Karen Dabrowska

Routledge - Asian Affairs

Originally published: 4th May 2023

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Book Review - Wounded Tigris - Leon McCarron

Wounded Tigris - Leon McCarron
Wounded Tigris - Leon McCarron

Wounded Tigris is the story of what humanity stands to lose with the death of a great river, and what can be done to save it. The story of the Tigris is not pretty but, like the river, this narrative flows beautifully with writing that is brave, erudite and determined. It combines a journalist’s attention to facts with the eloquent style of a novelist. The author knows the region well. He lives in Arbil, Iraqi Kurdistan and co-designed Iraq’s first long-distance hiking route, the Zagros Mountain Trail, launched in April 2022.

Wounded Tigris takes the form of a fascinating travelogue, a 1200-mile boat journey from the river’s source to sea, undertaken by Leon McCarron and seven companions in 2021. But it is more than a travelogue. The book provides penetrating insights into the history of Iraq, the difficult times it is experiencing at present, its minorities and its environment and will be of interest to anyone who wants to learn about the country and its people. McCarron is an excellent storyteller, and his descriptions paint fascinating word pictures. When speaking of Basra’s port, he observes: “There were large floating docks, too, registered in Zanzibar, and on the bank dozens of decommissioned cranes that had once pulled shipping containers to dry land. Now their rusted mechanical fingers were frozen in a permanent arthritic grip on the poisoned air.”

The author also has the ability to tell complex histories in a succinct yet informative way, such as in this paragraph,

For the Mandeans, water is divine, and the Tigris, the essence of their faith. Temples, mandis, are built by the water. There had long been an established Mandean presence in Baghdad, where they were traditionally associated with silver-smithing and boatbuilding. Saddam protected them because he employed a Mandean to cast spells for him. Things got worse after 2003. Mandeans were targeted by both Sunni and Shia militia groups when the sectarian conflict began. They endured kidnapping and robberies because they were deemed to be wealthy, and the tolerance of their minority diminished. From a population of thirty to fifty thousand in 1990, the best current estimate of their number within Iraq is around five thousand. There are sixty thousand Mandeans living outside of Iraq in at least twenty-two countries.

The book is dedicated to those who live on the river and keep it alive. McCarron gives Iraqis a chance to tell their stories, and that of their country, in their own words. Each chapter has insightful quotes from the people he and his companions met on their journey.

The heart-wrenching story of Um Qusay stands out. In 2014, ISIS routed a large air force training base, Camp Speicher, and executed 1,700 young men. Those recruits who escaped, fled along the Tigris. “This river was the frontline. The soldiers shouted to us. They knew we would help. So, I sent my son in his boat to bring them back. I welcomed everyone like they were my own husband and son and invited them inside. I gave them clothes and let them bathe and I cooked food for them, and I made them feel good.” Commenting on this story at the launch of the book at London’s Frontline Club in early 2023, McCarron said: “If what ISIS was doing represents the worst of humanity. What Um Qusay was doing represents the best. In Iraq we see these two alongside each other.”

Wounded Tigris is divided into three: Upper Tigris (Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and Mosul); Middle Tigris (Baghdad); and Lower Tigris (Southern Iraq, the marshlands and Basra). Each section begins with quotes, some from history books, others from past travellers or holy texts. The chapters begin with the day of the journey, the places visited, and the number of river miles covered. Many have wittily cryptic titles. Grandmother’s Wrinkles describes the ancient site of Assur which is now being destroyed by the elements. In the words of one local resident, Salem, “I think of this place like my grandmother. I also see her wrinkles. She needs help now.”

The book contains devastating statistics about the destruction of the environment caused by dams, in particular. In Turkey, the Grand Anatolian Dam Project displaced an estimated eighty thousand people with reservoirs stretching back ninety miles from the dam on the Tigris and another 150 miles on its tributaries. Over three hundred archaeological sites and 200 villages were flooded.

McCarron identifies the major problem facing the Tigris as the lack of an effective multilateral water sharing agreement. Within Iraq, which has suffered from decades of turmoil and chaos, the structure for water management is archaic and falling apart. Corruption in government is rife, sewage is pumped into the river and, in the south, the water is toxic. Climate change and desertification are also major problems: by 2040 the Tigris may no longer reach the Gulf.

In search of some hope McCarron spoke to Azzam Alwash, who set up ‘Nature Iraq’ to restore the southern marshlands. “Iraq is eternal,” he told me. “The only constant is change, and Iraq has always suffered. But it will always come back. Have faith in nature.”

Book Details

Title: Wounded Tigris - A River Journey through the Cradle of Civilisation

Author: Leon McCarron

Format: Hard cover

Pages: 338

ISBN: 978-1-4721-5623-5

Publisher: Corsair, London

Publication date: 2023

Price: £20