After 18 months covering the battle against Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq, Emilienne Malfatto felt compelled to show a less-violent side of the war-torn nation. And she found one in Chibayish, a small district in the Mesopotamian marshes.
“When you say ‘Iraq,’ people just think war: the two wars in Baghdad or bombings,” Ms. Malfatto said. “But you also have this beautiful place with beautiful people. It’s like another face of Iraq.”
The marshlands, comprising a nearly 8,000-square-mile area, are at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Their denizens, the Ma’dan — also known as the Marsh Arabs — live free from threats posed elsewhere by ISIS and militias.
She had first journeyed to Chibayish in late 2016, going alone to develop rapport and trust with members of the community. She benefited both from her command of the language and by being female. Women were quick to embrace and engage her, Ms. Malfatto said, explaining that a male stranger would not elicit that same quick trust or openness.
“People were really willing to open up,” said Ms. Malfatto, who extolled the Ma’dan’s remarkable hospitality. She forged strong bonds with several families who offered shelter in their reed houses, provided food and arranged boat rides into the marshes, which she described as having a mythical quality. She also made sure to be respectful of their conservative customs.
“I am absolutely not a religious person, and I am quite fascinated by faith as an object of study,” she said. In particular, she was struck by the levity that accompanied daily prayer, and by the way such worship was integrated into everyday moments. She hopes her portrayal of Muslims will be a…