|The Arabian Mission||CONTENTS||Epilogue|
It has been suggested somewhere that the best preparation for an assignment to the Arabian Mission was not medical or theological training but the experience of growing up on an Iowa farm. The qualities ingrained here were self reliance, mechanical know-how, inventiveness, and an ability to make do with the materials at hand.
Dirk Dykstra had all these qualities and used them well in the service of the Mission. He was the only one who could keep the old British Army surplus launch running, and while he did he and his wife Minnie toured the lower Tigris and Euphrates and the marsh area between, making personal contact with the tribal people in the hinterland of Amarah. When the Dykstras were assigned to Muscat, the launch had to be sold, and that mission outreach was lost. He brought the old windmill down from Bahrain to Amarah and installed it on the bank of the Tigris where it continued to provide water for the Mission compound and its neighbors for years, even after his departure. When the Mission hospital in Kuwait received the gift of a Cole lighting system to provide electric power for the hospital, Dykstra was dispatched to install it. In Basrah he took on the responsibility of building the new Girls School. In Muscat he supervised construction of the Mission hospital, introducing the use of concrete to Oman, and completed the whole project well under budget.
Dad had those qualities too, and although he was not called on to undertake such large projects, he quickly established a reputation as the one to call when anything needed doing. John Van Ess relied on him to make the relief maps needed for geography classes, assemble sports equipment, repair and refurbish furniture, and generally look after the physical maintenance of the school. Mrs. Van Ess found that he could repair her children’s toys. When she received some popcorn from the U.S., Dad devised a popper out of an old biscuit tin. When Leonard Woolley arrived to give an illustrated lecture on his discoveries at Ur, Dad was dispatched to repair and operate the overhead projector. He loved gardening and took on the job of landscaping the Mission compound and planting fruit trees and flowers.
As a musician, he played the piano and picked up some familiarity with the eleven string oud, or lute. In the chapel, he played hymns on the old pump organ, reading left to right for English services and right to left for Arabic.
Many years later he supervised the construction of a new house in Basrah, when the old “big house” was taken down to make way for a new road. He designed the building, directed the work of the head mason and builder, devised a hand operated cement mixer (much to the delight of the mason), and fashioned some of the woodwork himself on his Shopsmith.
Although he was a minister by profession, led services in the Mission chapel and often filled in for the padre of the Anglican church, he was never entirely comfortable in the pulpit. And while he was a teacher and principal of the Basrah School for many years, he was always conscious that he had had no formal training in education. He was always happiest in his woodshop or in the garden. He enjoyed working with his hands, fixing things that broke or finding solutions to challenging problems. His colleagues in Basrah came to depend on him, and although it became something of a joke, their quick response any problem was always, “Let George do it.”
February 16, 1925
You asked when the Van Esses are going to leave. They are planning to leave about the 20th of March but are going to spend about a month in Europe and won’t get to America until the latter part of May. I shall miss them a lot when they leave. They have always treated me as one of the family – their house has always been home to me. But I won’t be left alone – the rest are as fine a bunch as ever was.
When the Bilkerts first came they stood aghast at the way everyone ordered me around, asking me to fix this and do that, as if it were my business to be the man of all work around the place. But they got into the way of doing it too pretty quick. The other day Mrs. Bilkert heard from somebody that I had once fixed the church organ and the next time she saw me she said she had one of those little folding portable organs that fold up like a suitcase and she said there were four or five notes that wouldn’t play. So I told her to send it over and I would try to fix it in my spare moments. When the thing came I found that there were only about four or five notes that would play. I opened it up and found that the moths had eaten every particle of felt in the whole thing, the strips below the reeds that keep the air in, so that no matter how hard you pumped the air kept escaping and you couldn’t get enough pressure to blow the reeds. I didn’t know what to do about it because I knew there wasn’t any felt to be gotten in town, but then I thot of that old hat of mine and I cut it up into strips and put them in, and the thing played fine. I brought it back to Mrs. Bilkert and she said it played better than when it was new. Anyway, the next day she sent me a big dish of tutti-frutti fudge.
I am getting to be as much an uncle to little Margaret and Monteith Bilkert as to John and Alice. Montieth hollers, “Hello, Uncle George.” if he sees me half a block away. He is only about three or four years old and he talks as if he is half stewed – all his s’s are like sh’s. The other day he said, “Shocksh (Socks is their little dog) bit the tashels off Alish’s shweater.”
February 22, 1925
I was talking with Mr. Van Ess one time this week about what I would do next year and mentioned to him that you had written about what Mr. Pennings had said to you – that Hartford was not true in doctrine, etc. and that after his wife had gone there he had had to right her again in some things. I told him that in all seriousness, but he began to laugh, and he told all the rest of them and they all laughed, too. Everybody has been “rehearsing” this week how Pennings must have “pulled his wife back.” Last year when they started off from here for home, they had one car loaded with baggage, and when they arrived at the station and Pennings opened the door to start unloading, their thermos bottle, full of sterilized milk for the baby, rolled out, fell on the ground and broke. The instant it landed, Pennings said, “There goes ten rupees!” The first thing that entered his mind was not the inconvenience of crossing the desert without good milk for the baby but the money he had paid for the thermos. Now whenever someone mentions Pennings’ name, someone else will say, “There goes ten rupees!” He is really a fine, sincere man but he is funny about some things.
Mr. Van Ess said later that I, or you either, didn’t have to worry about the orthodoxy of Hartford. He said that the kind of upbringing he had had and was sure I had had makes us strong enough to hold our own against any discordant doctrines which might be heard at Hartford, and anyway, doctrine does not enter in at all in the courses they offer in Islamics.
March 1, 1925
Oh, the dullness and drabness of the missionary life! Ha! Ha! Rather it is just the opposite. There are twice as many things that you have do or want to do than you have time for. Yesterday I thot I was going to have a day to myself so I could get some things done that I have been trying to get to, and then all sorts of things happened to keep me from my work. First, without warning, Mr. Hakken from Bahrain rolled in. He has been having trouble with kidney stones or something. Dr. Dame had done everything that could be done for him in Bahrain, but there was still no relief, so he sent him up here to get an x-ray at the government hospital. They have no x-ray machine there and here there is a good one with an expert British doctor to run it. So they will see whether an operation is necessary. Then just a little after Mr. Hakken arrived, an old man and his wife arrived and a few minutes later another man and his wife came. They are all missionaries in Java with the Methodist Board. Of course there was lots to do to help these people – looking after baggage, train reservations, showing them around, so my own work was set aside. Anyway, when there are interesting people, especially as interesting as these, a person can’t just go off on his own work, which can be put off, but wants to visit and talk with them. One man was especially interesting. He was nearly eighty years old but as spry as a chicken. They left on the train for Baghdad the same night, but Mr. Hakken will be with us for a week or more.
This week one of our teachers became the proud father of another baby boy, but from his behavior you wouldn’t have known it. He was in school the day before and he was there also this morning as usual as if nothing had happened. But the strangest thing was that his Mrs. was in church the Sunday before, just two days before the baby was born! They seem to think nothing of it at all. This week also our school janitor got word that a new son had arrived. He is Armenian and his wife and people live in a refugee camp about twenty miles above Basrah. He usually goes home about one weekend a month. When he got this news he never even asked for leave to go home but worked faithfully to the end of the week and went home at his usual time.
March 9, 1925
Mr. Hakken is still here and may be here for some time more. He has been running a fever all week, the same kind he had in Bahrain. Dr. Dame had said it was not malaria but due to his kidney problem. The x-ray showed no stone in his kidneys, but a blood test showed that he was full of malaria – a triple case, they said. How Dr. Dame could have missed that nobody can understand. Anyway, we sent him over to the nursing home where he could get the best care and treatment, and he seems to be getting better already.
Professor Wooley, the archaeologist at Ur, was here this week to give a lecture at one of the British Clubs about his work this past winter. He had a lot of pictures of things that they had found and also a lot illustrating every phase of their work, and Mr. Van Ess offered him the use of our magic lantern, the only one in town. That meant that I had to go over in the afternoon to get the machine and screen rigged up and then run the machine during the lecture at night. It was a very interesting lecture. They have had a successful season. The things that they found this year did not date back further than the things they found last year – about 2500 to 3500 B.C. – but they have added so much to their knowledge of the life and culture and religion of the people of that time.
March 23, 1925
I am sorry I didn’t write last week, but that is the first time I have missed. I may have been too late for the mail a couple times before but never a single week have I skipped altogether until last week. That’s a pretty good record, so I guess I may be excused.
You see it was this way – I went up to Amarah and since there was no way of getting letters down from there to catch the mail, I didn’t write. Besides, I was too busy. A week ago last Friday we had our school graduation exercises. Three boys who finished school last year, but the exercises were put off because of the heat, were given their diplomas, and at the same time we had a farewell for Mr. Van Ess. Our spring vacation started that afternoon and I started for Amarah right after the program. I went on a native launch that goes back and forth all the time. We left here at about five o’clock and were supposed to make the trip in about twenty hours, traveling all night, but the river was rising so there was a stronger current and we had some engine trouble so we didn’t get to Amarah until Saturday at midnight.
It surely was an interesting trip up the river. I spread out my bed on top of some boxes of tea, had a parcel of eats and thermos of tea and had a great time. There were about thirty other passengers and it was a great study of life. One little Persian Moslem returning from a pilgrimage to Kerbala and Nejaf was the cock of the boat – all gave him honor. One Arab carpenter and his son, with his hand and foot powered lathe and box of tools. Three brothers who had been to Basrah on a spree. A group of Jews, men and women, going to Ezra’s tomb. All packed together like sardines in a tin. Stories told in Arab fashion, mostly gestures, were going all the time. It was amusing to see the perfect unconcern with which each went according to his own inclination, unmindful of those about him. If he wished to pray, he made his ablutions, spread out his mat, and prayed where he was, even in the midst of a group of story tellers, and the story tellers, joking and laughing, went on unmindful of the prayer performed in their midst. If he was hungry, he pulled out his bag of bread, cheese and garlic and ate. If he wished to sleep, he pushed others off his blanket and slept. At night two or three together who may never have seen each other before crept under the same blanket, heads covered but feet sticking out. Several had laid in a supply of Basrah fish, and these hung in bunches from the roof of the launch and added to the general perfumery of oil, petrol, smoke and dirt. The boat also carried a cargo of scores of bags of wheat and rice.
We reached Gurna, the junction of the two rivers, at about mid-night, Ezra’s tomb at eight the next morning and Kalet Salih at three in the afternoon. It had been very dry for a long time and farmers all over the country were complaining bitterly – sheep and cattle were dying by the thousands, and there wasn’t any chance of a grain crop at all. But when we went up the river they had just had a nice shower of rain and the river was rising, not flooding but bringing the water into the irrigation ditches and over the land at last. Before this all the farming and tribal population had been downhearted and complaining because of the drought, but now they were happy, so in places you would see groups of them with their spades up in the air, shouting and doing their dances, or in other places they were plowing, cultivating and tending to their crops. All were in the highest spirits because this year’s crop would be saved. The rain is a blessing, not only because of the much needed water but because the water carries so much silt and deposits it in a thick layer all over the land, making it fine for a big rice crop.
We expected to get to Amarah by seven, but after leaving Kalat Salih we had engine trouble so we didn’t get in until midnight. Dykstra was still up waiting for me. I had a nice time with the Dykstras and with the Moerdyks, too, who are supposed to be studying the language. But so many people come to see Dr. Moerdyk with their sicknesses that he has very little time for studying. He is not supposed to be doing anything but studying, but he simply can’t keep his hands off his doctoring.
Both the Dykstras and the Moerdyks have houses very nicely located on the Tigris River. The town is situated on the fork of the Tigris and the Jahala rivers and most of the town is one nice long straight street along the Tigris with a large covered bazaar branching off from it and another street branching off along the Jahala. Amarah is a great tribal center and all do their trading there. It is also in the midst of a big farming district – rice, wheat and some cotton. The best bricks in the country are made here, too. Amarah is also the chief center of the Sabeans, who are probably descendants of those mentioned in Job 1:15. They are nearly all silversmiths – inlaying designs in silver with black antimony. Zahroon, who is the most skillful craftsman in the sect and does really wonderful work, lives in Amarah.
Dykstra was busy installing electric lighting in Moerdyk’s house and I helped some with that. I went a couple times with Moerdyk to call on some of his patients, and I went over to play badminton several times at the Hartleys. He is the irrigation officer in the district.
One morning Mr. Dykstra had some business up the river and I went along, and we stopped at one of the big regulators they use in the branch rivers. Iraq certainly is a topsy-turvy land. The country is so flat that every year as the river overflows, it leaves a deposit on its banks and so the river has gradually raised itself until now it is above the level of the surrounding country and only the high banks keep the water from spreading all over. Then, too, usually branches of rivers bring water into the big river, but here they take water away from the river. They are distributaries rather than tributaries. The result of this is that the river at Baghdad is much larger than at Amarah and lower down. These branch rivers flow into smaller and smaller streams in the marshes and then come together again and enter the big river just above Basrah. Now they have regulators on these branch rivers to control the amount of water which stays in the big river, to maintain navigation, and how much flows into the marshes.
Another day all of us went in the launch down one of these branch rivers and visited one of the big shaikhs of that district. He had a tent put up in the middle of a field of barley and there we were entertained all day. A corps of about thirty men carried our dinner from the place where it was cooked, about half a mile away, to the tent, so you can imagine we had enough to eat.
I had planned to return in the launch with Mr. Dykstra, who had to go down to Kuwait again, and we expected to leave on Saturday morning, but then he got a wire telling him that the steamer for Kuwait would be leaving on Saturday afternoon. He had invited several people to dinner Friday night and couldn’t get away, so we had the dinner as planned and soon after that we packed up and started for Basrah. We started at about eleven o’clock, traveled all night, and got to Basrah Saturday noon. The old launch chugged along without stopping a single moment. When we got here we found the boat wasn’t sailing until Monday morning. So he left this morning and Mr. Hakken also – he seems to be alright again. The Van Esses are busy finishing up their packing and are leaving tonight.
March 29, 1925
School has started again and Mr. Moerdyk is at the wheel. Ramadhan, the month of fasting, also started this week, so that makes starting school after vacation a more difficult thing. It has also suddenly gotten warmer – the temperature was up to 105 degrees. But we are on a half day schedule, beginning at six in the morning with no school in the afternoon. That is not only because of the weather but also because of Ramadhan. Even if the boys don’t fast, they are up most of the night with their family and friends and so it is impossible to keep them awake in the afternoon.
The Van Esses left last Monday evening. Our station seems a pretty small crowd now and I certainly miss them. Their house has always been as much of a home to me as any place outside of my real home could be. The Bilkerts have been busy moving over to the Van Ess house this week.
April 5, 1925
April showers bring May flowers. The saying may fit here, too, but it gets a little twisted up. Yesterday, beginning at noon, we had a bad dust storm – the whole sky was filled with dust and you couldn’t see the sun at all – in fact, it was so dark we couldn’t read inside without a light. Then towards five o’clock we got thunder and lightning worse than I’ve seen it in Basrah, and a little later it started to rain and we had a regular down-pour for a little while. It was a refreshing little rain. You should have seen the first drops that came down. They were as dirty as could be from the dust in the air. I was out when it started to rain, and the rain made spots on my clothes as if I had been splashed with mud. Rain in April is uncommon here and some say it is bad, because the date trees are in full bloom now and each tree has to be carefully pollinated by hand, and if it rains, the pollen is washed off the blossoms again.
We have already been having loads of flowers, but some of the plants were stunted by the severe cold we had earlier. The roses are just beginning to bloom. We lost some trees in the cold and some plants, like the oleanders, survived but lost branches, so they won’t blossom as much this year.
April 12, 1925
Today is Easter. We are not likely to forget that out here. We have been almost mobbed by the parents of Catholic children who wanted their children excused from school from last Thursday until next Tuesday. They do things right in this country – there is nothing small about their feasts and celebrations – one or two days is not enough. But they didn’t get much satisfaction from Mr. Moerdyk. He wouldn’t give permission and told them there was a long list of others eagerly waiting to take their places. The Syrian, Chaldean, Armenian and all other kinds of Christians have been holding two or three services every day this week. Indirectly we have heard that the Chaldean bishop in one of his sermons this week damned us and all Protestants to the nethermost depths. Right next door to us, Father John of the Cross has a small Carmelite chapel and orphanage for Armenian children, and he has been terribly busy all morning, with early mass and bells ringing and all sorts of celebrations. Even the Church of England here has been having special services all week long. Their padre is very “high church” and has his confessionals and processionals and masses and everything else. I don’t see why he doesn’t call himself a Catholic and be done with it. Besides this, the Jews have been having their Passover this week and the Moslems are still having their Ramadhan. It got to be almost impossible to cope with it all, so Mr. Moerdyk dismissed school on Friday and we will try to take a fresh start on Monday.
I’ve just come back from our Arabic service. The whole world and his wife were there. People who don’t come to church twice a year were there. One of them became angry and got up and left because Mr. Moerdyk didn’t pass him the communion plate. To most of them, Easter is just a time for feasting and celebration and they show no understanding of the real meaning of Easter. After church nobody stayed for Sunday School, they were all too interested in their own enjoyments for the rest of the day. Everybody was inviting everybody else and they are spending the rest of the day visiting each other and having a good time. Of course they are not all like that. Some of them are real good Christian men and women.
What do you suppose Mr. Moerdyk told me this week? He said that Mr. Potter had written as if he was expecting me to start for home this spring and he had already sent Moerdyk, who is the mission treasurer, my travel allowance. Whee!! I almost got right up to pack my grip. But he must have gotten his wires crossed, because it has always been the understanding that I would stay to the end of the school year. Besides, it would leave Mr. Moerdyk in the lurch if I went now. Moreover, Moerdyk says he refuses to give me the money for the trip home until school has closed, so I guess I am stuck.
I realize that I have been banking altogether too much on your supporting me in school next year. I didn’t have any business taking that for granted, but I didn’t know what else to do. It surely is going to be a problem for me, especially as I want to get a whole pile of books. In your last letter Princeton stock seems to have come up a little, especially after you talked with Heemstra. Sure, I agree with you that Princeton is fine, but there is this about it: I don’t want to go to school merely for the sake of going to school. I am going to school to get something that will be of use to me and that as quickly as possible. Mr. Van Ess is a Princeton man, you know, and so I have been able to learn a little about Princeton from him, but he is advising me to go to Hartford. Princeton does offer Arabic and also Islam, but very little of it, and not so much from a missionary point of view but as a general cultural course, along with Buddhism and other religions. I don’t know if they offer any courses on pedagogy. But at Hartford they give special courses in missionary education with special attention to the different problems of each field. And Professor MacDonald of Hartford is an authority on Islam and teaches it from a missionary point of view. So there you are. Don’t think I have given up on Princeton altogether. I’ve sent off for a Princeton catalogue and other information and maybe that will show me something new.
April 19, 1925
Well, only five days more of Ramadhan and then we can get a fresh start on things. I should think these fasters have had a comparatively easy time this year, because it hasn’t been really hot at all. Today it is almost cold, and last night it rained so much that the ground was wet all day today, very unusual for April. But it made the grass and trees look fresh. We’re overwhelmed with sweet peas. Everybody has vases and bottles and anything else that will hold them full of sweet peas. We’ve got roses, American beauties and ramblers, hollyhocks and corn flowers. Oleanders are trying their best but are still suffering from the frost. Pomegranates are in full blossom. They have a bright red wax-like sort of flower, and these among the deep green of the leaves makes the tree look like a Christmas decoration. We have quite some grape vines, too. , and they are going wild this year, climbing all over the space between the date palms. Yes, our garden looks pretty nice now.
Last Thursday Mike Schnurman and a friend of his from the Baptist mission in India came thru on their way to America. You remember Mike came out on the same boat I did. They came in the morning and left again in the evening by train for Baghdad. They were going to stop off at Ur. His mission lately got sort of worked up about work among the Moslems – that is, Zwemer stirred them up about it last year. They have a good many Moslems in their area – and now they want him to go home and prepare for Moslem work, and it is his intention now to do that. He doesn’t know yet where he is going to school. His plans are no more fixed than mine. He said he had thot of Hartford but is more inclined to go to McCormick in Chicago. I don’t see that he will get much on Islamics there. He says he is not going to Holland or Princeton either.
April 26, 1925
We had an expedition to Ur this week. Major Yates invited us to go with him and arranged for us to leave on the eleven o’clock train on Thursday. He had his own reserved car with kitchenette and cook on board and so we all used it as a dining and parlor car. He had also switched a special two compartment coach to the train for us, so we traveled like royalty. Ruth and Rachel Jackson and I went. The Bilkerts were also going but Mrs. B. wasn’t well and Margaret came down with fever, so they didn’t go. And Mr. Moerdyk couldn’t go because he got guests from Bahrain at the last minute. After the train started we had tea in the Major’s car before turning in and the next morning we had breakfast there, too. We got to Ur Junction at 8:30 in the morning. The ruins of Ur are about two miles from the station, and since walking in the spongy soil was difficult, the Major got a trolley, which took us to a point nearer to the mound. The whole mound covering the area of the old city is probably two or three miles around, but the main part of it, the sacred enclosure, bazaars, etc. comprise only a small part of it on one side.
During the past three years, Professor Leonard Wooley has been excavating there for the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in a small house right among the ruins built of old Ur bricks. He has been making some very good finds, dating back to two or three thousand years B.C. The main part of the ruins is the ziggurat, a large square structure built in stages, about seventy-five feet high with a temple for the moon god on the top. Most of the large ancient cities of Mesopotamia had ziggurats – the Tower of Babel probably was one – and they represented God’s mountain. It is thought that the Sumerian people were originally from the mountains in the north and the ziggurat was their attempt to create a mountain on the level plains where they could worship their mountain deities. The ziggurat at Ur is probably the largest and best preserved, but it has eroded and there is nothing left of the temple on top. There are other temples scattered around, as well as other large buildings and storage areas connected to them. In one of the rooms last year hundreds of gold beads and pieces of jewelry were found. South of the ziggurat were the bazaars and residence districts, where houses and shops have been excavated. All thru the ruins were all kinds of records on clay tablets in cuneiform, telling of every phase of life of the people of those days. School records were found showing that pupils had to learn multiplication tables 60 X 60. And they have found records of contracts, marriage certificates, codes of law, and all sorts of things. It surely is interesting.
We spent nearly four hours among the ruins and then went back to the station where the Major had ordered a big lunch in the Railway guest house. We loafed there until three o’clock when the Major took the train back to Baghdad. The Jacksons and I had to wait until 6:30 when our “private” car was again hitched to a train for Basrah. We got back to Basrah Saturday morning at 5:30. We have to thank Major Yates for a wonderful time and the chance to see Ur.
Ramadhan is over again. The feast following Ramadhan began last Friday, so we had no school, and today is the last day of the feast. They have the bigger part of their celebration in an open space right next to our compound, and we have the pleasure of listening to all the noise, beating of drums and creaking of the old wooden hand powered merry-go-rounds and swings and the whole works. It is a regular county fair and more so – games of chance, balloon vendors, vendors of many colored poisonous looking drinks and candies. People save up during the whole year so they will have more to spend during the feast. They all come out in new clothes. Women who otherwise hardly ever come out on the street go about now without even a veil. Thousands crowd into that small space. They believe in “early to bed and early to rise.” This morning at sunrise they were already at it again. Last night at seven o’clock already everything was quiet. And they keep on going right thru the heat of the day, and it was hot, too, and dusty! But that makes it all the merrier.
May 3, 1925
I was glad to get two letters from you this week, including one which you mailed April 13th. It came in just three weeks. By the way, perhaps I don’t need to tell you, but you don’t have to send any more letters than which will get here before about the tenth of July.
I don’t know yet how I’ll take my trip home, that is I haven’t got anyone yet to go with me. Not that I can’t go alone, but it would be so much more pleasant and interesting to have some company. I’ve been writing a young fellow in Tehran. He is leaving about the middle of June but wants to see Palestine before going on to Europe, so I may catch up with him some place yet. My plan is to go from here to Beirut, like Mr. Moerdyk and I did last summer, then by steamer which stops at various Mediterranean ports – Cyprus, Smyrna, Constantinople, Athens, Malta, Naples – then by train to Rome, Florence, thru Switzerland to Holland, then to London for the British Empire Exhibition, then New York, Chicago, and Pella. How is that? You had better get the car tuned up!
Mrs. Bilkert hasn’t been well this week, not severely, but the doctor ordered her to stay quietly in bed for a few days. The rest of us are healthy as can be. Miss Kellien, who has otherwise been full of fever hasn’t been sick a day this spring. They had a couple of days vacation at the Girls School last week, so she decided to take a few days extra and go up to Baghdad to visit Mrs. Thoms. Mrs. Thoms belongs to our mission but since she came back from furlough last winter we‘ve loaned her to the new United Mission to help start school work in Baghdad. She has been having trouble getting started there – a lot of government red tape – and was kind of discouraged, so Miss Kellien jumped up and went to visit her.
I bet this letter sounds kind of disjointed – there have been a bunch of boys in the room, looking at pictures and papers and making a racket while I am trying to write – while at the same time there is very little to write about. School is going along fine – we’ve got two hundred on the roll now after Ramadhan.
May 17, 1925
I don’t remember how much I have told you about Miss Strang. She was stationed in Kuwait and became very sick and the doctors there didn’t know what they could do for her, so they sent her to India to recuperate. When she got a little better, she said she wanted to return to Kuwait, but the doctors insisted that she could not come back until she had had a thorough physical exam and in any case she should not come back until after the hot weather season. She, however, said she had received visions that she should go back to Arabia immediately, but she would not submit to an examination because of her belief in faith healing. The doctors, tho, stuck firmly to what they had said. And now, what do you suppose – here she comes rolling into Basrah this week altogether without warning. She says she has resigned from the mission and wants to stay here in Basrah just temporarily, but is not going home. That’s all she will say, but it seems she is intending to start work independently (note 62). There are a few more people like that around here, one in Zubair – resigned from the mission for some reason years ago but refuses to leave these parts. What can you do with people like that? They don’t belong to the mission and the mission isn’t responsible for them – still they are alone and fellow citizens and former colleagues and we can’t shift responsibility for them altogether. They know we won’t let them starve, and they take advantage of that and just stay.
I guess you understand that it is better for you not to circulate this Miss Strang business too much. Such things broadcast at home don’t do the mission any good. This mission stands out for the fact that we all work together and never have any internal trouble among members of the mission. It is only when a crank like this case gets in that the cog slips a little, but even then – like a Ford – take out the bad part and the thing runs along as slick as ever without it.
Yesterday all of us teachers and Mr. Bilkert were invited to dinner at a place about eight miles down the river with a man who has been in exile from Iraq for several years and has only recently come back. He was quite a big character in politics around here before and during the War, and after the War the British High Commissioner in Iraq didn’t trust him, and was a little afraid of him, and had him exiled on a very flimsy excuse. King Faisal was also afraid of him and wouldn’t let him come back until he promised to stay out of politics. His family – a large family, four wives and a host of retainers – were in Basrah all the time he was away and last year we had six of his sons in school. This year three went to Beirut and three are with us still. We surely had a big feed – the most delicious Arab food I have ever tasted. He is quite a character, and talk – he talked a blue streak all the time we were there, even tho he was supposed to be having some fever (note 63).
May 31, 1925
I’ve just come back from our Arabic service where we sang as our closing hymn “John Brown’s Body” – at least that tune. Mrs. Bilkert was at the organ and I don’t believe she realized what the tune was until she had played about a score, and then she started to look queer, and then she glanced at me doing my best to suppress the giggles and she burst out with a snort. Mr. Bilkert was in the pulpit and hadn’t realized what the tune was either, and he got as red as a beet. But of course the rest of the people in the congregation didn’t think it was anything but a hymn tune and they sang with vim and seriousness.
By this time you will be having Commencement over there. We still have five more weeks of school. I don’t know exactly when we will close. There is a Moslem feast of four days beginning about the third of July and we will have to close for that as it is one of their most important, the Hejira, or the beginning of the pilgrimage rites in Mecca. We haven’t had to deal with that other years because, you see, their year is eleven days shorter than ours and so it works back that much every year. Last year it happened just at the close of school. Now if we close school before the feast, it will make a short school year, but if we start up again after the feast and go for two weeks, it will be very late. You can guess what I’d do if I had to make the decision.
June 7, 1925
We had a little excitement here this week. We got robbed – or rather our “dobee” got robbed of our laundry. Dobees are our Indian washermen. Well, he came back the morning that he usually brings back our clothes with a terrible tale of woe, that he had been robbed, etc. We gave him a letter to the police and got them busy working on it, and we ran around some ourselves, but so far nothing has turned up. The police believe that the dobees themselves are at the bottom of it. That dobee bunch isn’t above doing a thing like that if they think they can get away with it. If we don’t get the clothes back we may be able to make the dobees pay for them, but just now that doesn’t give us any clothes to our backs and we are all pretty short of clothes now. I didn’t want to get anything more before going home. The Jackson girls are pretty badly off. They lost seven dresses between them and don’t have any to spare since they were going to lay in a new supply in India this summer. I lost three suits of whites and a nice shirt that Crissy sent me last Christmas and some other things. Mr. Moerdyk didn’t lose anything and that’s what makes it look funny, because he owed the dobee for about three months work while the rest of us had just paid him off. A couple of the boarding school boys lost several suits, too. I’ve got several extra pants and Mr. Bilkert has offered to let me use a couple of his extra coats, so I can get along. Rachel Jackson saw a man walking along the street with a barrel on his back and she said, “Here comes the dress I will have to be wearing soon.”
There surely isn’t much news around here lately. School is going along fine. There has been quite an argument in the papers lately, articles attacking all foreigners and replies to those articles. Our schools especially were attacked. But we keep out of it altogether – we let others do the arguing – and it doesn’t seem to hurt us much. More students are registering all along. We’ve got over two hundred on the roll now, more than we have ever had.
June 14, 1925
Well, a month from now I will be well on my way home. The close of school has now been set for July 10. What do you mean by saying that that you hope I won’t start out alone? Suppose there is no one to travel with – must I stay here then? Anyway, I am still hoping to catch up with this fellow from Tehran. I’ll promise this much: If I don’t get anyone to travel with, I’ll come home more directly, not stop off at so many places. But then what do you want me to do if you are afraid to have me wire when I get to New York – just let you know nothing until I walk in on you at breakfast and tell you I’ve arrived? If you don’t hear from me you will be even more worried. But you will be getting my letters from all along the way, at least as far as England, and crossing the Atlantic there is not much danger of being kidnapped or “accidented” so there is nothing to worry about.
I guess I‘ll come home and take a course in medicine. I’ve become a regular clinic doctor here. It seems these boys don’t know how to take care of themselves. They eat all sorts of indigestible stuff and pretty soon they get all tied up in their bowels. The boarding school boys who go home over weekends get stuffed and pampered with all sorts of stuff, and when they come back here they come to me with their complaints. I keep a stock of quinine and aspirin and Epsom salts on hand all the time – salts seem to be the favorite thing around here. But last week I bought a big bottle of castor oil and that seems to do the trick. And the thing about that is the boys don’t mind taking it at all, they take it as if it were maple syrup. I usually make a “sandwich” – that is, a drop of castor oil in a little orange or lemon juice in a cup. You see we can get orange or lemon juice here in bottles, all prepared, and you just put a little of it in a glass of water and you have a fine drink. The other day I gave a little fellow a “sandwich” and told him to drink it down fast, but he started sipping it as if it were the best thing he had ever tasted.
June 21, 1925
We’ve had a busy weekend and a big exodus. Mr. Dykstra brought Dr. and Mrs. Moerdyk down from Amarah last Thursday in the launch and the Moerdyks and the two Jacksons left for their vacation in India on Saturday, so there was lots to do to help them get away. Miss Kellien was supposed to go also, but she backed down at the last moment, said she didn’t need a vacation and wouldn’t go in spite of the fact that everybody urged her to go. She is in good health now, but she is subject to fevers and should not wear herself down. Mr. Moerdyk bawled her out, but she is a confirmed old maid and nothing on earth can change her mind when she is set on something.
June 28, 1925
I’m getting impatient with writing letters. Getting it done every week whether there is anything to write about or not – and there is not much to write about now. Well, I won’t have to write so many more times. Soon I will tell you the news.
About the only thing we talk about here lately is what is to become of our mission work. This mission is nearly twenty thousand dollars in the hole and the Board isn’t doing anything or allowing anybody else to do anything to make it up, but instead they say that the appropriations will have to be cut next year. You see the Arabian Mission was organized separately from the General Board – that is separate from the missions in India, Japan, etc., and so it has a separate treasury. All the money that the churches send in now goes to the general fund unless it is specifically earmarked for the Arabian Mission, and so since most of the churches don’t know that it is not all one, the Arabian Mission gets the short end of the deal. Furthermore, when any of our people are home on furlough, the Board sends them out on speaking tours to arouse interest and raise money, but the Board will not use that money for our mission but puts it in the general fund and gives our mission only a small percentage of it. Then, too, the Board thinks we are an expensive mission, that we spend more than is necessary. We keep asking for more money and they keep saying we have had enough. It’s almost like the man who said his wife was such a terrible spendthrift, she was forever asking for money. Someone asked him how much he gave her, and he said, “Oh, I never give her anything.” If the Board would realize how we have to squeeze every cent before we let it go, but they don’t. They won’t believe that our school is running into debt this year and also nearly every other department of our mission work. Instead they keep on sending out new missionaries – a new couple is coming out next year. They expect us to expand and open up new work, all without an increase in appropriations, rather with a large cut in appropriations. The Board has been planning for a number of years to unite our mission with the General Board and we on the field have been urging that, but they are slow about it. Now they say it can’t be done because we are so deeply in debt. So what to do?!
Well, it’s regular summer weather, and it is hot and busy and everything else is per usual, and I guess you’ve noticed from the tone of my letter that I am feeling sort of contrary, or down in the mouth, or something – mentally. Physically I’ve never felt better. But I’ll close before I load any more pessimism on you.
July 5, 1925
Yesterday was the Fourth of July. I wonder what you all did to celebrate. Did you go to the river for a family picnic again? I celebrated by starting to pack my trunk, or at least going over my things to see what I will take along. I am getting excited already about starting – a week from tomorrow it will be.
We had two days of no school this week because of the feast which I have written you about. It is supposed to be the beginning of the Hejira, or pilgrimage rites and ceremonies in Mecca. One would think people would make this a season of prayer and special religious services – well, they do have special prayers in the mosques – but for most people it is just a big party. The whole population was out again in the brightest colors, with drums going on all the time, and singing and dancing. The screeches of the Ferris wheels, see-saws and swings fill the air. Gambling and games of chance do a rushing business. All part of the celebration. Well, it is over and tomorrow we begin the last week of school.
Mr. Van Ess wrote that he was dickering with a fellow from Rutgers to come out here next year. I hope he finds somebody to take my place. Mr. Moerdyk will be in a nice mess if no one comes. One of the other teachers is leaving, too, to go to Beirut and attend school there. We will go together as far as Beirut. So Moerdyk will have to find another teacher in his place, too.
From the Chronicle, I see that things are humming in the Pella churches. Third Church decided by a good vote to introduce English services. How much will that be – two services? You never told me that Walcotten had died. You just wrote that some of the First Church Seceders had gone over to Second Church since Walcotten’s death, so I concluded that he must have died some time ago. But, never mind, soon after you get this letter I will be there myself to get the news first hand, and you won’t have to write me about it.
July 12, 1925
Well, I’m all set to start – an hour more of packing and I’ll be ready. I got my banking done yesterday. My! I feel rich. Mr. Moerdyk gave me a bigger check last week than I’ve ever had before in my life – 2500 Rupees! – my last two months’ salary and travel money. No wonder missionaries get such small salaries – the expense of sending them to the field or sending them back is nearly equal to a year’s salary. I don’t expect to use all Mr. Moerdyk gave me , but they always give you a liberal amount for emergencies and all that is not used must be refunded. Also, I got a half fare rate on the railway to Baghdad fixed up because, you see, I am in Education!
Friday was the last day of school. We had class right thru the last period and had no closing exercises except a few speeches of farewell and thanks, etc. etc. by some of the boys and teachers. I got my share of it, altho I don’t know what it was all about, because it was in Arabic. They even asked me, in Arabic, to say a few words – so that is a poor reflection on the English I have taught them.
I had a letter from Potter this week and Mr. Moerdyk had one from Van Ess, saying that they now have a young fellow from Rutgers as a good prospect for coming out to take my place. The boys are continually asking me who is coming in my place. They say they won’t let me go until someone else is here. They were here yesterday most of the time while I was packing and trailed me wherever I went. Some of them have been here again today.
Well, I am too excited to do any more writing. I’ll see you all soon after you get this. Tomorrow night I leave Basrah. One of the teachers is going with me as far as Beirut, so that will be good company.
Your loving son and brother,
Mahalas on the Shatt el Arab
Grace Strang continued her missionary service in Iraq with the United Mission of Mesopotamia.
This was Sayyid Talib Pasha, the Naqib of Basrah. See page 74.
|The Arabian Mission||CONTENTS||Epilogue|
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