The making of Meshoufs is a skilled craft, and in the case of more sophisticated boat types such as the Tarada it is recognised by the community as an art form. The proportions of each boat are measured by eye, with only a stick and piece of string as measuring tools, and a “forma” (fixed angle) used to guide the angle of the boat’s sides. Each Tarada is seen as an artwork, unique to its maker: elders of the community we interviewed were able to identify the individual who built each Meshouf just by looking at photographs of the boats.
The high curved prow of Meshoufs like the Tarada and Chilaika is a visual icon, seen in Iraqi art from ancient to modern times. It seems to combine practical functions (an aerodynamic form aids speed; it also enables a paddler to gain leverage from a higher position) with aesthetic value. Prominent prows were a status symbol, and particular prow forms were associated with specific tribes or makers: for example the Nawfiliya (which has a more upright prow) is named after the tribe who preferred that form, while the Farsiya (with a narrower and more extended prow) was created by a well-known boatbuilder called Faris.
Our Meshouf workshops focused particularly on the Tarada, building two 9m boats as initial studies, then two 11m boats as reconstructions of the Tarada built for British explorer Wilfred Thesiger in the 1950s. Taradas were prestigious, large (typically 10-14m), high prowed canoes associated with Sheikhs. They were decorated inside with patterns of metal studs – a traditional form of “bling”. Their use was curtailed following the Revolution of 1958, when the feudal system was under attack. In the 1970s they were used for more egalitarian purposes, such as carrying groups of children to school. Today the four-wheel drive vehicle has taken their place as the status symbol of choice.
The construction process begins with levelling the ground and sprinkling it with water. Nails and string are used to draw on the ground the outline and proportion of the boat’s flat base, or Tabug. This is made from planks of sheet timber (typically pine for cheaper boats or teak for higher-quality ones) held together with battens traditionally made of mulberry wood, grown in central Iraq, which is strong and resists decay. Each batten has a bevelled angle at either side which define the openness of the boat. The angles of the upturn at the prow and stern of the Meshouf are defined by placing jigs underneath.
Once the base is complete, the ribs on either side of the boat are joined to it, followed by stem posts defining the form of the prow and stern. The whole boat is then clad with outer and inner “skins” of timber planks. Thwarts (cross beams which strengthen the boat and also function as seats) are added, and the whole structure is nailed together. Before tarring, the gap between the inner and outer skins is filled, traditionally with reeds, or sometimes now with paper: a job often carried out by young assistants learning the trade.
The finest quality tar (bitumen) used on these boats comes from Hit in Anbar governorate. Our host in Huwair, Abu Sajjad, comes from a long line of traders in this material. Tar from Hit is available in a range of different viscosities, with the hardest type being used for waterproofing Meshoufs. Two coats of tar are used on each boat, each laid on with a different type of roller (saqla). The hot tar is spread on by hand in a highly skilled process, with oil being used to protect the craftsman’s hands. A fine grade of river sand is used to prevent the tar from sticking to the palette.
Tar is cleaned of impurities in big metal pans, with the fire underneath being fuelled by pitch (the most liquid form of bitumen) and solid materials such as wood and old tyres. Tarring is typically repeated several times in a boat’s useful life: the tar coating lasts for 1-2 years (longer if the boat is kept in water) before it is hacked off and a new layer added. It’s a highly polluting process and for that reason, in our Sporting Meshouf project, we are beginning to explore alternative methods of waterproofing.
Previously undocumented discoveries emerged from our oral history interviews with the Huwair community. Most notably, the use of a sail and awnings on Taradas was recalled by some elders, one of whom, Abu Nassir, reconstructed these features for us. The sail he made worked superbly, backing up his claims although sails are not seen in the photographic record of the Marshes by visitors such as Wilfred Thesiger (1950s) and Gavin Young (1970s).