Monday, February 26, 2024

A Mudhif in Houston

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Sustainability, Biodiversity, Society, Culture, Archeology

Ed Hessler

As you know Iraq's famous marsh wetlands were ordered by Saddam Hussein to be drained  "to deny rebels a place to hide after the Gulf War." The dikes that were constructed resulted in denying them of replenishing spring floods, a cycle of wetland ecology that had been occurring for thousands of years (and also rending a  human culture).

An aspect of this culture is the subject of an essay by Arthur P. Clark in Aramco World (January/February 2024). He tells the story of the construction of a Mudhif, thousands of miles away from the marshes, in Houston. Texas.

Mudhifs are constructed entirely of Phragmites reeds and served "as a hall for senior male village members to consult with their leader, of sheikh, a place to celebrate holidays and hold wkes, and guesthouse for visitors." They have a 5000 year history.

How this happened in Houston is like navigating these dense wetlands, knowing where you want to go, but not knowing what faces you in getting there. In addition, the construction technique has been nearly lost, the master builder who had agreed to do it decided not to, the Phragmites reeds (the species is australis, genus Phragmites) which "grow up to 7.5 meters (24.6 feet) had to be harvested", "the ship carrying the container of reeds...caught fire in the Suez canal and had to be transferred to another vessel, and "customs official tore apart (the) contents of the container (which) had been packaged in components and, of course funds had to be raised. 

One aspect of funding included supporting "a Rice University film student to document the project "which is in "a Rice archive 'to preserve knowledge of mudhif construction--currently known to elders in Iraq--helping to preserve heritage, cultural identity and community.

Iraqi American civil engineer Azzam Alwash stepped in to manage the construction, who said the task which took "about five weeks , or twice the time it takes skilled builders in the marshes." Alwash noted that they were amateurs but "gave the project a '90 percent' grade". Arthur Clark who wrote the story said that "British explorer and writer Wilfred Thesiger would immediately have recognized even the '90 percent' mudhif." Thesiger is the author of The Marsh Arabs.

Some design features of a mudhif include a "pretensioned arch that gives the building stability" (a very clever solution which is described here for this non-concrete structure), "binding ropes "are made of crushed reeds, as are the mats that form the roof" and sides", there is no door, the entry is low so that anyone coming in 'must a sign of respect to the mudhif'" (a wonderful way of saying thanks, they are aligned to take advantage of the prevailing wind (summer temps can exceed 50 degrees Celsius or122 degrees Fahrenheit)".

By the way, the life of a mudhif is about 15 years.

This is also a story of early engineering practices which included trial and error, something that is done in projects today with computer simulations with far less trial and error because so much is known now.

The story is lavishly illustrated by photographer Nick de la Torre. The interior of the finished mudhif was the photograph used on the front cover of Aramco World for January February 2024.

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