Americans are so used to looking at everything beyond our shores through the prism of politics and conflict that it’s shocking to encounter a beautiful story of hope and resilience in Iraq.
This is one of those stories — like Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea — that has a dedicated, obsessed man at its core, in this case an Iraqi-American named Azzam Alwash, who — as a child — spent wonderful lazy days with his father wandering the Mesopotamian Marshes of Iraq, an area some identify as the true location of the legendary Garden of Eden.
In the 1990s Saddam Hussein — in a depressingly successful effort to drive out the “Marsh Arabs” — launched a massive engineering project to drain the marshes, turning the vast region into a lifeless moonscape.
After the American invasion of 2003, Alwash returned to Iraq to visit this place that he had so loved as a child. He described the experience of returning in these words:
“The first time I saw the marshes, the dried central marshes, it was literally a physical blow. It was painful. Seeing a place that you grew up in, that you have kept in your memory — green, full of life, full of birds — and it’s a desert. It’s dead.”
This documentary, Braving Iraq: Remembering the Marshes, is part of the PBS Nature series. It’s a beautiful, brave story. The film-makers risk the commonplace dangers of war, such as IEDs and insurgent attacks, in order to chronicle the campaign of this special Iraqi man driven by love for a place.
There’s a moment in this film when you see the water returning to the dried marshland, and a sudden profusion of green reeds. It’s clear that the dormant seeds survived a decade or more in this parched moonscape.
I was surprised at being so moved by the resilience of seeds.
And the birds. The birds are coming back. Slender-billed gulls, marbled teal, and Basra reed warblers. The marbled teal, thought to be near extinction, are returning in unbelievable numbers. We see the crew traveling into the recovering marsh, hoping to spot the teal rumored to be in the area. Suddenly some 40,000 teal rise up above the horizon and fly over in a massive cloud … and we hear the giggles and laughter of the men below, who are overtaken by joy.
All this from the rich waters of the Euphrates, and from the determination of a man who loves this place.
Watch the short trailer following, or (below the trailer) an excerpt from the first of four chapters of the complete program.