Le 24/06/2020 by Muntadher Aloda
I was raised near ancient cities, loved the dust of the surrounding deserts and held a love of these places. I desired to know for myself, as an Iraqi of the South, my own history in a progressive and scientific way, not as it is narrated by outsiders or those with the loudest voices who just frequent the local cafés.
Having completed my higher education, I was motivated to help my compatriots to change their mind about the crucial role of heritage in our land. So, after a while spent working as an archaeologist, I joined a large exploratory project working alongside my professors from various institutions in Russia, to preserve the cultural identity embodied in these archaeological sites in cooperation with the local population.
Ethnological and anthropological studies of the area between the ancient cities of Uruk and Ur are few, one of the reasons which prompted us, as an Iraqi-Russian mission, to revive them. Like the city Venice, the cities in the Mesopotamian marshes were built on water, and one of these cities, Dehaila, a completely unexplored large settlement, became the focus of our project.
The city was constructed on an old river-bed which gave it a higher elevation and some protection against flooding. The remains of the settlement formed a slightly raised mound, a tell, known to the local communities as Tell Dehaila, meaning “A hidden place”, “The low place”, or in other explanations “The place surrounded by water on all sides”. Local people, as well as some archaeologists, have remarked that it is well-named, the site being completely waterlogged until the 1990s.
Dehaila is located in an isolated place north of Basra. The poor condition of the local roads make it very difficult to access. Agricultural land lies between 6km and 7km distant from the archaeological site itself, cultivated by local farmers following the agricultural seasons; they consider themselves to be the owners of this land, including the immediate environs of Dehaila. Marshlands are also to be found close to the site, the home of many water-birds and raptors which I had not seen before, in addition to various other wild animals.
Despite the historical and cultural importance (not to mention the natural diversity) of this site, it lacks the most basic elements of preservation and protection. The effects of theft and looting are very clear across the archaeological site, some of these recent, in addition to the damage caused by herds of animals belonging to the Bedouins, which constantly cross the site. I have been personally threatened while I was photographing and documenting the site. On a daily basis, we are facing several difficulties both during and after digging.
Carrying out the protection of the site : a challenging experience
Finding guards to protect the site during our intervention is always a challenge as an actor of heritage. We always need to deal with local rules. For the case of Tell Dehaila, having a guard to protect the area while digging was crucial.
Finding a guard on rough terrain
The First step was to visit the sheikh of the local clan, Abu Shahab, who considers himself the ultimate owner of this land. Views from local community is always important in this case. When we met him at his house in the city of Batha (which lies 18km from Dehaila), he asked us that he be given a maximum of three days to search for a guard.
There had been many offers from many friends and many interested people, but I insisted that the guard must be from the area of Dehaila. Three days later, the sheikh called me and we agreed to meet at another house belonging to him. I called my friend, Haidar (the Co-Director of the Inspectorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Dhi Qar Province), asking that he should be present at this meeting.
As we entered the sheikh’s house, which was both large and beautiful, we were served with water and tea after which the sheikh welcomed us and started talking. The first sentence he uttered was: « This land belonged to the state and not to us. We know that Dehaila is a rich and ancient site, but we are not close to it. »
We went on : « I have contacted many people who I trust, but no-one agreed to be a guard alone on this site. There should be four to six people because there are many wolves, foxes, wild pigs, many dangerous wild animals near the site, and I will be worried if anything happens to them. To be between four and six will give them safety. Each person has to be paid $500-600 per month to protect the site ».
I said: “Well, I will have to ask the director of the project before giving you my answer, but I have just one more question. Maybe Haidar can help me with this.”
As they were both previously neighbors, Haidar knows the sheikh very well. I asked Haidar if it would be possible to meet the people chosen by the sheikh. The sheikh gave us the names of the six people, whereupon Haidar told me: « I know almost all of them, they inhabit the desert near the site (between 10km and 12km from Dehaila). They own agricultural land there. »
I replied to Haidar: « Now I am worried about this. »
When I heard the sheikh’s proposal, I wanted to know what his position would be if we chose somebody with no direct relation to his clan. He acquiesced and said he had no objection.
When leaving the house I requested that the sheikh keep in touch. Haidar asked me: “Why are you so worried about if they live close to the site?”
Me : » The problem is that people, being so poor, are desperate for any job with a monthly salary. They would not even look at where the site is located, let alone visit it regularly. We have seen the consequences of this before at the enormously important urban sites of Umma and Shmeit. We have fourteen guards at Umma but still the looting continues in Umma ».
Most of these men have another job in addition to guarding Umma which distracts them from performing their service at this site. Moreover, when I met the director of the Slovak mission in Umma, he told me that looters had destroyed everything on the site: even the excavation trenches that they worked on last season were riddled with holes. So, I was worried that if we agreed upon guards for Dehaila on the same basis, we might face the same situation as Umma. Moreover, if they are not from the local population who live close to the site, they will be less likely to intervene if a problem arises, or looting or other damage, occurs.
I told the project’s director, Alexei Jankowski-Diakonoff, about this. We know that guards on other sites are paid $100 to $150; if we pay each person $500 to $600, this will lead to an enormous escalation in expenses for other projects, so they would probably not be able to afford guards anymore and this would impact the whole system of Iraqi archaeology.
While the start of the excavation season approached, no guards had yet been found. People refused to work for the specified amount ($150), as their sheikh had predicted. Mustafa, one of the representatives of the State Board for Antiquities and Heritage due to excavate with us, also knows the area very well. He called many people many times. All of them would initially agree, and then refuse because they knew that the clan’s sheikh would later cause them problems.
We planned to go to the site in order to set up the excavation camp near; this required a guard. My friends, Haidar and Mustafa, advised me that three people would be needed to protect the site. I called them two days beforehand, and they seemed to be ready.
Early next morning, we went to Dehaila. We waited many hours for the first person to arrive, but unfortunately, he did not come. I asked my friends to contact the third person, but we were saddened to learn that his daughter had just died at hospital. The third person told us that he would come now, but we waited until 14:00 before he called Mustafa saying he could not come. Most of them gave the site’s remoteness or the small salary as their reason.
So it was lucky that Ghani, the mission’s driver, was with us. He, his father and even his grandfather had worked with almost all of the excavation teams in Dhi Qar Governorate. Ghani said he knew one person who was both intelligent and accustomed to the desert since he had lived all his youth there; it would be easy for him to live here at Dehaila.
Ghani called him and I talked to him, he agreed to work, and Ghani went with Haidar to fetch him. I continued to work setting up our camp but, as sunset approached, we were still waiting for the guard, Ghani and Haidar. I tried to call them to find out what had happened to them, but with the network not working, I thought I might have to stay at the site as its guard for the night!
– Alexei asks: Is there a guard for the site??
– Me: Certainly…
Luckily, as soon as we had finished work, Ghani arrived with good news: the guard. Everybody on site was happy that we finally had a guard: the local antiquities police, the workers who had set up the camp, the members of the excavation mission. I had managed to arrange everything regarding security, salaries, and work. I told our guard that we would begin to dig tomorrow, “you have here everything here, I have put food for you in the camp, you have gas, you can cook and if anything happens, let me know immediately”. He agreed, then told me, “I am used to these places. I was born in the desert and lived on the Saudi-Iraqi border for many years, so don’t worry”. He, laughing, set his gun on his shoulder.
We returned to Ur and the joy of finding a guard overwhelmed me: I had passed the first test in my personal mission to preserve the historical and cultural identity of Iraq.
The very next evening I received a call from Mustafa to tell me that the guard did not wish to continue, and would join the Iraqi army the next day. As for us, we had to start excavating tomorrow. We had hoped to live in the camp that we had just built but, as the official agreements had not been issued yet, we had to travel each day to and from Ur, a journey of 50 km. I again started to call several people I know in the Dehaila area with the help of my friends; one of them told me that he would send a suitable man.
We began digging but, along with excitement, a great fear came into my heart: with no guard on our site, what would I have to do once work was finished?
During our excavation, a man came to us with his friend:
– Him: Why are you here?
– Me: Why are YOU here?
– Him: I came to this place because my friend told me that you want a guard for your company.
– Me: (laughing) Our company? Which company do you mean?
– Him: What about this work you have?
– Me: Are you from the Dehaila region?
– Him: No, I am from Samawah, 50km away.
– Me: So, I’m sorry, we cannot accept anyone if he is not from Dehaila but, anyway, if the director of the project accepted you, how much would you want as salary?
– Him : No less than $1000!!
– Me: We have planned $100 to $150. So sorry.
I asked Mustafa to call anybody he knew to act as a guard just for that night, then we would see in the morning what we could do.
Since there is no source of drinking water in the area, we occasionally hire a tanker of water to provide us with drinking and washing water. Now it arrived with three people. I asked one of them, “Do you know this area?” He answered, “I am a son of this region and I am always here”. “Oooh great, would you like to work here as a guard?” I said to him. He agreed, then he said, « I live in the neighboring village and, since these lands belong to another sheikh, so I must tell Abu Shahab, the sheikh of that clan ». I told him, “I will call the sheikh. We will get his approval for you to work here”. So, I called the sheikh, and he allowed our man to guard the site. I showed the site and our camp to our new guard, and explained to him where he would live: he was so happy and met Alexei. He wanted to bring his things from his house and return to us quickly. I went back to digging, and after fifteen minutes our new guard called and began: “Please, I don’t believe him (meaning the sheikh), I need to meet him face to face and to have some people from amongst my family and friends with me. We will go to his house to hear from him, THEN we will see if he will allow me to work here or not.” “Let me know how it goes”, I said.
In a short while, we finished our work for the day, and still the site and the camp were without a guard. Two hours had passed since our new guard had left during which I had called him twenty-seven times using a terrible network (unfortunately without answer). I told my friends : “Let’s search for another. Don’t stop searching…”
Mustafa called to tell me he had found someone, and we waited for him for a half-hour, but he stopped answering Mustafa’s calls. Haidar too called many times, always with the same fruitless result until we had tried twelve people.
One of these people told me when I met him that one of the reasons for his and others refusal is that some of them do not belong to the clan who regard the land as theirs. So they fear being threatened later by the owners of the land and, for the sake of their safety, they refused to work.
We ourselves do not want to bring a large number of guards who do not know the location or the importance of the site, meaning that we would return to the site next season to find it unprotected. So, it was necessary to find a person who is ready to guard the site, necessary that they be an inhabitant of one of the surrounding villages to be physically present to protect this historic place. Otherwise we would be partly responsible for any damage caused to such an important ancient city, as has happened to other such sites, among the first cities in Mesopotamia and still to this day being plundered and devastated.
The moon emerging from the dark night…
Following many unsuccessful attempts, the news finally arrived that there is a person who is very strong, keen, and indifferent both to the scorching heat of the desert and the wild animals. His name is Badr (the moon in Arabic) and his appearance was really like the light of the moon emerging from the dark night.
Badr is, in fact, a local resident from near Dehaila. As I wanted, I got a brave, industrious, active, and very intelligent guard. Working at the site also saved him from wounding or death. He told us that he had fought against ISIS in Syria at a time when he did not even know what ISIS exactly was. His friends told him, just before I called him, that they were returning to Syria to fight, but my call convinced him to stay in Iraq and work with us. After only a few days, he heard that his friends had been killed in an explosion in Syria while he was safe with us. Badr had gained a new job while he could have died. This is the greatest message I can present to my country by my work in Iraq: how we can strive to preserve our cultural heritage and so use it to serve our society well.
And there is also a crucial message to governmental institutions (and other local and international organizations besides): it is time for you to stop being passive bystanders simply writing and publishing from afar, it is time to pay attention to how archaeological sites and historic buildings in Iraq are suffering daily.
The absence of a wider cultural awareness of Iraq, with the absolute neglect of detailed, successful strategies and radical solutions in dealing with a difficult reality. Perhaps we will have in the passage from Umma to Dehaila a positive example of this unknown future.
And so I finally started the journey of a thousand miles with at least a guard …