16-Feb-2012 -- I’ve been eyeing the 31N 47E for some time due to its location in a relatively safe area and not far from routes to oil fields, especially the West Qurna field in Baṣra in southern Iraq. Friends currently working on the field offered to take me to the confluence point and provide local guides from the area once I make it to Baṣra. So on a work trip to cover the ceremony inaugurating new oil export facilities in al-Fāw, the southern tip of Iraq, I packed my GPS and my maps and was determined to use this opportunity to conclude this confluence point visit, my third in Iraq - in addition to one aborted half way due to security issues. On paper, the confluence point seemed in the middle of a marsh area but difficult to predict whether it’s doable by car, on foot, or by canoe.
Interrogating local friends on what to expect in the area of Abū Narsiyy and al-Jabayš, the closest town to the confluence point, I was extremely lucky when the director of the South Oil Co and a personal friend Dhia al-Mosawy offered to join me on this adventure. What better guide than someone who grew up in the area, who knows the locals and with stature to disentangle us from any unpredictable situation.
I set off with Muaayad al-Mosawy, Dhia’s brother at 10 a.m. on 16 February from Baṣra, driving north on the Baṣra - al-`Amāra road where we were joined by Dhia, accompanied by Sultan al-Mosawy, Fayez al-Mosawy and Saad al-Battat. We drove about 70 km north in two cars, past the Bin `Umar oil field flares, then turned west towards al-Jabayš. We crossed al-`Izz river (the river of glory), an artificial river created by Ṣaddām Ḥusayn in the 1980’s when he set on drying the Marshes during the Iran-Iraq war, then another al-Sab` river, 10 km past the town of Mudayna. After a quick stop and photo-op at the new Martyrs’ Shrine under construction, we headed towards the area of Abū Narsiyy, famous for its long reeds used for building the mudhifs, or reed houses. It was a fascinating scene as the marshland came to sight on the right side of the road, locals cutting reed, or sailing by on their canoes, water buffaloes washing in the water, women covered in black and colorful dresses, face covered, manning the canoe called Balam, working side by side with men. It was an usual scene for an Iraq swept back in history under the weight of wars and misery. This used to be one of the richest areas of the Marshes in fisheries and reeds until Ṣaddām Ḥusayn launched a campaign to drying them out on two occasions, the first to control the area during the Iran-Iraq war, and the second to punish its inhabitants and force them to submission, my interlocutors told me. Yet, you can still see the remains of the surviving heritage amid efforts to revive it.
Driving about 40 km on the al-Jabayš road, we found a track that was also obvious on Google Earth maps. We turned right on the track that cuts through the marshes until it was too narrow to drive. According to my maps, we needed to travel 4.9 km north on the track and then 1.5 km west towards the confluence point which by this time it was obvious that it was located in the water where the depths varied between 1.5-2 m. A quick lunch stop while introductions were made with the locals and negotiations followed, then we were on the move in two hired motorized Balams and their navigators, engaging the waters heading north at 4 km/h. By the time we reached and crossed the 31N, it became obvious that heading west towards the 47E would require new initiatives as the same track, though very narrow, was still cutting through. Another negotiation with more locals and we were again on the water across the track, this time in a rented Mašhūf, a much smaller and un-motorized canoe. It was a hard navigation through the palisades of reeds but thanks to our talented navigator Kassem and his ability to negotiate dry and green reeds alike with his pole, we made the 1.5 km west until we came to the exact point.
It didn’t take long with Kassem following my instructions to turn his Mašhūf a bit to this side, a bit to that side, to the nearest zeros on my GPS. Pictures taken of water and reeds in all four directions, surrounded by nothing but reeds and rushes and a couple of water buffaloes enjoying a swim. A few minutes to enjoy the success before heading back, with Kassem taking the liberty this time to choose the easiest route back. Back onto the Balams waiting for us, we headed back to land, enjoying the breeze of a February afternoon on the waters and admiring the grey and white kingfisher birds called “Muhalhal” by the locals, pelicans, and water buffaloes. I was so grateful to my friends for my first experience ever in the Marshes. Soon after, I was on the 500 km-long road to Baġdād with my apt driver Saed, which we reached by early evening.