Habitat for Diversity

A unique building seeks to bring nature and cultures together

You may have heard about an Iraqi guesthouse made entirely out of reeds on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center in Roxborough. Part art, nature, and culture, the Al Mudhif (guesthouse in Arabic) is the only one ever built in North America, and is the creation of an American artist, an Iraqi designer, and many volunteers.

Mudhifs, which date back more than 5,000 years to the Sumerian civilization of southern Mesopotamia, are one of the oldest known building types designed with nature at their heart, intended to be spaces of celebration and welcome. In bringing the structure to the Wissahickon woods, the creators hope it will inspire visitors to look at nature in a new way as well as act as a sanctuary for belonging and healing across cultures.

We spoke with Tina Plokarz, Director of Environmental Art at the Schuylkill Center, about how the Mudhif was built and how it challenges notions of foreign and native.

What were some memorable moments for you in creating the project?
Tina: Seeing Sarah Kavage, the artist, and Yaroub Al-Obaidi, the designer work together so well. Sarah wanted to use phragmites as a way to challenge biases about what is native and what’s invasive and metaphorically, to provoke a more nuanced understanding of displacement and the migration of plants and people. Yaroub, who was born in Iraq, is not only an immigrant, but he was very familiar with the Al Mudhif structure, which is native to southern Iraq. As they worked together, along with many volunteers, the Mudhif became something more than just a structure. It was an exchange across cultures.

Have you ever worked on a project like this before – one that merged wildlife, art, and culture?
The Center has a long-standing environmental art program. It’s not the first time we’ve built things that challenge or develop ideas about our relationship to nature. We’ve also invited artists in the past and asked them to explore our grounds like a laboratory. And they’ve helped us and our visitors to understand nature in new and better ways. I came to the Center about a year ago with experience in creating public art projects in unusual spaces. I’ve done sculpture projects using old piers, for example. In that sense, it was familiar for me, but recreating an ancient Sumerian structure in the Wissahickon? That was definitely something new.

Why did Sarah use an invasive plant like phragmites to build the Mudhif?
She wanted to question what it means to be invasive. When we use the word, it’s only in a derogatory way. As something foreign and harmful, something to be eradicated. But she felt that using phragmites beneficially would challenge that thinking. It’s really interesting how phragmites were introduced in some parts of this country in a beneficial way, but then the plant took over in its own way. Now we are trying to eliminate it and even demonizing it. But if you look at other countries, phragmites have useful applications. They use it to build boats in South America, buildings in Iraq, medicinal tinctures in China, and roofs in the Netherlands. We hope with this project that people would consider the practical uses of phragmites, rather than just focusing on its detrimental effects.

In a larger sense, Sarah also wanted to create a more nuanced understanding of the global migration of plants and people across borders. The term invasive, as an exclusionary label, can also be applied to immigrants because they can be considered out-of-place in our culture, even threatening. As we’ve seen too often, that can also lead to demonization.

The Mudhif is a wonderful metaphor for living with nature and the importance of it, especially with so many disastrous climate events occurring lately.
That’s really crucial to us at the Center. We want to open eyes to the wonders of the nature around us, but also how our society has changed that nature over hundreds of years. We want to start a conversation, provoke a rethinking, about how to steward our natural world into the future. What do we want to do with these landscapes around us? And how do we want to integrate urban living with nature? That’s what we are hoping for and what we stand for. And I think that the Mudhif can be very valuable in getting people to think about living with and in nature.

How did veterans become involved in building the Mudhif?
Yaroub was approached a couple of years ago by veterans to work on a project called “Moral Injuries of War”. The project was created to address the emotional and spiritual injuries of war-making by bringing together veterans with refugees from the countries they had invaded. As an Iraqi (and a refugee himself), Yaroub knew many refugees who he introduced to veterans of the Iraq War. The refugees and the veterans both loved the idea of building the Mudhif together. They also worked together on the memorial in front of the Mudhif, which features green and white ribbons with the names of lost loved ones on them. The Iraqis and the Americans wrote the names of people they lost in the war. One name per ribbon. Together, they tied them on the memorial.

The Mudhif resembles a Native American longhouse. How do the indigenous people in our area, the Lenape, figure into the project?
The Mudhif is part of a larger project called “Lenapehoking, a Watershed”, which takes place in 23 environmental centers throughout our region (including New Jersey and Delaware).* The idea is to help people better understand watersheds as well as the contributions to environmental stewardship by the region’s indigenous people, the Lenape, whose traditional lands covered almost the same area the Delaware watershed does today. (The richness of the Lenape’s indigenous tradition is echoed by the Mudhif, which is a structure first created by the indigenous people of southern Iraq. In essence it connects the culture of the Mesopotamian marshes to that of the Delaware watershed.)

When Sarah started the project, she connected with the Lenape people. She wanted to create an opportunity for them speak about their being forced off of their lands. There are several audio recordings on our website by Lenape people, all answering the same basic question — what is your sanctuary? And letting them speak to that idea. Is it a place? A person? A spiritual space?

*Lenapehoking means “Land of the Lenape people” in the Lenape language.

“Al Mudhif – A Confluence” is an outdoor art installation by Sarah Kavage & Yaroub Al-Obaidi and an accompanying gallery exhibition at the Schuylkill Center. To learn more about the Al-Mudhif project (including videos, audio stories, and pictures of the construction) visit schuylkillcenter.org.

The Schuylkill Center
8480 Hagy’s Mill Rd. (MAP LINK)
Follow on Facebook and Instagram @ schuylkillcenterart

Mark Your Calendar
Reconciliation: A Healing Encounter @ Schuylkill Center
Wednesday, September 29 (and October 27)

Meet the artist Iraqi designer Yaroub Al-Obaidi at the Iraqi guesthouse (Al Mudhif) for conversation and reflection. A mudhif is where special community events like weddings and birthday celebrations occur, but also where conflicting parties go to discuss and resolve differences. Special coffee ceremonies are held there as well, often hosted by the local sheikh, the tribal leader or elder.

Conceived and created by Iraqi designer, immigrant Yaroub Al-Obaidi along with environmental artist Sarah Kavage, the mudhif is constructed entirely of the wetland grass phragmites. Built over the course of a month by Al-Obaidi, Kavage, center staff, and many volunteers, the group has included both Iraqi immigrants and veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, purposefully using the construction process to heal from the twin traumas of war and displacement.

All ages and questions are welcome.


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