The Mesopotamian Marshes in southern Iraq were once the third largest wetlands in the world, home to thousands of species of plants and animals—also considered a possible site of the historic Garden of Eden. Ancient Mesopotamian Marsh Arabs sustained themselves in these lands for thousands of years. Decades of war and the draining of the marshes in the 1990s, resulted in a mass exodus. Nature Iraq is an NGO that has been working for the last fifteen years to regenerate the Mesopotamian Marshes. One project in their regeneration work, not surprisingly, involves textiles, supporting the work and training of Marsh Arab women weavers and embroiderers who reside in several townships in the marshes. The women’s colorful weaving and embroidery were once common throughout this region but had nearly disappeared during the last few decades.
With the help of Nature Iraq, the Marsh Arabs have returned to their destroyed homeland and have begun to restore their former way of life. The weaving and embroidery is also being revived along with other handcraft traditions. The older generations, women in their sixties and seventies, have kept their crafts alive and are now teaching the skills to younger women, skills that date back thousands of years. Originally, wool used for both weaving and embroidery, came from local sheep. Now the women buy wool in markets and import it, but the hope is that the resurgence of these traditions will encourage local wool production once more.
I learned about these Iraqi women artisans at the International Folk Art Market in July, where the women’s work appeared for the first time. The large, colorful embroidered wedding blankets piled high were hard to miss! Unfortunately, none of the artisans was granted a visa, so they couldn’t speak directly about their work and their lives. Their rugs spoke for them. They spoke of persistence, of joy, of possibility.