Guffa Making

Keeping endangered skills alive

Our fieldwork engaged with a community in Hilla, Babylon, who traditionally made fisherman’s Guffas. The last local practitioner of this craft was an elderly woman who had stopped producing Guffas after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Through our series of Guffa-making workshops between 2016-19, her skills were passed on to two successive generations.

The spiral shell

The coil-basket shell of a Guffa is made from Halfa grass that has been pulled up by its root. A single taproot sprouts many long, straight leaves of grass; as the coil grows, each root is inserted centrally among the leaves of the previous plant, rapidly building a continuous coil of even thickness. The coil is wrapped and bound to the adjacent coil with split palm leaf. The finest palm leaves come from young fronds growing out of the heart of the palm, which are pale rather than green. Removing these can kill the tree, so they are usually taken from small, young palm trees.

A tensile structure

The Guffa-makers of Hilla could only build boats up to a maximum of 2m in size, a limitation resulting from the use of locally grown pomegranate wands (which only grow up to 2m in length) as the internal bracing. This suggests that larger Guffas may have used a different material for this tensile structure which holds the outer shell taut. Descriptions in literature mention willow and palm being used as bracing; other fruit trees such as pear are also candidates.  In future fieldwork we aim to investigate Guffa-making in the area north of Baghdad, in towns such as Tikrit and Samarra, which were known for the production of large cargo Guffas.

Two-stage tarring

A Guffa is tarred in two distinct stages. First, liquid pitch is poured all over the Guffa inside and out, soaking through the plant fibres of the coil basket. The Guffa is then left in the sun for at least 6 weeks until the pitch has hardened and is dry to the touch. After this, the surface is tarred with the hardest type of bitumen from Hit, also widely used for waterproofing other boats such as the Meshouf and Isbiya.

A boat that rolls

An advantage of the Guffa’s circular form is that it can be rolled like a wheel. There are images of this being done even with very large Guffas. Rolling is an effective way to move a Guffa on land without causing friction damage to the basket’s surface. Our oral history recordings have suggested that a well-maintained Guffa can last up to 50 years in use. Being round also makes Guffas ideal for the popular technique of skein-net fishing, which uses a round net that can be thrown out on any side of the boat.