Travelling down the river, Salim noticed that most boats were made of metal, not traditional materials. Ancient Mesopotamian boats and crafts had survived multiple invasions over many millennia, explains Salim. But the displacement and destruction of recent conflicts disrupted the traditional ways of teaching these crafts, often passed down from father to son.
“Never before had these strata of knowledge, of engagement of [local] material … ever disappeared. This was the very first time,” says Salim.
Salim began tracking down the last few living craftspeople in Iraq who knew how to build traditional boats.
Through boat reconstruction and oral history workshops, he has documented six traditional boats, including the tarada, which was the Marsh Arabs’ war canoe, designed to cut through the reeds with its high curved prow. The others are the guffa, a coil-basket coracle made from grasses, palm and pomegranate stems; the kelek, a raft used to carry goods and people; and the meshouf, the kaiya and the zaima.
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As momentum grew, Salim and his partner, Hannah Lewis, in 2017 co-founded Safina Projects, which aims to preserve and revive Iraq’s endangered craft heritage, particularly its ancient boats.
“The study of boats [internationally] developed considerably in the 40 years that Iraq has been off the map,” says Salim. “There’s still a vast amount of knowledge to gather. Already people that have been sources for key information have died, so we are in an emergency state of gathering. … It’s the last chance to capture knowledge, and to understand it.”
A Maritime Heritage Curriculum Unit
The maritime heritage curriculum unit that Jotheri is co-developing builds on Salim’s fieldwork. The unit will be embedded in Iraq’s third-year undergraduate heritage course and is set to launch at universities across Iraq in October.
The unit will cover all aspects of maritime heritage, from industry to management to culture, and will be accompanied by a book that Jotheri and four colleagues at the University of Al-Qadisiyah, at Al-Diwaniyah, in south central Iraq, are writing.