Iraq’s boat clubs: Preserving heritage and connections

Tourists waiting for boat rides watch as Harun Mahmoud steers Mama Tarada towards the shore of Dukan Lake in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

Its curved bow and slim beam, a traditional Iraqi style used by the people of the southern marshes, stands out among the modern speedboats waiting for hire.

The 12-metre wooden vessel is part of the Safina Projects, which has established a network of eight heritage boat clubs across Iraq.

The goal is to link Iraqis with their past and their land by reviving and celebrating age-old boatbuilding designs and techniques.

“This boat is new here, so people have not seen it that much. But when they come and see it, they are all shocked and they get to experience a really good feeling,” Mahmoud, 30, tells The New Arab during an outing on the boat.

Harun Mahmoud, 30, and Karwan Majeed, 32, (right) ride on Mama Tarada on Dukan Lake, Iraq’s Kurdistan Region on May 1, 2024 [Winthrop Rodgers]

Sara Mountain soars above the lake, which is a reservoir created by a hydroelectric dam built in the 1950s. The hills ringing its shores were bright green a few weeks ago, but are getting progressively more yellow as the hot, dry summer approaches.

Mahmoud guides the boat into a cove with high cliffs rising on either side. The small group enjoying a morning aboard climbs out on the bank and forages a snack of wild sour cherries from nearby trees. A stream coursing into the lake is thick and brown from an overnight dust and rain storm. It is a stark contrast with the turquoise of the deeper lake.

“It feels great. I come here with other people. You don’t get sick of it. I even brought other people to ride this boat,” said Shahan Jalal, 16, who lives nearby and is a part of the club.

“Other boats are created in a modern way, but this is made in a classic way. It is old and it hasn’t changed, so it is great,” he adds.

Reviving cultural heritage through innovation  

The boat clubs are the brainchild of Rashad Salim, 67, an Iraqi artist who has a long history of promoting Iraq’s cultural heritage and craftsmanship.

In 1977, he was a key member of Thor Heyerdhal’s Tigris expedition, which built and sailed a massive reed boat from Basra to Djibouti to emphasise the ancient trade routes of the region.

“We want to come to a point when young people, students, and specialists can look forward to expeditions going down the [Mesopotamian] rivers from their source to the end,” Salim said. “One of the things that we are trying to find a solution to is the fragmentation of the country.”

“Basically, it’s about reconnecting and boats are a medium,” he added.

Today, the project has clubs in Basra, Chibayish, Abu Sawbat, Suq al-Shuyukh, Diwaniya, Babylon, Baghdad, and Dukan. Some of them have specific programmes for women or partner with scouting groups. They work with local craftsman to build wooden and reed vessels and pass down knowledge from generation to generation.

But Iraq has changed and the clubs are a way of confronting the country’s challenges in a positive way.

“As we’re doing this, we’re coming up against the realities of the landscape today as different from before. The obstructions, how to get around those obstructions, and the pollution. And hopefully by engaging with it directly, we have more of a momentum to resolving that,” Salim said.

The Dukan club’s equipment is housed at Paia Agency, a social entrepreneurship network in Sulaymaniyah city. Its offices are located in a repurposed indoor pool and several of the club’s boats hang from the ceiling — floating on air above the blue tiles. There are several taradas, like the larger version out on Dukan. They hang alongside a coracle-like guffa and Kurdish-style rafts known as kalak.

Sabah Ahmed Mohammed, 48, builds a Kurdish kalak to keep its leather pliable at Paia Agency in Sulaymaniyah city in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region on April 26, 2024 [Winthrop Rodgers]

Showcasing a rich maritime legacy 

Together these boats represent part of Iraqi and Kurdish riverine heritage. The elegant tarada were ideal for navigating the marshes of the southern governorates and showing off the prestige of local sheikhs, while the sturdy kalak could ferry whole herds of sheep across Kurdistan’s wild rivers.

Sabah Ahmed Mohammed, a 48-year-old environmentalist, is working on a new kalak that will be part of an exhibition. He said that constructing old-style boats made him realise how ingenious his predecessors had to be before the advent of modern materials.

“As much as the project is about the past, the ultimate goal is to change the future of Iraq”

“How hard was it at that time and how easy is it now? When I am working, I go back and I see how people were trying to think without having any of these tools around,” he said.

The kalak is made from a grid of wooden staves lashed to two-dozen leather sacks for buoyancy. In a nod to locally available materials, he is using mashka, a traditional churn made out of a whole sheep or goat skin that Kurds and other cultures around the Middle East use for making butter and other dairy products.

Traditional-style Iraqi boats on display at Paia Agency in Sulaymaniyah city in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region on April 24, 2024 [Winthrop Rodgers]

As much as the project is about the past, the ultimate goal is to change the future of Iraq.

Nabil Musa, 48, a veteran water activist, organises the Dukan club’s expeditions through an initiative called Experience Wilderness. For him, the outings are the ideal way to establish deep connections between people and Iraq’s nature, which is increasingly under threat.

“I feel that everyone deserves to enjoy nature like I do,” said Mousa, 48. “You can fall in love with anything and tomorrow when something happens to these mountains or caves or rivers, you automatically feel like ‘that’s mine. I need to do something about it.’”

He not only hopes that the clubs inspire people to develop a relationship with the land and water around them, but that it helps them to realise the connections between the peoples that live around the Mesopotamia basin.

The boat clubs are “all about how we can actually keep this heritage and culture alive,” Mousa said. “This is how we paddled from the Zagros Mountains all the way to the marshlands to spread the ideas of agriculture and civilisation.”

“We should know how we used to travel,” he added.

Winthrop Rodgers is a journalist and analyst based in Sulaymaniyah in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. He focuses on politics, human rights, and political economy

Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @wrodgers2

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