London-based Iraqi artist Rashad Salim has been working in southern Iraq to help revive traditional crafts. The focus of his most recent visit was the building of Marsh Arab canoes in Huwair, Basra, but he is also studying palm culture and vernacular architecture as well as assisting women to promote their unique embroidery and baskets further north close to Samawa.
Salim has long been engaged in efforts to salvage Mesopotamia’s unique cultural and navigation heritage. In 1977, he voyaged with the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl on a Tigris reed boat and, in 2013, he joined an awareness raising flotilla of traditional boats that travelled down the Tigris starting in southern Turkey, site of the controversial Ilisu dam.
“While travelling in traditional boats I had a vision of the ark [referred to in the bible and also in Mesopotamian mythology], not as a singular boat, but as a gathering of different types of watercraft in a strong and natural pattern of unity: a unity of many vessels rather than a singular boat – the pattern of six around one”, Salim told The Middle East magazine. “I am now making a model of this ark in Huwair.”
“Boats are the most sophisticated construct of any culture, including contemporary culture. Submarines and super tankers are actually more sophisticated than the rockets that go to the moon and spaceships are as the name implies, a form of boat! In Iraq the Mashouf canoe is pervasive in art but is no longer found in actuality. I could not accept this,” Salim said.
The disappearance of traditional Iraqi boats : the guffa coracle, tarrada canoe, reed bundle craft (shasha) and kelek raft prompted Salim to make several trips to Iraq every year since 2013 and engage with local crafts’ people and boat builders. In Sedet el Hindiya, Hilla, 5kms north of Babylon, they built 11 fisherman guffas and a large two metre guffa like the ones known since Sumerian times to have carried cargo on the Tigris and Euphrates up until the 1950s.
Salim has recently returned to London from Huwair the centre of boat building in the marshlands during most of the 20th century. Today the land is parched, most of the workshops in the boat yards are metal smithing and only small working boats made out of cheap fibre glass and coated with resin rather than the qirr-tar, are being produced.
“My plan is for the traditional boats to be properly studied and built again for their aesthetic and heritage presence, tourism and the international museum market. They can also be developed for an indigenous Iraqi boat racing sport like the racing dragon boats in SE Asia, China and the boats in the Oxford Cambridge boat race,” Salim said.
He went on: “When I was last in Huwair, Abu Sajad, Zuhair Al Asadi a locally based business man from Hit, involved in the ancient trade of qirr-tar, which is used not just in boat building but also in roofing … generously hosted me and allowed his carpentry workshop be used to build a Marsh Arab Meshouf canoe called a Chilaika Jawad Abu Khadim. The master craftsman, led the building and the elders, who remembered how traditional boats were made until the 1980s, also participated. You had this incredibly democratic situation with everybody lending a hand. The children were fascinated and had a conversation with the craftsmen. Like an artist each boat builder has his own unique style. He works without a plan, completely by eye and the whole process is an artistic, sculptural process.”
Abu Sajad has offered to provide land for the building of a workshop using traditional architectural techniques. It will provide a forum for inter generational continuity. Salim has secured a grant to rebuild two 36ft taradas like the one which the Marsh Arabs gave as a gift to the legendary British explorer Wilfred Thesiger. One will remain in Iraq to join a Euphrates expedition this coming spring and the second one will be brought to London for an expedition from Oxford to the Thames Estuary.
The inside of the tarada will be lined with brightly coloured traditional rugs produced by the Khawla Bint Alzwar Feminist Association set up by Um Mohammed from Al Khidr near the ancient city of Ur, birthplace of the prophet Abraham.
Salim is assisting the association, which provides employment for widows and destitute women, to market their crafts. He introduced them to Awj Baghdad Cultural Centre, where their first exhibition in 2016 immediately sold out. He also held drawing workshops, engaging the women in the creation of Samawa rugs as artworks, with the story of the Ark and the flood as one of the themes. He believes three of the women who work as a team are producing world class naïve artworks and is excited to eventually introduce their work to the art appreciating world.
Setting up a maritime history and heritage wing in the Basrah Museum is another related project. “Basrah has always been a port yet there is no Mesopotamian Maritime history section in the museum”, Salim said. He is compiling a glossary pertaining to crafts and the terminology of boat building and hopes to reproduce and transfer the material about Iraqi crafts in archives in Britain, back to Iraq. The main global archive is in England because of its historical relationship with Iraq.”
Salim spent most of last year (2017), the year his daughter Leila was born, in London researching the literature and trawling through the archives on ancient boats. Study, understand, revive, sustain and protect guide all of his projects. He set up Safina Projects CIC (Community Interest Company) with his partner Hannah Lewis, in 2017 and is determined to keep the momentum for the revival and preservation of traditional Iraqi boats and crafts going. To date most of the finance for the projects has come from Salim and private benefactors however, Safina Projects has recently secured a number of important grants from the British Councils Cultural Protection Fund and Nehrain Network UCL and Salim is confident he will be able to secure further grants and sponsorship as needed, although funding from the Iraqi government is unlikely.
The Ministry of Water Resources, recognising the massive cultural significance of keeping this regionally unique art form alive and formerly an active partner of the project has extended generous logistical assistance and shares the project vision in the past although, as Salim noted: “Iraq is in a terrible and complicated place.” However he is determined not to abandon his quest: “I want to save what is beautiful for future generations. The Ark Re-imagined is an art led project, a monumental art work but instead of bronze it uses cane, reeds and palms. Instead of depicting figures it re-represents the country’s craft heritage.”
Words: Karen Dabrowska
All photographs by Rashad Salim