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Authors: Gavin Maxwell

A Reed Shaken by the Wind

BOOK: A Reed Shaken by the Wind

A Reed Shaken by the Wind


For M. M.





Be sure this land of nowhere will expel

All those who seek a chance outlandish spell

That any place could offer just as well.

book is the story of a journey through an almost unknown land, and my first thanks are due to Wilfred Thesiger for allowing me to travel with him into his private paradise.

Secondly to the only other European who shares much of Thesiger's knowledge. He first towered on my horizon as a namesake against whose memory the Arabs measured me to my discredit, as a man who could shave with three strokes of a razor and had learned their language in a week. To him, Gavin Young, I owe much for help in avoiding technical inaccuracies in the manuscript.

To all the Iraqis, from the highest to the lowest who showed almost unvarying kindness, courtesy, and hospitality, go my respectful salutations and warm gratitude; and in apology for quoting the efforts of a few to speak my language I would add that I think they must have found my attempts at theirs as funny.

Having a particular ennui for the type of travel book that reads “The people do not build houses; they live (
) in tents (
) which they fold up (
) when they want to move (
) …” I have avoided using Arabic words except where they are strictly necessary; it would in any case be a presumption on the part of one who knows as little of the language as I. For terms that are of real importance the serious student may refer to Wilfred Thesiger's deeply informative contribution to the
Journal of the Royal Central
Asian Society,
January 1954, from which its author and the Society have kindly allowed me to quote two passages and to base my map upon his.

For reasons that will not require explanation it has seemed undesirable to give to all characters their true names, and
thus it has appeared pointless to include an index to a book which is, perhaps, in any case too much of a personal narrative to merit one.

I am indebted to the following for permission to quote copyright material: Mr. Alan Hodge for an extract from his poem “The World of Nowhere”; Messrs. Hamish Hamilton, Ltd. for an extract from “The Journey”, from
by Kathleen Raine; the Editor of
New Statesman and
for an extract from “Death of a Rat” by Anthony Thwaite, which appeared in the 8 September, 1956 issue of
New Statesman and Nation
; and Mr. Wilfrid Thesiger and the Royal Central Asian Society for material from the January 1954 issue of the
Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society.

seemed to have been flying over the desert for a very long time. I could remember no beginning to it and there seemed no end; it stretched away everywhere to a horizon that was smoky and dim with the approach of evening. The dipping sun defined the slopes and ridges of the dunes, and we were low enough to see here and there small huddles of black Bedouin tents, but nowhere was there a glint of water.

The passenger in front of me passed the flight log over his shoulder. Speed 220 m.p.h., altitude 5,000, ETA Baghdad 2145 hours. I looked at my companion, but he was asleep and I didn’t think these details would be interesting enough to warrant waking him. I passed the slip of paper on, and went on looking at the desert. Every now and again I could make out specks whose shadows were longer than themselves, long rows of moving specks that were the camel caravans of the nomads. They and the clusters of black tents were the only signs of life in all the desert.

As I looked down at them I became conscious of an emotion, an unease, and I shrugged it off, but it returned, demanding attention. I took it and looked at it and turned it over, as it were, and recognised it with surprise, even bewilderment. I was feeling afraid. Beside me Wilfred Thesiger, more at home among the black tents and camels of the Bedouin than in his native country and among his own people, slept on.


Some two and a half years before, in September 1954, I had read an article by Thesiger in the
Journal of the Royal
Geographical Society.
Thesiger is famous as a traveller in
Arabia, one of the first men to have mapped the Empty Quarter, the great stretch of unoccupied desert that forms the south-east interior of the Arabian peninsula. This article had been called “The Marshmen of Southern Iraq”, and it described the life of a primitive and previously unexplored people among whom Thesiger had spent some months of each year since 1950. They lived, it seemed, hidden in a watery waste of marsh and lagoon untravelled by any early explorer, dwelling in reed huts built upon little floating islands like dabchicks’ nests.

“The Ma’dan,” he wrote, “have acquired an evil name. The aristocratic tribes despise them for their dubious lineage, and willingly impute to them every sort of perfidy and wickedness, while the townsmen fear them, shun them and readily believe all that they hear against them. Among the British, too, their reputation is bad, a legacy from the First World War when from the shelter of their marshes they murdered and looted both sides indiscriminately as opportunity offered. … They have a well-established reputation as thieves, but have not, as yet, stolen anything from me. …  Hard and primitive, their way of life has endured for centuries, but in the next few years the marshes will be drained and the marshmen as I have known them will disappear to be merged into the stereotype pattern of the modern world—more comfortable, perhaps, but certainly less free and less picturesque. Like many others, I regret the forces which are inexorably suburbanising the untamed places and turning tribesmen into corner boys.”

When I read this article I had been searching for somewhere to go, somewhere that was not already suburbanised and where there was still something left to see that had not already been seen and described by hundreds or thousands of my kind before me. The margins of the atlas were closing in; the journeys I had dreamed in years before were blocked by the spreading stains of new political empires and impenetrable frontiers behind which, if propaganda is to be
believed, the suburbanising process progressed but the faster.

I wrote to Thesiger, who was in London for the autumn and early winter, and we arranged to meet. He was very unlike the preconceived theories I had held about his appearance. The knowledge of his years of primitive living in the Sudan, Ethiopia, and Arabia, of ordeals and hardships past, had led me, perhaps, to expect someone a little indifferent to his personal appearance, someone with a contempt for conformity to the conventions of a European social group. The bowler hat, the hard collar and black shoes, the never-opened umbrella, all these were a surprise to me.

He was willing enough that I should accompany him when he returned to his marshes in January, but doubtful of my ability to stand the discomfort of the life.

“You seem to have led a fairly rough life,” he said, “but this would be a bit different from anything you’ve had before. Can you sleep on the hard ground all right?—because you won’t see a mattress in the marshes.”

I told him that I was well accustomed to it.

“And insect bites. The fleas there can be really quite something. They don’t happen to bite me, but sometimes they keep me awake by sheer weight of numbers, and the Arabs themselves are often driven half crazy by them.”

Any flea within a mile’s radius finds me and falls on me as though famished; they walk about me munching as they go, leaving red mountains with long connecting ridges between them. I thought it better not to mention this for the moment.

“And then there’s diseases. The marsh people have every disease you can think of and lots that you can’t—practically all infectious. It’s my hobby; I’m not a trained doctor, but one acquires knowledge through experience and necessity. One tries to do something for them, and you’ll find that we spend a lot of time doctoring. I’ve built up a certain immunity, but I don’t know how you’d get on. They’ve all got
dysentery, you know, and as the water level round their houses fluctuates the drinking supply and the public lavatory become one and the same thing. I took one Englishman into the marshes and he was carried out after ten days two stone lighter than he came in. He’d have died if I hadn’t sent him back.”

I was determined to let nothing stand between me and this opportunity, and I professed complete indifference to all diseases. He had one more try. “I wonder how long you can sit cross-legged. I’m always on the move, rarely spend two nights in the same place, and we travel in a canoe. So a great deal of every day is spent sitting cross-legged in the bottom of it. And you’ll find that when you are ashore you spend a lot more time cross-legged on the floor of a marshman’s hut. Can you sit cross-legged?”

I said I could try.

“Well,” said Thesiger, “if you’re so determined to come I’ll be glad to have you with me.” And so it was arranged.


But it was not to be as easy as all that. I couldn’t get the necessary visas. For weeks I found myself positively fighting to reach the fleas and diseases and hardships, but it was a losing battle, and at length Thesiger left without me. I returned to Sicily, where I had spent part of the two previous years, and scratched disconsolately at Sicilian fleas and had a bout of inferior Sicilian dysentery, and mourned the rich and varied ailments of the Promised Land. I told my Sicilian friends of my disappointment, and they, whose dream world was of tiled bathrooms and chromium plating, were incredulous.

“Mamma mia! Perché?”
they cried. “Why did you want to go to this terrible place?” I said it was better than shooting big game in Africa, but I had forgotten that this was a strictly British joke, and nobody understood.

The summer passed in the burning dusty heat of a Sicilian
village, and in autumn I came back to London, to rain and lights reflected in wet black streets.

In January I met Thesiger several times, but by now my commitments appeared so interminable that there could be no hope of leaving the country again before April. He himself was returning to the marshes at the end of January, and on the twenty-third, his last free evening before leaving, we dined together again.

“It’s a pity you weren’t able to come last year,” he said, “because there won’t be another chance. I feel I’ve had long enough there, and this is my last journey. I’m leaving the marshes in April, and I shall spend the summer among the pastoral tribes before going on to Afghanistan. You could join me in April, if you like, for a couple of months, but of course the life isn’t as different from anything else as life in the marshes is.”

I leapt at that invitation, and we parted sometime after midnight, with a rendezvous in Basra on April the second.


When I got home I found that I couldn’t sleep. At first I thought I was restless at the prospect, however far off, of a journey to which I looked forward, but as after an hour or two the cigarette ends in the ashtray grew more numerous and more like a squalid family of white grubs, I understood that my discontent was because Thesiger was going to the marshes for the last time and I was staying behind in London. I was passing up an opportunity which could not be repeated. “You could never go there alone unless you spoke their dialect,” he had said. “There won’t be another chance.”

Decisions greater than this are made with no more logic or forethought. By four o’clock in the morning I had made up my mind and I went to sleep.

I was awake by seven-thirty, and the hour before I thought I could reasonably telephone to Thesiger seemed very long. He answered the telephone himself.

“Wilfred—if I can get the visas, can I come with you on Monday?”

There was a moment’s silence at the other end.

“I thought you were so busy you couldn’t leave London before April! Monday would be pretty short notice for someone who wasn’t busy at all. Are you serious?”

“Quite serious. I’ll arrange everything somehow. All right?”

“All right. The plane leaves at 9.50, flight No. 770. I’ll be starting from Victoria at 7.45. Better dine with me here first. I’ll expect you at half-past six.”

“What about luggage?”

“You don’t want any luggage. There isn’t room to carry it in the marshes anyway. Take two shirts, two pairs of trousers and a jacket. One pair of shoes. Something that kicks off easily, because you have to take them off every time you go into a house.” (I didn’t know that the same shoes would have to stay on in the clinging grip of soft clay.) “And a razor. That’s all. Take what you like as far as Basra, if you want more. We can comb it out and leave the inessentials there.”

“When shall I see you?”

“Dinner on the night we leave. Good-bye.”

At the end of four hectic days there was no certainty that I should get visas for the tribal areas. I had a normal visa to spend three months in the country, and a request to call upon the Minister of Public Relations in Baghdad.

The plane droned on over the Syrian desert towards Baghdad.

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