Arts & Culture

Traditional Iraqi reed house to be unveiled in Houston Saturday

After months of construction and obstacles, the traditional reed structure will be introduced to the public.



The mudhif under construction on the campus of Rice University

After months of preparation, a traditionally built reed house, known as a mudhif, will be unveiled on the Rice University campus Saturday morning, following free events open to the public.

Visitors from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday will have the opportunity to view a ceremonial ribbon cutting, snack on traditional foods and participate in hands-on activities like an archaeological excavation.

Materials from Iraq were shipped to Houston for the creation of the traditional mudhif, and volunteers worked sun-up to sundown this summer building the structure.

Mudhifs have served as community gathering spots in the marshlands of southeast Iraq since 3,200 BCE. The regions have endured a steadily declining population, and project leaders aimed to preserve just a piece of its culture by educating Americans about the history of the Iraqi marshlands.

And for the first time ever, Houstonians will have the opportunity to explore the structure made entirely from Iraqi marshland-grown reeds, Becky Lao, a project leader from Houston's Archaeology Now chapter, said.

Houston Archaeology Now and Houston-based Arab-American Educational Foundation joined forces to kickstart the Senan Shaibani Marsh Arabs project earlier this year funded by grant monies from the City of Houston and Humanities Texas.

The project was named after Senan Shaibani, a law student at the University of Houston who died this year.

"We got the materials from Iraq, and elders harvested the reeds and fashioned them before they were shipped," Lao said. "It was essentially a Lego set for mudhifs."

The species of reed used to construct the mudhifs – Phragmites australis – also can be found in the Galveston area, which also has extensive biodiversity and is a destination for migratory birds, Lao said.

"The beautiful thing about it, this knowledge is disappearing, and it's impossible to get elders out of Iraq," she said. "This is just one way the knowledge can be saved."

And while volunteers and project leaders can rejoice in the project coming to fruition, the steps leading up to the build were riddled with obstacles, some said. The mudhif is located at the corner of University Boulevard and Stockton Drive.

Jassim Al-Asidi, administrator of Nature Iraq, the group that helped source the marshland reeds for the project, was kidnapped and held captive for about two weeks near the beginning of February close to Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, Lao said. Al-Asidi was released two weeks later, and reeds for the project were shipped shortly after.

Heading through the Suez Canal near Egypt, a containership hauling the materials caught fire, and the reeds were transferred to another ship to continue their journey. And despite project leaders aiming to start the build in April, it was mid-June by the time volunteers began piecing the structure together.

And after months of volunteer-led construction, the 27-foot-long mudhif, the first of its kind in the United States, will be unveiled on the Rice University campus tomorrow, and tours will be offered through the end of fall this year.