Natural Selections: A Roxborough First: The First Iraqi Guest House Built Outside Iraq in 5,000 Years | Montgomery’s life
By Mike Weilbacher
On Thursday evening, June 24 at 7 p.m., the Schuylkill Center invites you to a historic event. We unveil Al-Mudhif – A Confluence, a very special installation in our forest. For more than 5,000 years, the Iraqi inhabitants of the lower Mesopotamian valley, the cradle of civilization, have built guest houses – mudhifs in Arabic – out of reeds. Incredibly, this will be the very first time that a mudhif (pronounced “mood-eef”) has been built outside of Iraq. Never.
And that’s in Roxborough.
The event is also a confluence of firsts: the opening of the very first mudhif is also the very first public in-person program that the Schuylkill Center has been offering since March 2020. We are leaving Zoom for the summer and going back to live programming.
Designed and created by Iraqi designer, immigrant and Mt. Yaroub Al-Obaidi, a breezy resident and environmentalist artist Sarah Kavage, the mudhif is constructed entirely from wetland grass phragmites. Our staff and volunteers harvested ‘phrag’, as we call it, at our own site, as well as at the Upper Roxborough Reservoir and John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (and harvesting from the reservoir involved Roxborough-Manayunk Conservancy volunteers – Thanks to them).
A Eurasian plant native to Iraq, the reed is highly invasive in our watershed and throughout the country, compromising native plants and animals. Because Phragmites overwhelm native ecosystems, they are not welcome in places like the Reservoir and the Schuylkill Center. Still, Kavage hopes to invite a different conversation about our notion of invasion by using the plant productively. “There is a certain language and method that is applied when dealing with these plants,” she says, “which is similar to demonizing immigrants and anything out of place in our culture. I would like this work to provoke a more nuanced understanding of this language around the displacement and movement of plants and people.
As someone who has removed thousands of invasive plants from natural sites over the past 40 years, cursing them most of the time, I appreciate the prospect so much. For me, seeing Phragmites being put to good use on our property is a wonderful thing.
Built over the past month by Al-Obaidi, Kavage, center staff and many volunteers, the group includes both Iraqi immigrants and veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, deliberately using the construction process to heal twin traumas of war and displacement. Other programs this summer and fall will continue to focus on using the guesthouse as a place of healing.
While chatting with Al-Obaidi, I learned that a mudhif is where special community events like weddings and birthdays take place, but also where conflicting parties go to discuss and resolve disputes. Special coffee ceremonies are also organized here, often hosted by the local sheikh, the tribal chief or the elder. The interior of the mudhif is covered with rugs – Persian rugs, of course – and guests lie on pillows. Al-Obaidi is looking forward to holding such ceremonies during the duration of the installation (wait, does that make me the Sheikh? I am certainly one of the oldest on staff!)
The mudhif is part of a series of watershed-wide art installations, “Water Spirit,” by Kavage, a Seattle-based environmental artist. She builds large – and beautiful – phragmite benches, again transforming the overgrown grass into something both aesthetic and useful. Near the entrance to the mudhif, look for one of these benches, versions of which are on display at many sites in the area, including Bartarm’s Garden, Heinz, and even the Pocono Environmental Education Center on the Delaware River. Each bench is uniquely constructed to suit its site.
The Mudhif and the Spirit of Water are part of a watershed-wide arts initiative organized by the Alliance of Watershed Education of the Delaware River, a coalition of 23 environmental education centers across the region. aimed at bringing people to our waterways, connecting them to our rivers and teaching the importance of water. As the group within the coalition with the most ambitious environmental art program, I am delighted to say that the Schuylkill Center has been a leader in this project, our Director of Environmental Art, Tina Plokarz, chairing the working group of centers managing the installation of Water Spirits throughout the region. (By the way, a second artistic project will be unveiled shortly. Stay tuned!)
Our June 24 opening celebration features tales by Native American artist Tchin, a participatory art project, and Middle Eastern dance music presented by Rana Ransom. It begins with an acknowledgment of the lands by Trinity Norwood and Reverend John Norwood of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribal nation, remarks from Al-Obaidi and Kavage, and a blessing from Chaplain Christopher Antal of the US Department of Veterans Affairs .
Additionally, an indoor gallery exhibit accompanies Al-Mudhif – A Confluence, featuring a wide range of voices – Native American, Iraqi, American – reflecting on the themes of belonging and sanctuary. The gallery exhibition will open the same evening and run throughout the summer.
Then come to the Schuylkill Center on Thursday the 24th to see a real first Roxborough, the first reed mudhif guesthouse built outside of Iraq in 5,000 years.
In Roxborough. Remarkable.
Mike Weilbacher runs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike and can be contacted at [email protected]