Reed Shaken by the Wind (Maxwell)

Discussion Questions
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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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