Zaima Making

The boatbuilding community of Huwair, where our Meshouf-building workshops were held, had no direct experience of constructing Zaimas, but some locals remembered them being built and used as recently as the 1990s. They agreed to attempt to reconstruct reed and cane canoes, drawing on their familiarity with these widely available local materials (also used in vernacular architecture), as well as the evidence we’d collected in the form of oral history interviews – recorded in both Huwair and Amara – and the photographs and writings of Thesiger. The results of these experimental workshops are outlined here.

The first attempt at reconstruction – built by a team led by Meshouf builder Abu Muhenid – was based on local knowledge and guesswork, using only cane as a material. Elders with memories of the Zaima were attracted during the build and contributed their advice. Built over 3 days, the boat was launched successfully, and a crew of all ages enjoyed using it for a community clean-up of the local creek. However, the quantity of tar used proved too heavy for the structure (particularly as the bracing was made from cane, rather than a stronger tensile material), so the boat form quickly lost shape and became unusable.

Our second version of the Zaima adhered as closely as possible to the construction method described by Thesiger in “The Marsh Arabs”, with a shell of reeds, and internal bracing made of willow. The resulting boat functioned well and was durable, but like the first it was extremely heavy.

The third iteration combined Thesiger’s instructions with additional knowledge gathered from oral history interviews, particularly those recorded in Amara with the Handhal family, traditional boatbuilders from the Sabean-Mandaean community. A middle-aged brother and sister from that family recalled their father building a reed boat admired for its beauty, in which he took great pride. They described this boat as having a skin made from woven reed mats. This method was applied in the third workshop, resulting in a much lighter boat that was faster to make and has lasted well. 

Based on our oral history recordings and practical experiments, we suggest that reed and cane boats were probably built using a variety of different methods, based on tradition but improvised by the maker, much like those seen in the vernacular architecture of the Marshes. They were a step up from the simplest reed-bundle craft (see Floats and Rafts) but were typically home-made boats, quick and economical to construct using locally plentiful materials, and were not expected to last long. However, these metal-free boats offer intriguing clues to the possible construction of larger and more sophisticated sea-going craft in ancient times.