Their bulky silhouettes sashay with a grace that belies their girth, a languid gait, and a regular routine that requires no guidance, the blue light gives way to hazy dawn, where the mist mixes with the smoke from clay ovens, and the boys are heading to the fields to work.
Bubalus bubalis the beautiful Latin name for the water buffalo, with sad black eyes and the smile of a monochrome clown, have toiled the marshlands of Mesopotamia since the Bronze Age.
I had only been in the Marshes a few days and had already slipped into a similar routine, a breakfast of warm flatbread and a tortured egg, a shovel-sized portion of geymar, a clotted cream extravagance fit for a Sumerian and staple of any Iraqi kitchen.
Umm Hassan had also been up early, as she always is; she strides purposefully through an ad-hoc collection of breeze block buildings that make up the town of Al Chibayish, she will buy milk from the traders, and buffalo farmers will arrive by canoe from the floating farms across the central marshes.
The Iraqi marshlands are a rare aquatic wetland in an otherwise vast and arid desert, fed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that define Mesopotamia. Its Biblical and historical importance was eclipsed by the twentieth-century carnage of imperialism and despotism. Close to the borders of Kuwait and Iran and a long way south of Baghdad.
I sit low in the mashoof as Abu Haidar navigates through a narrow channel, he cuts the motor and we glide effortlessly, pied kingfishers perched on the tall reeds dart as we approach, as the channel widens we meet a small herd of buffalo swimming towards us, their looped horns pointing behind them, wet matted hides shimmering as they move through the water, mysteriously propelled like bovine supertankers.
With a five-gallon milk churn first hoisted onto her shoulder and then balanced on her head, Umm Hassan arrives back at the family’s smallholding; buffalo calves are feeding from an abandoned mashoof while renegade children are rounded up and assigned chores.
The process of concocting geymar from the raw milk will begin with slowly boiling and simmering, like any artisan Umm Hassan takes pride in her work, wielding a flaming gas torch like a welder she fires up a row of stoves with shallow stainless steel dishes balanced on each, skimming the bubbling foam with a plastic jug and pouring it back in at arm’s length, the steam rising in the windowless, concrete cave of a room.
The buffalos are struggling, their habitat and source of sustenance are shrinking, clean water is more challenging to find as salt and pollution seeping in, aquatic vegetation disappearing, the rhythm of nature is stuttering, and without enough food, the buffalo give up their foraging and head back to the farms, many will not make it.
The natural flow of water is controlled by political intransigence and incompetence, where there is water there ought to be life but now there is uncertainty and unrest. The combination of climate change and the fragility of the ecosystem that has sustained the very roots of civilization are under a genuine threat that has implications far beyond the ragged borders of Iraq.
Umm Hassan is prodigious in her capacity for labor-intensive work, her face only veiled for the photographs, she laughs and works and manages to scold the children all at the same time, her teenage daughter is crushing ice with an iron bar and clearly enjoying the aggression, the family industry continues into the night, in the distance, across the shadowed marshes the orange glow of oil wells are flickering, Umm Hassan is barely surviving, a self-sufficient and sustainable existence will, inevitably, be abandoned for the already overcrowded city suburbs, in a country with broken infrastructure and broken government, the results don’t need to be predicted, they are happening, from the dry cracked river beds in the marshes to the frustrated protests on the city streets to desperate journeys across unforgiving seas.
I scoop up another helping of the creamy Qaymar, the bread warm in my fingers, we haven’t finished breakfast and already we are discussing lunch, when my armed escort arrives we will head out again into the marshes, this time on the east side of the Euphrates.
The Hammar marsh, a wilderness of vein-like steams, home to rare turtles and elusive warblers, of floating islands and houses built of reeds, the canoe cuts through the still waters and ducks scuttle, a man is cutting reeds, his gallabiya raised and tucked into his Arsenal shorts, surprised by my sudden appearance he readjusts his clothes and poses for a picture.
This is life today in what many believe to be the Garden of Eden, whether true or not little has changed, except maybe the original sin of wearing Arsenal FC underwear.
We cross the vast expanse of the Euphrates River with fishermen casting nets against a background of afternoon haze and black smoke, oil industry silhouettes in the distance, as we near the village we see water buffalo crossing a bridge, they are heading back to their paddock, unable to find enough to eat in the marshes, they know the farm will feed them, the farmer will have to transport fresh water and fodder from distant corners of the marsh. But they have not all survived; the corpse of an emaciated buffalo is dragged from the marsh and taken far enough away not to contaminate the water and dumped.
The Middle East is very much on the front line of climate change, with temperatures regularly exceeding 50 degrees centigrade, the effect on the most vulnerable like Umm Hassan and her family will be catastrophic, a traditional way of life in the southern marshes of Iraq is already almost unsustainable. Globally we are now experiencing a climate emergency, what happens in Iraq most certainly does not stay in Iraq.
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