The Arabian Mission
Basrah Station

Although located in five stations, spread over a thousand miles from Amarah in Iraq to Muscat on the Gulf of Oman, the members of the Arabian Mission were an amazingly close and collegial group. They were held together by their common purpose and the weekly fast mail ship which ran from Bombay to Basrah with stops at Muscat, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Dad was fortunate to get to know most of the missionaries when they gathered for their Annual Meeting in Basrah in 1922 shortly after his arrival. It must have been an eye-opener for him. Members of the mission gathered once a year to thrash out the business of the mission, draw up the budget, allocate the scarce resources and assign people to their stations. There would be heated arguments. The placement of medical personnel was especially difficult, since the hospitals had to be staffed even when some doctors and nurses were scheduled for furlough. But they gathered again in harmony for study, worship and prayer and always seemed to get along well and enjoy each other’s company. Dad was surprised by their animated conversation and sometimes irreverent humor.

The Arabian Mission
Annual Meeting, Basrah 1922

Back Row: Gerrit Van Peursem, Rachel Jackson, Bern Hakken, Minnie Dykstra, Dirk Dykstra, Walter Leak, Jim Moerdyk, Cornelia Dalenberg, May DePree Thoms, Louis Dame, Josephine Van Peursem

Second Row: Monty Bilkert, Sarah Hosmon, Elizabeth Dame, Dorothy Van Ess, Margaret Barney, Fred Barney, Gertrude Pennings, Elda Hakken, Gerrit Pennings, Anthony Pennings

Front row: Henry Bilkert, Margaret Bilkert, Alice Van Ess, Ruth Jackson, Fanny Lutton, Charlotte Kellien, George Gosselink, John Van Ess, jr., John Van Ess

Samuel Zwemer and James Cantine had surveyed the Red Sea coast and Yemen and visited ports along the Persian Gulf before starting work in Basrah in 1891. Leaving Cantine in Basrah, Zwemer moved on in 1892 to establish a presence in Bahrain. And in 1893, his brother Peter Zwemer began work in Oman. It was not until 1909 that the Mission received permission from the ruling shaikh to open medical work in Kuwait. Amarah had been an outstation of Basrah almost from the beginning but became a staffed mission station only in 1920. Baghdad, an early station of the Mission, was transferred to the United Mission of Mesopotamia in 1924. It was an audacious vision that from this limited presence, the Arabian Mission could reach out and bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of “neglected Arabia.” (note 58)

The early pioneers were concerned first of all with evangelism, but they were often called upon to “practice” medicine, and soon they sent out a call for trained doctors who could more appropriately address the medical needs of the people they were trying to reach. Eventually hospitals were established in all five stations, though the one in Basrah was closed in 1917. For almost fifty years, until the discovery of oil transformed the whole region, these hospitals were virtually the only modern medical facilities available to Arabs of that area. Basrah was unique among the stations for its concentration on education, though smaller schools were started in Bahrain and Muscat. Touring was a regular part of the Mission’s outreach. Doctors and evangelists in Muscat explored the mountains of Jabal Akhdar and the coastal regions of Dhofar, those in Bahrain visited Qatar and the area that was to become the United Arab Emirates, and missionaries in Basrah and Amarah toured the marsh area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The hope was that someday they might reach the interior of Arabia, and indeed King Abd el Aziz el Saud did invite missionaries to visit Riyadh and other towns of what became Saudi Arabia, but he never allowed them to stay.

Over the years, the missionaries might be assigned to different stations for a shorter or longer term until they finally found their “permanent” place, and so they learned to know the particular challenges of each station and got to know each other well. And they often met and spent time together when they took their vacations at Kodaikanal, a hill station in South India.

Having started medical work in Basrah in the early 1890s with a clinic and dispensary, staffed by trained doctors, the Mission in 1908 finally obtained permission from the Turkish government to purchase land and build a hospital. The Lansing Memorial Hospital opened in 1911. As the only medical facility in the area, it was welcomed by the local population and its services were in high demand, but its success was to be short lived. When the War began in 1914, the Mission offered its assistance first to the Turkish and then the British authorities for the care of their wounded soldiers. In 1916 a group of Turkish prisoners were admitted with “fever” which turned out to be typhus. An epidemic swept the hospital, taking with it the medical staff, including Dr. Arthur Bennett, his wife Dr. Christine Bennett and the nursing supervisor Mini Holzhauser. Christine Bennett died within a few days. Her husband and Miss Holzhauzer survived but were sent to the U.S. for convalescence. The hospital was closed. Several attempts to staff and open it again failed and eventually the Mission decided to close the hospital permanently, a decision made somewhat easier by the fact that the British had opened other hospitals in Basrah. The hospital building remained unused for several years before becoming home to the Boys School. Thereafter, the two schools, the School of High Hope and the School of Hope for Girls, became the primary focus of the Mission’s work in Basrah.

Basrah was unusual for the stability of its permanent personnel. John and Dorothy Van Ess were the anchors, of course, he having arrived in 1902 and she in 1911. Their primary responsibility was for the Boys and Girls Schools. Fred and Margaret Barney, who had joined the mission in 1897 and had worked in Basrah, Bahrain and Muscat, served another term in Basrah from 1920 to 1923. Jim Moerdyk, who had also been in several other stations on the Gulf, was assigned to Basrah in 1924 to take on responsibility for evangelism. Charlotte Kellien arrived from Muscat in 1922 to become principal of the Girls School. Rachael and Ruth Jackson came 1923, after language study in Bahrain, to work at the school and join Mrs. Van Ess in other contacts with women. This was the mission “family” that Dad got to know so well. Jim Moerdyk moved on to Amarah a few years later, and Ruth Jackson was assigned to the Girls School in Bahrain in 1936. The others, joined by George and Christine Gosselink in 1929, continued to serve in Basrah until their respective retirements from the Mission.

Henry and Monty Bilkert were assigned to Basrah in 1924. Dad looked forward to their coming and felt they were a fine addition to the Basrah family. Tragically, Bilkert was killed in a Beduin attack on his car while he was accompanying the American businessman and diplomat Charles Crane from Basrah to Kuwait in 1929. It was Bilkert’s death that made it possible for the financially strapped Mission Board to appoint the Gosselinks to the Mission.

Lansing Memorial Hospital, 1911-1917
School of High Hope 1923-1964

The Basrah Family, Christmas 1924

Henry Bilkert, Ruth Jackson, Dorothy Van Ess, John Van Ess, visitor
Rachel Jackson, Charlotte Kellien, Monty Bilkert
John Van Ess Jr., Montieth Bilkert, Alice Van Ess, Margaret Bilkert

Letters October 19, 1924 – February 8, 1925

October 19, 1924

At last I got a letter from you, last Monday, by overland mail. You sent it on September 22, so it got here in three weeks. It seemed a little disconnected, because I am still missing four or five letters from you. I expect they will be arriving soon – either forwarded from Suq-el-Gharb or coming around by sea.

We started school again this week. We already have 150 boys enrolled, a good many more than we had at the beginning of last year. The boarding department will begin functioning tomorrow. We are almost overrun with Chaldean Catholics. These “Chaldani” closed their own school this year because of trouble they had among themselves, so they want to send all their kids over into our school. But Mr. Van Ess isn’t having any of it. He doesn’t want to crowd the school full of Chaldani just because they can’t run a school of their own without fighting. By now Mr. Van Ess has a pretty black name among the Chaldeans because he won’t accept their children. They try all sorts of things. Some have been attending our church services regularly for some weeks hoping that we will accept them as Protestants, because we do take a certain number of Protestant children, because there aren’t very many of them in Basrah and they have no school of their own. But the Catholics could very easily have a big school if they knew how to get along with each other. One Chaldani woman came into the school office one day this week with a baby on her arm and a couple of kids following her and also an older boy she wanted to put into school. She came up to Mr. Van Ess and was going to kiss his hand, but he jerked his hand away, which made her lose her balance and she fell all over him. After he had struggled free again he looked at me and said, “Daar hou ik niet van.” (note 59) I could hardly keep from laughing. Of course he did not accept her son. Some of them even try bribery to get their children into school, but of course that finishes them right away.

October 26, 1924

We had good soaking showers here one day this week. It just poured for about an hour. It started out with pretty good sized hail stones, which are very rare here. Rain so early in the season is rare, too. It’s cloudy and brewing again and we are likely to have more rain soon. Let it come. The rain surely made things bright and clean again and washed away the terrible dust of summer.

Mr. Moerdyk has gone down to Bahrain for the Annual Mission Meeting. It is a delegate meeting this year, one delegate from each station. Each station has its own meeting and instructs its delegate on what to do at the big meeting. We had our meeting last Monday night. We are expecting the Bilkerts to arrive here in Basrah, back from furlough, sometime this week. We are hoping and expecting that they will be assigned here to Basrah for the coming year, so they will be here when the Van Esses go on furlough next spring. They are fine people and will fit in perfectly with the rest of the force here now.

There isn’t much more news around here except for news of the big things that are happening in this neck of the world. Ibn Saud, the Emir of Nejd, the interior of Arabia, and at the same time the leader of the very strict Wahabi sect of Islam – they believe they are the only true Moslems – has been attacking Mecca with a large army of his tribesmen. King Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, who proclaimed himself caliph last year when the Turks abolished the caliphate in Turkey, has for many years prevented these Wahabi tribesmen of the interior from coming to Mecca for the pilgrimage. Now Mecca has fallen, King Hussein has abdicated, his son Ali has been chosen as king and has moved his government to Jiddah, and Mecca is left in the hands of Ibn Saud. Islam is once again in chaos, without a caliph – even though not many Arabs accepted Hussein. The rumor here is that King Hussein is coming to Basrah to live under the protection of his son, King Faisal, because no other Moslem country will take him because of the terrible bribery and persecution he practiced on pilgrims to Mecca during the last years. The British may allow him to settle down in Basrah if he keeps himself absolutely quiet – but he may not know how to be quiet. He is always involved in some intrigue. It is all very interesting.

In our discussion at the station meeting this week, we were talking about whether we should ask Dr. Dame, whose furlough is due next year, to postpone his furlough another year as we might otherwise have trouble finding a doctor to put in his place and might have to close the hospital at Bahrain. Mr. Van Ess in a joking way said that since Dr. Dame was on pretty good terms with Ibn Saud and had made a long trek with him last winter thru Nejd, it might be possible that Ibn Saud would ask him to make another tour with him next winter and might even take him as far as Mecca. Now that would make it worthwhile to stay another year!

November 2, 1924

You remember a couple of weeks ago I said I was going to fix up my rooms. If you saw them now you would think I had defixed them. I didn’t get a chance to do anything with them until this week and then only an hour or two after school each day, so I’ve been upset the whole week, but I finally finished the walls yesterday. Now all that remains is to get my “marble” floors scrubbed and the windows and woodwork washed and then hang my new curtains and put up my pictures and pennants. It hardly seems worthwhile to do it for only the eight or nine months that I’ll be here, but then it will be in good shape for whoever takes my place next year.

We had an accident here in school yesterday morning. One of our boarding school boys broke his arm while playing around in the corridor. He stumbled and fell and his arm just snapped like a piece of crockery just below the elbow. I improvised a sling for his arm and sent him off to the hospital with one of the other boys. Two hours later he came back and hadn’t seen the doctor yet, hadn’t even been to the hospital. Instead he had gone to an uncle – he has no father here – and his uncle wanted to take him to some quack. They had hunted around for him all that time and couldn’t find him and now they were back to me and wanted a letter to another doctor who might get the job done for a few rupees less. The idea of going around bargaining with a doctor while the boy hadn’t yet had his arm set just made me angry. Just then Mr. Van Ess came along. He gave the uncle a bawling out and sent them back to the hospital.

Day after tomorrow is election day. I suppose we’ll get the first returns of the elections here on Thursday. We’ve made arrangement with the editor of the Basrah paper to send word as soon as he gets the first cablegrams from New York. We are just as excited about it here as you are over there.

November 9, 1924

We got a wire from Moerdyk this week saying that the Bilkerts had been appointed to Basrah, so that’s good – only the Bilkerts haven’t come yet and nobody knows where they are. They were supposed to have reached Baghdad two weeks ago. Mr. Moerdyk also said he was bringing with him four boys, sons of one of the Bahraini shaikhs.

Hurrah for Coolidge! We got the first reports of Coolidge’s re-election Thursday evening, and Friday the Basrah paper had big headlines clear across the page – “America Stands Against Socialism”.

Everything is going fine around here. School is packed to the limit and the boys are doing good work. Yes, there is one of our boys at Pennsylvania U. this year. We have already heard from him, and he said they accepted him right into the freshman class without examinations because he had a diploma and a letter from Mr. Van Ess, which is a pretty good compliment to our school. He is the boy I gave private lessons to last winter.

November 16, 1924

Tuesday was Armistice Day and we dismissed school for the morning. They had some exercises at the military cemetery, unveiling and dedicating a new monument in honor of those who died here in the Mesopotamian campaign of the War. It is just a plain cross of white concrete about fifteen feet high, but the whole cemetery had been leveled off and cleaned up and looked very nice. All the air force and other British military detachments which are stationed at Basrah and also a large troop of Indian soldiers which the British keep in this country and a group of sailors from a British warship which happens to be in port for a few days were all lined up and in full uniform. We sang a few memorial hymns, the Air Commander of all Iraq made a short address and unveiled the monument and then the Basrah military padre dedicated it. One corner of this cemetery is for European civilians and there is where Mrs. Bennett, Harry Wiersum and the Worrall’s child are buried.

Friday evening Mr. Moerdyk and Mr. Dykstra arrived back from Bahrain, and of course they had lots to tell about Annual Meeting. Yesterday the Bilkerts arrived and we were glad to see them. So we are a pretty big family now. Mr. Bilkert said that when he met you, Mother, you had pumped him with questions about how I was doing and whether I was really well and happy. Now, you know what I’ve always written, and you know that I wouldn’t tell you everything was all right if it wasn’t, don’t you?

November 23, 1924

Let me tell you about these two young shaikhs which Mr. Moerdyk brought along from Bahrain to put into school here. They are about twelve or thirteen years old and I am to be sort of their guardian. They surely were a mess. I don’t believe they have had a bath in their lives or even their hair washed. Their heads were so full of lice, I don’t see why they weren’t eaten up by them. One of the boys’ head was actually half raw. I sent them off to the barber and had their hair clipped off short and then to the hot bath. They have several of these baths around the bazaars – first they put you in a room which is kept very hot so that you begin perspiring. Then a servant comes in and begins rubbing and scrubbing you with hot water and soap until you are almost raw, then a dash of cold water and a rub down with a course towel. When the servant began scrubbing these boys the dirt began to come off in rolls and they got scared. They thot their skin had been scalded off. Then I also got them some bedding – they had nothing of their own with them except a blanket like they roll up in in their desert tents. I got one of the teachers to help me, because he knows the ins and outs of the bazaars. They have a servant with them, but he is a negro slave – they still have a good number of them in the Gulf cities – but he needs as much tending to as the boys do. He also went along with the boys to the bath, but when they put him in the sweating room, they couldn’t make him perspire at all, even when they raised the temperature. The boys like the idea of getting cleaned up – they have already been asking for European clothes. As soon as their hair grows out so that it can be cut and combed nicely, I will get them each a fez instead of the head shawl they wear now, and also a good suit of clothes each. The British consul in Bahrain has guaranteed to pay for everything we want to spend on the boys, and we don’t have to be afraid of spending too much because their father is one of the richest shaikhs in Bahrain. The boys are learning pretty well, too. They seem pretty smart even tho they didn’t know the alphabet when they came.

And there have been other things to keep me busy. The Bilkerts had some more boxes of stuff arriving, so I helped them with that, opening them and setting up the furniture, etc. Miss Kellien asked me if I could draw a large map of Europe with all the divisions of the countries up to date. I said I could, but it turned out to be quite a job. Then Saturday morning Mrs. Dykstra arrived with Dr. and Mrs. Moerdyk and their little boys. He is Mr. Moerdyk’s brother and they have had one year of language study in Bahrain. Now they are going to move to Amarah so that Dr. Moerdyk can get the lay of the land there while taking his second year of language, so that he will be ready to open up medical work there next year when he finishes language training.

You see, the building we are using now for the school is the Lansing Memorial Hospital, because it was built and supported by the Lansing family and that money may not be used for anything but medical work. Since mission medical work in Basrah is not so necessary any more and Mr. Dykstra has been asking for a doctor and hospital in Amarah for several years, the Lansing Hospital Fund is going to sell this building in Basrah to Mr. Van Ess for the Boys School and the Fund will be transferred to Amarah for the construction of a new hospital there. Amarah is a good station for medical work, not only because they have no good doctors there of any kind, but it is also the center of a large tribal area, and a mission doctor could accompany Mr. and Mrs. Dykstra on their tours with the launch, which would be a great help. Doctors are always welcome and would provide a good opening wedge, an opportunity to get to know and work with the people in those remote areas.

November 30, 1924

How time goes. Tomorrow is the first of December and by the time you get this letter it will be the New Year already. Please give my Christmas and New Year’s greetings to Grandpa and Grandma and all the uncles and aunts.

We had Thanksgiving this week. This station is quite a big family now, but we still had Thanksgiving dinner all together at the big house – that is the house in which the Bilkerts, Miss Kellien and the Jacksons live (note 60). We surely had a good dinner. We dismissed school for the afternoon, so we didn’t have to hurry, and we were at the table until after three o’clock. Then we sat around and talked and played the phonograph. After that John Jr. entertained us with a Thanksgiving program given by himself and assisted by Alice and the two Bilkert children – poems, songs, the Pilgrim story, etc. Nobody could eat much at night so we just had some pickings from dinner. We sat around telling stories and playing hearts. Mrs. Van Ess had gotten some popcorn from Montgomery Ward, and so I improvised a popper from an old tin box and we popped corn over the open fire in the fireplace. It was a cool night, so the fire felt nice and cozy.

I took a bunch of boys on a bicycle hike to Germat Ali, the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates, about ten miles above Basrah. We were studying about the two rivers in Geography class and so it was mainly the Geography class that went. Not any of these boys had ever been there before. It is funny that I who have been here just two years should be showing these places to these boys who have lived here all their lives. When we got back, one of them said they would like to go on such an excursion again, and I asked where they wanted to go. They said I should decide that since I know these places better than they do.

Yesterday we left here at about nine o’clock, all on bicycles. We stopped at several place along the way. At one place there was a small lock in an irrigation canal and I had to explain how it worked. At another place we came to a ferry across the river – one which is drawn back and forth across the river on a cable. They had never seen anything like that. Then we came to a field where there was a small patch of cotton growing and they looked in awe at that – some of the bolls had already burst open and were all fluffed out. Finally we came to the junction of the rivers, but even with the rivers there in front of them, they didn’t seem to understand the lay of the land until I drew a map on a piece of paper, and showed the relative position of the cities along the river and where it flowed into the Gulf. Even then, when a river steamer just happened to pass by bound upstream for Baghdad, they seemed surprised and asked why it was going in that direction. . We started back by another route so that we could stop at the port where all the ocean going steamers stop, and we looked at one of the Bombay mail steamers which was there. We also watched some of the big port cranes at work and saw how they can lift a Ford or some two or three ton weight on or off the steamer as easily as they would a toothpick. We got home at four o’clock and it had certainly been an interesting day. We hadn’t taken any lunch but we just bought some at different places as we went along. We got some fresh Arab bread, some radishes and some hard boiled eggs. Then we came by a camp of Ma’dan, Marsh Arabs who keep cows and buffaloes and supply the town with milk. There we got some of the finest “robe” I have ever had. Robe is quite a favorite article of food here and goes well with native food. It is thickened sour milk, like you make cottage cheese from (note 61). So we had a peach of a meal.

December 7, 1924

Brrr -- ! it’s cold. It has been cold all week and to be out in the sun feels good. We haven’t any snow here but we’ve got a pretty good imitation – our garden is full of white chrysanthemums. We’ve got some in color, too, and also several other kinds of flowers, and we’ve all got bouquets galore – and they stay fresh for such a long time. Miss Kellien was counting the bouquets in their house the other day and she said they had seventeen scattered around the house from kitchen to garret.

Last night while I was sitting thinking about what I would write about, the fire engine came rushing past. I went out to look and the whole sky was red and full of smoke. It looked as though the whole world was on fire. At the same time Mr. Van Ess, Bilkert and everybody came out. It looked as though the fire might be right next to the Girls School, so we started off on a run. We found the school safe enough and the fire to be quite a bit further on, so we went on and found a space larger than a square block all in flames. The space had been full of “serifas” – the small huts built of reed mats, the homes of the very poorest people. How the fire started nobody knows, but once a fire gets started among these reed huts, which are built almost on top of each other, they go up like paper and there is no stopping it, and these people hardly had time to save anything. There they were out in the street with only the clothes they had on and perhaps a blanket or two and a few boxes. There they were, several hundred of them, at nine o’clock on a cold night and no place to go. Some had not even found all their family members, though it was believed that nobody was hurt by the fire. When we left, the police department was looking after them as much as they could, but they couldn’t do much for a big crowd like that. If only the mission had some kind of poor relief fund, but we have to scratch for everything we can get just for our regular work.

December 15, 1924

We’ve been overwhelmed with guests this week again. The Van Peursems arrived this week – they also traveled overland from Beirut. Mr. Van Peursem and the two boys slept with me – that is I provided them with beds in this building and they washed and dressed in my rooms. Mrs. Van Peursem and the two girls stayed with the Van Esses and they all ate over there. They are a nice family. Did you ever meet Mrs. Van Peursem and the children? The children aren’t a bit spoiled as, I am afraid, John and Alice are. They gave me the parcel you sent along with them. Nina’s picture is surely nice with her bobbed hair. The socks are almost too nice to wear, and the beaded watch fob is very nice, too. Crissy also sent a package but with orders “not to open till Christmas” so I’ll have to wait to see what she sent.

Mr. Barney also arrived this week. They are going to be stationed in Bahrain this year and came out all the way by sea, via Bombay. Now Mr. Barney has come here to get his books and everything else they left here when they went on furlough. And Mr. Moerdyk had with him for a couple days a member of the British Bible Society. So we were pretty well full up and busy, too, helping these people. The Van Peursems had to buy quite a few things here and lay in supplies which they can’t get in Muscat, and we helped Barney gather up his stuff and pack it. They all left together this morning on the boat. I got a letter from Mr. Pennings this week and he said he had been in Pella a couple times and once had stayed with you, as you wrote some time ago, too.

Mrs. Van Ess and Ruth Jackson have been busy this week trying to get something done for these people that were burned out last week. They forced a thousand rupees ($300) out of the city council and then tackled some of the rich people of the city, but they were hardly able to get $200 more. After two days of canvassing they had almost $500 and with that they went to the bazaar and bought quilts and flour and rice, and then they got the “mukhtar” (headman) of that burnt out district to bring all these people together and each family got a quilt and two pounds of rice and flour for each member of every family. That will keep them for a little while at least. One quilt is hardly enough for some of the big families, but . . . There were over a hundred families and nearly eight hundred people. They are still without shelter. It is still bitterly cold and the rains are beginning to come. I don’t know what these people will do. One nearly becomes a Bolshevik when you see this situation here and know that in another part of town there are people with so much money and property they don’t know what to do with it, but you can’t squeeze a cent out of them to help these poor people.

December 21, 1924

We have been having rain by the wholesale this week and we are having still more of it today. Everything is soaked and the roads and streets are a fright. It is almost impossible to get about without getting covered with mud. It makes it awful for those people who were burned out. Mrs. Van Ess and Ruth Jackson have still been busy canvassing for them, and they have had a little better luck this week.

Thursday night Mr. Van Ess and I went to a show given by a Jewish society. They gave a sort of play on Joseph and his brothers, reviewing everything from the time Joseph had his dream to when he was governor of Egypt and old Jacob moved to Egypt with his sons and their families. It was very well done. The different characters were portrayed well and the costuming was good. Some of the men, with their great big black beards, had the map of Palestine written all over their faces. And they made it go along in good time, too – there were no lagging waits as there usually are with these shows.

This week will be Christmas. We are having Wednesday afternoon, Thursday and Friday for vacation, that’s all. My chief occupation lately has been repairing toys and things that were broken in the mail on the way from America for both the Bilkerts and the Van Esses. I spent one whole evening helping Mrs. Van Ess fix dolls’ eyes. She had received a batch of dolls of the kind that close their eyes when you lay them down, and most of their eyes had been jarred loose or bumped out of place, but we got them all fixed up again.

December 28, 1924

Well, Christmas is past again and we’ve had a dandy time. Wednesday afternoon vacation started and Mr. Van Ess and I “manufactured” a Christmas tree and put it up in their home and trimmed it. In the evening after dinner, everybody came – those in the big house, also – Bilkerts and the girls – and put their gifts around the tree, and then we went over to the big house again to sing carols and hymns with the piano. The Bilkerts brought a very nice piano out with them. Next morning first thing we got our presents from the tree, and Santa Claus was pretty good to all of us. I got a couple of books, some good home made fudge and peanut brittle, a nice pillow cover, etc. I got a nice shirt from Crissy, but I am afraid there won’t be much left of it after the “dobee” has had it in the wash a couple times.

Most of us went to the English Church service in the morning. We didn’t have any service in our church because both Mr. Van Ess and Mr. Bilkert were busy all day long with callers who came to bring their greetings and stay long enough to drink a cup of Arab coffee and “drink” a cigarette, as the Arabs say. Mr. Van Ess said they had over a hundred callers during the day, not counting school boys. Mr. Moerdyk had gone to Amarah to spend the holidays with his brother and family and the Dykstras. They also invited me, but I think I will go at Easter when we will have more time and the weather will be nicer. We all had Christmas dinner with the Van Esses. Somebody from Baghdad had sent down two turkeys, and we had them both with sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce from Montgomery Ward and a lot of other good things.

It surely has been cold here. Christmas morning was clear and bright and stayed so all day, but in the morning there was a heavy frost on the grass and a sliver of ice on the water. That is the first frost I have seen in this country. Today it is cold and rainy and feels as if it is going to snow.

Friday afternoon the boys had their school show. Several of the boys read papers they had written about Christmas or gave short speeches or recited poems, and they had three short plays, one real serious one – acting out a bit of an Arab tribal story – and two short comic things made up by themselves. The whole program was pretty good. Some of these boys are natural actors.

Monday noon – It’s colder than ever today – there is ice on the water puddles all over, even up to now (noon) and the sun is shining. It hasn’t been so cold here for years. Mr. Van Ess says he has never seen it so cold in Basrah.

January 4, 1925

Well, it’s 1925 – a Happy New Year to you. This is the last lap for me. From now on the time until I go home will become noticeably shorter. I am afraid I won’t have very much time at home tho, especially if I go to school. I’ll have to start off again almost as soon as I get back. You know the Bilkerts were at the Hartford School of Missions last year. I have talked with them and am more and more convinced that that is where I ought to go. The only argument against it is that it is so far from home.

We had no school on New Year’s Day, but that was not so much because of the day itself as that there was the inauguration of a new literary society to which all our teachers belong and they asked to have the day off. We didn’t do much celebrating except that in the evening we all had dinner together at the big house.

It surely has been cold here. Two nights last week the temperature went down below twenty-six degrees. One night the frost burst the water pipe which comes into my room and it also burst a couple pipes in the big house. We had loads of chrysanthemums in our garden but they are all frozen. The gardens all around have a large part of their vegetable crops killed by the frost, especially tomatoes and cucumbers. That’s new history for Basrah, especially for the freezing of water pipes, not that it has never been so cold before, but that there was never a water system here until the War.

January 11, 1925

I received your package yesterday, and all of it looks good, believe me, though we haven’t had a chance to try it yet. I am going to keep the cured beef for myself and nibble at it along with some crackers and cocoa for “coffee-tijd” after school. I gave the bacon to Mrs. Van Ess and I think she is going to serve it tonight in sandwiches for our Sunday night station supper. Thanks ever so much for it and thank Grandpa and Grandma for the beef. It hardly seems worthwhile to send it tho when you have to pay so much postage. However, I am awfully glad to get it. I guess this is the last time you will be sending anything, because soon it will be getting warm again and it won’t take the trip out here. I hope you will have a supply laid in when I get home next summer.

We had Week of Prayer this week. It was all in Arabic so I didn’t get so very much out of it. Still, I am getting so that if I know the subject they are talking about and they don’t use too highfalutin Arabic, I can usually get quite a bit of it. Anyway, it does me good just to be there because I know we are in God’s special presence there and others are discussing and praying about things concerning His work and His kingdom.

We had meetings every afternoon in the church soon after school, and Mr. Bilkert, who is now in charge of evangelistic work here, had given most of the leadership of the meetings into the hands of some of the native congregation. They did very well, and we were surprised at how many of the native Christians came out to the meetings. There seems to be a different spirit among these Christians. Mr. Moerdyk worked hard with them last year, encouraging them to take on their share of the leadership, so they started doing different things and found that they rather liked it. They have even started organizing themselves into a regular congregation, and every once in a while our Bible shop manager or one of the teachers takes a turn at preaching. There seems to be a much nicer spirit among themselves and toward the mission as well. The women’s society, which Mrs. Van Ess organized, has even sent something to the Women’s Board Jubilee Fund.

We had a big joke here this week. They have been having elections for the new Iraq parliament. Here they don’t do it on one day but the election extends over several weeks. This week they began counting votes and there were over ten million votes while the population of the country is only about three million. The mistake is believed to be where the tribal shaikhs have voted for their whole tribe, estimating the population and accordingly getting that many votes. Some of those shaikhs must have estimated pretty high, forgetting that when the conscription for the army comes along they may have to furnish men in proportion to the number who voted. Now they have discarded the whole election until a more reliable census can be taken.

January 18, 1925

Happy birthday to you on your 16th birthday, Bob. I hope I am right in your age this time. I hope you don’t get a breakdown from all the work you had to do a while back, book reviews, typing contests, orations, etc. all at once. If you give me a few days to practice up a bit I’ll still run you a race in typing when I get home again. Gosh, I want to write all the time as if you were still a kid, as you were when I left home, but now you have become pretty much of a man and have put away childish things and I have to write accordingly. You are coming along, Bob, but I wonder if you ever give much thot to your duties in the more serious part of life – not that you aren’t a good Christian in your heart but our duty lies beyond that. I pray that God may give you wisdom to see aright the way before you.

We’ve been having some distinguished guests here this week. An older lady and her daughter, Mrs. Standish and Miss Standish, direct descendants of Miles Standish are making a trip around the world and stopped by here to visit Mrs. Van Ess, who used to know them in college. We also had a German Baroness here this week. She is a writer and quite a socialist and writes for socialist papers.

January 25, 1925

Well, I’ve added another country to my list of “countries visited” this week. Mrs. Alcott – you know she is an officer on the Women’s Board of Foreign Missions – and her daughter had gone to India where her son was to be married, and of course she visited all the mission stations of our church while she was there. Now, on their way home, they have been coming up the Gulf on the slow mail steamer which stops for a day at each port, giving them a chance to visit all our mission stations, too. The boat always stops at Mohammerah, twenty miles down stream on the Persian side of the river. Mr. and Mrs. Dykstra came down from Amarah to meet Mrs. Alcott, and he said he was willing to go down to Mohammerah with the launch and bring them back, so they wouldn’t have to wait a whole day down there. The problem is that nobody knew exactly when they were coming. We got a wire from one of the Gulf stations saying that they would arrive in Mohammerah on Saturday afternoon, so the Dykstras, Miss Kellien, Mrs. Van Ess, Ruth Jackson and I started off Saturday noon and got there in a couple hours. But there was no boat. We waited until about six o’clock, when the company office said it would not come because it couldn’t cross the bar at the mouth of the river after dark. So we started back. About half way back to Basrah is the border post between Iraq and Persia and we had to stop and report to the police and customs post. While we were trying to get to the landing, the launch ran into a mud bank in shallow water, and we could not get off, especially as the tide was falling. The only thing to do was wait until the next tide lifted the boat off again, which would be a little after mid-might. At about ten, a river tug came along and stopped on its way to Basrah, so it was decided that Mrs. Van Ess and Ruth and I would go on the tug, and the Dykstras and Miss Kellien would make themselves comfortable on the launch and go back to Mohammerah in the morning to wait for the steamer. We got home a little after mid-night, which was good because we found that people were worried about us. They had heard that the steamer would not arrive until Sunday evening. We had no way of letting the Dykstras know, so I suppose they are still waiting.

February 1, 1925

School has been going pretty well all along. We’ve got right up to two hundred boys now and we are crowded to the limit. We ought to have more teachers but we haven’t the money to get them. Maybe money will loosen up a bit pretty soon, at least if we are going to receive any benefit from that Jubilee Fund. I’m still enjoying my work as much as ever. Just teaching itself would get a little tiresome sometimes, but there are always things that keep monotony away. Funny things happen, too. You know that Oriental people – Jews, Arabs, Indians, all of them – make a lot of gestures with their hands when they speak. The Arabs have many gestures, just a certain twist of the head or something that means more than you can say in a sentence. We get to use them, too, and sometimes when I am talking with somebody I realize that I have been making a perfect whirlwind of myself. Well, the other day in school, one of the boys was reading his lesson aloud, just an ordinary lesson, but he was jerking his head back and moving his hands on the book, and finally he came to a place where it said something about a large crowd, and he let go of the book with one hand and made a wide sweeping gesture – altogether unconscious of doing it. That was too much for me and I burst out laughing, and then I had to apologize to him quickly and explain what I was laughing about. He looked a little foolish then, but I bet he thot to himself that I was the dippy one.

You don’t seem to have taken very favorably to my Hartford proposition. I don’t know what Pennings or Van Peursem may have said to you about it, but Van Peursem said he thot it was a good idea. The Bilkerts were there last year and they were pleased with it, and Mr. Van Ess has recommended it from the first. As for Hartford not being true to doctrine, I am not going to Hartford to take any seminary course or theology. It is pedagogy, Islamics and education that I want and I have found that I can get these at the Hartford School of Missions. You said that Pennings said they offer education at Western, but I have found that they offer very little in education and nothing in Islam. And another thing, of all the Western graduates here in the mission, none have a good word to say about Western’s influence for foreign missions. On the contrary, they say Western discourages anyone from going to the foreign field. Even Bog spoke of that during his first year of seminary, and I think it was that atmosphere that made him change his mind about going to the foreign field. I must say I am not attracted to Western. Even if I didn’t go to Hartford and wanted to take a regular seminary course, I think I would go to Princeton or some place like that. The trouble with all these places is that they are so far from home.

February 8, 1925

Yesterday I went on another bicycle excursion with some of the boys. This time there were fifteen and we went to Zubair. It was a long trek, nearly thirty miles out there and back and it was quite windy – which is bothersome on bicycles – but we made it alright. They all had a good time. Some of them had never been there before. We roamed around the bazaars and camel market, visited a Beduin camp just outside the city, watched them weave cloth for their tents, and saw some other things. We started at ten in the morning and got back at five-thirty.

Dad, could you write me once more about what you may be able to do to help me with finances next year. You may have answered me before but perhaps it was in one of the letters that went lost last summer. And I’ll give this as fair warning to all – Crissy and I have written back and forth a good deal but it is almost impossible to try to plan anything when you have to wait two or three months for each other’s answers. But the latest is that if it is at all possible, we are going to get married sometime not long after I get back, and then we will go to school together. If not that, then I may want that old Midland farm for a couple of years. Ha!

Lovingly as ever,



[58]The bibliography at the end of the book lists a number of memoirs by members of the mission. For a comprehensive history see Lewis R. Scudder III, The Arabian Mission Story, 1998.

[59]Roughly, “I hate when that happens!”

[60]In later years this would become the Gosselink house, where our parents lived for almost forty years and where I was born. The single women, Miss Kellien and the Jackson sisters, moved to a newly constructed house on the outskirts of Basrah City, on the same property where the new Girls School was built in 1930.

[61]Yogurt, a staple of Middle East cuisine, was not well known in the United States, certainly not in Iowa, until a commercial version was introduced and patented by Dannon in 1947.

arabian.html;  21 November 2012