A Reed Shaken by the Wind

Gavin Maxwell


A Reed Shaken by the Wind

Gavin Maxwell


The Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq were one of the most isolated communities in the world. Few outsiders, let alone Europeans, had been permitted to travel through their homeland: a mass of tiny islands lost in a wilderness of reeds and swamps in southern Iraq. One of the few trusted outsiders was the legendary explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who was Gavin Maxwell’s guide to the intricate landscape, tribal customs and distinctive architecture of the Marsh Arabs. Thesiger’s skill with a medicine chest and rifle assured them a welcome in every hamlet, and Maxwell’s training as a naturalist and writer has left an invaluable record of a unique community and a vanished way of life.

‘... prose close to poetry ...’ - New York Times
‘... an almost perfect book of travel.’ - New Yorker
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A Reed Shaken by the Wind: Travels among the Marsh Arabs
ISBN: 978-0907871-93-4
Format: 256pp demi pb
Place: Iraq

Author Biography

Maxwell's schooling, a succession of disasters all the way up to his time at Oxford, gave him a lifelong sympathy for the despised and oppressed. Having already proved himself a loner and a hardy traveller in the Arctic with Peter Scott, he was ideal material for covert operations in the Second World War. He served in the Special Operations Executive, charged with training operatives who would be sent behind enemy lines on missions of sabotage. It was in this capacity that he spent some time on the west coast of Scotland, where he returned after the war to buy Soay, a small island off Skye and the setting for his first business, a shark fishery, which in turn formed the basis for his first book Harpoon at a Venture (1952). He tried his hand at freelance journalism and painting, and wrote two books about Sicily, God Protect Me from My Friends (1956) and The Ten Pains of Death (1959). In between these projects he took the journey to the Middle East with his friend, the veteran traveller Wilfred Thesiger, which would result in A Reed Shaken by the Wind (1957). Here his exceptional talent was revealed for the first time.

On his return from Iraq he moved into his new Scottish home at Camusfearna, and began to study the otters he had acquired on his journey through the marshes, which culminated in the publication of Ring of Bright Water (1960). With the worldwide success of this tale, and the subsequent film, Camusfearna became a wildlife preserve with a collection of otters at its heart. The Otters Tale (1962), and The Rocks Remain(1963) continue the narrative of a passionate but accident-prone naturalist on the west coast of Scotland. Maxwell travelled to Morocco several times over the course of the 1960s, researching his history, Lords of the Atlas, which appeared in 1966. This travel book – part history, part investigative journalism, part romance – studied the Berber dynasty, the Glaoui, that acted as regents of southern Morocco for the French colonial power. It became one of the bibles of British orientalism in the late twentieth century and a fitting swan-song to Maxwell's oeuvre. Douglas Botting's definitive 1993 biography, Gavin Maxwell, A Life tells of the ups and downs of Maxwell's emotional life – possibly affected by an inherited form of manic-depression. While Gavin loved and even married women (the poet Kathleen Raine and Lavinia Renton) he was primarily homosexual.


Extract from Chapter One

I had no very clear preconceived picture of Baghdad, and my experience of Arab towns had been limited to brief sojourns in North Africa. My first impression was that what the western colonial powers could do to a city in the way of desecration was nothing to what the Arabs them­selves could do when they got going. And they had got going, with all the revenue of the oil fields behind their enthusiasm.

It is perhaps the least favourable time for many centuries for a stranger to see Baghdad; the moment of transition from an eastern to a western culture that has as yet little true meaning for the bulk of the people.

I have noticed that there is a longitudinal line east of which the squalor created by building appears as great as that of demolition. Buildings were going up everywhere, bleak blocks in the western tradition, whose desolate uniformity was increased by the veneer of dust and the rubble from which they grew; new roads and streets were everywhere under construction, and pale dust clung to the palm trees and tarnished their leaves. Dotted between the new roads and the new houses, and covered too with the dust of their construction, were mud houses and reed matting houses, but everywhere except where the traffic was thick lay litter and refuse, and everywhere the black kites wheeled on the bare sky overhead. Gleaming Cadillacs painted in fantastic colours blared their horns at ragged Arabs riding side-saddle on limping donkeys. Every possible permu­tation and combination between pure Arab clothes and pure European jostled the street, but the national garb is on its way out. European clothes are the official dress of Iraq, and in the towns anything else is equated with lack of education.

Unchanged through this noisy apostasy from tradition flow the broad and splendid waters of the Tigris, spanned only by three or four ugly iron bridges of British construc­tion. Along its western bank are many of the old Turkish houses built round a tiled and mosaic courtyard, in whose gardens are trees where small pastel-shaded doves cluster on the branches like delicately bloomed fruit. But the Turkish houses, much in demand by British residents in Baghdad, are condemned. To the Iraqis, with gold in their hands and impatient for development, they seem archaic and un­functional.

“They have only two words for everything,” said Thesiger, “moderne and demodé, and what isn’t the first is the second.”

Of the eight million people who live within the frontiers of Iraq, Baghdad now holds over a million, and more pour into the city every day. Except in the remote tribal areas the children now receive a school education, and as a result consider themselves too good to work on the land; indeed land work is considered to be the lowest of all occupations. So, hearing of great wealth in the cities—the picture thus presented being no clearer, perhaps, than it would have been five centuries ago—a youth will leave his home and drift to Baghdad. Here, to avoid loss of face, he will acquire Euro­pean clothes, and these, being according to his means, are often already ragged and disreputable. If he is lucky he will find work at the equivalent of five shillings a day, but when it rains all employment stops automatically, and he is dependent on what he may earn by more dubious means. Thus juvenile delinquency is said to be practically universal, and after dark the streets are haunted by skulking strip­lings ready to grab or earn a coin by any means at their disposal.

Mass evils of this kind are perhaps inherent in any change as rapid and complete as comes to those countries where oil, the raw material of western industrial civilisation, is to be found; but it is nevertheless a sorry moment in which to visit the oldest culture in the world, the country that taught the ancient Egyptians to write. It is a find’époque, bringing with it corruption, unrest and bewilderment, of which only the highest level, that which has been educated for genera­tions, is free. The town Iraqi now want one thing and one thing only, the American Way of Life, and the bulk of the people have as yet little realisation that this implies more than a multiplicity of sophisticated automatic toys, for some eighty per cent of the population of all Iraq is still illiterate. After four days in Baghdad I found myself remembering again Thesiger’s phrase: “tribesmen into corner boys”.


In Rashid Street, the Piccadilly of Baghdad, I tried to buy the standard primer of the language, Van Ess’s Spoken Arabic of Iraq. In the bookshop an Iraqi girl with a lot of make-up told me in English that it was out of stock, but produced another with a similar title, which she said was much more highly thought of. This I bought, but it was not until after some days of utter bewilderment that I dis­covered that it was intended to be used in conjunction with gramophone records.

“You are walking alone,” I read. “You want to talk to someone, so you talk to a young Baghdadi. You tell him ‘good evening’, and he replies. Then you say that you are an American and tell him your name. He is glad to know you and tells you his name is Said. You tell him you have just come to Iraq. You add that your friend came with you. You say your father has a farm near New York, and you work in a big automobile factory. And you want to work in the factory when you go back to America. While you are talking, Said’s friend Hassan comes up to you…. Said asks Hassan where he is going. Hassan says to the King Ghazi movie. It’s a good movie, he says.” I flicked over a few pages. “Father I want to introduce these Americans to you; this is John and this is his friend Bill. John’s from New York but Bill’s from Texas.” Father: “My oldest son went to America. He’s an American now.” … “You have been introduced to an Iraqi named Ali. He asks where you are from. You say you are an American and tell him what part you came from. … You ask him if he knows Ford cars. Yes, he says, Ford cars are good, in fact he has one. He says there is a Ford factory in Baghdad. … Later you are walking around with Ali. Ali calls your attention to another man. What is his work, you ask. Ali says he doesn’t work; he is a merchant and has a big shop in the market. You ask Ali if he knows him. Ali says yes, and he also knows his son. His son doesn’t work much either, he likes to walk around all the time.”

Oh, Arabian Nights; oh, Christopher Columbus; oh, Tree of Knowledge of Good and Oil.

The Minister was gracious and affable. He thanked us for our courtesy in calling upon him, which, he said, was of course completely unnecessary, as Iraq was a free country and foreigners could travel where they wished. He touched on the problems of the expanding city. “All Iraq is coming to Baghdad,” he said. “Here they have everything they want; every boy has a wireless set, every girl a sewing machine. They leave the country for the towns as though they were running from an epidemic. We couldn’t stop them coming if we wanted to.” He armed Thesiger with letters to the Governors of the provinces in which we should be travel­ling, and that night we left by train for Basra.

Of Basra, the greatest port of the Persian Gulf, I had as fleeting and necessarily as superficial an impression as of Baghdad. Here, though the present Basra is not an ancient city, the old and the new, the east and the west, seemed even more inextricably woven, for the very new of the gleaming traffic and the concrete buildings is set against a middle distance, rather than a far background, of primitive life.

We lived in the most modern quarter of Basra, Ashar—and during my short stay I saw little of any other—at a Consulate-General worthy to be an embassy, as the guest of a Consul-General worthy to be an ambassador. Beyond the green and gracious walled garden lay a broad street and then the great river, the Shatt al Arab, which is the fusion of the Tigris and the Euphrates in their last miles to the sea. Palms fringed the farther bank, and on its surface rowed, paddled, roared, stammered, or simply drifted, craft of every con­ceivable description. Big Arab trading boats under full sail, primitive bitumen-coated canoes from the waterways sur­rounding the marshes, motor launches and passenger paddle steamers, naval vessels, big ocean-going merchantmen, and completely circular rafts carrying loads of reed matting from the marshlands, drifting downstream without propulsion; the paths of all these were woven together like a tableau representing the history of surface craft.

The clothing of the people who crowded the streets was as diverse as the boats upon the river, but I began to under­stand the various grades, as it were, of dress in Iraq, and their social significance. There is only one reasonably con­stant factor, and that is the head-dress. Non-Europeanised Iraqis wear their hair shaven to a short stubble, and over it a skull cap, often bright or multi-coloured with floral design, oversewn into a quilted pattern. The skull cap, however, is usually hidden, except in the case of children, by the loose, turban-like keffia which is worn over it. The formal keffia in Iraq is white with a black pattern on it, like Rylock wire netting, and signifies that the wearer belongs to the Shi’a sect of Muslims, those who believe the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin Ali to have been his rightful successor, and after him his two sons Hassan and Hussain. The first of these was murdered by his wife, and the other, driven by a frantic belief in his own cause, died a martyr’s death in battle, backed by flames that he had lit to cut off his own retreat. His tomb at Kerbela, and that of Ali at Nejef, are the two great places of pilgrimage for the Shi’a sect. (The Shi’a and the Sunni, who preponderate outside the frontiers of Iraq and Persia, are the two great divisions of the Muslim world, the Sunni originating as followers of the Prophet’s uncle Abu Bakr. Sunni means, in a broad sense, “orthodox”, and Shi’a “partisan”.)

The headcloth may be worn loosely draped over the head and shoulders or it may be wound up and tied into the shape of a turban; in either case it is held in place by a headrope or agal, two snake-like black twists fitting on to the crown of the head. The agal is like the top two coils of a weak spring, wooden at the core, and bound over with black wool. There are variations of the head-dress as there are of every­thing else; the very poor or primitive often wear no agal, and the keffia itself may be no more than a rag of any colour knotted round the head.

But it is below the neck that the diversity of garments becomes really confusing. Basically, there is a single proto­type of all the elaborations, a simple shirt reaching from the throat to the feet, like a nightgown, of any sober colour except black, and sometimes striped like pyjamas. This is the dish-dasha worn by all poorer people who have not yet adopted European clothes, but in cooler weather it is now quite customary to wear over this an ordinary European jacket. With or without this jacket the outer layer may be worn, a cloak or bisht, black, brown, or dark blue. It is never thick; in its crudest form it is loosely woven of hard, hair­less brown wool and it is unornamented, but it may, among the more elegant, be diaphanous as fine muslin, and often carries an edging of gold braid and gold tassels.

The next stage beyond the simple dish-dasha, among the well-to-do who do not wear trousers, is, broadly speaking, a coat and skirt of dark cloth. The coat is rather longer and fuller than is customary in Europe, and the ground-length skirt continues upward as a wrap-round dress, to form a V at the chest like that of an ordinary waistcoat. Above this V appears a shirt, but rarely a collar or tie, giving a some­what unfinished appearance to an ambitious scheme. This is the customary wear of the sheikhs and other unwesternised people of importance. With it go black towny-looking shoes, but seldom socks. The poor people are always bare­foot.

I went to the suq to buy a belt. With recollections of North African suq, and that of Marrakesh in particular, I had expected quarters of leather-workers, gold-workers, silver-workers, rug sellers; all the enticements of beautiful and exotic goods. I crossed a wooden bridge over a canal cluttered with all types of boats and of Asiatic humanity. A negro in a knee-length dish-dasha clutched my arm and thrust a packet of postcards under my nose. They were, I saw, of another large negro posturing indecently in a very expensive-looking bedroom. As I brushed them away he instantly substituted a second packet. The top photograph was so excruciatingly funny that had I been in a less public place I should have asked to see the rest. A bulgy Semitic woman of uncertain age, naked but for a pair of very high-heeled shoes, posed with grotesque coquettishness against a painted back­cloth of palms and minarets. Both hands were raised, one to shoulder level and the other curved high above her head in a parody of sinuous grace. From under coal-black eyelids she ogled the camera with a perceptible squint; but the beauty of the picture lay in what she was holding. Draped from her two upraised hands hung a thin rope-like length of black silk, cunningly screening from view every part of her body that would have been hidden by a modern two-piece bathing dress. I wondered whether these photographs were much in demand among the Arabs, for they could hardly have been calculated to call forth a frenzy of lust from a visiting European.

I entered the suq and walked between lines of stalls selling aluminium pots and pans, cheap Japanese china, bales of bright coloured Indian cotton, and fibreware luggage. Everything either came from Europe or was a further-eastern imitation of western commodities. At last I stopped a particularly European-looking Iraqi and asked him if he spoke English. Enough, he said; so I asked him if he could tell me where to buy a leather belt. “Leather?” he said. “I suppose it is possible. But why not plastic? It is much better. We all use plastic now; all the shops have plastic belts. Cheaper, better.”

Wandering on through the suq I came at length to a quarter of so deafening a din that I realised that here at last was something actually being made. It sounded like hundreds of men hitting sheets of metal with hammers; and that was precisely what it was, sheets of aluminium being made into household utensils, and sheets of copper being fashioned into a particular shape of coffee pot that is standard throughout all Iraq. On that first visit it was the only evidence of any local industry that I discovered. I did in the end return with a leather belt, but on its inner surface was stamped in Roman letters the words “Made in Germany”.


Three out of Thesiger’s four canoe boys had arrived to meet us in Basra. In those days when I did not know them I found their presence acutely embarrassing. At the Con­sulate-General Thesiger and I shared a huge bedroom. After my excursion to the suq Thesiger was nowhere about, and I sat down in an arm-chair to look at a map. After a few moments the door opened silently and the three canoe boys entered. I said good afternoon, which was about all I could say. They returned my greeting and sat down cross-legged on the floor, in a semicircle round my feet. All three stared at me without the least expression. Each dangled from his fingers a string of beads, one red, one yellow, and one white. The beads clicked slowly and rhythmically, my watch ticked, and if I looked up those six eyes still looked un­waveringly into my face. If I met any of their eyes indivi­dually they would glance away, but as I looked down again at the map they would come back to my face. I tried smiling at them, and they smiled back, but with anticipation, as though I were now about to say something, which I could not. I had already found out that my few words of North African Arabic were unintelligible.

Amara, Hassan, and Sabeti; Kathia, the fourth, was to join us a day or two later when we began our journey. Both in feature and in character they were as unlike as they could be; they had little in common but the colour of skins. Amara was a handsome self-possessed youth of eighteen, fine boned, disdainful as an Arab stallion, often moody and with­drawn. He alone of them seemed always at ease in the sur­roundings of civilisation; there could never be anything gauche or awkward in his movements or in his response to an unfamiliar situation. At this time his natural vanity pre­occupied much of his attention on his newly growing moustache and beard, at whose infinitesimal length he would snip, absorbed, with a pair of nail scissors. He liked mirrors.

Hassan was a year or two older, a bouncing but volatile extravert with peculiarly heavy eyebrows and just-noticeably underhung jaw. He and Sabeti, both of whom were married, were the most habitually good-humoured of the four, but Sabeti’s good humour was of a different quality, something almost pathological; he was the type of the Family Slave. If there was any odd job to be done it was naturally Sabeti who did it; his desire to serve and to please seemed as if it must have been developed in compensation for a total absence of looks or charm. Sabeti looked like an apologetic crow, and the wide eyebrow-moustache that he wore did not succeed in any way in altering the essentially placatory character of his face.

The map at which I looked while the three looked at me was so blank as to be scarcely worthy of the name. There were rivers, tributaries and distributaries, and great areas covered with a small tufted symbol to represent marsh. To a few place-names, very widely scattered, someone had added a question mark in red ink, and in some cases drawn a red line clean through them. This was the area of per­manent marshland to which we were going, and the bulk of it lay some forty miles north and west of Basra. Some two-thirds of the way across it the Tigris ran from north to south, vertically, so to speak, while the Euphrates ran horizontally from the west to form the southern boundary.

As recently as Biblical times the Persian Gulf stretched far up the country that is now known as Iraq. The two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, flowed separately into the sea; not, as they do now, through the common conduit of the Shatt al Arab on whose banks Basra stands. As the sea receded it left in its wake a country of marshes, creeks and lagoons, which was settled in earliest times by immi­grants from the Persian and Turkish Highlands. The living conditions of these earliest settlers differed very little from those of the marshmen of today; their reed houses and their few possessions have been excavated at the level just above the virgin silt.

As the centuries went by, the great area of marshland exposed by the sea became divided into areas of seasonal flooding, semi-permanent marshlands; and, fed by the many distributaries of the two great rivers, a central area of permanent marsh which exists to this day. These permanent marshes lie low between the courses of the two great rivers, and extend east of the Tigris over the Persian frontier. The farther the sea has receded the farther south has become the area which is at all times of the year without solid ground, and until Thesiger came there in 1950 it has remained one of the unexplored territories nearest to civilisation. Whereas the areas of seasonal flooding, the great rivers themselves, and the fringes of the permanent marsh, have all been visited both by travellers and by armies in wars of European origin, the heart of the marshes and its people have remained unknown.

It was, I had learned from Thesiger’s article, a tribal area inhabited by some half dozen tribes whose frontiers ex­tended arbitrarily outside the marshes. Some of them claimed to be not of Arab descent, while others contained a liberal sprinkling of Sayids, or linear descendants of the Prophet. The generic name for the marshmen is Ma’dan, a term used to define not a tribe but a way of life; the people who have for many centuries been proficient in extracting their livelihood from a waste land of water and of reeds, and who have had little or no contact with the world outside.

Because the physical geography of the country has been in such constant change it is difficult to trace the origins of the Ma’dan with any certainty. The marshes were very much farther north when the first immigrants came from the east to settle there, and that was more than five thousand years ago; during the Dark Ages there were other happenings besides the successive conquests of the Medes, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and finally the Arabs, that may well have added stranger blood to that of the marshmen. In the early part of the ninth century a.d. bands of robber gipsies settled in the marshes. After a while, their numbers in­creased by malcontents and refugees from justice, these became proclaimed rebels against the Caliph, who found this petty insurrection so difficult to quell that he was taunted with being unable to catch a few hundred frogs within arm’s reach of him. They capitulated at last, but it seems that those who could remain among the reeds did so, mistrusting the promise of amnesty should they emerge.

Some fifty years after this, in 869, there began a rebellion which for nearly fourteen years shook all Southern Iraq, and which seemed, indeed, as if it would throw out the Arabs and lead to a negro empire in the east.

The confusion that had succeeded the death of the Prophet in a.d. 633, and the strife over the dubious succes­sion, was still at that time fruitful ground for exploitation by any unscrupulous claimant. More difficult was the amassing of a following strong enough to enforce the claim.

In the two hundred and fifty years since Mahommed’s death his soi disant linear descendants had become legion, and there was, therefore, nothing original in the fact of a certain Ali ibn Mahommed, a man from near the modern city of Teheran, giving himself out to be of the blood of the Prophet; nor in his early unsuccessful attempts to gain influence in various communities where existing schism offered a foothold for opportunism. He failed in Basra—a town standing farther to the west than the present city of the same name—and was forced to flee to Baghdad, but not long afterward he returned to the south with quite a different plan in mind. He had chosen for his raw material of rebellion the mass of African slaves who were called Zenj, men of the country now known as Zanzibar.

Huge numbers of these slaves were occupied on the waste land that lay to the east of Basra, engaged in digging away the surface stratum of soil, rich in profitable saltpetre, and at the same time exposing the cultivable layer beneath it. Their work was of the hardest, and their living of the meanest, for here was none of the affection and tolerance that can grow between the master and the slave who is attached to one family or household. In these men who hated all but their own kind, Ali—“the Abominable One”, as he came to be called—saw the strength and ferocity that should sweep him to power.

His approach to the slaves reveals a cynical acumen, a deep psychological insight, worthy of any later propagan­dist. He spoke to them with the tongues of God and of Mammon, so that the two images became for them in­extricably confused. The religious sect to which he pro­claimed allegiance—inconsistently with his alleged descent from the Prophet’s daughter—would appear to have been chosen solely for one of its slogans: that the ruler should be the best man “even though he were an Ethiopian slave”. To that sect, the Kharijites, the deadliest of all sins was failure to acknowledge themselves as the true representa­tives of Islam. All other Muslims, therefore, they might dutifully destroy as infidels.

That was clearly the doctrine most likely to appeal to the slaves in their bitterness, and on the worldly side he preached not the right of equality with their overlords but their right to own slaves themselves.

The revolt of the slaves under the leadership of Ali the Abominable began in September 869, and almost immedi­ately their headquarters came to be the marshlands sur­rounding the Tigris. Their tactics were night attack and ambush of their suppressors’ boats from the screening reed-beds. There were at first some fifty thousand men, but their army was swelled by Bedouin and malcontents of every description, and when the rebellion showed early promise of success many black soldiers of the Caliph deserted and went over to Ali. Within a year they had built a city on the west bank of the Tigris, from which they raided and plundered towns far afield, even invading Khuzistan to the east of the Persian frontier. After capture or partial destruction of any city Ali would parade before the survivors the heads of the dead; when in 871 he finally captured Basra itself the lowest estimate of these was 300,000, and the slaves waded in the blood of the free men whom they had butchered. By 879 the power of the Zenj was at its greatest; they had by now captured many of the cities of Babylonia, and even part of Kurdistan had surrendered to them. But they garrisoned and held little if any of their conquests, returning always to the marshlands in which lay their permanent safety.

In 881, twelve years after the insurrection, the war entered upon its final phase, the siege of the city that the rebel slaves had built. Mokhtara, “the city of the elect”, they called it, but their enemies spoke of it as The Abominable City. At the beginning of the siege it was said to have con­tained 300,000 fighting men, and a negro king who ruled over them.

The city withstood two years’ siege, and when at last it fell in 883 the King of the Zenj had fled from it, and it was the head of Ali the Abominable himself that was laid at the feet of the Caliph’s besieging general. It has been suggested that he died by his own hand, in the ruins of his city, for no man came forward to claim the fabulous reward.

Many of the Zenj who escaped from the city fought on from the reedy thickets of the marshes. In the end those who were organised into larger bands capitulated to the forces of the Caliph, but others dispersed into the wilderness of reeds and water and were heard of no more. Those who sur­rendered were described as pure barbarians, speaking no Arabic, and eating both carrion and human flesh.

It would be strange if so great a body of men had left no descendants in the marshlands.