Mudhif, an Iraqi guesthouse, from reed grass connects American veterans to their trauma

Mudhif reed house iraq

Building with invasive plants; Healing through shared war stories

U.S. Veterans, Iraqi refugees and the public will join environmental artist Sarah Kavage and Iraqi designer Yaroub Al-Obaidi in constructing an Iraqi guest house, called a mudhif. Constructed of phragmites, an invasive reed grass, this traditional Iraqi marshland structure will be built on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Northwest Philadelphia. 

Mudhifs have traditionally been used for town meetings and ceremonies. At the Roxborough site, it will serve as a gathering place to share experiences of war through storytelling, healing and recovery among U.S. Veterans, Iraqi immigrant communities and the public.

The construction of the cutting-edge art installation Al-Mudhif will kick off on Memorial Day, Monday, May 31, with a dedication ceremony. The building process involves tying bundles of reeds into 20-foot-long columns, and then shaping them into huge parabolic arches. Hand-woven mats are then tied over and between the columns, forming a roof. Finally, crafted lattice panels are attached to the sides, allowing for both sunlight and airflow into the interior and enclosing the entire hut.

mudhif Iraq

The Ahwar of Southern Iraq: Refuge of Biodiversity and the Relict Landscape of the Mesopotamian Cities: A view of the method of construction of the reed houses. Jasim Al-Asady

Connecting with Iraqi communities in nature through the building process of this sanctuary offers a significant memorable and cultural space for U.S. Veterans who were deployed in Iraq to connect with local Iraqi communities and culture.

“It is not often that Veterans are able to heal and connect with residents from areas that were engaged in conflict,” said RADM Karen Flaherty-Oxler, Director of the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz (Philadelphia) VA Medical Center. “Opportunities such as this help bring their experience full circle, often providing closure, healing and building bridges across cultures.”

South Philadelphian Marine Corps Veteran Leroy Anthony Enck says, ”For some veterans and military members, our time in Iraq was marked with loss and destruction: losing fellow service-members in body or spirit, witnessing a similar loss among indigenous communities in Iraq, and observing—despite our best efforts—the environmental destruction our presence and operations facilitated. 

“Some of us have struggled with the larger moral implications of this impact, and after participating in the difficult work of moral engagement, have decided to dedicate ourselves to this work as atonement. Now, we have an opportunity to engage in the hefty work of building: constructing the first mudhif outside of Iraq, building new community with our brethren among the former Iraqis who now call Philadelphia home, and giving—rather than taking—an opportunity for generations young and old to experience greater understanding of people and flora displaced through no choice of their own.”

The involvement of Iraq War Veterans in the project was facilitated by Reverend Chris Antal, a Staff Chaplain at CMCVAMC. Antal had this to say, “Some Veterans who served in Iraq are often burdened by difficult memories and painful emotions. Collaborations such as this help build trust, foster reconciliation and create a sanctuary amidst the calming presence of nature.”

The project is part of a larger art initiative Lenapehoking~Watershed with the Alliance for Watershed Education (AWE) for which Sarah will create multiple site-specific, temporary installations along the Delaware River circuit trail, exclusively using natural materials such as meadow grasses and invasive phragmites. We will activate the installation of the Al-Mudhif with an accompanying exhibition and extended programming around the exchange of war experiences, healing, and intercultural encounters from June to October 2021.

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