Meshouf is a generic term for flat-bottomed canoes made in the region of Iraq’s southern Marshlands. Our workshops in 2018 reconstructed a range of Meshouf types, from small flat-prowed canoes like the Matour (a one-man canoe traditionally used for hunting water fowl), to larger types with a prominent curved prow such as the Chilaika and the prestigious Tarada, hunting and war canoe of the Marsh Sheikhs.
Image by Wilfred Thesiger, used under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license from the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. Accession number: 2004.130.16034.1
The distinctive form of these boats can be traced back to Sumerian iconography, with models clearly representing Meshoufs found at Ur, dating from around 2500 BC. The techniques used to build them in ancient times are unclear. In our ongoing research we are investigating how construction methods may have changed through the ages.
From the mid-20th century, Meshoufs of all types used construction methods that were clearly different from those of earlier centuries, as the availability of industrially-produced nails and timber, and the introduction of the bandsaw made the production of wooden canoes cheaper. Nevertheless, Meshoufs of recent decades retained their traditional shape. The Taradas and other Meshoufs reconstructed in our workshops were built using late 20th-century techniques, as those of earlier generations are already fading from living memory.
Up until the early 20th century, evidence from written documentation and a few archival photographs indicate that cane and woven plant-fibre mats (Hasir) were more widely used than wood in the construction of Meshoufs. Wooden boats existed at this time too, but were built using different techniques with fewer nails. For further information about marsh boats made using basketry techniques, see the Zaima page.
Image by Wilfred Thesiger, used under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license from the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. Accession number: 2004.130.10602.1
We have been privileged to work with an extended family who are among the most renowned boatbuilders of Huwair, and heirs to a long tradition. They are part of the Beni Asad tribe, who came to the marshes 300-400 years ago from Arabia, learned the craft of boatbuilding from the Mandaean-Sabean population (one of various ethnic groups living locally), and gradually took over as the main practitioners of the craft, while the Mandaean-Sabeans largely specialised in metalwork. The makers we worked with have lived in Huwair, on the edge of the marshes, since that period, and see themselves as “townspeople” whose clients are the people of the Marshlands.
Huwair once had a large boatbuilding industry: elders report that up to 2000 boatbuilders operated locally in the 1960s. Boats are still made there, but the number of workshops has declined to around 5. These workshops typically make boats as cheaply as possible – often using scrap wood, resin and fibreglass, or sheet metal – usually with a flat stern to accommodate an outboard motor. The main customers for non-motored wooden boats are women who use cheap, flat-prowed canoes to harvest reeds as fodder for buffaloes in the marshes. Huwair is now better known as a centre for metalwork and carpentry.
Our boatbuilding workshops and oral history recording sessions have engaged the Huwair community of all ages, creating a focus for intergenerational dialogue around boatbuilding traditions. Elders have shared their memories and skills, and the younger generation show a strong sense of pride in this heritage. As a result of this process, a group of young Huwair residents have set up the popular Facebook page “Iraqi Maritime Heritage of Huwair” to share historical information and updates on today’s traditional boats.