Reed Shaken by the Wind (Maxwell)

A Reed Shaken by the Wind: Travels Among the Marsh Arabs of Iraq
Gavin Maxwell, 1957, 2003
Eland Publishing
236 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780907871934

The Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq were one of the most isolated communities in the world. Few outsiders, let alone Europeans, had been permitted to travel through their homeland, a mass of tiny islands lost in a wilderness of reeds and swamps in southern Iraq.

One of the few trusted outsiders was the legendary explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, who was Gavin Maxwell’s guide to the intricate landscape, tribal customs and distinctive architecture of the Marsh Arabs. Thesiger’s skill with a medicine chest and rifle assured them a welcome in every hamlet, and Maxwell’s training as a naturalist and writer has left an invaluable record of a unique community and a vanished way of life. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—July 15, 1914
Where—near Port William, Wigtownshire, Scotland, UK
Death—September 7, 1968
Where—Island of Eileen Ban near Kyle of Lochalsh, Scotland
Education—Oxford University

Maxwell’s schooling, a succession of disasters all the way up to his time at Oxford, gave him a lifelong sympathy for the despised and oppressed. Having already proved himself a loner and a hardy traveller in the Arctic with Peter Scott, he was ideal material for covert operations in the Second World War. He served in the Special Operations Executive, charged with training operatives who would be sent behind enemy lines on missions of sabotage.

It was in this capacity that he spent some time on the west coast of Scotland, where he returned after the war to buy Soay, a small island off Skye and the setting for his first business, a shark fishery, which in turn formed the basis for his first book Harpoon at a Venture (1952). He tried his hand at freelance journalism and painting, and wrote two books about Sicily, God Protect Me from My Friends (1956) and The Ten Pains of Death (1959). In between these projects he took the journey to the Middle East with his friend, the veteran traveller Wilfred Thesiger, which would result in A Reed Shaken by the Wind (1957). Here his exceptional talent was revealed for the first time.

On his return from Iraq he moved into his new Scottish home at Camusfearna, and began to study the otters he had acquired on his journey through the marshes, which culminated in the publication of Ring of Bright Water (1960). With the worldwide success of this tale, and the subsequent film, Camusfearna became a wildlife preserve with a collection of otters at its heart. The Otters Tale (1962), and The Rocks Remain (1963) continue the narrative of a passionate but accident-prone naturalist on the west coast of Scotland.

Maxwell travelled to Morocco several times over the course of the 1960s, researching his history, Lords of the Atlas, which appeared in 1966. This travel book—part history, part investigative journalism, part romance—studied the Berber dynasty, the Glaoui, that acted as regents of southern Morocco for the French colonial power. It became one of the bibles of British orientalism in the late twentieth century and a fitting swan-song to Maxwell’s oeuvre.

Douglas Botting’s definitive 1993 biography, Gavin Maxwell, A Life tells of the ups and downs of Maxwell’s emotional life—possibly affected by an inherited form of manic-depression. While Gavin loved and even married women (the poet Kathleen Raine and Lavinia Renton) he was primarily homosexual. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
This is prose close to poetry, written by a man of great perception and understanding.
W.O. Douglas - New York Times (2/9/58)

This is a direct, simple and vivid narrative by a man with a fine gift for noting visual details and a sure touch in describing them in tersely graphic prose. Mr. Maxwell writes with modest, and with frankness.
Orville Prescott - New York Times (2/15/1958)

It is not too much to say that the author has produced an almost perfect book of travel.
New Yorker

This is a portrait of the marsh Arabs of southern Iraq. Maxwell presents his impressions of these secluded people, along with numerous photos. Although intended as a travel book, this might make more of a historical or sociological study now, given the current turmoil in Iraq.
Library Journal (2004)

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

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Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for A Reed Shaken by the Wind:

1. How do you feel about the eventual destruction of the marsh people and their culture? In the last line of his 1958 New York Times review of Maxwell's book, Orville Prescott says:

When oil revenues make it possible, the Iraqi Government is certain to drain the permanent marshes and to destroy one of the world's last untouched wild-life refuges and the way of a life of a picturesque people.

Consider that statement. It's a prescient remark, given the later destruction of the marshes under Sadaam Hussein. But considering the level of disease, slavery, and virulent blood feuds, does Prescott overly romanticize the marsh people? Are indigenous cultures worthy of preservation? Is change necessary...or inevitable? Or should those cultures remain untouched by progress and continue to flourish for as long as they are sustainable?

2. Discuss the long history of the marsh people: where they came from and their role in Iraq's history?

3. What insights might A Reed offer into present-day Iraq and its attempt to form a cohesive nation?

4. "A reed shaken by the wind" is Biblical, a phrase in Matthew referring to a comment by Jesus about John the Baptist. Why might Maxwell have chosen that as the title of this book?

5. Have your group conduct some research in order to trace the destruction of the marshes and the marsh people. How were they destroyed? What is the environmental impact of the marshes' disappearance? Do remnants exist of the physical marsh environment and the people which might provide a resurgence?

6. Maxwell says he "had been searching for somewhere to go, somewhere that was not already suburbanized and where there was still something left to see that had not already been seen and described by hundreds or thousands of my kind before me." That was in the mid-20th century. Over 50 years later, do such unexplored cultures or places exist in the world? What makes a frontier, or unexplored wilderness, so appealing to the human imagination—why are we driven to discover and tame them?

7. What did you find most fascinating about Maxwell's travel account—the animal life and bird life (boars, snakes, dogs, ibis, eagles), the construction of the dwellings and floating islands, the sexuality of the Ma'dan? What most intrigued you?

8. What in the marsh culture did you find admirable? What not so admirable?

9. Talk about the role of the water buffalo in the life and the economy of the Ma'dans.

10. Discuss the riverborn diseases—the bilharzia, in particular, which no one was able to avoid. What was the role, and the efficacy, of modern medicine in eradicating or easing the ravages of disease?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, on line or off, with attribution.)

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