The Mysteries of Time

A voyage outside time

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May 2024

A voyage outside time

In this short but gripping text, which reflects upon the perception of time, and life lived to the rhythm of water that may or may not come when expected, Emilienne Malfatto, a French writer, journalist and documentary photographer, who won the Goncourt Prize for her debut novel, heads off in search of the people of the swamps of Mesopotamia in southern Iraq, in the Tigris and Euphrates delta, the rumoured location of the Garden of Eden.


e left Baghdad and crossed the desert, leaving behind the palm trees of Babylon and the big scrapyard on the way to Samawa. We came across hundreds of abandoned pickups along these unnaturally straight roads.

We crossed the Nassiriya checkpoint, its soldiers almost catatonic in the heat, faces covered against the sun, weapons slung across their shoulders. Ahead of us lay the bridge over the Euphrates. To the right was Ur, the birthplace of writing, the tomb of the prophet and the imposing ziggurat silhouetted against the setting sun.

We headed south.

A voyage outside time

And now we leave the asphalt ribbon that spools out between Baghdad and Bassora. To the left and right lie the marshes of Mesopotamia – now virtually impassable after months of drought. But let’s imagine that we can board one of the little wooden boats and enter the marshes (perhaps the water will return in the winter?). It’s like travelling to a world outside time, an escape from the harsh and violent reality of what Iraq has become over the last forty years. Men and women live in arched houses fashioned from reeds, on tiny islands or alongside ancient roadways frequented only by water buffalo. Sometimes, aboard this little wooden boat, you lose all sense of time and place. Where are we? What century is this? Will we meet Gilgamesh standing on the bank? This is the Mesopotamia of dreams, of legend, of ancient explorers and the cheap watercolours you can pick up in Baghdad. A land of two rivers, a land of plenty, a literal oasis in the desert.

Here, life is lived at the speed of the water. All travel is by water, slower or faster depending on the depth of the marshes. When all is well, when there is water, the little boats cut across the surface, releasing plumes of spray. When the marshes are dry, as they are now, the boatmen struggle, and the boats scrape the bottom. Some villages are inaccessible.

On the islands, or on the disused road, the pace of life is dictated by the animals, and by the sun. The summer days seem to stretch out forever under the reed arches, with their crimson cushions, scalding hot tea, and flies.

Life moves at the pace of religion, too, with its daily prayers and celebrations throughout the year. The lunar calendar brings its own poetry: you never really know when Ramadan will begin or end – you must observe the moon. Now, it’s Arba’een – “forty” in Arabic. Forty days of mourning follow Ashura, when Shiites commemorate the death of the beloved figure of Imam Hussein. For forty days, colourful clothing and music are forbidden (with the exception of religious music). The asphalt ribbon that connects Bassora, on the edge of the marshlands, with Baghdad, is black with the silhouettes of countless men and women, veiled in the desert dust. Tens of thousands of figures, walking, walking… it seems an impossible feat, physically impossible, to walk hundreds of kilometres under the burning sun. And yet, at the end await the golden domes of Kerbala.

For forty days, southern Iraq is defined by pilgrimage, by latmiya or lamentation, by men beating their chests to express their identification with the suffering of Imam Hussein, who died in AD 680. “Are you not crying?” my friend Mahmood asks me one day, his eyes brimming with tears 14 centuries later, as if no time had passed at all.

And yet, at the same time, time seems to pass more quickly here than elsewhere. This place outside of time is affected more urgently and more deeply by the changing climate. It’s as if Mesopotamia, the land of a legendary past, also gives us a glimpse of the future. And it’s a terrifying, apocalyptic vision of the planet’s future, in microcosm. Temperatures rising above 50°C in the summer, dried-up rivers and marshes, mass exodus of people to the cities, cattle poisoned by brackish water. “When will the water return?” ask the fishermen of the Euphrates, their hands reaching out to the sky as they pull in their empty nets. Inshallah, they say. If God wills it. Boukra inshallah, in Arabic, means “tomorrow, if God wills it.” But it also means never.

A voyage outside time

Emilienne Malfatto (b. 1989) is a French independent author, journalist and photographer. In 2021 her debut novel Que sur toi lamente le Tigre (May the Tigris Grieve For You) won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. In 2022 she won the Albert-Londres Prize for Les serpents viendront pour toi: une histoire colombienne (The Snakes Will Come For You: A Colombian Story).

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