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The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger

The great traveling circumcision operator of the Iraqi reed beds.

Having lost the untouched paradise of Arabian Sands to the merciless exploitation of the oil companies that corrupted the Bedouin culture that Wilfred Thesiger so dearly loved, he turned in the 1950’s to the marshes of Southern Iraq. Back then the area close to Basra was full of rivers, reedbeds and marshes that were home to various tribes and Thesiger, as usual, was as merry as a lark as long as he could infiltrate and live among the most isolated communities possible.

Thesiger befriends the local sheiks and with his good Arabic, knowledge of local customs and etiquette and his shooting skills, he’s readily welcomed into the mudhif, guest houses made of arched bunches of reeds 20 feet high, as great in stature as a town hall. There the local sheiks received all visitors, dealt with tribal disputes and generally held court.

That wasn’t good enough for Thesiger, though; he had to penetrate into the interior of the marshes to live with the most isolated tribes of all, the Madan. Although warned of the Madan’s thieving, inhospitable ways, Thesiger persists and paddles his way inwards, staying at the various huts he finds along the way but never finding a welcome for longer than a night.

Until the locals notice his large chest of medicines that he drags behind him. Tired of the dangerous and painful infections caused when the local witch doctors operate, Thesiger is approached and asked if he would care to take charge of a circumcision of a teenage boy the next day. Operating from a vague knowledge of medicine Thesiger hesitates but senses it might be his way towards tribal acceptance and agrees. He completes the operation and then nearly faints when he discovers there’s another 20 boys awaiting their turn.

Marsh Arabs is a tale of a world that has disappeared and of a Englishman whose type is almost extinct. Reserved, diligent and austere, Thesiger is a lot of fun to accompany on his adventures and he takes on adversity with the amusing stiff upper lip that the British were once so famous for. In addition to his circumcision duties, Thesiger is asked to shoot any wild boar he sees who are responsible for countless deaths in the reed beds each year. On more than one occasion he finds himself staring down the barrel at a charging hog and ends up with the dead beast’s body falling on top of him.

Marsh Arabs may not be in quite the same league as Arabian Sands but it’s still an exceptional story of adventure in lands long lost to us from Wilfred Theisger, one of the most intrepid modern explorers.