Zaima History

The Zaima is a reed canoe from the Marshlands of southern Iraq, made of small reed bundles with an internal framework of bracing (made from flexible stems such as cane, palm frond, date bunch stalk, or small branches of local trees such as willow, acacia or gherib), and an outer coating of bitumen. Evidence of these boats’ existence in recent decades is sparse, but reports from earlier centuries suggest they were once much more common. Travellers to Mesopotamia in the 18th and 19th centuries reported that the Marshes were full of canoes made from tarred reeds and cane.

These boats and their construction techniques, which use no metal or wood, may have played a significant role in pre-Bronze age civilisations such as that of the Sumerians. Investigations into sites associated with ancient maritime activity in the Gulf have revealed the only material remains associated with seagoing boats dating from Sumerian times. These consist of clots of bitumen imprinted on one side with the pattern of woven reed mats, and on the other side coated with barnacles and other marine molluscs. This evidence suggests that Sumerian trading ships may have built using reeds, on a much larger scale than the Zaimas of recent centuries.

During the 20th century, especially in the 1970s when the extent of the Marshes and the density of boat traffic reached a peak, the majority of canoes (Meshoufs) were made of planked wood joined with nails. Images and accounts of reed or cane canoes in this period are exceptional. The only known photographs of a Zaima were taken by the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger in the 1950s. During our fieldwork we gathered a handful of oral accounts of reed and cane boats, some known as Zaimas and some with other names. These were among the simplest and cheapest types of vernacular boat made by poor Marsh dwellers.