Dad’s destination, and his home for the next three years, was Basrah, a small city in southern Iraq, located on the Shatt-el-Arab, the river formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. At that time Basrah had a population of about 100,000, but it was the third largest city in Iraq. The Arabian Mission had had a presence there since 1891, when it was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, the capital of the Vilayet or Province of Basrah. It was an old city, founded in the 7th century as a military garrison by the early conquering Army of Islam. Over the centuries it had been governed by a series of Arab, Mongol and Persian rulers, but in spite of this political instability it had maintained some prominence as a flourishing commercial and cultural center, known for its scholars of Islamic jurisprudence and several competing schools of theology. After the Ottomans took control in 1668, its importance declined so that by the early years of the 20th century it had become a drowsy city in the backwaters of the Empire.
Ashar Creek, Basrah
World War I transformed Basrah from a sleepy provincial capital of the Ottoman Empire to the busy, commercial center of the newly established nation of Iraq. Although the War had begun in Europe in August 1914, the British waited until November before making a formal declaration of war on Germany’s ally Turkey. The next day they landed a British-Indian military task force at Fao, near the mouth of the Shatt-el-Arab, and very quickly occupied Basrah and the surrounding area. Their objective, ostensibly, was to secure the oil fields of nearby Persia (Iran), an essential source of fuel for the British navy, but having driven the Turkish forces out of Basrah so easily, they quickly set their sights on the rest of what they referred to as Mesopotamia, the Turkish provinces of Baghdad and Mosul.
The campaign proved much more difficult than they had anticipated. The British did not commit a sufficient force to accomplish their objective and were surprised when the Turks put up such a strong defense. The war along the Tigris River took many thousands of lives, mostly Indian soldiers, and it was almost four years before the British were finally able to drive the Turkish army out of Mesopotamia. Basrah, in the mean while, became the political and military headquarters for the campaign and the port through which they brought in all their equipment and supplies from India, and as a consequence it became a busy, vibrant city.
Basrah had been an important, if quieter, town even before the coming of the British. Located fifty miles up the wide Shatt-el-Arab from the Persian Gulf, its deep water port served all of Mesopotamia. It was a major producer of dates, which were shipped all over the world, and it handled the significant export of grain, which was grown further to the north. Even when the first pioneer missionaries, James Cantine and Samuel Zwemer, arrived in 1891, they came on one of the weekly ships of the British India Steam Navigation Company that carried mail, passengers and freight up the Persian Gulf from Bombay. Shallow draft, side-wheeler steam boats connected Basrah with Baghdad and other towns along the Tigris River. In those days the British Consulate provided the international mail service to and from Europe via Bombay, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean.
The population was mainly Muslim Arabs with some Persians and a minority of Arabic speaking Christians and Jews. There was a small foreign community consisting of British, German and Russian consuls and their staffs, and the mostly British representatives of shipping firms, including the local agent of the Hills Brothers Company, which handled date exports to the United States before some enterprising American took plant stock from Basrah and introduced dates to California.
The governing class, including customs officials, the police, teachers, and military officers, were of course Turkish. Most seemed to consider their assignment to Basrah a sort of exile. They seldom learned Arabic, kept themselves aloof from the local population, and took every opportunity to enrich themselves at the expense of the people they were supposed to be serving. Of course, in this they took their direction from the pashas, the governors of the province, who were chiefly concerned with getting back, with interest, the money they had paid to secure their position. Under these circumstances, very little was done to improve the economy, the infrastructure or the living conditions of the people. There were some necessary public works projects, such as the flood and irrigation control measures on the rivers to the north and the dredging of creeks and canals within the city itself.
Basrah was known, at least at high tide, as “The Venice of the East.” The countryside, for about two miles on either side of the river, was intersected by creeks and smaller canals leading off of them, through which the six-foot tide flowed in and out twice a day. The canals watered the date gardens and provided the primary avenues of transportation. There were few good roads and most local travel was by bellum, the gondola-like passenger craft, poled or rowed by two boatmen. Larger sailing craft, known as mahalas, carried heavier freight and smaller high-prowed canoes, called meshhufs, were paddled by Marsh Arab women selling eggs and dairy products.
The few existing schools were poorly run and offered instruction only in Turkish. There were no hospitals in the city and few doctors, until the Mission opened its facility in 1911. Every several years a cholera or plague epidemic would take thousands of lives. There was no safe public water supply. The missionaries hired boatmen to go out to the middle of the river to collect fresh water every day. Still, Basrah had a certain charm, captured by Dorothy Van Ess, writing about her first impressions:
“I first saw Basrah under a full moon on the last night of 1911. We went up the Shatt-el-Arab river by launch from Mohammerah (now Khoramshar) on the Persian side, a trip of about eighteen miles. Majestic date palms lined both sides of the river, a glorious sight in the moonlight, and there was an occasional Arab village to be seen as we swept along and, now and then, a large country house of some wealthy landowner.
“Presently we came to Ashar Creek, at right angles to the river, with the Turkish Customs House on the corner. This was the principle waterway of the city and connected the port section of the town, Ashar, with old Basrah City, a mile or more west of the river. As we turned into the creek I could see the dome and minaret of a large mosque, pale and beautiful against the moon-lit sky. The roofs of the bazaars were visible behind the mosque, and as we went on up the creek we passed the closely built Arab city along the water front. The houses looked like fairy palaces in the moonlight, the bridges under which we went on our way to the mission house were bathed in enchantment, the date palms were stately and tranquil. Though I knew it afterward in prosaic daylight and devoid of all glamour, I have never forgotten the loveliness of my first impression of the city which was to be my home for half a century.
“The political setting for our lives those last years of the great Ottoman Empire, was a dramatic one, a period of transition between an old world about to pass away and a new and totally different one about to be born (note 4).”
Indeed, the city had already changed dramatically by the time Dad arrived in 1922 (note 5). Most of the British civil and military officers who had come in 1914 to take over the governance of Basrah had had their training and experience in India, and from the beginning they seemed to have assumed that Basrah would be incorporated into the larger sphere of British India, an anchor, perhaps, to their extensive economic and political interests in the Persian Gulf. The British were efficient colonial administrators. After restoring order, which had broken down with the hasty departure of the Turkish officials, they quickly set about building up the installations and facilities they required for carrying on the war, and at the same time began providing needed services to their new subjects. They built a new port facility a few miles north of Basrah, with wharfs where ships could dock and unload their cargo (note 6); a terminus for the railway, which when completed in 1918 would link Basrah and Baghdad; and an airport, designed for the British Air Force but which would grow to become an important commercial facility. They paved streets and built new roads in and around the city. They established an efficient police force, provided hospitals and health services, and even began, with the help of Mr. and Mrs. Van Ess, a system of government run schools. And, for the first time in Basrah’s history, they began to supply the public with electricity and piped, potable water, incidentally from facilities right next door to the Mission compound.
All of this activity, and the presence of a large expatriate British community and the coming and going British and Indian troops, brought an economic boom to Basrah. Businessmen and tradesmen made lucrative contracts with the British army. Farmers found a new market for their produce. Young men who had been educated in the Mission school and knew English found ready employment as translators and clerks in British offices. Armenian and Christian refugees from Turkey, many of whom had also been educated in mission schools, flocked to Basrah to find work. Shopkeepers began importing all manner of products from India to meet the demands of newly wealthy Arabs as well as the foreign community. The British India Rupee became the standard unit of currency.
When Dad arrived, the war was long over, of course, but Basrah was still a prosperous city. It was the sole port of the newly established nation of Iraq and served as the gateway to all of Mesopotamia, direct travel across the desert to the Mediterranean being still in the future. There was a large British presence in the city. Although Iraqis were taking over many of the official positions in the local government, every department had its British advisor. The Port Director and many members of his staff were still British. The Air Force kept a squadron in Basrah, and a large number of British and Indian soldiers were billeted there.
In many ways, Basrah must have felt like an outpost of British Colonial India. The British men, civilian or military, were usually in contact with Arabs in the course of their work, but they rarely met socially. Their wives and families seldom learned the language and had little interaction with the local community (note 7). Part of this was a matter of culture, of course. Arab men and women did not mingle socially even among themselves. But part was due to the practice of separation ingrained in the customs of the British Raj and symbolized by the presence of an exclusive British Club. The American missionaries managed to bridge the gap between the two cultures. They met British people socially, at church, and in public gatherings, and developed close friendships, especially among the old hands who had been in Basrah before the War. And of course they maintained close ties with their Arab friends. The men were often invited to Arab homes to dine on special occasions or met in the coffee houses of the city, while the women visited with Muslim women in each others’ homes. Christian men and women mixed more easily and were more likely to see the missionaries socially.
Until 1910, when they obtained permission to buy their own property, the American missionaries lived in Basrah City, the older part of town, where the two mission schools were also located. That is where Dad lived when he first arrived in 1922. In 1910 the mission purchased six acres of land in Ashar, the newer section of the city, where it built a hospital, a chapel, and two houses for the missionaries. In 1923, the Boys School was moved to the vacant hospital building. A few years later, land was purchased on the outskirts of Basrah City for a new Girls School, with a house for the missionaries assigned to work there.
The American missionaries were a close knit community in themselves. They lived in close proximity, saw each other on almost a daily basis, and made a point of celebrating all important holidays together, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, which were feasts worthy of the best of American traditions. This was the city, community and home-away-from-home that Dad found when he arrived in Basrah in September 1922.
Khora Creek, Basrah
American Mission, Basrah
September 29, 1922
Dear Folks at Home:
At last, I’m here, arrived yesterday forenoon and by now we are all settled, at least temporarily for the conference which will be held next week. It took us quite a while to get thru customs, etc. and our luggage packed in a boat which was to take it up to the house, so that took us most of the day and we didn’t get our bags until late last night. The docks where we landed are still quite a ways from the city and from the place where Mr. Van Ess lives and where the rest of the mission buildings are. It is quite expensive to get a truck to take our baggage, so we hired a “bellum” (boat) to take it down the river a ways and then up a creek that runs right in front of Mr. Van Ess’s house.
They have these creeks or canals dug all over for irrigation. It surely is a fine system of irrigation, automatic, it works with the tide. Even tho Basrah is about 50 miles up the river from the Gulf, the tide still has its effect up here, the country is that level. The creeks are dug so that they are empty when the tide is out. When the tide comes in, the water runs into these creeks and the whole country is automatically irrigated, and at the same time boats can come in from the river and go up the creeks. This time of year the tide comes in the forenoon and goes out again just before noon and then begins to come in again in the evening. We were too late for the morning tide so the boat with our baggage had to wait until night.
This is a great date country – both sides of the river as far as we came up is nothing but date plantations, all you can see is just date palms, with here and there a small town and packing house on the river side. The packed dates are loaded on steamers right from the packing house and sent to all parts of the world. Dates are just in season now and they are busy packing them everywhere. A few days ago we met a cargo boat that was loaded with nothing but dates, bound for New York.
I have been running around quite a little already. Yesterday Moerdyk had to go over to the school to get some stuff he had left there and I went along with him, so I had a chance to look at my place of business for the future. I met several of my boys, saw where I am to live, etc. I am to stay right in the dormitory and I am to be a kind of matron for it at the same time, keep order, etc. The dormitory is just part of the one school building – dormitory, dining hall, classrooms, etc. all in one building. It’s an old building, a rented building, but Mr. Van Ess says that this will probably be the last year we will have to use that building. Next year he wants to use the mission hospital building for a school. That’s a very nice building and is right near Mr. Van Ess’s house. This building is quite a ways away, too far to walk – he always has to use a jitney to go back and forth. The mission has not very much use for a hospital here and has been renting it to the government during the war and since. Next year Van Ess is going to ask the mission board to let him use it for a school, and that will be ever so much nicer.
I have also been down to the business district, the bazaars, and was very much surprised. Whoever said that you couldn’t get anything in Basrah was all wrong, because they have almost everything here that anybody could want. Of course, some of it may not be as good and it is mostly a little higher than at other places because they have to pay so much duty on everything that comes in from outside, but you can get it anyway.
I am feeling fine and getting anxious to get to work. I have talked to Mr. Van Ess a little and am very pleased with what he has lined up for me. I won’t have as much English as I was told at first. He asked me what I had in school and said, “Good” he would give me physics and algebra and things like that and only two or three classes of English. He would rather take the English himself. You can imagine that suits me fine.
There was a big long letter here from Bog (note 8) for me. It was mighty good to hear of things going on at home, even tho he wrote that letter only a little while after I left. That was all the mail I have had so far, but I suppose there will be more when the next steamer comes in. Mail comes in and goes out regularly once every week, so I think we can write regularly once a week, even tho letters will be on the road five or six weeks. You notice once how long it will take this letter. It will go off on the mail steamer on Sunday, October 1st.
October 5, 1922
I guess Thursday or Friday will be about my regular time to write home every week, so I’ll start right away. The weekly outbound mail steamers usually go on Sunday but letters must be mailed before Saturday afternoon in order to go out on that boat, so Thursday or Friday makes a pretty safe time to write.
I received the first letter from you last Tuesday. It came on the same boat we came on, at least it was stamped by the Basrah post office September 29, but I didn’t get it until Tuesday. I was mighty glad to get it and hear from home again. I don’t expect I shall get any more this week because they say that the incoming mail steamer this week failed to connect with the mail steamer at Bombay. You may not understand all this business about mail connections, but it may be interesting and may help to get our mail started running smoothly back and forth, and you’ll know what’s what if you should have to wait a few days of even a week or more for a letter – it’s because some mail steamer failed to connect with another somewhere.
I can’t get used to the idea yet of thinking of news in your letters as being about six weeks old by the time I get it, and that if I should answer any question in your letter you could not get it until about three months after you wrote the letter.
This week has been very interesting to me and I am having lots of fun, too. I am glad we got here in time for Annual Meeting. I’ve learned more about missions, especially the Arabian Mission, than all I knew before. I’m learning a lot of geography, too. There are about 25 missionaries here and they come from all parts of the Arabian Mission. All are here now for the conference. I never knew the mission covered as much as it does. The southernmost station is Muscat, at the head of the Gulf, way at the tip of the peninsula, then Bahrain, and Kuwait, near the northern end of the Gulf, then Basrah up the river a ways, then Amarah, still further up the river, and up as far as Baghdad.
Rev. and Mrs. Dykstra are stationed in Amarah and the Board has given them a motor launch and they do a lot of touring evangelistic work up and down the river. They came down to Basrah with the launch and I had a nice long ride in it the other day. They surely have it fixed up in great shape. It’s quite a big boat and can hold up to 35 people. The back part of it they have fixed up into a little room, all closed up with windows and doors. They have a wide bench on each side which can be used for beds. They have a tank for drinking water, a charcoal stove, drawers and boxes fitted under the beds, along the sides and against the ceiling, for clothes and food, so they can live on the boat for several weeks at a time. When they go touring out among the Arab tribes where there are no big cities or any civilized accommodations at all, they have to go back to the launch every night to sleep. I’m learning a lot about the different kinds of missionary work in this way.
And we have a lot of fun, too. They are a jolly bunch and laugh and joke as much as anybody could, sometimes going even so far as that some people would call it sacrilege. And then some of those people would surely fall back flat if they would see Mr. Van Ess haul out his cigarettes and smoke to beat the band. Another one of the missionaries in Basrah also smokes cigarettes, but they are the only ones in the Mission that smoke. I went along with Van Ess a couple times to the coffee shops. That is his way of getting in with a lot of people one could not reach in any other way. Towards evening he goes out into the coffee shops, which are just a bunch of benches pulled together on some street corner where natives get together and talk and smoke and drink this awfully strong Turkish coffee. Well, he goes there and talks and smokes and drinks coffee, and watches his chance to slip in a little missionary talk once in a while. He seems to be able to stand almost anything – he likes the heaviest of native food, smokes native tobacco, and has drunk as many as 35 cups of this strong Turkish coffee a day, about two cups of which is enough to knock down the ordinary person. I had one cup of it once – it’s good if you take just a little bit of it. It seems to be made of coffee ground to a powder and then put into water until it is almost as thick as pudding, with lots of sugar in it.
Mr. and Mrs. Barney are going home on furlough next spring. So are Mr. and Mrs. Bilkert. Mr. and Mrs. Van Peursem are going home right away, as soon as they can get packed. They were to have gone in the spring but she has not been well for quite a while. They went to India this summer, hoping that she would pick up there, but she didn’t, so they have asked to go home right away. Mr. and Mrs. Cantine, Dr. and Mrs. Mylrea, and Dr. and Mrs. Harrison are home now and will be coming back between now and next spring. And then Mr. Moerdyke’s brother and his wife will be coming out some time this winter as new missionaries.
October 13, 1922
We surely have been having a real initiation to missionary life, or rather to Basrah life, this week, although this is the first time anything like this has happened around here for a long time, and not any of it has struck me so don’t get worried. Monday evening we were subject to a robbery. About eight or nine of us have been staying, or at least sleeping, in a house just across the creek from Mr. Van Ess’s house. While we were all at the meeting Monday night, thieves broke into our house across the street and started mixing things up. They started in Dr. and Mrs. Dame’s room and turned everything upside down and out of trunks and suitcases. They took a couple of Mrs. Dame’s dresses, about 40 rupees, which the Dames had forgotten to take with them, and then went on to the Hakkens’ room. It seems they got half thru rummaging thru their stuff and they were frightened away. They got a little money from the Hakkens but worst of all they took Mrs. Hakken’s glasses, and she’s only got one pair with her. She doesn’t wear them regularly but still can’t do without them altogether. But there is a good chance of getting everything back because the detective department here is pretty good. A couple years ago the Van Esses were robbed, too, and they got everything back, even to a thimble which had been taken from her sewing bag and sold separately from the other stuff.
Wednesday night there was more excitement. Miss Kellien, one of the missionaries living alone in a little bit of a bungalow belonging to the Mission, was sleeping on her roof (A great many sleep on the roofs here in the summer. The roofs are all flat.), and a little after midnight she woke and found a man standing next to her bed, a Tommy, a British soldier working in the city power plant right next to the mission compound. She started to bawl him out and he walked away, climbed down and went off. After that she went to sleep inside, but a couple of hours later she woke again and heard a noise on the roof. She quietly slipped out and went over to the Van Ess house and asked him to come over. He and Bilkert went over and found that same fellow under the bed. Bilkert fell on him as he started to come out and try to get away and Van Ess whacked him over the head with a stick. They managed to hold him until the power house guards came and arrested him. He is still under arrest and stands a good chance of getting a court martial.
But in spite of all that, we have been having a good time. Tuesday we all piled into Dykstra’s launch and went down the river 5 or 6 miles and had tea and came back after dark. It was nice on the river at that time of day. It gets dark early – by six it is quite dark already. We also had several birthday parties for three or four people who had birthdays during the time they were here.
The people of the “down the Gulf” stations all left today, and those going to Baghdad went this evening, so only the Basrah folks are left, except two from Bahrain who are staying with the Van Esses for a couple weeks more. I haven’t moved to the school yet and very likely won’t until the first part of next week or not until I can get my rooms fixed up at school. At present, since the others have left, I am sleeping in the church right near the Van Esses’ house and eating with them. It’s a fine place to sleep, with fans and everything. Basrah really isn’t so awfully slow when it comes to these things. It’s got electric lights and everybody has electric fans. They have a city water supply which is perfectly safe for drinking. It doesn’t taste so very good, at least not as good as Pella water, but that’s because it is chlorinated. It helps for thirst anyway. They haven’t got street cars, but they’ve got taxis, or motor cars as they call them, which take you anyplace you want to go for only a few cents. It’s funny that they all use the biggest and best cars. Buicks are used more than anything else, especially these big seven passenger ones. I rode in a right hand drive Essex today. Most of the cars here are right hand drive and signs say, “Keep to the left.”
Mr. Van Ess has been very good to me. He is always asking me if I am comfortable or if there is anything I need. He is going to entirely furnish my room at school. While Moerdyk was there, he had his own furniture, but now Mr. Van Ess says he wants to furnish it for me, out of school funds. He even wants to put rugs on the floor and curtains on the windows, besides a table, chairs, bed, dresser, bookcase, etc.
The Van Esses have a nice new bungalow just built last spring on the Mission compound. Of course it is a little crude compared to what we have at home or even what the missionaries have in India. In India labor and material are cheap and they can afford to build better homes. Here they have no skilled labor. It’s hard to get lumber and what they can get is awfully high priced. The house is made of brick, which is not of high quality, and the floors are all of the same brick. They don’t fit very well, so they are uneven. They always cover the floors with heavy matting and put their rugs over the matting.
Baghdad has city water and electricity, too, but the other stations down the Gulf do not. However, they make up for it because they do not have to live in such a thickly populated city as Basrah, and it is much cleaner in those places because they have sand. Basrah is all dirt and dust or else mud in the rainy season. The missionaries do live almost like kings. They have servants – a cook, butler and children’s maid and down the Gulf they also have a “punka” boy. A punka is a hand driven fan and the boy has to run the fan whenever they want it.
I got your second letter today and was glad to get it. It was good to have you think of Crissy the way you wrote, Mother, and I am glad you want her to become acquainted with the rest of the family. I’ve been sorry that I didn’t have more chance to “show her off” to the rest of the family, but now I know you will do it. I also got a letter from her today from Lake Geneva.
I’ve intended to write about my full dress suit but always forget about it until after I’ve mailed the letter. If you can you might as well sell it, suit, shoes, and all. I wouldn’t have much use for it here. I could find more use for a tuxedo if I had one. Missionaries are often invited out to dinner by the English, or like the Van Esses, do a lot of entertaining of people coming to Basrah, especially government people. Mr. Van Ess is personally acquainted with a great many of the British government officials and especially with army officers who are still here in Mespot (that’s what they call Mesopotamia here). And at times like that it would be handy to have a tuxedo. Maybe I can get one made up if I find that I need one.
October 20, 1922
I have finally started work and a great time I am having of it, learning the names of about a hundred boys, such as Abdul Kerim, Mohammed, Showket, Shahhab, etc. and trying to get a line on what I am supposed to teach them. The main thing I have to do is teach them English, not only in English classes, where I have to begin from the bottom up – nouns, verbs and all the rest of it up thru construction of sentences and writing compositions – but also in the other classes I have – geography, arithmetic, and physics - where I have to lay particular stress on using correct English. We haven’t got the full program fixed up yet. I have been teaching the things that Van Ess taught last year and he has been busy arranging a new schedule and trying to find place for some new subjects such as bookkeeping and English classics. Mr. Van Ess is going to take all the Bible classes, which have always been in Arabic. He is going to change some of them to English now and he will also take some of the lower classes in English. I will have two or three classes in English, two classes in geography, and bookkeeping, physics, and arithmetic. He has three teachers to take care of the Arabic part of the school.
There are a few over a hundred registered students now, which is considerably better than last year at the end of the first week. You see, quite a few are still out busy packing dates and these will be coming in anytime over the next two or three weeks. Mr. Van Ess expects at least 30 or 35 more. The school is run almost like a country school or perhaps a college. Each pupil has his own schedule – there are not two schedules exactly alike – and therefore it is hard to grade or classify them. One student may be in 3rd grade English while he is high school physics, or he may be in high school English and in 4th grade arithmetic and at the same time in different grades in his Arabic studies. So it is quite a mix up, but that is the only way it can be done with a mixed group like this and it gives the student the advantage because he can go as fast as he can.
About two thirds of the school are Mohammedan boys and the others are Jews and native Christians. There are many more Jews and Christians who want to come to this school, but Mr. Van Ess says the school is primarily for Mohammedan boys and they are given first chance. At the end of the month, if there is still room then, he will take them. We can accommodate only about 140 or so in this place as it is now. Mr. Van Ess says he is not working to get a big school, because it is the personal contact in a small school that he wants.
Of course you know who the Jews are but I suppose you have never heard of the native Christians, at least I hadn’t until I came here. They are people who have lived here for a long time. They were here before the missionaries came to this country. They originally came from Turkey or Armenia and have slowly migrated in small groups all over this country (note 9). The Armenians were already persecuted by the Turks. There are both Catholics and Protestants. Around Basrah there are quite a number of these native Christians. Every Sunday quite a few come to the mission church and at any time they expect the Mission to help them, even tho most of them are well to do and don’t need help. They expect the missionaries to help them, preach for them and do everything else, and still they don’t want to support the church or mission and more than once they have dragged the mission into some of their troubles with the government. They altogether forget or don’t want to understand that the mission is primarily for Mohammedans. There is also a colony of Armenian refugees in Basrah but they hardly ever bother the mission. More than once Van Ess and Moerdyk have tried to organize these native Christians into a church of their own, but it doesn’t work at all. They don’t get along with each other and fight among themselves.
I’ve still been staying at the Van Esses for board and in the church for sleeping this week, but tomorrow I expect to move over to school. I shall be glad to get settled. I surely will have an easy life then. The school servant keeps my room clean and provides for my bath right in my own bedroom. There is no such thing as a real bathtub here, not even in the best houses. They have a small galvanized bathtub and the servants carry the water back and forth. My classroom is just three or four steps from my room and all I have to do is go down the stairs to the dining hall for my meals. I am going to start out eating Arab food, but if it doesn’t agree with me, there is one European cook there and I can have him make something special for me. But I have had quite a little Arab food already and I am sure I can handle it. The only trouble is that I eat too much.
October 26, 1922
I am finally writing you in my own “place of abode” and am beginning to feel quite at home already. I have been busy all my spare time, which isn’t very much, fixing up the place and it is beginning to look like a pretty decent place, although I am hardly half done in getting everything the way I want it. When I finish it will be a regular palace – two small rooms, just enough to make it cozy and comfortable. Think of trying to make anything cozy in this climate. During the day it is still pretty warm, but the nights are very cool, fine for sleeping. You remember that I felt foolish wanting to take two or three blankets with me, but I am glad I took those two army blankets and that Indian blanket. They say I’ll easily be able to use that many in the winter. Although it hardly ever freezes, still the temperature feels as cold as zero does at home. Even now I sleep under a sheet and blanket. Some of the boys even use two or three blankets and they crawl under as if they are afraid they will freeze. I wonder what they will do when it really does get cold.
I’ve just put my boys to bed and as it isn’t late yet I can write in peace and quiet. I’m busy pretty well all day long altho there is no hard labor about it. In the morning I have to see that the boys get up in time for breakfast, altho they usually are up before I am. Breakfast is at about 7:15. I sit at the head of the table and keep order. They are mischievous little rascals but it doesn’t take much to keep them orderly. After breakfast I make an inspection of their beds and the floor space around the beds. They all sleep in one big room, almost like a hospital ward. These boys are very slouchy. They go thru the motion of making up their beds and cleaning the floor and getting things neat and clean, but that is about all. Every once in a while I have to call one back to do the job over again. And then during the day they sit on their beds eating dates or oranges and without thinking they throw the seeds and peels on the floor and make a perfect mess, which they don’t even notice. They don’t see dirt and disorder.
There are 15 boys eating and sleeping in school now that I have to take care of. I am getting along famously with the food. The cook makes a little extra for me, even without my asking him, because he has always done it for Moerdyk, and the boys don’t think anything of it. I eat the same food they eat, too, only they eat more of it. One little fellow about the size of Robert eats three big plates of rice almost every meal. They have rice almost every meal. Above all they surely have good soup. They cook their meat until there is hardly any nourishment left in it, but it’s all in the soup, so it’s thick on the plate while you are eating it. They also boil potatoes and vegetables in the soup. It is all served in a rather informal fashion, at least to the boys. The servant always makes such ado about serving me, almost as if I were a king. But this is all much better than what most of the boys are used to in their own homes. You can see that some of them hardly know what a plate is for or much less how to use a fork or spoon.
After inspection in the morning, classes begin at 8:30 and I teach nine classes out of thirteen according to the new schedule. School is over at four o’clock and from then until about 6:30 supper time there is nothing particular to do. In a couple of weeks we will start scouting and then that time will be taken up. After supper we have about an hour and a quarter of study, which I have to supervise, and then pretty soon to bed. So you see it is quite a full day.
Mr. Van Ess especially wants me to work with five or six of the older boys – about Nick’s age. They are Mohammedan boys but very nice, full of pep, and Mr. Van Ess wants me to just be a regular friend and brother to them, work up stunts with them, take them to different places, take them to a show – cinema, as it is called here – or just go and visit some nearby town or place of interest and all such things. Mr. Van Ess says I can do anything I want along that line and he will foot the bill. I have these same boys in several of my classes. I hope they will invite me to their homes and they will be coming to visit me in my room. So we will get to know each other and get to talking, and perhaps they will be ask about my life and experience and faith and other important things and that will be better than if I try to talk religion to them directly. The whole thing is going to be very interesting, I believe.
November 3, 1922
Another week passed and still more new experiences. I had my first taste of Basrah fever this week. It started Tuesday and lasted until last night, not steady but fever off and on. Last night I had a long solid sleep and today I am alright again. It’s kind of a miserable business alright. You feel about half sick enough to stay in bed and too sick to be up and around. You feel sore in your bones and muscles. You can’t even move your eyes without having them feel sore and stiff. I slept thru it all every night tho so that helped. I swallowed enough quinine and aspirin to kill a cow, but this was not regular malaria fever and quinine does very little good for it. There is very much of this fever around now and this is the worst season of the year, but I have had it now and they say if you’ve had it you don’t get it again. The other, regular malaria is easier to check – a good dose of aspirin followed by quinine will fix it. Most missionaries make a habit of taking about ten grains of quinine a week and seldom get fever.
I was glad to get your letters of two weeks at the end of last week. I don’t want you to worry about me in regard to the Turks, because they are harmless as far as the missionaries are concerned. If you noticed in the treaty that has been drawn up, there are two articles which protect all missionaries and religious activities. Even if no treaty had been drawn up and the Turks had kept on fighting, they would never have gotten near Basrah, because even if the British had had to give up all the rest of Mesopotamia, they would concentrate all their troops at Basrah and protect it, because England has very rich oil interests in Basrah (note 10) and also the British want to hold the port of Mesopotamia. Furthermore, before the war, Mesopotamia was in the hands of the Turks and the missionaries were all right then. So I don’t want you to worry about me as to the Turks, or fever or anything. I am taken care of first rate here by the school servant, and one of the Arab teachers who also stays in the school is always wanting to do something for me, too. He speaks English and we get along very well.
I am growing fat on fresh fruit here lately – dates, pomegranates, watermelons, cucumbers, etc., and pretty soon oranges will also be ripe. There are lots of all these things and they are very cheap.
November 9, 1922
This is study hour and I usually have some papers to look over and correct while I have one eye on the boys, but this evening I haven’t much school work to do so I’ll spend the time writing to you.
This week has been just like the others, nothing in particular new happening. I am all over my fever of last week and am eating like an elephant. There is still quite a bit of fever around, but this is the fever season. Mr. Van Ess has supplied me with a sort of first aid kit for the boys of the dormitory so that at the first sign of anything wrong I can give them a dose of what they need and so nip it in the bud. I haven’t had occasion to use it yet.
Today is three months since I left home and I’ve already been here six weeks. Time surely does fly for me. This week I finished a month of school and it hardly seems a week since we started. I suppose it is because I am kept pretty busy. Mr. Van Ess says that time always goes fast here. He has been here twenty years now and he says it seems almost too short to have started anything yet.
I have been spending Sundays at the Van Ess house. Most of the boys go home over the weekends and so I can leave, too, without leaving things “in de steek.” I can leave any time I want to as far as that goes, but then I always have to see that somebody is left in charge. On Sundays I go in time to attend the Arabic service at 8:30. Of course that service still sounds foreign to me, but I go anyway. Mr. Barney always preaches – in Arabic in the morning and in English at night at 6:00 o’clock. Mr. Van Ess always makes me stay during the whole day, for dinner and the afternoon at their house, or sometimes for a walk in the afternoon, then the English service and after that supper, and then at about 9:30 I mozy on home again. Mr. Van Ess says I have to come to their house on Sunday to get at least two square meals each week, as if I don’t get enough to eat here.
Last week I didn’t get any mail. It seems that about half the time our old steamer misses the home mail in Bombay and so we have do without for an extra week. I suppose just about this time you are receiving my first letters from here. Christmas will be pretty near by the time you get this letter, so a very happy Christmas to you all!
November 20, 1922
I’ve been pretty busy this week, tho nothing unusual has happened. Mr. Van Ess is setting me to work at all kinds of odd jobs for my spare time and I rather like it, especially the kind of work he gives me to do. He has a magic lantern for the school and some very good slides, several boxes full. I have been fixing up a dark room in which we can see the lantern and also fixing the lantern itself so that it will be ready for use when we want it.
Also he wants me to study up in plane table surveying so that I can teach it, and that will be interesting work. He wants to put in a course like that maybe sometime this year or next.
Then he wants me to begin making some relief maps – something like we used to make way down in the grades with a mixture of salt, flour and water, only he wants me to make big ones in different colors, with rivers, mountains and everything so that they can be used for school purposes.
Then also every once in a while I make up experiments for the Arabic physics class as well as my own class and for the nature study and physical geography classes. Pretty soon I will be giving shows for the boys every once in a while with the magic lantern. At present I am helping some of the older boys a little in making up a Christmas program. So you see I am not exactly idle here. I haven’t yet had time to start any work in scouting. If you read the letter I wrote to Grandpa and Grandma you will learn some of the interesting things I am seeing here – something I haven’t written very much about to you yet.
I have a good one for you, Nick. This week I had some of the boys in my room and they were looking over my pictures and when they saw yours, they looked at it and said, “What! No mustache?” Over here a mustache is a sign of manhood and everyone must have one – even young boys without any hair on their faces do everything in their power to display one, no matter how invisible or fuzzy it may be. I don’t remember if I ever wrote that I am raising a fairly decent mustache. It’s quite full grown by this time, a beaut. I’ll send a picture of it sometime. It’s a bothersome thing just the same, especially if you have a cold. I don’t know why anyone would want to have one. All the missionaries have mustaches, to keep up their position and reputation.
I am sending you a picture of the Arabian missionaries – they are all there except for those that are home on furlough (note 11). It was taken during Annual Meeting. Also some small silver trinkets made of Amarah silver by Sabean silver smiths. They belong to the same tribe as the people who robbed Job (see Job, 1st chapter). It is all hand made and the black figures on it are black inlaid metal. You can distribute them around as you please.
November 16, 1922
I am going to try a new stunt this week and send this letter by air mail and in this way send you a special Christmas greeting. Airmail goes from Baghdad to Cairo once every two weeks and in that way saves about two weeks if it makes connections. Mail has gone thru from here to the States in that way in nineteen days, so at that rate you ought to get this before Christmas. You can use air mail from your side, but it sometimes makes very little difference, because it is just chance that you get the right connections, although letters have come from the States in a little less than a month. If you ever want to try it, in addition to the regular address write “Air Mail – Cairo to Baghdad” in a conspicuous place on the envelope and put on 20 cents postage.
Nothing much has happened since I last wrote. I am feeling fine, and every once in a while Mr. or Mrs. Van Ess, or Miss Kellien, or Mr. and Mrs. Barney also remark that I am getting fat. It would be funny if at the end of these three years I would come home as fat as Mr. Moerdyk, for instance.
I was glad to get your letter on Saturday, the one of October 9. It came in about five and a half weeks. I was glad to hear that you are all well, busy in various activities, serving college suppers, etc. So far I haven’t felt that I had to miss very much by coming out here because I can get almost anything I want here, but when you wrote about all the grapes you had, about serving sweet potatoes, celery, sweet corn, and radishes, all stuff from our own home garden, and then also about Grandpa going out to make strop (note 12) – it kinda makes my mouth water. I wouldn’t mind if you would send out a gallon of strop by wireless or cable. We can get radishes, tomatoes, egg plant and such stuff here, but still the home grown stuff seems a little better. We also have strop here, or something like strop, made of dates, and it is called dibbis in Arabic. We use it just like we use strop, and it tastes quite a little like it, too, although it has a date flavor.
I got a letter from Mike Schnurman last week, you remember the fellow from Hope who came out with us. He is teaching in quite a big concern in Vellore, near Madres, India. It is a kind of combination high school and college and is much more advanced than our school. His is more of a regular prof’s job than mine and he does very little outside of regular class work. I don’t believe I’d trade with him. I am enjoying my work immensely. They haven’t got the nice climate there either that we have. Basrah may be hot during the summer, but it is very nice the rest of the year. We’ve been having the nicest weather imaginable for quite a while now. Mosquitoes aren’t very bad either, although I still sleep under the net every night.
November 23, 1922
There isn’t very much news this week, especially since I wrote an airmail letter last Monday, but perhaps I can manage to scrape some news together. I am still fine and as busy as ever. The weather is still very nice, a little warmer this week, but no rain yet even tho the rainy season is long overdue. I started modeling a couple of maps this week and worked pretty late a couple nights. It takes three or four hours to do a big map of about two feet square. I’ve made Asia and Europe now and also a small one of America. I’ve also been putting up and getting some gymnastic apparatus arranged – swing ropes, parallel bars, etc. Mr. Van Ess has also sent for some more stuff from India, horizontal bar, vaulting horse, and such stuff, so you see we will have quite a fully equipped gymnasium, along with the things we already have – dumbbells, weights, etc. We have all of this right out in the courtyard. Our school building is square, with all the rooms around the courtyard in the middle.
I’m learning quite a bit of Arabic lately from the boys, although I don’t know what the words look like in writing or how to spell them. Arabic writing and printing is a mystery to me. Figures aren’t so bad even tho they are different from ours. I’ve advanced far enough with them to be able to help the boys once in a while in their Arabic arithmetic.
A week from today is Thanksgiving. I wonder what you will be doing that day. Mr. Van Ess is going to excuse the school for the afternoon and Mrs. Van Ess is going to serve a big Thanksgiving dinner.
December 1, 1922
Today is Friday, a day later than I usually write, but I was too busy celebrating Thanksgiving to write. We surely had a nice Thanksgiving. School was dismissed for the afternoon and Mrs. Van Ess put up a big dinner – we had roast goose, mashed potatoes, green peas, pumpkin pie and mince pie, nuts and all kinds of fruit, and oh, yes – oyster soup. We can’t get fresh oysters here but we can get oyster powder, and soup made from that is a pretty good substitute. We surely did eat – spent most of the afternoon eating, in fact afternoon and evening. The guests were all American. Of course there were Mr. and Mrs. Van Ess and the children, Mr. and Mrs. Barney, and Miss Kellien, a member of the Mission in charge of the Girls School in Basrah; Miss Strang, a member of the Mission from Kuwait, who is here for a couple weeks for some dental work; Mr. Redfiel, a member of Hills Brothers date company of New York, who is here on a tour of inspection. Hills Brothers are the producers of Dromedary Dates, which you can get at almost any grocery store over there. They have a large number of date plantations scattered around this part of the country and get all their dates here. And then we also had a strange woman who just dropped in yesterday without warning. She claimed to be an American, from Philadelphia, and is on a pleasure trip around the world, all by herself. She had heard of Mr. Van Ess in Bombay, so when she arrived here yesterday on the boat, she just made up her mind to spend Thanksgiving with the Van Esses and since she seemed such a poor old soul Mrs. Van Ess didn’t have the heart to send her away. She is moving on to Baghdad today. She had been all over China, Japan, and India and was going on to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. She had been away from home for two years already.
This morning an old man who also claimed to be an American citizen dropped in at school. He said he had been born in Baghdad and had lived here and in Egypt. When his parents died he took to the sea as a stoker, and in that way bummed all over the world. When he got to New York, he bummed all over the States, working all sorts of jobs, became an American citizen and finally settled down in Seattle. Now he was just back on a pleasure jaunt. Mr. Van Ess says that last spring a man came to him who was roller skating around the world and a year ago there was a man walking around the world. All these crazy folks, and they all claim to be American and expect Mr. Van Ess to help them. He said that last year three beggarly looking men came to him for help, claiming to be Americans. When Mr. Van Ess began asking them questions about where they came from, they said they had only been visiting America a short time but were really from Holland. So Mr. Van Ess started speaking to them in Dutch, which they didn’t expect. When they explained that they meant German, he offered to take them to the German consul. They backed out again and said that they were Romanian. By that time Mr. Van Ess had learned enough and turned them over to the police and that’s the last he heard of them.
December 7, 1922
Another week has passed, and in two and a half weeks it will be Christmas. I wonder how it will be to spend Christmas away from home. I suppose I will miss you, especially the big family reunions we usually had during the Christmas season, but we are going to have big doings here also. The Van Esses always have a Christmas tree, especially for the children, and we’ll have another one this year. We can’t get a regular evergreen here but we will rig up some other tree and make do.
I was glad to receive your letter last week, especially as the whole family added to it. That’s the way I like to have you write – the whole family adding in. You wrote about sending some nuts and candy, etc., but didn’t do it because the postage was so high. If you want to send things like that because you think I cannot get them here, you need not send them because I can get all kinds of candies and chocolate bars here and all kinds of nuts, English walnuts, peanuts, hazelnuts, etc. But that doesn’t mean that if you get the notion to send me something I won’t appreciate it, because something from home is always better than anything else we can get.
I am trying to save some money to get my debt at the bank cleared off, but it is hard to save much out of $66 a month. Of course I don’t spend all of that, but after my board of $20 a month, laundry, and little oddities now and then, there can’t be much left. But I didn’t come out here to make money, so I am not kicking. The laundry business is the funniest here. The laundryman, or “dobee”, comes around after your dirty clothes and in four or five days brings them back clean, of course, and charges you a straight rate of two annas (about 4 cents) per piece, but he doesn’t charge anymore for washing and pressing a coat or pants than to wash a handkerchief. That’s pretty high for a handkerchief but very little for a suit or bed sheet.
We’ve had a couple of pretty cold days this week, temperature down to 40 degrees, and believe me that feels pretty cold in this climate. But I close up my room pretty well and have a little oil heater and make it pretty nice and cozy. I am glad I brought those bed blankets, so I am pretty well fixed against the cold.
December 14, 1922
I have just put my boys off to bed and can write you in peace. My bunch of boys is still growing. There are eighteen in the dormitory now. It’s funny the way they keep registering even long after school has started. But in the same way they keep dropping out also, so that our numbers do not increase very much.
I have added still another thing to my list of things to do. Mrs. Van Ess asked me to make a little bed for Alice, their little girl. She is to get a big doll for Christmas, and I am to make a bed for it so that they can put the doll in it under the tree. So you see I have also entered the furniture business.
I don’t believe I have written that I have also taken on another class last week - studying the Life of Christ, with some of the older boys. I am curious to find out how I will get on with that class. These boys haven’t very much of any religion but still they are Moslems and like to stick to their Prophet. I’ve been reading quite a little lately on Mohammedanism – one book by Zwemer – “Islam” – and one by MacDonald – “Aspects of Islam” – two books treating the same subject but from different points of view – also a book on “Mohammedan Objections to Christianity” and all of them are very interesting. It is interesting to find out how much Christianity and Mohammedanism are alike and on what things they agree. Mohammed, in the Koran, the Moslem Bible, repeatedly refers to the Bible for proofs. They admit Christ’s virgin birth, they admit him to be sinless, they admit his death and resurrection and even that he still lives, but still they say he was only a prophet and no savior of men. They contend that the Koran was inspired by God and since it was written later, they should accept it, just as since Mohammed was a later prophet, he should be accepted as Mediator.
A couple weeks ago I asked you to send me the Chronicle, but unless you have already begun, you need not send it because I have started receiving the Ray (note 13), and if you keep sending me clippings I will have all that I need. I appreciate your sending me the clippings – they give me a touch of home.
I think I may have been mixing you up a little with the different addresses I have been sending you. All of them would reach me sometime, but I think it’s safest to use this address: c/o John Van Ess, American Mission, Basrah, Mesopotamia (note 14).
December 20, 1922
There was no home mail last week so I don’t get any letters, and there is a big chance that I won’t get all of it this week either – that is, before Christmas – because they will have two weeks’ mail to take care of besides all the Christmas mail.
We surely are going to have some Christmas celebration here next Monday. We are going to have four days vacation from school, and Mrs. Van Ess always has big plans. Somebody gave us a big turkey, and someone else gave us a big ham, so we will have a regular feast. Beef and pork are very scarce here, so that if we get hold of a piece once in a while, we think it a great luxury. To eat pork is against the religion of the people (note 15) and for some reason they don’t like beef. All they eat is mutton, chicken, ducks, etc. So if you ever want to send us something we will appreciate, send out a piece of rook-fleis (note 16).
Mr. Van Ess has several good friends among the English people here, especially among the few British Army officers still here in this country, and they are often able to get hold of such things and often just give them to Mr. Van Ess for nothing. The man who gave them the ham is an especially good friend and often comes to visit. He is really an American but was in the British army, and since the war he was made commissioner of railroads in Mesopotamia under the British Occupation in Baghdad. He is coming down to spend Christmas with us.
Last weekend I lived almost entirely at the Van Ess house. Every so often the treasurer’s books have to be audited and each station gets its turn. This time it was Basrah station’s turn, so Mr. Van Ess invited me over for supper Saturday night and after supper we spent the evening doing nothing but adding columns of figures and seeing that all the entries were made correctly. Monday night I went over again and finished up the auditing. We had a bustard supper that night. A bustard is a kind of bird very much like a goose or duck, and they catch them in the marshes near here with falcons, a kind of hawk which they train to catch other birds. Two of these were brought to Mr. Van Ess by an Arab friend, and they tasted fine, the meat is dark and rich.
December 28, 1922
Well, Christmas is over and more than once the thought came to me that I’d like to be at home. However, I’ve had as pleasant a time as anybody ever could have, and I started enjoying it already last Friday afternoon when letters began to come and kept coming on until Sunday evening. I had twelve in all besides two Rays – one from Gerrit V.R., one from Cousin Nellie Van Zante, from Uncle John Gosselink, from Grandpa and Grandma, from Connie and Bog with letters enclosed from Enos Heeren and Lapeltak, from Ben De Vries also with three letters from Y.M. fellows, and also our class round robin with eight letters enclosed, and then letters of two weeks from you and Crissy. So you see that was a pleasant starter.
Alma Chamberlain is here for the holidays. She is on a short term in India, teaching at the Madras College. Saturday afternoon Mrs. Van Ess took us to Zubair, a pure native town about twelve miles straight out into the desert. They always like to take visitors there to give them a real feel of Arab life. Zubair is a typical Arab town. It is way out in the desert and has a wall around it with regular city gates, just as cities had in Biblical times. Streets are bounded on either side with solid walls with no windows but here and there a small and heavy door. We visited the camel market and the native bazaar and had lots of fun with a crowd of people, old and young, following us as if we were a circus. The man who brought us in his car, a good friend of Mr. Van Ess, arranged that we could have a camel ride, so I have done that now. I will send you a picture if it comes out.
Basrah and Baghdad are not real Arab cities, at least not any more. There are too many of every kind of people here and, especially since the English came here, too much outside civilization has come in. And then, too, Basrah being on the river with a strip of good fertile land along it is altogether different from a desert town.
Sunday afternoon Mr. Van Ess took us on a long walk thru the city, thru places I had never been before and to the oldest mosque in the city, and he got permission to take us to the top of the minaret, the tower from which the mulla, the keeper of the mosque, gives the prayer call five times a day. We were lucky that while we were up there it was just the time for the afternoon call, and he gave it while we were there. That was a rare privilege, because very few people other than Moslems are allowed inside the mosques, especially at the time of prayers. The prayer call which the mullah sings, or rather chants, is something like this, “God is great – God is great. There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is the prophet. Come to prayers. Come to good works. Come to prayers.” And every good Moslem, no matter what he may be doing, drops his work and goes to pray, five times a day. We got a fine view of the city from the top of that tower, even if it is not more than four or five stories high, but the land is so level and there are no high buildings or trees, so you can see way out into the desert on all sides.
Sunday evening we put the finishing touches on the Christmas tree and Monday morning early we all had to see what Santa had brought, and he didn’t miss me either. I went to two Christmas services on Monday morning, one in our own church in Arabic and one in the Church of England chapel. Mr. Van Ess sat all day long to receive callers. He had open house and hundreds of all kinds of people came for just a short call and to bring holiday greetings – Mohammedans as well as others.
Tuesday evening some of the older boys of the school gave a program of short plays, speeches, etc., almost entirely made up by themselves. I have helped them a little now and then, but otherwise they did it all, and it was really good, part Arabic and part English. And then last night Mr. Van Ess and I took some of the boys to a boxing match put on by the military here. It was a pretty good show. Perhaps you may think that is a rather queer thing for missionaries to do, and perhaps it is better that anything like this not be spread around the people at home. As Mr. Van Ess said, these are the kinds of things that happen on the mission field that usually are not published in The Leader. But there is no harm in our doing anything like that. It is an excellent way to get under the boys’ skin – fellowship and close contact with the boys is what we want. We have boxing in school too, because Van Ess believes it is a good thing, like any other kind of sport. It not only gives good physical exercise and trains the boys to be quick and alert, but it also has its moral value because it teaches the boys to stand for a lot of knocking and cuffing without getting sore and angry about it.
This morning school started again and we are back at the old grind. We’ve had wonderful Christmas weather, nice bright sunshiny days with a keen edge to the air, pretty cold, especially the last couple days. The only thing lacking was snow.
January 4, 1923
Well, it’s 1923 and I’m wondering what this new year may bring forth. So many things have happened in the past year which will always have a well marked place in my life that I am anxious to know what may be next. I am very happy just where I am now and in what I am able to do, but sometimes I feel that it will be possible someday for me to do much more in service for Him. I don’t know if it is that I am not adequately prepared or if it is that I have not yet learned how to take advantage of opportunities. So often questions are asked and altho I usually manage some kind of answer, I know that I might have answered better or made better use of the opportunity. Of course, here the people are different, their minds work differently, and they see and understand things differently, their religion is different, everything is different from what I am used to, and it takes time to understand them and learn their point of view. I am studying hard and reading more lately than I have ever done before in my life. I begin to think that after these three years I could use a seminary or university course before going back to the mission field, but I doubt I would have the patience to do that, and besides, I don’t want to ask Crissy to wait that long (note 17). Time will tell. God will show us his way, whether he wants me first to prepare myself more fully or whether he wants to use me just as I am.
This week has again added some new experiences to my list. Last Sunday evening I was invited to a party at the house of one of our teachers. Quite a bunch of people were there but I was the only one who was not a native to this part of the world. A big supper was served. They had a whole sheep roasted in the middle of the table and rice and an endless number of other things and we had to eat until we almost burst; eat with a fork, spoon or hands, whichever was handiest. Most of the people, especially the older ones, eat with their hands, and they just load it in by the handful, tear off a piece of meat, grab a handful of rice, that’s the way they do it. The rest of the evening the whole gang just sat around and talked and played games, with always a supply of candy, nuts and fruit within reach. The next evening I was invited to supper at the house of another teacher – this time to a meal that was even more native than the other. We had no table, or rather the table was spread on the floor and we just sat around on pillows and rugs. If there is anything you want, don’t ask for it but reach across the table and get it. I had a splendid time both evenings.
I was glad to get your letter last week, but I see that you have not yet stopped worrying about me. I can assure you that no coffee or smoking is keeping me looking like a sickly sprig. I’ve written before that I am getting fat. There is no call for me to smoke at all and I don’t. Some people here smoke and some don’t, so there is no need for me to smoke in order to keep on the right side of people, as it is necessary for me to have a mustache. It’s funny the great importance a mustache has for people here. It’s impossible for them to conceive of any man in the world without a mustache. I have not as yet contracted a habit of drinking coffee or tea either. We always have tea for breakfast, but otherwise I never take either one, except at the Van Esses or visiting someplace else.
January 11, 1923
Dear brother Robert,
I am addressing this letter to Robert because it will be his birthday by the time this letter gets to you. You will be 14 and you are already in high school – in your letters you are beginning to sound like a professor. By the time I come back you will be thru your junior year and Nina will be a wise and old sophomore in college.
I have been spending my spare time in the furniture business again. For Christmas, Alice received a small toy piano by mail from someone in the States, and the thing was all smashed to pieces. I got it put back together again and it plays like a Steinway Grand. Also we have received a bunch of new school seats from India. They were shipped all knocked down and I am putting them together. These seats were made in the India mission in Mr. Rotschafer’s Industrial School and they are almost as good as factory made stuff.
Today one of the teachers picked up an old newspaper and showed it to me. Just before school started last fall, Mr. Van Ess put a notice of school opening in all the local papers. In one Arabic paper they added that a new American teacher was coming to teach in the school and he was a graduate of Chicago University and an authority on education. So you see what a reputation I am having to live up to.
January 19, 1923
I was glad to get your letters of two weeks last week, and just now Mr. Van Ess has sent over my letter of this week also. I don’t know if I have explained that our school is in Basrah City proper, but Mr. Van Ess lives about 1½ miles from here in a kind of suburb, almost another town, known as Ashar. The post office is in Ashar, so that if the mail comes in on Thursday or Friday he picks it up and if he gets the chance sends my letters over. Otherwise I go after it on Saturday, after I have sent my own letters off. I was glad to get the pictures of Nick’s band and also of Grandpa and Grandma. I showed that picture of the grandfolks to Mr. Van Ess and he said, “Echte gooje oude Hollanders.” And Grandpa’s beard surely struck the fancy of the teachers here. Most people are quite surprised to find that both my grandparents are still living.
Family life is a funny thing in this country. Some families all live in one house, parents, brothers, sisters, even those that are married, uncles, aunts, but very few remember much of their grandparents, whether it is because they don’t live to be very old or what, I don’t know, especially since they marry very young. At least the girls are married very young, and that way you would think a child might remember even his great grandparents. A girl of 18 is considered to be long past marriageable age. Even among Christians, altho they do not allow polygamy, the girls are married very young. One of our teachers is married to a girl of 14 and another to a girl of 12 (both were married just last year), while both men are 26 or 27. The girls are doomed from birth to stay indoors, or if they come out they must wear a heavy black shawl or dress called an aba. Of course men are not allowed in the harems, the place where the women of the family live, but Mrs. Van Ess says that the women wear the most beautiful clothes in the latest Paris fashions, that is in the well to do families, but as soon as they go outside or when a man appears, on goes the black aba. They almost look like ghosts.
Some time ago there was a death in the family of two brothers who stay in the dormitory. Yesterday was the fourteenth day after the death and that day is supposed to be a day of fasting and the night following for watching. So the boys had to go home for the night. But instead of fasting during the night, they make it a night of feasting and celebrating. Drinking liquor is forbidden by true Moslems, but sometimes that has its share in the celebrations, too. They even sent some things to school last night for us at supper, so we had a part in the feast, too.
Mohammedans are supposed to have one month of fasting during the year, but they take it literally just as their law says – 30 days. They fast during the day in that month but they spend their nights in feasts and dissipation.
Another custom I can’t understand is that in the case of death they try to keep the death secret from those of the family who may not be living at home. Sometime ago one of the boys in the dormitory found out that his father had died early last summer. His father lived in Bahrain with his family and the boy, who was in school last year, stayed in Basrah during the summer vacation to work and is in school again this year. It is one of the consolations we, who are far away from home, have that we know our folks back home will let us know the moment something is wrong, and you over there expect us to do the same thing.
Last Saturday John Van Ess Jr. and Alice had a birthday party and invited about a dozen little kids from some of the English families living around here, and I was invited and helped to entertain. I rigged up a harness for John’s pet goat and hitched him up to a two wheeled cart and they had lots of fun with it. Poor goat! They had a donkey a swing and see-saw, and I had to manipulate the riding on all three, besides transforming myself into a camel part of the time and giving camel rides. Between Mr. Van Ess and myself, we kept those kids busy.
January 25, 1923
I’m addressing this to you because it will be your birthday about the time it reaches you. What is it – fifty years old? I often think of you, Daddy. I’ve never been able to forgive myself for not giving you a goodbye kiss the evening I left home. I surely didn’t mean not to give you a kiss, it just slipped by. Perhaps I’ve not always shown it but I think an awful lot of you and even tho you don’t write very often, I know you are interested as much as anyone else. Anyway, a very happy birthday to you.
School is going fine. Mr. Van Ess says it has been one of the most satisfactory weeks he has ever had in school. Interest is good and so is attendance. Our average attendance is better than I have heard of even in U.S. schools, above 95% and sometimes only one or two absent out of the 145 enrolled now. The government school has an average attendance of hardly 80%. We don’t keep any strict rules of attendance either. Once in a while Mr. Van Ess keeps a couple boys after school for a while or gives them a talking to just to remind them, because it is mostly just slouchiness that they don’t come or come late, and the next day attendance is way up again.
I had a nice time last Saturday afternoon. The Van Esses were invited out to tea and I was invited along with them to an English friend living across the river. The man is the Basrah Port Director and he is also the Basrah agent for the U.S .Consul in Baghdad. He came after us in a big speed launch and first took us for a little ride on the river. It was very windy and the water was quite rough and if we hadn’t all had raincoats we would have been soaked. It was great sport. On our way back we saw the ship of the Shaikh of Mohammerah, one of the richest and most powerful shaikhs in this part of the country. He rules like a king over a piece of territory about half as big as the state of Iowa. Mr. Van Ess knows this shaikh very well, and as we passed his ship, the shaikh happened to be standing at the rail and recognized Van Ess and motioned for us to come aboard. We did for just a few minutes to meet him and pay our respects, and so I have had that experience too to add to my list.
February 1, 1923
Another month gone again. I can hardly keep track of the time it goes so fast. I suppose time goes fast because I enjoy my work so much and because I am pretty busy. I’ve got piles of work to do that I haven’t found time for yet, not only for school but for myself, too. I am still doing a lot of reading but there is no end to the things I want to read to help me get better acquainted with this neck of the woods, the people and their religion. Then also there’s the language, which I want to study but can’t find much time for. Also mechanical drawing and plain table surveying, which Mr. Van Ess wants me to study up on so that I can teach it next year. And I haven’t touched scouting, but I think we will put that off until the days get longer again.
I am in the best of health. The food has a great deal to do with that I guess. Mr. Van Ess says that before he got married he used to go off touring to inland towns sometimes for months at a time and never got anything but pure native food to eat, but never during all those times did he have a single day that his stomach was off or that his digestion wasn’t good.
I’ve gotten in the habit of taking long walks, especially on Saturdays, thru all the highways and byways of Basrah. I try never to go the same way more than once and I run into some pretty interesting things, pretty spots, gardens etc., and sometimes a village. There are villages inside Basrah proper, mostly of poorer people. Their houses are made out of mats woven out of palm leaves and bamboo poles or cane to support them. They have their cow or buffalo and sheep and goats and chickens all in a small court built right next to their house. They do all their cooking in that court or inside their one roomed hut on an open fire. That one room is at the same time their living room and bedroom, so you can imagine what that is like. Sometimes I get a bicycle from one of the boys and take that for a couple hours instead of walking. And then on Sunday afternoons I usually go with the whole Van Ess family for a walk of an hour or more.
My air-mail letter to you must have come thru in pretty good time and I hadn’t expected that you would get it until Christmas or later. No, I don’t think I’ll come flying home unless things change very much. As it stands now, it costs almost $600 to fly from Baghdad to Cairo, to say nothing of the rest of the way, and besides I have something altogether different on my mind. And that is to go overland from here to Syria. A railroad has been opened now most of the way and the rest can be done in motor cars which make a business of making that trip, if the Turks behave. Lately there have been rumors that the Turks are mustering their forces and are going to take Mosul by force if they can’t get it in peaceful ways, but authorities say there is nothing to these rumors, even if part of a regiment of the Air Force which is stationed near Basrah has been sent to the Mosul frontier. Well, to go on with my trip, from Syria I would go to Palestine and there hire a horse and guide and go all thru Palestine. Then on to Egypt, to Cairo, the pyramids and up the Nile. Then back to Constantinople, thru Greece, thru Italy, across the Alps into France, Germany, Switzerland and Holland, then to England and back to New York. All this has to take very little longer than if I went back the way I came, that is via Bombay and the Red Sea, by sea all the way. And it doesn’t cost very much more either. A fellow traveling alone, after he has gotten used to native ways and is willing to put up with a few inconveniences, can travel third class, which is almost nothing, and can get along on a box of dates and an orange a day. However, that is all a long ways off yet, so I am not worrying much about it.
I don’t know what I am going to do next summer during vacation. I’ll be here practically alone for at least part of the time, at least no other missionaries here. Mr. Van Ess wants to arrange for me to go to this Shaikh who I spoke of last week and live with him for a month or so and be a private tutor to one of his sons. Also I would have lots of chance to learn Arabic. That would be hot stuff – free of charge, a palace to live in, horses, cars and launches at my command. Och! Och! Or if that falls thru, I may go to Baghdad and visit Babylon, or I may go way up beyond Baghdad to Mosul with one of the teachers. Well, that’s for next summer and it may happen or it may not happen.
You once wrote that I should send you the names of the boys. Here are some Bible names: Yussuf or Joseph, Ishak or Isaac, Sulieman or Soloman, Haroon or Aaron, Daood or David, Yehya or John, Jamil or James, Ibrahim or Abraham, Essa or Jesus, and many more. Give them a Dutch pronunciation and you’ll be on the right track. It is coincidental that our school should be on Essa Street.
February 8, 1923
Some of the boys are loosening up pretty nicely and coming to visit me quite often. Of course I always make them welcome. They come during the day or stay after school, but recently they have begun to come at night. But I can never make them stay long. They think they are intruding but I always take time to talk with them. They are full of America and that’s the biggest thing they want to talk about. They all want to go to America for college after they finish here. And they ask if there are Mohammedans in America and they suppose they will have to give up their religion when they go there, but that doesn’t seem to bother them much. Their religion is a very adjustable thing to them. But they are all young boys and their religion isn’t very deep-seated yet. I’ve had a few discussions on Christianity and Mohammedanism, but it is hard to make much headway because they are not enough advanced to bring up their arguments in English, even if they could do it in Arabic, and it is hard for me to present Christianity so that they can understand it because I would have to do it in English and they can not follow English that well.
Tomorrow is just half a year since I left home – where has the time gone? By the time you get this letter it will be well on toward commencement over there. Tomorrow is a holiday for the Catholic Christians here, at least they call it a holiday. They go to their cemeteries to pray over the graves of their dead relatives, and the rest of the day they spend in feasting. Catholics are pretty strong here – they have several churches, but it isn’t any merit of their own that they have these churches – they get help from Rome to build and support them.
February 22, 1923
I had a rather pleasant surprise this week. I got a notice from the post office that there was a package for me. I couldn’t imagine what it would be, but I went there and after paying 13 annas customs, I got it and found that it was from Uncle John and Aunt Katie – a nice little narcissus set, four bulbs and a nice little dish to put them in. I planted them right away, so now I’ll have flowers pretty soon – I mean growing flowers. I am hardly ever without flowers of some sort in my room – the boys always bring them in. We have flowers almost the whole year round, even roses during this winter season.
I don’t know if I have written that next year we are going to move the school to the mission hospital building right on the mission property. The mission owns a piece of land about the size of two square city blocks. That’s where the hospital and church are and the two large homes where the Van Esses and the Barneys live, and also a small bungalow for some single missionary who happens to be stationed here. Mr. Moerdyk will likely be stationed here next year when the Barneys go on furlough.
It will be ever so much nicer for the school to be over there. Here as soon as you step out of the door you are out in the street. There we will have a nice big playground and better school accommodations, too. The mission has been renting the building to the military for the last couple years, but now their lease expires so we are going to make use of it, as well as put up a new building so that we can keep the elementary department and the high school apart. It will be nicer for me because I will be right on the mission compound and only a few steps from where the other missionaries live. Mr. Van Ess is going to give me three small rooms there so that I can make them up into a very nice suite.
Mr. Van Ess was not in school the first two days this week. There is an American dentist in Abadan, Persia (about thirty miles down the river) for a month or so, and Mr. Dykstra was down here with the mission launch for about a week, so Mr. Van Ess took advantage of it and went to Abadan to get some dental work done. We have a few pretty good native dentists here but their work is never as satisfactory as of an American dentist. In fact not even the English dentists are as good as American dentists. It’s strange, too, because the English as a rule have very poor teeth. And the Arabs, even tho they are full of infectious diseases, have as a rule very strong teeth. Very few you find that do not have a full set of solid white teeth. Perhaps that is something we can attribute to their religion. Before they may go to any of their five daily prayers, they must wash their hands, feet and teeth, or the inside of their mouths.
The Dykstras surely have a large field to cover in their work. They have the whole river valley of both the Tigris and the Euphrates, from Basrah way up the river. They can hardly do the whole round more than once a year. Their main station and where they live is Amarah. They happen to be working down near Basrah now, so they just dropped in on us for a few days, because they also wanted to get some dental work done.
March 1, 1923
Spring surely has come, manifestly so. The first unmistakable signs of it are appearing – spring fever. The boys are forgetting their overcoats, which they don’t do very quickly. Even on warm days in the winter they bundle themselves in big overcoats and mufflers and head shawls as if it’s thirty below. I have discarded all but one blanket and the sheets on my bed and have also doffed my vest. Before very many weeks we will be more than ready to get into our palm beach, white duck or khaki suits. It is the custom here, which the English have and have taken with them into every country under English rule, so that even the natives adhere to it as to their mustaches, that a man may never be seen without a coat on – on the street, in the office or anywhere, no matter how hot it is, not even in his own home if there is anyone else around. In a round about way I heard one day that it had been remarked about in the bazaar that I had been seen with my sweater on and no coat.
I had a big time last Saturday. I was invited to the house of one of the boys (note 18) in school along with four other boys, about three or four miles down the river. We started off a little after nine in the morning in a motor car which they had sent (I’ve gotten so used to saying motor car now that it almost sounds strange to say automobile – the same with petrol instead of gasoline). On the way we stopped at the house of one of the other boys and visited for a while, then we got on the river and took a motor boat the rest of the way. By that time it was dinner time and they fed us no end of things and wouldn’t think of letting us stop. We nearly burst, so we couldn’t do anything for an hour afterward but just sit and talk. It was a Mohammedan family, of course, so we had only the men folk of the family to talk with. The women are all locked away, of course, and may only appear when there are lady visitors and no men around. Then we spent a couple hours walking thru the gardens, the fields you would call them. We saw some men doing their spring plowing. At about four o’clock we started home, first by launch to Basrah, then by bellum up the creek that leads to Basrah City right in front of the school. A bellum is a long narrow boat which they use here especially in the creeks. They do not use oars but two men push the boat along by means of long bamboo poles reaching to the bottom of the stream. We took our time, stopping on the way at the Van Ess house so that I could get my mail, and got home at about six o’clock.
One cannot help but notice as he visits some of these Mohammedan homes the position of the children. The position of the women is bad, but even the boys are treated very little better than servants, and the younger boys are the underdogs of the whole family. They must do everything the older boys tell them to do. At the table the older boys take first as much as they want and then if there is anything left, the younger boys may have it. All the boys, both young and old, are very meek and quiet in the presence of their fathers and of their relatives. The boy whose house I visited is almost as old as I am and much bigger and stronger, but after dinner when we went out to sit in the living room, he came in last and sat down very meekly and quietly, because his father was there, even tho he was supposed to be the host. Sometimes even a boy does not sit down in the presence of his father but stands like a servant waiting for his master until his father gives him permission to sit down.
March 8, 1923
Last Saturday I went all thru the courts. I went with one of our high school boys, one of the nicest boys we have, and full of life, so full that he can’t be still a moment. He is a natural leader among the boys. His father is a lawyer and the boy wants to study law, too, so naturally he spends a good deal of his spare time in the courts, following cases, etc., and it surely was interesting to go thru with him. Several boys that have been in our school hold prominent positions there.
Another one of the boys is quite a genius in photography and electrical stuff. He is also very nice, not much of a leader but a better student than the other. I was in his room for a while in the afternoon and he has it all fixed up with electric engines, dynamos, motors, photographic apparatus, even a small moving picture machine and projecting lamp which he made himself. He develops and prints his own pictures and even enlarges them by means of his projection lamp. He wants to develop and print all my pictures and never take a cent for it. One evening this week this boy took me to see the city x-ray department – a pretty good outfit for this part of the world. They have only had it for about a year. Before that, if anybody broke an arm or leg and it was splintered badly, they often had to take the limb off because they could not set it properly. Since they got the x-ray they have not had to amputate a single arm or leg.
Another of the boys wants to become a doctor and he is always studying and reading about medicine and asking me questions about physiology and medicine which I can’t answer. We really have a nice set of high school boys, with high ambitions, too, as you see. The second boy wants to go to America next year. The third, who wants to be a doctor, also wants to go, but he is very poor, in fact the mission is supporting his family now to a large extent.
A man who has been doing surveying all over this part of the world dropped in at school one day this week. He wants all the boys he can get who have had a little elementary work in surveying, trigonometry, drawing, etc. If we train them from now until the close of the school year, he will take them in his office during the summer and train them and send them out next fall as helpers to experienced surveyors. Some of the boys are interested so now we are starting a class in that also – more work for me. Our Persian boys seem especially interested.
Last night I went to a lecture at the English Club given by a Mr. Woolley (note 19) of the British Museum of London, who is doing excavation work at Ur and Babylon. It surely was interesting. They are finding some great things there and discovering things about the history of the ancient world going back to 3500 B.C. He used the Old Testament a great deal for reference and proof of the dates of his finds as well as using their finds to explain some things in the Old Testament.
I received my Dutch letter last week – you know, the one Grandpa had translated for the Weekblad. I almost laughed myself sick – the way some of these things were translated – some I couldn’t even read or understand. Some time ago there was an article in the Leader, a report on the progress of some church in Grand Rapids, I believe, but even tho it was in English, it was just as Dutchy as it could be. You could feel that it was literally translated from Dutch, sentence structure, arrangement of words, Dutch idioms translated literally. Mr. Van Ess and I had lots of fun about that. Mrs. Van Ess was out of it because she doesn’t know Dutch.
Well, so long, your loving
Dorothy Van Ess, Pioneers in the Arab World, 1974, p. 51.
The map of the Environs of Basrah was first issued in 1927 as part of a report of the Iraqi Public Works Department and was included in a small atlas, Maps of ‘Iraq with Notes for Visitors, published in 1929. It is clearly drawn from a British perspective; the circled numbers represent British trading firms, banks and gas stations. St. Peter’s, the Anglican church that Dad attended, is located at No. 3, a short walk from the American Mission compound on Ashar Creek, shown in the middle left. The small square in the lower left corner, perhaps penciled in by Dad himself, may indicate the location of the original school building in Basrah City.
Previously ships had anchored in the river and used lighters to load or offload their cargo.
The wife of the British Port Director of Basrah, Lady Ward, insisted on speaking to her Arab gardeners in Hindustani, the language she had learned in India and must have assumed all “natives” would, or should, speak.
Dad’s Uncle David Bogaard was his mother’s youngest brother. They were close in age and good friends.
He does not mention here the indigenous Christian communities of Iraq, some of whom could trace their origins back to apostolic times.
The oil interests were in southern Persia. The Basrah oil fields were not developed until the 1950s.
See page 158.
The Pella Chronicle was the hometown paper. The Central Ray was the college paper. Crissy was on the staff then and became the editor the following year.
The nation of Iraq had been established in 1920 and its first king, Faisal I, was appointed in 1921. It is interesting that Dad, and perhaps the British run postal system, still preferred the earlier British term of Mesopotamia.
It is surprising, considering his sensitivity to the manners and culture of the Arabs, and the abhorrence that Muslims feel toward the eating of pork, that Van Ess allowed ham to be served in his own home.
Dried beef. Dad especially liked the dried beef his grandfather Nicholas Bogaard made.
This is the first indication that Dad was already thinking of returning as a full time missionary. We can assume that he had already made this suggestion to Crissy, and it would seem that her response was positive.
This was Abd el Aziz el Amir, the son of a prominent citizen of Basrah. Abd el Aziz remained a friend for all the years Dad lived in Basrah.
Sir Leonard Woolley was in charge of excavations at Ur for over twelve years and wrote extensively on the archaeology of ancient Mesopotamia.
basrah.html; 21 November 2012