Soldiers construct traditional meeting hall in southern Iraq
December 7, 2009
CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq (Nov. 25, 2009) -- In a project designed to honor the customs and traditions of the marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq, members of Human Terrain Team 8 advised Task Force Pathfinder on how to construct a 'mudhif' meeting place here.
No structure captures the lifestyle and traditions of the marsh Arabs more than the mudhif. First constructed in the marshes of what is now southern Iraq more than 5,000 years ago, the mudhif is a unique local meeting place assembled entirely of reeds, straw and other natural materials.
The team that helped bring this structure to the base, has worked in the southern Iraqi provinces of Maysan, Dhi Qar and Al Muthanna for the last two years. Its members have worked to gain an understanding of the local culture and share that knowledge with the Soldiers operating in the region.
As part of their work, they regularly take part in engagements with local leaders and conduct field research among the Iraqis who live along the many canals in the region and in the Hawizah Marsh.
Task Force Pathfinder will use the mudhif they helped construct to conduct meetings with local leaders in a comfortable, traditional background.
The structure is being built by a crew of local craftsmen entirely from materials harvested from the local marshes.
The lead builder of the mudhif is a man with skin darkened by years of exposure to the elements. Although unwilling to give his name, he commented, "I have built nearly 100 mudhif structures in my lifetime."
With experience like his it was no surprise when he was soon routinely accompanied by several younger men, the next generation of craftsmen eager to learn how to build the traditional hall.
The design of the mudhif itself reflects local traditions. For instance, there are always an odd number of reed pillars in the mudhif, allowing the host of a meeting to sit along one side wall with an equal number of guests to his right and left.
This ensures that the tribal sheikh remains the center of decision-making when conducting business, and reinforces his position of prestige in the area.
Lengths of reed, some 10 meters long, are bunched into columns, tied together, and then shaped into huge parabolic arches. Hand-woven mats are then tied over and between the columns, forming a roof.
Finally, reed lattice panels are attached to the sides, allowing both sunlight and air to flow into the interior and enclosing the entire hut.
Cultural understanding and immersion were the reasons behind the construction of this communal hall.
Its completion will serve as a lasting monument to the task force's unconventional mission, while displaying the commitment the United States has to ensuring that local history and heritage are not forgotten, said Lt. Col. Michael Eastman, commander of TF Pathfinder.
"It was important for us, and our mission of building civil capacity, to create a structure that demonstrated our appreciation for local customs and traditions," Eastman said.
"This mudhif is more than a symbolic gesture," he said. "It is a place where Americans and Iraqis meet and discuss ways to sustain our progress in these three provinces."
(C. Brandt Smith Jr. & Nazar Alkass serve with Human Terrain Team 8, TF 2-29, 4th BCT, 1st Armd. Div.)