We build a mudhif
June 02, 2021
Your correspondent joined U.S. military veterans, Iraqi refugees and other volunteers from the community to break ground on Memorial Day and start work on a traditional Iraqi structure dating back thousands of years called a “mudhif“ on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, Philadelphia. More photos here. Watch a video about the first day ceremony and building start of an Iraqi mudhif.
“Al-Mudhif” is the brainchild of Seattle-based artist Sarah Kavage and Mount Airy based designer Yaroub Al-Obaidi who, after attending a lecture Kavage delivered a year ago at Moore College of Art during which she displayed a photo of a mudhif, suggested they build one! It is, perhaps, the first in the United States. The project, sponsored by the Alliance for Watershed Education of the Delaware River, is one of fifteen site-specific installations, six already completed, extending as far north as the Delaware Water Gap and as far south as Wilmington, west to Reading and east to Trenton, all within the Lenapehoking watershed, the home of the native Lenape people.
Building a mudhif, which your correspondent can attest to firsthand, is overlaying and binding together reeds into long columns. These columns are then placed in 32-inch deep, 2-foot wide holes to provide the vertical supports. They are then bent toward one another to form an arched roof. In upcoming days, mats will be woven and set in place to form a thatched roof. Air and sunlight will come through lattice panels to be constructed and attached. Adjacent to the structure, Kavage’s husband, Rob has been busy installing the structure for a large bench for seating and a view from just outside the mudhif.
On day one, we divided into two large teams- the first tasked with digging 10 large holes, 5 opposite 5 to form the length of the rectangular structure. I opted to work with volunteers assembling the columns. We used phragmites, reed grasses, harvested previously. (A non-native form of phragmites is considered invasive and it is likely a plus-side of the project was some invasive control)
From the sidelines, an older man from Iraq who went by “Kam” vividly recalled his father’s large mudhif in Nasriyah near the Euphrates River. His family would welcome guests and travelers to rest, stay, eat and drink coffee or tea in the mudhif, set apart from the main home. At that time, Kam said, people traveled distances by horse and would go from mudhif to mudhif to rest along the way.
A younger man, Hadi al-Karfawi, who left Iraq at the age of nine spoke of his strong emotional connection with the mudhif his grandfather, a tribal leader, had built . As a boy, he was tasked with preparing and serving the strong coffee to guests. He absorbed that the mudhif was community place where people would come to resolve disputes. Everyone was given a chance to speak without interruption. The disputes might be inter-tribal or among families of one's own tribe.
As your correspondent spoke with al-Karfawi, Mohaned Al-Obaidi, the lead builder and Yaroub’s brother, was having some trouble bending the first two columns of reeds to form the arch at the entrance. Traditionally, al-Karfawi said, the reeds, of a different variety in use here, might be more moisture-filled, perhaps more freshly cut, which would make the bending easier. (The arch is not going to be the traditional rounded one; Yaroub has designed it to be more angular so winter snow will more easily slide off and not weigh down the roof.) al-Karfawi spoke of helpers being divided into groups, just like us, with specific tasks and he demonstrated how he and others would stomp on mud mixed with hay to form the “cement” to applied inside the roof. He had brought along two of his young children and, as the project was about to get underway, they stood by with child-sized shovels at the ready.
In his opening remarks, Al-Obaidi spoke of how emotional this undertaking has been- recreating a traditional community structure from his homeland. He suspected many of us have only associated Iraq until now with war and suffering. He hopes this welcoming mudhif will bring about a better understanding of Iraq’s ancient and rich culture.
The grand opening of the mudhif is planned for June 24th and according to a Schuylkill Center blog many activities are planned. “We will activate the installation Al-Mudhif with extended programming around exchange of war experience, healing and intercultural encounters from June to October 2021.”
Your correspondent asks, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the dispute resolution aspect of a mudhif could be "activated”? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if representative native Lenape could settle ongoing claims in this mudhif with representatives of the long dominant immigrant community? Descendants of former slaves with descendants of former slaveholders? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Israeli and Palestinian representatives could forge a just and lasting peace in this mudhif? And isn’t it fitting that this peace and justice-making take place on land taken from the Lenape, now in the safekeeping of environmental non-profit, in a traditional structure of a people who themselves experienced recent devastation to their own culture- the swamp Arabs of Iraq? A structure built for community, hospitality and peace-making. Inshallah.
More videos here
Building Al Mudhif - short version
Mudhif groundbreaking ceremony
Docent tells about Iraqi mudhifs and ancient Sumer
Schuylkill Center Director acknowledges land belonging to Lenape people at mudhif groundbreaking