The Basra-based Hashim Taeeh has addressed the water crisis in Basra and southern Iraq in a new series of paintings. Dams built by neighbouring countries at the sources of the Tigris and Euprates rivers have reduced the levels of fresh water flowing into Iraq. As a result, sea water from the Persian Gulf has increased the salinity of the Shatt-Al-Arab and its branches, drying out the land in southern Iraq. Earlier this year, tribal disputes flared in southern Iraq over water scarcity. Taeeh grew up in the marshes of southern Iraq, and devotes much of his work to city life in Basra, where he has lived since the 1980s. In 2013, he took part in Welcome to Iraq, the Iraq Pavilion exhibition at the 55th Venice Biennale. He speaks to Ruya about this new series and the water crisis in Basra.
Historically, the port of Basra has been a main gateway in and out of Iraq. Sinbad, one of the best-known characters from the Thousand and One Nights, was a sailor. How has this proximity to fluvial and maritime coastlines shaped the city’s identity?
As well as its port overlooking the sea, Basra has hundreds of rivers. Water has had a deep and overwhelming presence in the lives of Basrans, and forms part of their character. Basrans are known for their kindness, easiness, tolerance, adaptability, patience, and reserve. Their moods are supple, sudden, and generous like water. They farm between rivers, fish in the sea, herd buffalo and cattle in the marshes, and build ships, boats and barges. Basrans celebrate the Day of Laziness every spring, where families picnic on boats along the Shatt. Their oral and dance traditions often centre around water. Mothers told their children the story of Abdel Shatt, a frightening river goblin, before they went to sleep. We also have sea songs, sung by pearldivers and fishermen across the Persian Gulf. The songs imitate the sounds of the harsh waves and angry winds, and they are sung collectively on the ship as a protective ritual. I visited such a singer in the ‘70s in his home. He drank the wine that we’d brought him, and picked up a basic instrument that is similar to the rebab, then launched into these songs.Basra’s contemporary fine artists, authors, and poets are also influenced by the city’s waters. The late artist Fouad Salim’s song Ya Abu Balam ‘Ashari (The Man of the ‘Ashari Boat), describes the longing of a man for his beloved who lives in the village of Hamdan along the river.
How did these folk traditions influence your work on the water crisis?
I have lived my whole life by rivers. As I child I lived in a reed house by a stream which branched from a small river known as The Night River. My earliest influence was my grandmother Hadida, who took fistfuls of clay from the stream and shaped them into horses. Basra’s maritime history had an indirect influence on my work on the water crisis. Primarily, I wanted to depict the water crisis as an existential question, a question of life and death. It poses a threat to humans, plants and wildlife. As an artist, I have used images to attempt to express the terrible reality of the situation, and the encroaching desertification in the City of Rivers.
You have said before that your favourite place in Basra is the Corniche along the Shatt Al Arab. How has the water crisis affected the city?
Basra’s climate and environment have changed catastrophically, and are continually subject to destruction, degradation, desertification and a loss of identity. This threatens all life in Basra. The city’s environment is toxic: the soil, water, and air are full of dangerous pollutants. This was exacerbated by the use of radioactive uranium-enriched munitions in the Iran-Iraq war, which left many Basrans with cancer. One environmental expert claims that half of the city’s population will develop cancer in the coming years. The increased salinity of the rivers has caused a rise in skin diseases among Basrans. It has killed vast quantities of fish, cattle and buffalo and found its way into the irrigation canals, destroying many of the city’s palm trees and inflicting huge losses on the agricultural yield. Farmers have abandoned their fields and orchards, choosing instead to break up their land into lots and sell them to construction companies for housing, or to petroleum companies. Herders have left the marshes and migrated to the cities.
What or who is to blame for the water shortages in Basra in your opinion?
Iraq’s successive governments hold the largest share of responsibility for the water shortage in Basra and Iraq. The government’s approach has always been confined to ineffective short-term responses. They ignored the issue and failed to take the appropriate measures to regulate water consumption, adopt modern irrigation methods, and prevent waste. In addition, they have been unable to sign water-sharing agreements or to put pressure on neighbouring states who control water sources into Iraq. Those countries also bear responsibility. Turkish dams along the Euphrates and Tigris, including the recently built huge Ilisu Dam, have reduced the volume of water flow in the Iraqi Tigris. Iran, meanwhile, has diverted the main flow of the Karkheh and Karun rivers, both tributaries of the Tigris, and built a dam across the Zab, which also feeds the Tigris. The shortfall in water in Iraq has exacerbated the harshness of the country’s natural environment.
In one of your pictures we see a person drinking from a carton of juice through a straw. How does modernity and modern life in Basra appear in your work?
The person is drinking water through a plastic straw, from a cloud that we must imagine is filled with rainwater. It’s a black joke. The unexpected and fantastical also holds a bitter satire: the plastic straw sucks up water from a passing cloud as in a dream or in desperation. In other works from this series, I portray water as a natural force that can penetrate objects, or a maternal force that can give life.
The water crisis is also seen as a threat to stability in the country. Do you believe Iraqi artists have a responsibility to address this crisis? And how should they do this?
This is exactly what is so worrying: that the water crisis getting worse. Specialists predict that the rivers will run dry and that the country will be desertified. This could lead to civil conflict. As an artist, I am aware of my responsibility to reflect issues of this magnitude and threats to the city’s very existence. Artists can address the water crisis in a broad social framework that calls on the full spectrum of Iraqi society. They can heighten public awareness of the dangers, and make these issues tangible and understandable through exhibitions, workshops and conferences. I hope that my art can play a part in this, and work with many other sources of social pressure to bring about change.