|Iraq||CONTENTS||Christians and Jews|
The school in Basrah was officially named The School of High Hope, or in Arabic, Medressa el Raja’ el ‘Ali, though in the Arabian Mission it was usually referred to as the Basrah Boys School, and in Basrah itself as the American School. In 1973, responding to an inquiry from Selim Hakim, a former Inspector with the Ministry of Education in Iraq and now a doctoral candidate studying in London, Dad wrote a brief history of the school. Following are excerpts from that history, covering the founding and early years of the school, in his own words.
Basrah Boys School - 1923
Dr. John Van Ess went out to Basrah in 1902. He was not a trained educator, but he soon became convinced that education was one of the great needs of the country. One or two of his predecessors had attempted some education, in a primitive way, with small groups, but this had no official standing. Dr. Van Ess was convinced that education should have official recognition, and opened negotiations with local officials and the Turkish Government in Istanbul. This involved several trips to Istanbul and finally he was successful in obtaining the Imperial “Irade” signed in gold ink by the Sultan Abdul Hamid himself, giving the Mission the right to conduct schools for boys and girls. This document was kept in the Mission safe in Basrah for many years, but I don’t know what has become of it now (note 41). It took another two years of work with local officials to get approval for the premises to be occupied, the course of study to be undertaken, the textbooks to be used, teachers to be found, etc. But in 1912 the School of High Hope was opened with about eighty students from all ranks and walks of life, from the poorest to the wealthy, and over 50% were Muslims. Six months later a school for girls was opened by Mrs. Van Ess and was conducted along much of the same lines as the Boys school. This was the first school for girls in this whole area. The name of the school, the School of High Hope (and the School of Hope for Girls), came from Hope College in Holland Michigan, of which Dr. Van Ess was a graduate, and reflected the high hope the sponsors had for the school in its ministry to the youth of southern Mesopotamia, as the area was called at that time.
Dr. Van Ess believed firmly that his responsibility was not to make young Americans of his students but to train them for a better life in their own environment and culture. Accordingly, Arabic was made the official language of the school and all its subjects were taught in that language. As you know, Dr. Van Ess was a great student of the Arabic language. He studied Arabic while still a student in Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, and he continued his study and love of Arabic as long as he lived. He used to read the Arabic dictionary just for pleasure. He believed that no member of the mission had any business being there unless he could communicate with the Arab decently and in a qualified manner in the Arab’s own language.
Instruction in other languages was offered, but only as languages: Turkish, because the government at the time was Turkish; Persian, because a large part of the Basrah community was of Persian background (the Shaikh of Mohammerah at one time had eight sons enrolled in the school); French was still the international language of diplomacy at the time; and English was of growing importance in international trade and commerce. Some other subjects were given in English, such as mathematics, geography, etc., but mainly to help give students fluency in the English language, although also to prepare them for a place in the world of trade and commerce. Not all students studied these languages; this was largely a matter of personal choice. Most of these languages were dropped from the course of instruction after World War I.
As I have already said, Dr. Van Ess was not a trained educator. But as I often heard him say, he considered this not to be a handicap, but in many ways an advantage. He was not bound by traditional methods of education. You cannot just transplant, for instance, an American system into another environment and expect it to work. And so he developed his own system to a large extent as he saw the need and opportunity arise in the local situation. Very early he adopted an adaptation of what was known as the “group system” of instruction, which was being tried at the time on an experimental basis in certain schools in America. This allowed for instruction in groups and not according to grades or classes. Each student was classified in each subject according to his attainment in that subject. This may sound as if it would lead to considerable confusion. But actually, although it involved some scheduling problems, it worked out very well, and seemed to meet local conditions of variations in the attainment and natural abilities of the students, especially in those early days. It also made for a more individual and personal teacher-student relationship, which was thought to be important. Of course there was an effort of leveling off, so that by the time students were ready to graduate, they were pretty much on par in all subjects. However, this was not a condition for graduation. It was recognized that not all students have the same interests, and there was little point to making a student spend a lot of time on a subject he was not interested in and might never use in his lifetime. You will surmise that the main object was to allow the student to gain a thorough workable knowledge of things useful to him, rather than just to make him memorize a few facts that would help him pass the examination at the end of the course.
This system was followed more or less until the late twenties or early thirties when the Iraqi system of education had pretty well taken form and we were required to conform to this. We were required to follow the Government prescribed curriculum; our teachers had to be approved by the Government Department of Education and our text books were those prescribed by the government. While we sympathized with the Government in its desire to unify the educational program of the country, we were not anxious merely to duplicate what the Government was doing. We were sorry that we were not allowed to continue in Experimental Education, something which we felt we as a private organization could do, and which the Government by the very nature of things could not do as well.
In those days one of our problems was to find qualified teachers. There were very few to be found locally. As you suggest, some were brought in from neighboring countries, especially from eastern Turkey, from the Christian communities around Mardin and Dierbekr. Some of these were Aziz Mukhtar, Elias Mukhtar, Jalil Amso, and Garabed Abdul Ahad, who later became pastor of the Protestant Evangelical Church of Basrah, and others. As soon as practical, Van Ess took some of his own students who showed promise and gave them on-the-job training as teachers under close supervision. Some of these stayed on as members of our staff for many years. Then, too, Dr. Van Ess had a wide range of good friends and acquaintances in both Baghdad and Basrah, and sometimes he might discover that one of them had an unusual and extensive knowledge of some particular subject, perhaps a hobby, a special interest in history or the sciences, and he would offer the man a position as teacher. He may not have been a trained teacher, but because he had a lively interest in his subject, he could impart to the students an interest in the subject in a meaningful way.
Text books were another problem, especially in Arabic. But by searching the bookshops and presses in Beirut, Jerusalem and Cairo we were able to get a fairly adequate supply. As soon as Iraq began producing textbooks we began using these. But, in any case, students were encouraged not to be satisfied with mere theoretical book knowledge but to go beyond that to a thorough practical knowledge of the subject. For English we depended on books mainly from India. I was interested in your statement that you were co-author of the Oxford English Course series, and I recall now very clearly your name on the title page of those books. As soon as those books were prescribed for the schools in Iraq, we of course made use of them in our schools.
As for myself, after receiving a B.A. degree from Central College in Pella, Iowa, I went out to Basrah in 1922 as a “short termer,” that is, on a three year contract to teach English in the School of High Hope, to take charge of the sports program, and to oversee the small boarding department which we had at that time. You asked about the language used in the boarding department. I had little knowledge of Arabic at the time, although I soon picked up quite a bit, living with the boys in boarding, as I did. But there was no language stipulation in boarding – the boys used whatever language they desired. I had the able assistance of an unmarried Arabic speaking teacher also living in the boarding department, so it was not quite as haphazard an arrangement as you might think. I remember one night I heard one of the boys muttering something in his sleep in English. The next morning I told him he had completed his language requirement in English for the year; anyone who could dream in English was doing all right.
After my three year term I returned to the United States and continued my post graduate studies at Princeton and Western Seminaries and completed these with a Professional Certificate in 1928. In the meantime I had married, and in 1929 my wife and I went out together to Basrah for career service with the mission. We were associated with Dr. and Mrs. Van Ess for many years, a privilege we greatly appreciated. I had acquired a smattering of Arabic while a short-termer, but now a more thorough and formal course of study was called for, and the first two years we spent in language study as our first responsibility. I must confess that I never did acquire the fluency and proficiency in Arabic that Dr. Van Ess had.
In 1939 Dr. and Mrs. Van Ess went to America on furlough, and I was placed in charge of the school. Because of World War II the Van Esses were unable to return to Basrah for several years. When they did return, shortly before the end of the war, Dr. Van Ess again resumed the position of principal, but not for long, as he was not in good health, and he resigned from that position in a year or two. I was again appointed principal in his place and held that position until I retired in 1966. Dr. Van Ess died in Basrah in 1949. He was due for retirement, but he did not want to go to America. He prayed the Good Lord to let him die in the land and among the people of his adoption. His prayer was granted, and his body lies in Makina Cemetery in Basrah.
Medressa el Reja’ el ‘Ali
The School of High Hope
October 28, 1923
We have had our first week of school and it is going strong. We already have more boys than we had at the most last year. We have 145 enrolled, which is fully 35 more than last year, and there are still lots coming. Soon we will be crowded to the limit again. With our new schedule we are running ten half hour periods a day and I am teaching every period. Mr. Van Ess said he was not going to spare me, and he just kept on piling on more classes, as I told him to, until my day was filled, because what am I out here for but to work. I feel pretty tired at night, especially this first week, after such a long grind with no breathing space except recess and noon, but my boarding duties aren’t as heavy as last year. I am still the “shaikh” of the boarding department but I will have others do most of the work. One of the teachers is living in the building and soon another one will come, and I will have them do a great part of the work
I have also moved over into my new quarters – a pretty nice suite of rooms, very nicely arranged, in the corner of the hospital building like this, with marble floors, windows that fit, running water in the bathroom and everything. It’s quite a contrast with what I had last year. That rickety old building with windows holding out about as much of the winter cold as a sieve holds water, and the floor of mud brick and the only water tap in the whole building down in the kitchen. I am not sorry for my experience of the last year in that big old native house. That was a taste of past missionary pioneering. But I wouldn’t like to live in a place like that all my life. Then, too, it’s so much nicer because this is right on the mission compound where the other missionaries live. My rooms are away from the dormitory part of the building so it will be nice and quiet. The kitchen and dining room are altogether separate from the rest of the building so we won’t have the smell and smoke of the kitchen.
I’m glad you got to meet Mr. Barney. I’m not surprised at what you thot of him. He does have an air of reserve and formality about him, and as you say, it is awfully hard to be intimate with him. I guess he is just naturally that way. But I surely like the Van Esses much better. I have a lot of fun with Mr. Van Ess as well that I learn an awful lot from him. Mrs. Van Ess and the children came back this week. Mrs. Firman, Mrs. Van Ess’s mother came back with them. She is a nice old lady.
I got the package of books this week. Thanks so much for sending them and also for the hickory nuts and the “stuck rook fleis.” The package came thru in good shape. You said Mr. Barney said we never have any butter, but we do have it. Of course it is tinned, but it passes pretty good for butter. We even succeeded in getting some fresh butter this summer. On one corner of the compound we have a lot of native huts for mission servants and their families, and the gardeners, and other people who work for the mission. Some of them have cows and they brought us fresh butter and buttermilk quite often this summer. Mr. Van Ess once asked Ali, their faithful old servant, if he didn’t want a little time off on one of their feasts, and he said, “What do I want time off for? I have my cow and my wife right here and I’m happy.” He put that in the right order!
November 4, 1923
(Penciled note: received Dec. 3)
Things are beginning to feel a little normal again – I am settled in my rooms, deep in the regular grind of work, and this week I also got the first number of the Ray. I haven’t time to read it all yet, but what I’ve read of it, it surely is a peach; no wonder – look who edits it (note 42). I have been so busy around school that I hadn’t even seen Mrs. Van Ess since last Sunday. John, Jr. and Alice come around once in a while and you can guess they are quite sociable. They have grown quite mature while they were away this summer. John is always wanting me to make bows and arrows and hatchets for him. He has got the Red Indian fever and I have to play Red Indian with him. The teachers at this Kodaikanal school for American missionary children in India try to get the children interested in all sorts of things, especially scouting and hiking, and you can guess he isn’t slow in taking to it.
We surely are having nice weather now, regular Indian summer. We had a couple of cold days, too cold for summer clothes, and one night of quite windy rain and a lightening storm. But now it is nice again. A sheet and one blanket feel pretty good at night. During the day we wear whites or summer clothes, but you have to put on more in the evening or you will feel the chill.
Last night Mrs. Van Ess and I went to a program given by an Indian association here. It was mostly Indian music and it was some affair! Mr. Van Ess was elected an honorary member some time ago, so he was invited, but he was down with a bit of fever, so he asked me to go in his place with Mrs. Van Ess.
November 11, 1923
Armistice Day today. We’ve had quite an extraordinary day. First in Arabic church service this morning, Mr. Van Ess baptized two Turks. It is wonderful how the Lord gathers in His sheep to the fold in His own time and in His own way. These two converts were not the result of any direct mission work at all. For some time one old man, a native Christian, a Plymouth Brother, who has been coming to our church, has been holding services among the Armenian refugees, who have quite a settlement here in Basrah. They hold their service in Turkish, as all of them know Turkish and don’t know much Arabic. Some time ago these two Turks, who are working for the railways, also began coming to those service and about three weeks ago the old man came to Mr. Van Ess with these two and they asked for baptism. Mr. Van Ess has been examining them very closely since then and found that they were sincere and knew what they were asking for and were not merely trying to get something out of the mission, as they have good jobs and will not be dependent on the mission later on. So Mr. Van Ess baptized them this morning. When he asked one of them what had first called his attention to Christianity, he said that a copy of the Gospel in Turkish had fallen into his hands – he is quite an educated man – and he began thinking that surely if Christians thot so much of Christ and His message that they took the trouble to translate it into Turkish so that he and others could also learn about Him, that Christ must have been a man worth learning more about. Quite a few from that Armenian congregation were in church this morning and after the baptismal service, they sang “Oh Happy Day” in Turkish.
During Annual Meeting in Bahrain a Moslem woman was baptized there whose husband had been baptized some time before. For the last couple of weeks, four inquirers have been coming to Mr. Van Ess regularly four or five times a week and it seems they are sincere in wanting to know more about Christianity. One of them wants to be baptized, but Mr. Van Ess is giving them some good solid teaching first to prepare them. It is the policy of the mission not just to baptize anybody that comes along and asks for it but to give them solid teaching and a severe test of their faith for a couple months to a year before they are baptized. For a long time four men have been coming almost daily to our Bible Shop in Basrah City and our Bible Shop man has been teaching them, and now he says he thinks they are ready for baptism. Two of the men have said that they want to be baptized but were afraid to because of probable persecution. There are a few in our native Christian congregation who have the missionary spirit, but most are just the opposite. There seems to have been a change lately in Mohammedan feelings toward Christianity. In Bahrain, there are few native Christians but the church is packed full every Sunday and at weekly prayer meetings with Moslems all too eager to hear. There are more and more Moslems coming to our church here in Basrah every Sunday. In Amarah the Bible Shop is doing more business than ever, and Mr. Van Ess had some wonderful experiences this summer along the line of inquiries in Baghdad and Hilla. Really some very heartening things are taking place lately in the Mission. It surely was an Armistice Day this morning when these Armenians, whose relatives and friends had been massacred and property destroyed by the Turks, to have them stand up now in church and sing for those Turkish converts.
After the Arabic service, the English church had a small Armistice Day service up at the cemetery. Mr. Van Ess had been asked to speak and we all went along. This afternoon, Mr. Van Ess married a young Armenian couple and toward evening a brand new inquirer came in. He said that during the war he had always worked for British officers – he is a skilled mechanic and fitter – and some of those officers had encouraged him to become a Christian, but his father had always prevented him from going to the mission to learn more about Christianity. But now his father had died and he had no other relatives and was free to do what he wanted. So Mr. Van Ess gave him some reading material, told him a few things and invited him to come back again.
I don’t know if I have written about Prof. Clay of Yale University. He is probably the best Assyriologist in the world. He is starting a school of archaeology in Baghdad and will do field work in Babylon, Kish and Nippur. He and a party of five came down to Basrah for a day and were guests of the Van Esses. Prof. Clay gave a lecture at the British Club. It was very interesting. He can read cuneiform like English.
November 25, 1923
I sent you a small carton of dates this week just for the oddity of it. They are supposed to be a special kind of date, better than any kind they ever export. People keep them for themselves as there are not many of them. They are also stuffed, but you needn’t be afraid that they are dirty or full of germs (note 43). They were stuffed by reliable hands – one of our teachers gave them to me. I also sent a carton to Grandpa and Grandma and also to Grandpa Gosselink and Mrs. Scholten in Boyden.
We got unexpected news from the Board in New York this week. Friday night I had dinner with the Van Esses, and the first thing I heard when I got there was, “The Board won’t let us go home on furlough next spring.” The Board seems to be so short of money that they can’t even afford to pay the passages of the Barneys, Van Peursems and Bilkerts back to the field next summer, so they have to extend their furlough indefinitely, and for the same reason they asked the Van Esses to postpone their furlough for a year. While they don’t mind personally for themselves, and have answered the Board that they accept the decision, it does cause some difficulties. At Annual Meeting this year, Mr. Moerdyk was appointed to take Mr. Van Ess’ place and Ruth Jackson to take over Mrs. Van Ess’ work, and that will have to change. Mrs. Firman was planning to travel home with the Van Esses. Now she can’t go to America next spring as she cannot travel alone, so she is bound to stay here. But the doctor says she can’t stay in Basrah next summer and she can’t go to India to Kodaikanal because the altitude is too high and she has heart trouble. They are thinking of going to Persia with the whole family. But even with all the inconveniences, Mr. Van Ess is tickled pink and Mrs. Van Ess is not sorry either. Their hearts are in their work here and this has come to be their home. Mr. Van Ess doesn’t want to go on furlough at all, except for a month or two to visit relatives. He gets out of patience with the people over there and begins quarreling with them, and the worst is that the Board always sends him to just that kind of people he has no patience for, and he has to speak to them and try to collect money from them.
I am tickled too that they are staying another year. They surely are wonderful people and are awfully good to me. That means also that we will be in America at the same time. We were talking about that yesterday, and Mr. Van Ess said, “Then perhaps we will be able to attend your wedding.” Possibly. Who knows?
December 2, 1923
It’s December again and soon it will be Christmas. We had Thanksgiving Day this week. A holiday like that seems to put a special cheer into the whole week. Coming to the mission field doesn’t seem to detract any from the joy of celebrating these different Christian holidays, if anything it adds to them. We had school in the morning but Mr. Van Ess dismissed the boys for the afternoon. Mrs. Van Ess served a wonderful dinner. Besides the Van Ess family and Mrs. Firman, Miss Kellien and I were the only guests there. We had roast goose, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, green peas, vegetable salad, mince pie and pumpkin pie, and loads of fresh fruit, nuts and other good things. We were at the table most of the afternoon. You can imagine we didn’t care for much supper, but just the same we had more leftovers brought into the drawing room and nibbled away in front of the fireplace with a big fire going. And all the while we talked and talked, played games and tricks, and had a special program for the children.
The next morning I also got your package of bacon. That surely was a surprise. I don’t know how you meant I should use it, whether I should keep it for myself or not, but anyway I did not keep it. It would hardly do for me to eat bacon for breakfast with the boys of the boarding school. I would be considered unclean for the rest of my life if they saw me eating bacon. Mr. and Mrs. Van Ess always do so much for me, so I turned it over to them. This morning Mrs. Van Ess asked me over for breakfast and we had some honest to goodness bacon and eggs. It was surely good. Mr. and Mrs. Van Ess simply raved about it and told me to tell you so. Tonight we will have some more of the bacon in club sandwiches for our supper in front of the fire.
I wonder what you folks did on Thanksgiving. I wonder if you had another one of those big family reunions, and I wish I could have been there if you did. But I doubt if I will ever spend many more Thanksgivings or any other holiday at home. That’s the only thing that keeps Thanksgiving from being as nice out here – not being able to have your mother and father and all the rest of the family around. Maybe someday you will do just like Mrs. Firman, come around and visit your children a while wherever they may be.
December 9, 1923
Christmas season is in the air. It’s wonderful that we, even in this land, can enjoy this glorious Christmas season to the fullest. The boys are busy again rigging up some kind of special program. The Jackson sisters have just passed their language examination in Bahrain and are moving up to be stationed here for their work. We expect them at the end of the week. With them the Conklins from India are also arriving. I’ve written about them before. So we will have quite a merry crowd here.
Sometime when you have a chance, will you send my army pants if you still have them. There is no hurry, sometime when you are sending some other things. I would have a lot of use for them around here and especially next summer if that wild scheme I have in my head now works out. You see, next summer if I want, I can go to India at mission expense for my vacation. But I am not so keen on that. I would have to go alone and I am not eager to go to the place where missionaries usually go in South India. So I would probably go Kashmir in the north. But the places I want to visit are places where a lady could go, too, so I would much rather wait until Crissy can go with me. I have an idea of what I might do which I would enjoy just as much as India and wouldn’t be able to do if I had to take a wife along! That is, go up to Mosul again and go with Roger Cumberland up into the Kurdish mountains among the Kurdish villages for a couple months tramp. That’s where Cumberland does his regular work, and he would be glad to have my company. It would be mostly walking as any other means of locomotion is impossible, and that’s where the army pants come would come in handy. It’s cold enough there for woolen army pants and a woolen shirt even in summer.
December 24, 1923
Yesterday I didn’t have a speck of time as we were all busy showing all the guests around. The people from Bahrain and India arrived Tuesday morning. The Conklins also brought a girl along, not a regular missionary but I think she teaches in the same school Miss Chamberlain, who was here last year, taught in. When the Jackson sisters rolled in with all their luggage and boxes, I thot they had brought the whole of Bahrain with them. They had twenty boxes in all and they have been busy all week unpacking and getting settled.
I got a letter from Grandpa and Grandma this week, part of it was in Dutch. The Dutch in the Dutch script was quite a puzzle to me but I got thru alright. In it they sent Christmas greetings to Mr. Van Ess and family. It was in Dutch, so I let Mr. Van Ess read that for himself and he fairly gloated over it. He likes to look at their picture, too. “Lieve oude menshen,” he always says.
We are going to have Christmas tomorrow. We are surely going to have a good time with this big family. I am expecting Major Yates any time now. He is going to stay with me. We will eat over at the Van Ess’ house. I must get busy and get hold of a Christmas tree.
December 30, 1923
Well, Christmas is past and we surely had a nice Christmas. We got the tree set up and decorated on Monday and in the evening everybody played Santa Claus and put their presents on or around the tree. There was a pile of things, but there were fifteen of us. The Dykstras came down from Amarah to spend Christmas here, too. Christmas morning we had to get up early to get breakfast and the presents over with by the time callers began coming. Mr. Van Ess had to sit again all day long and receive callers. In the morning all the rest of us went to the Church of England Service. There wasn’t much of a service, but they sang a good many Christmas carols and that was nice.
The day after Christmas the whole bunch of us went up the river for a nice long trip in Dykstra’s launch. It was an ideal day, just snappy enough that you needed an overcoat, and the weather was clear and sunshiny. We went about twenty or twenty-five miles. We took all the leftovers along for lunch, which we ate right on the boat. We stopped for a couple hours at the camp of a very rich Beduin shaikh. I guess he owns about as much land as half the size of Iowa. They do not have houses but only tents, like the black tents of Kedar in which the sons of Ishmael lived. Last year the shaikh had two of his sons in our school. We started back and reached Basrah about an hour after sundown. It was wonderful to see the sunset from the river, everything tinged with color. And when it began to grow dark, we got the beautiful silhouette of boats and bellums and trees against the water and the sky. As soon as we got back home, the boys had their program in school which they had made up entirely by themselves and that was pretty good, too.
January 6, 1924
Well the holidays are over and we are down to solid work again. We had a pleasant New Year’s Day. We were going to have school in the morning and dismiss the students for the afternoon, since it wasn’t really a holiday for the boys and wasn’t the first of the year in the Arabic calendar. But everybody was feeling down for having to go to school on New Year’s Day, the faculty as well as the boys, so Mr. Van Ess dismissed school for the whole day. We had a big turkey dinner. An Arab friend had brought the turkey on Christmas, too late to enjoy him then, so he was saved for New Year’s dinner. He surely was some bird. In the afternoon we went for another ride in Dykstra’s launch.
This afternoon I went to a betrothal ceremony. It’s a funny business in this land. Mohammedans have a strange custom concerning betrothal, but the ceremony of the native Christians is almost as strange. Mr. Van Ess presided. I went with him first to the house of the bridegroom-to-be where a whole lot of people were gathered, and we sat a while and had refreshments. Then Mr. Van Ess was given a box all decorated up which contained the engagement ring, and this he had to take over to the house of the bride-to-be and put the ring on the finger of the girl. In this house another large crowd was gathered, making merry. We sat around for a while and that was the end of the ceremony. It seems strange that even among the Christians, when a man marries he has to pay the bride’s parents a certain sum which they have agreed to, just as if he were buying his wife.
January 27, 1924
It’s been just an ordinary quiet week again, rather wet and unpleasant weather a good part of the time, too. We had rain three days this week and it is raining again today – and we have mud galore. Iowa mud is nothing compared to Basrah mud. Even when we go from one building to another, we almost sink away in the mud.
We’re having lots of rain this year and that means it will be a quiet and peaceable year among the tribes. In this country the weather has everything to do with the political situation. If there has been lots of rain during the winter, the grain crops will be good and so the tribes people will be too busy with farming and won’t have time for fighting or raiding other tribes, and they are perfectly content because they have food for themselves and pasture for their herds and flocks. In a dry year there is no grain and so partly because they have no work to do and partly because they need food and pasture, they begin to raid other tribes and so everything is in unrest.
Mr. Moerdyk arrived this week and has been getting himself settled in his suite just opposite mine. He has already started his work as “padre” by taking charge of the church service today. Mr. Van Ess threw up his hat and had a regular celebration when Mr. Moerdyk arrived because that meant that he didn’t have to preach anymore.
You asked a lot of questions about our work here. We have six teachers besides Mr. Van Ess and myself. Five are native Christians and have developed into the spirit of the mission pretty well so they don’t break down anything the mission is trying to do. The sixth is one of the boys who graduated last year, a Moslem. I think he is really a Christian at heart and would declare himself a Christian if he could do so without being ousted from his family and being practically exiled by everybody else. He has aspirations to become a doctor, so pretty soon we are going to send him to Bahrain, where Dr. Dame will train him for a while before he goes to some medical school.
Yes we know where every one of last year’s graduates is and we are getting encouraging reports about them. They all have positions in either government or private companies. We are going to take one of them ourselves soon to take the place of the teacher who is going to Bahrain. Remember that all but one of last year’s graduates were Moslems, but now everybody who has anything to do with them praises their high character.
I don’t know what I wrote to give the impression that we never mention Christianity to any of the boys, but we certainly do. Mr. Van Ess teaches nothing but Bible to different groups of students all day long – the Gospels, not the Old Testament. And when the boys talk to me, I don’t have to argue for Christianity – they know enough to argue among themselves. I think some of these boys could be as sincere Christians as any boy or girl of the same age in a Christian family. But if they would make a definite confession of Christianity here, it would almost be like committing suicide.
You asked about how our flower garden is getting along. Well, things have a strange way of growing here. All those seeds that we planted last fall will not bloom until summer or even next fall. Most of them have to be planted almost a year before they bloom. Grain is sown as early as August or September, but it does not grow until the winter rains are over, and it is ready for harvest in April. You asked about sending some flower bulbs and seeds, but it happens that we have every kind that you mentioned. The chrysanthemum season is just over and we surely had loads of them and several other kinds, too. They were all planted just after the rains about a year ago.
This week I sent Crissy two copies of the picture we had taken of the whole bunch on Christmas day and she’ll give one to you (note 44). But do be careful when you show that picture to others because Mrs. Van Ess’ three servants are there, too, and some people are apt to take that wrong. They immediately think that missionaries live in high style and luxury, with servants and everything and that people at home have to pay for all that. But where the woman has a full time mission appointment, she doesn’t have time to cook and do all the housework. So she has a cook to do the cooking as well as shopping in the bazaar, and she must have a man to do the housework, too, and that is a lot of work with visitors coming and staying with them all the time. That kind of work is done by men here, because women work in their own houses and can not work in other houses where there are men around. And then of course she – that is, Mrs. Van Ess – must have a nurse to take care of the children because she can not take them everywhere she goes. She goes out every morning and very often does not come home for lunch at noon but gets back late in the afternoon – visiting the women in their homes, reading to them, teaching them, looking after the poor people and doing all sorts of things. And it’s the same way with all the missionary families. But there are many people who are altogether too anxious to get some excuse for not supporting missions, and they are just as likely to take this servant thing as a reason simply because they do not understand. Missions have suffered a good many times because of this kind of misunderstanding.
February 3, 1924
We are still having lots of rain. People say they haven’t seen so much rain in one year for a good many years. There has been too much rain for several of the houses – you see, all the houses are built of mud brick which won’t burn very hard and can’t stand so much rain. Four or five old houses in Basrah City have collapsed. One house went down in the middle of the night and seven people were buried under it and killed. The roofs of the houses are flat and made of mud, too, and I don’t believe there is a house in Basrah that doesn’t leak at least a little. Our roofs have stood up pretty well, at least I’m still perfectly dry in my rooms.
By the way, I’ve never heard very much about your selling that farm. You wrote that you had sold it for so much an acre to someone – I don’t remember the name – but that is all you wrote. You didn’t explain what the terms were or whether they are so that they ease up the payments on the farm you live on now. Maybe it’s not my business, but I am interested in your financial affairs because I want to know whether you will be in a position to help me go to school some more when I get back without breaking the bank. I don’t have much chance to save money here. If I went to either one of our church seminaries, the Board would probably help me, unless they are still as tight financially as they are now, but as it looks now I won’t be going to seminary. I don’t want to take all that time in a regular seminary course when I can get all I want in half the time by taking special courses in education, religion, pedagogy, etc. in some other school. Well, we’ll see how it goes.
February 10, 1924
I guess some of the cold that you spoke of in your last letter has drifted over here, at least it’s been pretty chilly the last few days. I seem to feel the cold more here than at home. Forty degrees feels like zero does over there. I suppose that’s because the heat of the summer burns your bones hollow and that allows the draft to howl thru them in winter.
I was very interested in what you wrote about adopting that Indian boy. I suppose he will go to school while he lives with you. Does that mean you will have to support him? If you did that it would be part of your share of missionary work. I wish more people would feel the responsibility of doing something like that. We could send a shipload of boys from here to be put in Christian homes over there. But there seems to be lots of money for other things but not for missions. With the appropriations we have this year we won’t be able to run the school for a whole year. We’ve either got to dismiss a couple of our teachers and run the school on one leg or run until the money runs out and then just close the school, unless we can scratch together some money ourselves from somewhere. The Board has given Mr. Van Ess – our field treasurer – the maximum we can expect for the mission this year. Ever since he came back to Basrah from Annual Meeting he has been working on that budget, cutting and slicing the estimates for different departments in every possible way, and still there isn’t enough. For evangelistic work it is not so bad, because they can slow down a bit, but if the school appropriations get cut, we have to go along half-shod. Mr. Dykstra has already had to give up river touring because there isn’t money to support running that launch, so the launch is simply tied up, doing nothing, and rotting. And Dykstra now has to confine his work to Amarah itself.
February 16, 1924
It’s been an awfully quiet week again – nothing doing and nothing to write about. That doesn’t mean that it’s monotonous, quite the opposite. There are always things that are happening that keep things alive, visits from the boys, meeting new people, walking around thru the bazaars. In school the classes are always interesting. I’ve just started a class in geography of the Near East – a new book published last year. I am learning a lot myself – two or three evenings this week I just spent reading it. But the boys don’t catch on to it at all. You would think they would be interested in the geography of their own part of the world – maybe they are interested but just don’t get the hang of it yet. That just means that I have to buckle down and find some way in which they will soak it up. So it goes all the time, and lots of little things make the time fly.
I begin to feel the handicap of not knowing the language more and more. The first year there was enough to do in getting adjusted to the new environment. But now that that is past, I would like to be able to do much more and that requires a thorough knowledge of the language. In school the boys don’t know enough English to fully understand what I say and they can’t explain what they want to say. At first, when I didn’t know a word of Arabic, I simply didn’t pay attention to anybody talking Arabic, but now when I can understand a few words, almost to get the drift of what they are talking about, if they are talking about everyday things, but can’t understand it all, I get “nervis” as John Jr. would say. I envy Mr. Van Ess and Mr. Moerdyk when they are talking with Arabs and are perfectly at ease in their language. But if I could really get down and study the language, even if I could give all my time to it, it would be close to the end of my term here before I could really understand and make myself understood in Arabic.
February 24, 1924
One of the moving picture houses has been showing the Old Testament, beginning with the creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the whole works. The whole thing is in four or five parts and they showed two parts last week. They gave it two afternoons after school especially for school children. Monday afternoon there were only children from the mission schools there. Rachel Jackson brought some of her Christian students and younger Mohammedan students from the Girls School. Of course the older Mohammedan girls can’t go to a public place like that. The picture was pretty good – it surprised me – and the children enjoyed it. You should have heard them shout, “No! No!” when Eve was going to take the forbidden fruit and again when she offered it to Adam. They especially liked the part about Abraham. The story of Abraham is always a favorite with them. Mohammedans hold that Islam existed before Mohammed lived and that Abraham was really a pioneer Moslem. They also hold that God commanded Abraham to offer his son Ishmael as a sacrifice instead of Isaac.
March 1, 1924
Not much has happened this week. We had some more movies of the Bible, a continuation of what we had last week – Joseph, Moses, Ruth and Solomon – but they weren’t as good as last week. They brought in a couple things which are not true to the Bible at all. For instance, when Moses went up the mountain to die, they had a whole crowd of people following him and they buried him. Another thing was a strictly Mohammedan tradition and not in the Bible. To show the wisdom of Solomon, they told the story of two brothers who had a dispute about their inheritance from their father who had just died. To settle the dispute, Solomon ordered the body of the dead father to be brought in and gave each brother a bow and arrow, and said that he would make his judgment according to which one would shoot closest to his father’s heart. The one brother shot but the other refused to shoot at his father, and accordingly Solomon gave the inheritance to that brother. They left out the story of the two mothers and the baby.
March 8, 1924
I guess I’ll begin by answering some of your questions, tho I think I have answered a good many of them in the last couple of months but maybe not all. Last year everything was new and there was always something to write about. Now things are getting more or less ordinary and I forget to write about them. Maybe the second year is the worst in the missionary’s life on the field. The first year has been a whirl of new things all the time and the second time they are no longer new and you don’t feel that excitement. I still may be missing a lot, and that is why I feel the lack of knowing the language. But there is still plenty to do – reading, studying, figuring out a better method of teaching – at least more than enough to keep me busy.
I am teaching every hour of the day in school – that is ten half hour periods. I have three classes of reading – second third and fourth grade – three classes of grammar and composition, arithmetic, geography, book keeping and physics – not a hard schedule but a steady grind the whole day. Makes one glad just to sit down for a while after school and do nothing. I don’t teach Bible. Mr. Van Ess is taking all the Bible teaching himself – he has every boy in school for a period a day in Bible.
I don’t go around with the boys as much as last year, that is to their homes. But more of that will happen later in the spring. But even if I don’t go out with the boys as much, the reason is that the boys are around school more. Last year we had no playground so there was little for them to do outside of school hours, but this year we have a good playground and almost everyday there is a big gang of boys playing there until dark – even on Saturdays and Sundays. I asked Mr. Van Ess whether I should allow them to play football (soccer) and such things on Sunday, and he said he would leave it to me – to give them permission as I thot best. So I figured that we could not expect the boys to sit around all day long doing nothing, and that if I didn’t give them permission they would only go somewhere else, most likely a worse place. So I gave them permission to play on condition that they would not play during church time, because they would be right next to the church and would disturb the service. The result is that a good many of these boys have been coming to the service, wiling away their time until church is out and they can begin to play. And that is where we want them to be – in the atmosphere of the church and mission influence rather than scattered around town. So we are happy to have them here, even if we have to let them play football on Sunday. I sometimes play with them, and afterwards before they go home they sit down to rest and talk with me for a while.
Nick asked whether there was any need on the mission field for someone trained in music. I don’t see much chance for one to be of use here with music only, but this isn’t the only mission. There might be opportunities in India and Japan, where they are much more advanced than here. As for other work, I don’t see that a full seminary course would be of much use unless you were going into evangelistic work, but a year or two of general training above college would almost be a necessity for any department of mission work. That’s why I want to get more training in education. Without it I could never be more than just an assistant to Mr. Van Ess. I would never be able to take full charge of the work, at least for a good many years, simply because I don’t know enough. But with a few more years of schooling, I would be able to take Mr. Van Ess’ place someday or be able to start a school some place where there is nothing yet, and I would be able to point to that as something I had started and built up myself.
March 15, 1924
I believe Mother is getting to be a pretty good Arab. In this week’s letter she used the phrase “if God wills” just like a real Arab. I remember when we first came out, Moerdyk told the Hakkens and me that we should never say “Yes” but always “Insha’llah” and that is just about the way it is with Arabs. They use it in so many ways, too. You ask, “How are you?” they say “Insha’llah.” You say, “It’s a nice day.” They say “Insha’llah.” Or they use another phrase. You ask, “How are you? they say “Elhamdulillah” – Praise God. “How is your brother?” “Elhamdulillah” “It’s a nice day.” “Elhamdulillah” - and so on.
So far we haven’t been bothered much this year with all the assortment of holidays that we have here. There have not been many Mohammedan holidays yet – they will be coming soon. There have been Jewish and Christian holidays, but it has gotten so that they don’t dare ask to be excused because they are afraid they will be kicked out of school. We have two hundred boys in school now, which is more than we have room for, and Mr. Van Ess has warned the Christians and Jews that they have to come up to the mark or they will be dismissed. So they come meekly, holidays or no holidays. At the end of next week and the following week tho, there will be a whole flock of holidays all at the same time – Christian, Jewish and Mohammedan – so we are going to give them ten days of spring vacation. About the second week of April Ramadhan, the month of fasting, begins again, which will also affect our school, but we can’t have vacations all the time.
I don’t know yet what I will do during vacation. I had a mind to go up to Ur and see the work of excavation there, but they have again stopped work until next fall. They have gone to Baghdad. They use the summer to decipher and catalog the things that they have found over the winter. So, since they have stopped work, I don’t know that it is worth the trip just to see the ruins, which are really just a hill of dirt. They have been finding some valuable stuff again this winter in regard to things proving ancient history and Old Testament history, too. Mr. Wooley was down here one day last week before going back to England and he showed us a cup which was five thousand years old.
Mr. Dykstra dropped in on us unexpectedly yesterday. He was on his way to Nasariyah, up the Euphrates not far from Ur. Nasariyah is part of the Amarah station territory and Mr. Dykstra has a Bible shop there with a native Christian in change, and he has to go there every once in a while to look things over. Now since the launch is tied up and not used at all because of the lack of money, he had to come down to Basrah (he bummed his way as a deck passenger on a steamer) and will take the train from here. While he is here he is staying with Mr. Moerdyk and me and eating with us in the dormitory.
March 22, 1924
We are having vacation this week. I might wish you a Happy New Year as it was the Persian New Year yesterday. Although it is a Persian holiday, Arabs observe it as well, and everybody was out celebrating yesterday on the river and in the gardens, although it looks more like a county fair than anything else, the way people crowd together in one place instead of in small groups picnicking by themselves. Their idea of a nice quiet boat ride on the river is to go to a place where there are already a couple hundred boats all bumping and pulling and pushing each other.
March 29, 1924
Here it is the end of vacation again and I’ve done hardly any of the things I was planning to do. I haven’t been idle. A new American Consul for Bushire, one of the Persian ports up the Gulf, has been staying with me all week and left by ship this morning. He has been Consul in Jerusalem for the last eight months. He drove his own car from Jerusalem to Baghdad along with one of the convoys of the trans-desert transport companies, and also most of the way from Baghdad to Basrah, except for about seventy-five miles where the road was impossible and he had to load his car on a river barge. I went around with him to show him around, meet people and get his business done. Yesterday was a fine morning for driving so we drove out to Zubair, which is always interesting because it is still an Arab town, the gateway to the interior. Camel caravans start off from there. You also see a lot of real Beduin tribal people, small and thin but tough as leather. Another afternoon I took John and Alice to see the circus in town. There isn’t much to the circus itself, but they also have three or four elephants, five tigers, a couple of lions, monkeys, deer, trained horses and dogs, and these animals were nice for the children to see.
By the way – although April first will be long past by the time you get this – do you know the origin of April fool in the Bible? Look up Hezekiah 2:10.
April 5, 1924
I got your letter again last Monday. It was in answer to my letter which I wrote less than two months ago. How small the world is growing (note 45).
We are living in great days now for Iraq. The first national parliament of the Iraqi state is at present in session and being organized. Last week an order came that all schools should be closed on Constitution Day, a new Iraqi holiday in honor of the opening day of the first Iraqi Parliament. We had vacation anyway so it didn’t affect us. Everybody here is eager to find out what they are making of it. Most Basrah people regard it more as a joke than anything else, although they do have their representatives there, too. Our teachers were joking about it the other day and one of them said that the first thing the Parliament would have to do is pass a law saying that all the furniture in their assembly hall should be screwed down to the floor, so that if the members got into an argument, they wouldn’t be able to take up the chairs and tables and throw them at each other. Most Basrah people are too well satisfied with British administration to want any independent government (note 46).
The big news here is that Mustapha Kemal, the leader of the Turkish forces and top man in the Turkish government, has thrown out all religion from the government of Turkey – the religion of course being Islam. Under Mustapha Kemal government and religion will be absolutely separate, as they are in the U.S. You see, Islam is a religion of the sword, and the sword of Islam has always been represented by Turkey. Now that Mustapha Kemal has thrown religion out of government, Islam is without a religious and military head. The Caliph, who was the religious and temporal head of Islam, in whose name Moslem prayers are made, has been exiled from Turkey and has had to flee to Switzerland. It is interesting that he had to go to a Christian country for protection. King Hussein of the Hejaz, who is also the Sherif of Mecca, has set himself up a Caliph of all Islam, and Iraq and Transjordan and a few other Arab countries have already recognized him as such. But that is because King Faisal of Iraq and the Emir Abdullah of Transjordan are sons of King Hussein. Persia will never recognize him, nor will Egypt or the Moslems of India, Turkey and Russia, and it is doubtful that Morocco and other north African countries will. It is likely that there will be a split in Islam, with separate caliphs over each part. Anyway, no matter what happens, all these doings won’t hurt the work of missions – it will rather help it along. All those people who are the least bit weak in their Mohammedan faith may be more willing to accept Christianity, especially because of the instability of Islam.
April 12, 1924
Ramadhan is upon us again. It started just a week ago. It has been very nice and cool so that helps make their fasting not quite so hard. It must be awfully hard when Ramadhan is in mid-summer and they can’t even take a drop of water from sun-up to sun-down. You see the Arabic year is eleven days shorter than ours, and so according to the calendar, Ramadhan comes that much earlier every year, so it makes a complete cycle in thirty-three years.
We have also begun running school one session a day, beginning at 6:30 in the morning and finishing at 12:15. I like this schedule fine. It is easier to get the boys to school early in the morning than to keep them from falling asleep in the afternoon. I am surprised at the way they come so early in the morning – only a few are late and very few are absent – no more than usual.
I think a few more boys are fasting this year than last. But they aren’t very sincere about it. None of them do their prayers, most don’t even know their prayers. At the beginning of the week none of the boys fasted, but then one evening some boys came to me and said they were going to begin fasting the next day. I couldn’t forbid it in the dormitory – that would only make them antagonistic, for they feel they are being very sincere – so I kidded them a little and let them go their way. I thot one of them would give up his fast before three days were out but the others would have more perseverance. They all started out strong – got up early before sunrise, ate some bread with cold water because the cook wasn’t around yet, and then went back to bed while the rest of us had breakfast. They stayed bravely away from the table at noon. About the middle of the afternoon, the first boy came to me and said he was dying from hunger and was going to stop fasting even if the other boys killed him for it, and he asked me to tell the cook to give him something to eat. I said I couldn’t help him, because when he said he was going to fast, I had told the cook not to prepare anything for him. But he begged and pleaded, so finally I sent him to the kitchen. The other boys are still going strong, more to let me see that they can do it than because it is a religious duty. I think they would feel ashamed of giving it up now that they have started. The other boys in school kid them along – whenever they haven’t got their lessons or have failed to do something, they say, “Oh, that’s right. You are fasting.” They joke about it among themselves, too.
It is awful that I forgot your silver wedding anniversary until you mentioned it in your letter. It is too bad you didn’t have more of a celebration. If you are never going to have any celebration if all your children aren’t at home, I am afraid you won’t have many more celebrations.
When the Iraqi Government seized the school in 1969, they took all the school’s documents and records.
The Central College newspaper, edited that year by Crissy.
After description of date packing in the cherdachs a few weeks before, he must have felt the need to reassure his parents about these dates. There are as many kinds of dates as there are apples.
Top: Yusuf, Ali, Mary Ayah. Second: Rachel Jackson, Dirk Dykstra, John V.E., Jr. John Van Ess, Minnie Dykstra, Ruth Jackson. Third: Dorothy Van Ess, mother Mrs. Firman, Alice V.E., Mrs. Conklin, Miss Conklin. Bottom row: George Gosselink, Miss Luce, Charlotte Kellien, Major Yates.
As he mentioned in an earlier letter, mail was now going overland to the Mediterranean rather than via Bombay by sea.
It is difficult to evaluate the truth of this statement. This was certainly the opinion of John Van Ess, who felt that even the recent tribal revolt was more a matter of expressing grievances than a call for independence. And it should be mentioned that the people of Basrah had prospered under British government during the war and immediately afterwards. They were unsure about what rule from Baghdad would mean.
|Iraq||CONTENTS||Christians and Jews|
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