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The Tigris River Flotilla: a dove of peace in a war-torn land.

Last September a flotilla of traditional Mesopotamian boats began a 60 day historic voyage down the Tigris River on a 1200kms journey from southeastern Turkey to southern Iraq.

The boats were not attacked, there was no violence and the problems of war-torn Iraq seemed a million miles away as participants from Iraq, Turkey, Canada, and the United States floated down the river using both modern and traditional boats. Those onboard were celebrating the cultural heritage of Mesopotamia, bringing environmental awareness to riverside communities, and studying the river's current hydrological condition.

The project was the brain child of Nature Iraq an Iraqi NGO registered in Baghdad and Erbil with the aim of helping to protect, restore, and preserve Iraq's natural environment and the rich cultural heritage it nourishes.

Nature Iraq is concerned that only a few people are possessed of the necessary skills to build or maintain traditional boats, the techniques have been largely lost over time, having been poorly documented and only transferred orally. If they are not recorded now the treasures of Mesopotamian boatbuilding, accumulated over centuries, will be lost to history within one or two generations. The traditional boats used by the flotilla--a tarada, a guffa, and a kelek--were built by local communities in both Turkey and Iraq to celebrate the unique cultural heritage of these communities and unite their people through common tradecraft.

"We were able to find a master boatbuilder in Basra to build us a 10-metre-long tarada. It is a beautiful creation that glides perfectly through the marshland waters," Rashad Salim an Iraqi artist now living in London told The Middle East.

Salim played a key role in rekindling the centuries-old art of traditional Iraqi and Turkish boat building. The tarada from the marshlands of southern Iraq, the guffa from central Iraq, and the kelek from Hasankeyf made up the flotilla. They provided the basis for trade and commerce along the Tigris for millennia and today are a potential resource for ecotourism entrepreneurs.

The guffa is a cargo and passenger carrying boat, not designed for speed or sea-worthiness but to facilitate the carrying of the greatest possible cargo with the most economical use of material. This is important because in some cases, particularly on the Tigris, they were abandoned after one long-river voyage. The construction is a wooden frame, frequently of pomegranate, with waterproof covering and the vessel is propelled with a paddle. The only other materials used in construction are twine, straw and pitch. The tarada is a bitumen-coated reed canoe, with large iron-bossed nails studding its flanks. The Mesopotamian Marshlands of southern Iraq are the home of the Ma'dan Marsh Arabs who have a direct ancestral link to the peoples of ancient Sumer. Their sheikhs once travelled in this watery world in graceful, long (up to 8-10 metres) tarada canoes. But as the wetlands declined the taradas gradually disappeared from the reedbeds.

The kalak is a traditional vessel used for downstream transportation on the Tigris. It is a raft made of the strongest reed or wood that can be found and is supported by attaching inflated goat skins to its base. Kalaks can carry loads of up to 35 tons, often including men and donkeys, and take just a few days to travel from Mosul to Baghdad. The loaded rafts float down the river with the current and are particularly useful in parts of the rivers with rapids and shallows because, despite the loss of some skins, the rafts continue to keep afloat.

Salim described the fact that the flotilla trip took place at all as a great achievement. "Just making those boats was an achievement--it opens the way to making more and developing the history of boats in Iraq.

"One of the most unexpected moments of the trip happened just downstream of the Kut barrage, when a man in a bright blue metal guffa paddled out to have a chat. He uses his craft for fishing, and last purchased a traditional guffa in Hilla in 1985. The traditions live on.

"We reached people, we connected and we will see from this reconnaissance expedition what we can do in future. We have plans to organise other expeditions on the Tigris and Euphrates, build boats and bring them to the rivers of Europe and America. There is also a project to build a Noah's Ark.

"The river has been our past and is also our future but the river itself is under great threat. Iraq has always been about rivers but with the importance attached to oil, that has been forgotten. The river has been polluted. There is fishing with poisons, with dynamite and with electricity and there are huge problems caused by the building of dams. We are trying to draw attention to these problems and, after our engagement with the reality of the environment and the river, we have many things to speak about."
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Title Annotation:Mosaic/IRAQ
Author:Dabrowska, Karen
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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