Behnaz Hosseini*–Acute water shortage in Khuzestan has affected the lives of all residents living in this southern province of Iran; however, it has made things even more complicated for a religious minority, whose rituals are heavily dependent on water. Mandaeans living in Ahvaz perform baptisms in the Karun River, where the water is neither suitable for drinking nor for agriculture due to pollution. A sharp decline in the flow of water in the Karun River and its pollution has made things very difficult for the Sabean-Mandaeans to conduct their religious ceremonies. Mandaeans in Iran, like other ethnic groups and minorities, are facing many challenges and hardships. They are followers of the prophet John the Baptist, according to historical accounts. Iran has the largest Mandaean community outside of Iraq.
Mina, one of those Mandaeans who has decided to leave Iran, says “Karun is a name well-known to all the people of Khuzestan, especially Ahvazis; Perhaps the emigration of many Mandaeans is due to this river where they can not perform most of their religious ceremonies anymore.”
In Mandaeism, nothing can be done without water. It is a religion different from the other Abrahamic and non-monotheistic ones. Every Mandaean must have access to running water for the most basic things in life, including marriage, food preparation, work, and even prayer. According to Mandaeism, living near a river is a long-standing tradition passed down from John the Baptist to followers over many generations.
Mina, an Iranian Mandaean who now lives in Austria, further recalls old memories of her hometown: “Karun River used to be a source for drinking water as well as bathwater in Khuzestan, since there was no municipal water system in the past. I remember the days when my mother washed our laundry and dishes in the Karun River; she even took us there for baths. At that time, the river’s roar could be heard far away from our houses. Karun did mean a lot to us Mandaeans, since most of our ceremonies such as marriage and even Brakha and Rishama (daily prayer) were done at the riverside.”
Mina describes the situation of Mandaeans and Karun these days as follows: “After going through the crises, the water has gradually declined so much that the Karun River should be called the “Karun Brook”!
In Mandaeism, nothing can be done without water. It is a religion different from the other Abrahamic and non-monotheistic ones. Every Mandaean must have access to running water for the most basic things in life, including marriage, food preparation, work, and even prayer. According to Mandaeism, living near a river is a long-standing tradition passed down from John the Baptist to followers over many generations. The Mandaean community, including that of Iran, has lived along rivers for a long time; as a result, the problems they are facing in Iran can be better understood by considering current environmental facts. Although the environmental damage in Khuzestan has affected the quality of life of all citizens living there, the Sabean-Mandaeans have been impacted more than all other social groups. However, some of them believe that in spite of all these problems, there has been no significant decline in the quality of their collective life.
«Manijeh Ch.» offers another picture of what is happening in Khuzestan, as she lives in Iran and is closely dealing with the water crisis in Khuzestan: “Water shortage is not unique to Iran. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Greece and many other parts of the world are suffering from lack of water. In fact, water scarcity and drought is a global challenge, and Iran is no exception.”
According to her, many photos and videos of the water shortage published in the media show only the most affected parts of the river. Manijeh says about his observations: “Many photos shared on social media have been taken under the cable-stayed bridge, while the other parts of Karun have stayed out of photographers’ view. There is no denying that Khuzestan is suffering a water scarcity, but the fact is that we are seeing an exaggerated picture of the crisis in the media. Sometimes when I am driving along the road by the river, I see the dredging equipment over there. A bit away from the cable-stayed bridge, there are no more fluvial islands. The largest accumulation of them is under the cable-stayed bridge.”
“Although the flow of the Karun River has decreased, it has not caused a major disruption to Mandaean rituals. Some arrangements have been made by the Mandaean community to perform the sacred baptism on the occasion of the Great Eid and wedding ceremonies. In the past, sheiks and worshipers used to walk a long distance to reach the place of baptism and worship in Karun,” she says.
It should not be forgotten that the water pollution in Karun River is more problematic than water stress. “The municipal sewage directly discharged into this river is the main cause of pollution. Of course, many of us do not consume the water directly from the river. The water is boiled after settling, then it is put in clay pots called “habaneh”. In this way, the polluted water will be purified and consumable,” Manijeh said in this regard.
Protesters angry about water shortages took to the streets of southwest Iran last summer, while Tehran residents chanted anti-Islamic Republic slogans. Security forces violence left several protesters dead and injured.
Urbanization and the origins of civilization on the Iranian plateau have been strongly tied to Karun. For a long time, this region of the Najd plateau has dealt with many political and social changes. However, its inhabitants have never been worried about the sources of water; governments have come and gone, one after another, but the vitality of Karun and the culture of Mandaeans, the people who have been baptized in the glory of an ancient civilization, are still thriving.
*Behnaz Hosseini, a visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford, has written several books on religious minorities in Iran and Iraq, including Yārsān of Iran, Socio-Political Changes and Migration