burned red beds and slaughtered livestock.
4) 1992: As part of Saddam's anti-Shi'ite campaigns, Sunni workers built dams, dikes and canals to cut off the flow of rivers into the marshes. Nearly 140,000 Marsh Arabs were expelled from the dried-up wetlands and herded into camps. By the late 1990s, 90 percent of the marshes had been drained. 
People began to break open the dikes and dams, and blocked the canals, as soon as Saddam fell from power in April 2003. No less than half of the wetlands have since been re-flooded. But dam projects in Turkey, Syria and Northern Iraq have added to the after-effects of Saddam's outrages to upset the natural "pulsing" of the floodwaters that once fed the marshes. Marsh Arab Azzam Alwash said,"Nature is healing itself, but many forces are still working against it." 
The birthright of the Marsh Arabs -- like that of Iraq's Assyrians -- is ancient. Although they speak Arabic, a large number of them may be of non-Semitic origin. It is possible that the Ma'dan are the descendents of the ancient Sumerians and of the other people who have come to the marshlands. Their name of "Ma'dan" reflects the importance of the water buffalo in their daily life. The buffalo are to the Ma'dan what camels and sheep are to desert Arabs: the semi-nomadic Marsh Arabs follow the animals through the marshes in their tar-coated reed canoes. They are buffalo breeders, cultivators and reed gatherers who in the past lived in island settlements, on floating platforms or even artificial islands made of reeds.  Wild boar and waterfowl are a big part of the Ma'dan diet, as are the fish that the Marsh Arabs stun with poisoned shrimp bait before hauling them in. 
Nowadays, the Ma'dan inhabit brick-and-concrete dwellings and have benefited -- Saddam notwithstanding -- from the health and educational services that roads and causeways have brought to their communities.  Their tribal structure is fairly recent, borrowed int the 17th century A.D. from the desert-dwelling Bedouins, with necessary adjustments to life on the water. Marsh Arab society consists of groups of families of shared lineage, headed by a leader known as a "sheik." Parents arrange marriages, though the children have some choice in the matter. Polygamy is permitted, but seldom practiced. A man has first claim to a first cousin on his father's side -- a right that only the woman's father can bestow upon another suitor. 
Curdled water-buffalo milk and fish are the staples of the Ma'dan diet; there will also be some rice in families who grow it, and women cook bread in a round, clay platter over an open fire. Wild boar and waterfowl are welcome meat on the table.
Marsh Arab men and women eat separately, and never is a word spoken during a meal. All chatting happens before or after a meal. Singing and dancing are favorite entertainments, as is a game played by other Arabs, called mahaibis ("hunt the ring"): as one team sits in a row, their hands hidden by a cloak, the other tries to guess which person has the ring. The game is an occasion for light-hearted -- if boisterous --arguments about "Who cheated?".
Other speakers of Arabic tend to consider Ma'dan Arabic a "lower form" of the language. Wherever Arabic is spoken, however, there are local dialects so distinctive that people in one community may not understand speakers only 300 miles (500 km) away. The common language for literate Arabs among the more than 100 million speakers is Modern Standard Arabic, which is used along with a person's local dialect (this situation is called "diglossa"). So, the "low" form of Ma'dan Arabic is really just one facet of the low social esteem in which they are held by other Iraqi Arabs.
Ma'dan children fear the traditional jinn (evil spirits, the source of our word, "genie"), as their counterparts in the West look out for the bogeyman after dark. They also hear of the anfish (a big, hairy serpent) and the afa (a snake with legs), two lethal folk-monsters unique to Marsh Arab culture.
For the Ma'dan, heaven is an island called Hufaidh. Although nobody knows exactly where Hufaidh is, it is said to lie in the southwest stretches of the marshes. The vague location is a blessing to the living, for the words anyone sees Hufaidh will sound like nonsense upon his or her return home. That person would have seen palm trees, orchards of pomegranates, palaces and gigantic water buffalo.
By custom, Ma'dans in canoes will greet all people on the shore and hail boats coming in the other direction. Marsh Arabs onshore return the courtesy.
In the traditional reed houses, reed mats served as the floor surface. Possessions are few: a small herd of water buffalo, a much-prized gun (for hunting, sport, and protection against wild boar attacks), cooking utensils, blankets and a reed canoe (mashuf). The Ma'dans punt their canoes with a long reed pole. Children as young four years old have their own mashufs, which they can navigate with ease. Because the reed mashufs must be replaced every year, some Marsh Arabs have begun making canoes of more durable wood.
The marshes also serve as the Ma'dans' latrines. Despite the drawing of drinking water from the same source, Marsh Arabs seldom suffer from cholera or dysentery. On the other hand, almost all Ma'dans are infected by bilharzia, a disease of the bladder caused by flatworms passing from snails to humans. Kidney stones are another common ailment, even for children (Ma'dans call their children "chicks").
Gender is no issue in Marsh Arab society. In the towns surround the wetlands and on rare occasions within the marshlands themselves, the dhakar binta ("male girls") entertain at marriage feasts and other social occasions. These are young boys who follow the profession of dancer/male prostitute. Equally accepted are the mustarjil, women "born with the heart of a man." They enjoy a great deal of respect from their fellow Ma'dans, dressing like men and treated accordingly. Marsh Arabs also accept men who dress and live as women.
For all that, sex roles are clearly set among the Ma'dans. The men (who all wear short moustaches) milk the water-buffaloes, herd the animals, and do all the hunting and fishing. The women (who must sit behind the menfolk in the canoes) cook all the meals (over fires fueled by the buffalo-dung cakes that they have made), fetch the water and grind the grain.
 Bregman, Mark. "End of Eden?." Science World 59.14 (May 9, 2003): 6(1). General OneFile. Gale. DISCUS Remote Patron Access ITWeb. Accessed on September 29, 2007.
 Hammer, Joshua. "Return to the marsh: the effort to restore the Marsh Arabs' traditional way of life in southern Iraq--virtually eradicated by Saddam Hussein--faces new threats." Smithsonian 37.7, October 2006, p.46(10). From General OneFile. Accessed on September 29, 2007.
 Jwaideh, Josephine. "Marsh Arabs" in the Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, Simon & Schuster MacMillan, 1996. Volume 3, p. 1178.
 Gall, Timothy L. (Editor). "Ma'dan (Marsh Arabs)," reviewed by S. Abed-Kotob, in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. Volume 3: Asia and Oceania. New York: Gale Research, 1998.
 Source of this information and all content from this point on is Gall..