Safina Project resurrects ancient Iraqi vessels on Euphrates River

The Safina Project, conceived by British-Iraqi artist Rashad Salim and Hannah Lewis, was created with the revival of Iraq’s traditional Mesopotamian boats in mind.
Sunday 16/06/2019
An Iraqi man stands next to boats in Dhi Qar. (Rashad Salim)
An Iraqi man stands next to boats in Dhi Qar. (Rashad Salim)

LONDON - The erosion of arts in Iraq has been widely commented on; however, few have dedicated themselves to the preservation of certain dying crafts.

The Safina Project, conceived by British-Iraqi artist Rashad Salim and Hannah Lewis, was created with the revival of Iraq’s traditional Mesopotamian boats in mind.

The fruits of their labour have been on display as activists tested prototypes. Locals have probably spotted the vessels sailing on Iraq’s rivers. The first trial expedition set off from Hit, north-west of Ramadi, several weeks ahead of a real voyage in June.

“We’ll move onto Hilla to reach Basra,” Ali Alkarkhi, campaign coordinator at Humat Dijlah, a local environmental NGO, said in a video posted on the organisation’s Facebook page.

The idea, Salim said, was to challenge common perceptions surrounding the ark that Noah built, which gave life to Salim’s first project, the Ark Re-Imagined. Noah’s Ark, in the artist’s mind, stood out as “an example of Western misunderstanding,” which drove him to want to uncover “building alternatives.”

Local vessels range from the gufa, a coracle, to the mashuf, a slim canoe. Salim’s endeavour has taken him into the heart of Iraq’s marshlands, the country’s Everglades, where he worked alongside local communities in Babylon and Hilla to revive vessels that once commonly transported people and cargo.

Ark Re-Imagined inspired similar initiatives that put into use lost items belonging to Iraq’s well-established tradition of maritime crafts. The mission, he said, was a “repackaging of the past” that “we [Iraqis] owe a lot to.”

“Iraq is unique in the sense of how much of it crafts its lost” and while rich traditions exist “the

view of art” in today’s Iraq “has narrowed,” he said in a telephone conversation.

Because of war, the growth of art and its evolution — from crafts to architecture — have been stunted and mismanaged. However, what is more realistic than the reversal of time is a reclamation of the past, as the trail expedition has succeeded in doing.

Salim mobilised a team of craftsmen and in doing so found environmental activists eager to help.

Iraq’s ancient maritime tradition, Salim said, is something that “the people have lost connection with.” Despite that, local art remains “inspired by the curves in palm trees, the light and cannot be understood until it’s truly experienced,” he said.

Working with local communities, Salim said, “what we’re giving through our work is engagement.”

Salim’s network of friends and enthusiasts provided “major support,” he said, but the road has not been clear of challenges. From official authorities unable to follow through on promises of assistance and funding to the absence of clearance to freely manoeuvre, problems have been present but were overcome.

Now that boats have been revived in physical form, activists are moving on the project’s second phase, in which boats they have sculpted will sail on the Euphrates for 40 days, in a nod to the story of Noah’s Ark.

The aim “is not to stimulate domestic tourism or to enjoy ourselves,” Alkarkhi said. “As an NGO concerned with environmental problems and climate changes, we want to relay important messages.”

Protecting the Euphrates, threatened by upstream irrigation and the heritage associated with Iraq’s twin rivers ranked first.

Others dream of a longer lasting effects.

Incorporating these crafts into local economies in a way that benefits local communities for whom the Euphrates or Tigris is a vital resource, is a direction that Salim and Lewis envisage.

“To create permanent work opportunities is the project’s future aim,” Salim aid.

The Safina Project has encouraged young Iraqi to step forward and rekindle ties to their natural ecology, spreading new knowledge as well as new hope.

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Iraqi men row as they sail on the Euphrates River.(Rashad Salim)
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A young boy sits inside a traditional Iraqi boat in Dhi Qar.(Rashad Salim)
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Iraqi marsh Arabs assemble boat according to hexagonal pattern. (Rashad Salim)
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