|Basrah||CONTENTS||The School of High Hope|
The end of the World War I left the British in occupation of the three former Ottoman vilayets of Basrah, Baghdad and Mosul. They had already decided to hold on to Basrah and Baghdad, perhaps as an extension of their colonial rule in India, the whole of the Persian Gulf area being seen as part of Britain’s sphere of influence. But the vilayet of Mosul posed some difficulties. The Turkish government of Mustafa Kemal was demanding its return, and the French, who had already occupied adjacent Syria, had designs on Mosul as well. The multi-ethnic people of the area, especially the Kurds (note 20), were not eager to throw in their lot with the Arabs to the south. But, in the end, especially when they realized the area might have large deposits of oil (note 21), the British decided to keep it and incorporate Mosul, Baghdad and Basrah into the nation of Iraq (note 22).
Baghdad on the Tigris River
The British civil administrators in Iraq felt they could govern the diverse population in much the same way as their colleagues were governing India, not surprising since most of them had had their training and experience there. They felt the Iraqis would welcome their just and efficient administration. The High Commissioner, Sir Arnold Wilson, wrote in 1918, “The average [Iraqi] Arab, as opposed to the handful of amateur politicians in Baghdad, sees the future as of one of fair dealing and material and moral progress under the aegis of Britain . . The Arabs are content with our occupation (note 23).”
They were not. Most Iraqis were not ready simply to exchange their Turkish masters for English, particularly as the latter were not even Muslim. Many of the educated classes had accepted the Wilsonian promise of self determination and independence. They rejected what they saw as colonial rule. Others, particularly among the tribes, were disaffected when the British, in the name of reform and a more rational taxation system, violated tribal law and long held customs and traditions. Anger at the British united Sunni and Shi’i Muslims, and even the Kurds for a time, in their opposition to British rule. In 1920, violence erupted throughout Iraq. Small groups of tribesmen attacked British troops and installations with hit and run tactics all over the country, particularly in the lower Euphrates area, and it was more than six months before the British were able to put down the rebellion, at the cost of many lives and much treasure. One of the more effective ways of countering this insurrection, they had discovered, was the use of aerial attacks, the bombing of villages and desert encampments.
Even before the outbreak of the revolt, in an effort to mollify the Iraqis and gain their support, the British had tried to assure them that Iraq would not become a colony but rather a Mandate of Great Britain, by the authority of the League of Nations, under which Britain would prepare the Iraqi people for eventual self-rule. The Iraqis were suspicious, particularly since no specific time was given for the termination of the Mandate, but with special inducements and arm twisting, many of the leaders were persuaded to accept the inevitable decision of the Britain and League of Nations. Following the rebellion, the British began to implement the plan and establish the framework for Arab government. A Council of State was named, made up of British selected “notables.” The “notables” came from all the major confessional groups. Sunni Muslims predominated, but Shi’i Muslims, Christians and Jews were also represented. Arab ministers were appointed to the various ministries, and at the local level Arab officials began to replace British political officers. Of course, at all levels British advisors had the final authority.
To head this government, Britain needed a leader. Several prominent Iraqis were considered. The Naqib Al Ashraf, leader of the descendents of the Prophet in Baghdad and head of the interim Council of State, was considered too old. The Naqib of Basrah, Sayyid Talib Pasha, whose sons attended the Mission school, had helped the British during the war and had been appointed to head the Ministry of the Interior. He was perhaps the most popular Iraqi candidate and was gaining support throughout the country. However, he lost the confidence of the British when he coined the slogan, “Iraq for the Iraqis” and spoke too openly of the right of Iraqis to choose their own leader (note 24). Fearing that he would always be a thorn in their side, the British arrested and deported him to Ceylon.
The favorite candidate of the British administrators in Baghdad was not an Iraqi but the son of the Sherif of Mecca and leader, with T. E. Lawrence, of the “Arab Revolt” against Ottoman rule in Arabia and Palestine. The British thought of the Amir Faisal as a proven leader with good credentials (note 25) who could draw the Iraqi people together and would not be beholden to any of the various factions and interest groups. By the same token, however, he had no following among the Iraqis, who were not impressed by his pedigree or experience. But again, with inducements and arm twisting, the British persuaded the “notables” and other leaders in Iraq to accept him, and in August 1921, Faisal was crowned King of Iraq. While popular support was lukewarm at best, Iraq entered a new era (note 26).
John Van Ess’ position in all of these matters was somewhat ambivalent. In spite of his friendship with Iraqis of all classes, he at first favored the continuation of British rule. He felt that he knew “the Arab (note 27).” Dad’s statement in one letter must have been almost a direct quote from Van Ess, “The Arabs may be good for some things, but they are no good for self-government.” Van Ess argued with Gertrude Bell, the Oriental Secretary and political advisor to the British High Commissioner and a major architect of the policy of Iraqi self rule. The Van Esses had gotten to know Bell when she was posted to Basrah shortly after the start of the War and, in spite of their differences, they were close friends. “But Gertrude,” he said on one occasion, “You are flying in the face of four millenniums of history if you try to draw a line around Iraq and call it a political entity (note 28).” He felt that no Arab leader would be able to overcome the traditional animosity between Sunnis and Shi’is, tribe and tribe, Kurd and Arab. When they discussed possible leaders who might be able to win the support of the tribal shaikhs and urban leaders, Van Ess favored Sayyid Talib Pasha. Bell adamantly rejected his suggestion. She offered the Amir Faisal. He warned that the Iraqis would never accept an outsider. Van Ess must have been angered when Talib was arrested and deported, with the complicity of Bell, but they remained friends (note 29). Later, when Van Ess had the opportunity to meet and get to know King Faisal, he changed his mind. He found Faisal to be a man of integrity, honor and charm and he was heartened when Iraqis seemed to accept his leadership, too. He was still skeptical of “Arab government.”
The British Residency in Baghdad
March 15, 1923
I don’t know what happened to the mail last week but I haven’t received any yet. Some say it all had to be censored and some say it just missed a connection somewhere. They have been censoring some letters lately, none of my letters yet but some of the Van Esses’ and others that I know. I don’t know what the idea is. Maybe it is just a streak of Arab government. Mr. Van Ess jokes about problems that come up and often says, “That’s Arab government for you.” The Arabs may be good for some things but they are no good for self-government. They are trying now, at least to a large extent – the British are still in occupation – but they are making a mess of many things already. For example, in many of the city offices and law courts there have been Persians and other non-Arabs holding positions. Persians have more experience and are more capable than Arabs in general in these kinds of jobs. But now the government is throwing out all these non-Arabs and putting in Arabs in their place, and they don’t know a third as much and often ask for bribes before they will do anything.
I was at the Van Esses’ house for tea last Saturday. There were also some Mohammedan women present, and they took off their veils and black abas even while I was there. When they saw me they started putting on their veils again, but when they found out who I was they didn’t hesitate anymore to unveil and were very friendly. They belong to a good family and are good friends of the mission. The younger one of the two had been in Miss Kellien’s school and spoke good English and was just as refined a young lady as she could be. She even got up and passed tea and cake around, even to me – a man – which was an honor Mrs. Van Ess said I could remember to my dying day. This family also had a son in our school and he now has a good position in the courts.
March 24, 1923
Vacation has just started and I have again moved over to the Van Esses for the time. We are having eleven or twelve days vacation before the final stretch to the middle of July. Thursday was the Persian New Year, so it was quite a holiday, a good start for our vacation. Everybody went picnicking in the gardens and along the creeks. For one day in the year man, woman and child was let loose, even the women of the harems, tho veiled on the street, as soon as they got out in the gardens they abandoned the veil. As you saw them whiz by in cars you could catch a glimpse of them all dolled up in their Sunday best. One of the boys who has a car took me on a long ride in the gardens and we saw picnic parties every couple yards and crowds of people on the roads.
March 29, 1923
Today was Good Friday and I suppose everybody has been planting potatoes over there. Our vacation is almost over again and I hardly know where this week has gone. I did a lot of reading and helped do some painting in the Van Ess house and other things like that, which doesn’t seem to be very much in proportion to what I was planning to do. One day the Van Esses and I and the other teachers were invited up to the same place where I went with some of the boys some weeks ago, and had another very nice time.
It’s a great country we are living in over here. All sorts of wild tales are flying around and every one that comes around has some new story to tell about Arab government – rebellion among the tribes, British evacuation, downfall of King Faisal’s regime, Turkish reoccupation and all such stuff, and one says the opposite of what others say. But don’t worry – it’s Arab government and we take it for what it is worth, and no matter what happens, it can’t affect us in the least. About the only thing that is stable around here at all is one clause in the treaty which provides that missionary work can not be interfered with in Iraq as long as it does not endanger peace and public morals (note 30).
April 5, 1923
Basrah, and especially the Van Esses, seems to be a regular sort of clearing house for the Persian missionaries. Late last fall about a dozen missionaries came up by ship and Mrs. Van Ess put them up for two days while they took care of their luggage and waited for the train to Baghdad. From Baghdad they go by car up to Tehran. They telegraph ahead from Bombay when they are coming or from Baghdad when they are going home and Mr. Van Ess always meets them at the ship or train. Early this week a man and his wife arrived from Baghdad and yesterday another couple arrived and they are waiting for next week’s boat. The boat from Bombay is bringing three who are on their way to Persia. It makes it pretty crowded for the Mrs. Van Ess, but she always makes them welcome. If they don’t all fit in her house, she puts them in the little bungalow that Miss Kellien used to have. And she may send a couple men over to stay with me. I can do that fine, at least if they want to eat Arab food. They always carry their own bedding. In this country you have to do that because they never provide bedding for you on trains or even in hotels.
Anyway this is a fine chance to get acquainted with them and will insure a good welcome for any Arabian missionaries who go to Persia. Many of our missionaries will be going to Persia for vacation instead of to India. The climate is better than India and it’s not as expensive. Mrs. Van Ess would go there this year if it weren’t that she wants to put John in school in India. There is a good school for missionary children in South India where both Arabian and India missionaries can sent their children. Mrs. Van Ess has been tutoring John and he is quite a scholar. He is only six years old but reads in the fourth reader as slick as you please. Alice, of course, is too young for any schooling – she is only three – but she is master of two languages already. She talks English better than any child I have ever seen of that age and she rattles away in Arabic as if she were really an Arab herself. Some of Mrs. Van Ess’s Bible women say she never makes a mistake in gender or tense or any catchy things of the language.
April 12, 1923
We surely have been having our fill again of feasts and fasts. The Jews have just had their Passover feast and for eight days we didn’t have any Jews in school. We have about twenty-five enrolled. These Jews are pretty old and conservative in their religion. Their synagogue services are still in Hebrew. During this Passover feast, these Jews didn’t touch anything but unleavened bread and a few vegetables, no sweets or anything of the kind. Funny habits some of them have. During this feast or on any Sabbath they may not do any work, but it is all right to loaf their time away aimlessly wandering the bazaars and streets. Last Saturday a couple men strolled into the school. They started doing some tricks, sleight of hand, etc. I thot I would get one on them, too, so I began this one of writing “the same word,” you know well. Well, I asked one of them to write something on a piece of paper, but he said, “No, I may not write anything. This is the Sabbath.” A little later this one got up to leave and I asked him where he was going. “To the cinema (movies),” he said. I would think that going to the cinema would be impossible on the Sabbath, but even if that did not prevent him from going, it is decidedly forbidden for him to handle money on the Sabbath, which he would have to do to pay his admission.
Next week the great Mohammedan fast of Ramadhan begins. They fast between sunrise and sunset but at night they indulge in feasting. You can imagine what havoc that plays with school. Very few of the boys are such staunch Mohammedans that they observe the fast during the day strictly, but they are up with their parents all night and have breakfast again just before sunrise. Naturally they don’t feel like coming to school at 8:30. But we are going to run the school as usual and tell them to come anyway, even at ten or eleven o’clock.
Last Sunday the native Christian congregation gave Mr. Barney a farewell reception because he is leaving on furlough this coming Sunday. They gave him two nice Persian rugs for a present. Mr. and Mrs. Bilkert left a couple weeks ago. They went across the desert from Baghdad so they ought to be well on their way to London by this time.
April 19, 1923
Last Saturday, the boy at whose house I have visited a couple times, as I have told you, asked me to go with him and a couple of other boys to another place belonging to the family about twenty miles down the river. We went in a car all the way instead of on the river, and it certainly was fine riding thru the date gardens. The gardens are just about at their nicest now. The date trees are in blossom, orange and pomegranate trees are also blossoming. Grapes, figs and a few peaches have already dropped their flowers and the green fruit is beginning to come. All the grain – oats, barley, and wheat – is already in the head. Cucumbers and melon vines are beginning to creep around, too. The big lettuce season is just over and beans, endive, etc. are coming on now. And then all over the gardens there are oleander bushes and rose bushes, all in bloom, roses of every kind – real American beauty roses as nice or nicer than any greenhouse roses. It is funny the way they have all these things together in one field. The main thing of course, is the date trees, but in between the date trees are these other bushes, trees and vines, and under all these are the grains and melons, etc. The grape vines are not on racks as they are at home but are stretched from their roots to the date trees with rope, and all these vines and trees are kept perfectly pruned. Altogether a beautiful sight. And you can see that a man gets quite a variety of crops off one small piece of ground, and the soil seems to be able to stand it, too – it is very rich and truly the garden spot of the world. Even parts of the desert would be very fertile if it could be properly irrigated, and in fact there are signs that in ancient times great parts of it were irrigated, especially up toward Baghdad, between the rivers.
Every spring both these rivers are flooded, often beyond control. Large areas of the desert up above Baghdad are low and could easily be used as reservoirs to hold the high water floods in the spring time when the snow begins to melt in the mountains, and then lead the water away in canals when it is needed. Even tho there is very little rain fall in this country, there is more than enough water here if it can be made use of in the right way. Well, to come back to our visit down the river. It took quite a while for us to get there since we drove slowly. We didn’t do much in particular there but sit around, walk in the garden and eat a big dinner, Arab style. We visited the government school in that village and learned how much better their school was than ours! In fact it wasn’t such a badly run school, but like other government schools, they are behind times in their methods. The education department is always sending us questionnaires and asking for statistics. If we had to answer them all we would have to have two or three secretaries to do the work. Mr. Van Ess ignores most of them. Last week a letter came from the city director of education asking if we had permission to run our school. They seem to forget that a few years ago they had no government schools at all and that Mr. Van Ess himself started them at their request and was in charge of them for two or three years and that we had permission from the government before they even had government schools.
Well – to come back to last Saturday. On the way back, we walked thru the gardens and literally loaded ourselves with roses and then started for home again. It wasn’t an exciting day but very pleasant and it gave me a nice chance to be with the boys.
Sunday morning I was delegated to see the Barneys off at the boat, as Mr. Van Ess had to take Barney’s place and preach and Mrs. Van Ess had to play the organ. I took John and Alice and their Indian nurse or ayah. Mrs. Van Ess has a very nice Indian girl to look after the children when she is off at her work every day, visiting women of the poorer classes in their huts or and wealthier women in their harems or doing relief or charity work. The children thoroughly enjoyed the motor car trip down to the wharfs, about five miles, and visiting on board the ship. We stayed on the wharf until the ship was well on its way down the river. I am getting to be known as “Uncle George” by all the English families around here. John and Alice call me Uncle George and so any of the English children that come to play always call me that, too. The moment I make my appearance there I become a camel or horse or pusher for the swing or reader of stories. A few days ago I met the mother of one of John’s friends on the street, and she said, “Hello Uncle George.”
Monday we had a big field day for the whole school. We went out on the desert just outside of town to the race course, a fine place for all kinds of sports, and we had foot races, jumping, tug-of-wars, cock-fighting (note 31) and a hundred other kinds of games. We had hired five donkeys for the day and everyone had to participate in a donkey race. At noon the school cook came with bread and boiled eggs and other things and we had a great feed. It was a great outing for all the kids and a good “finale” for the Mohammedans as their fast started the next day. We start school now at 6:30 in the morning and run until 12:30 at noon. We started this one session schedule because it fits better with the Ramadhan fast. The boys would rather come to school in the morning, because whether they sleep in the early morning or not, or fast or not, they get sleepy in the afternoon anyway, so we take the best part of each day and make the most of it.
April 26, 1923
It is slowly beginning to get warmer and warmer now, although the heat is nothing to complain of yet. It’s been ideal weather so far this spring and it is keeping quite cool much longer than usual they say. We have already begun sleeping on the roof at night with the sky and stars for a ceiling. It surely is nice. We have started doing this already not because it is too hot inside but because of the fleas downstairs. There are no fleas on the roof. That sounds as if we are living like a bunch of tramps here, doesn’t it, but every year for about three or four weeks we have an awful siege of fleas, and they get into every place and no matter what you do you can not get rid of them. They just eat you up at night if you don’t go on the roof, and it is nothing to be particularly ashamed of to be scratching fleas, even in good society, as it would be at home, because everyone has them. However, pretty soon, when the heat begins to come, the fleas will disappear again. The only thing is, then the mosquitoes will begin to come. But I’ve still got my army mosquito net, so I am not worrying about them.
We are right in the swing of the big Ramadhan fast. It is strange how it has a grip on everybody, even on some of the boys who never showed a sign of religion before. Of course the younger boys in the dormitory are still too young to go thru the regular daily Mohammedan prayers, but even among the older boys it is seldom that I have seen any of them pray. But now, on the first day of the fast, several of them have started faithfully with regular prayers. Several of them made a brave attempt at fasting, but most of them before the first day was out couldn’t resist the call of their stomachs. Several of the boys have left the boarding school and are living at home. Usually it is the parents who want to have them home so they can better observe the fast.
It is strange the effect it has on the spirit of the boys, and everybody, even Jews and Nasranies (native Christians). Everybody is quarrelsome, short of temper. Och! Och! These feasts and fasts are a pest on the land. Jews, Christians and Mohammedans all have a limitless number of them and they complain when we don’t observe them and refuse to excuse them from school. Yesterday afternoon a boy, not in school, a Catholic Christian, asked me if I wasn’t feasting or having a holiday that day. I asked him what for, and he said, “Don’t you even know your own Protestant holidays? It’s St. so and so’s Day.” I told him that in America we don’t observe all these saints’ days. He said, “What kind of a Christian are you?!” They seem to think that a man’s religion is measured by the number of feast and fast days he observes.
May 9, 1922
Last week I had one night of “Ramadhaning.” The boy whose place is getting to be almost a second home to me asked me to spend the night. The family is Mohammedan, so that gave me a good chance to see how they carried on during Ramadhan. We got there just before the sunset gun went off. They have a big gun in the middle of town which is shot off in the morning and at sunset and can be heard for miles around. The moment the gun went off they rushed off to the table, which was already set, even tho we were in the middle of an interesting conversation, and started to eat a couple handfuls of food to satisfy the first pangs of hunger. Then they went to their evening prayers. After that we all sat down at the table together. The table was set out on the end of a small pier which he has built out on the river above the water. It surely was nice to be out there on the water, and the food was good, too. We sat around and talked until about nine, when the boy’s father suddenly decided he wanted to visit some friends about fifteen or twenty miles down the river. We all got into the motor boat, but the boy and I got off at Basrah and wandered around thru the bazaars and coffee shops, which were all full of people. We sat down here or there as we ran across some of the other boys and sipped tea or coffee or lemonade. At about midnight we started back to his home by car, and I went directly to bed, but he had to wait until his father came home, when they would have another meal. I might as well have stayed up for all the sleep I got, because I was literally eaten up by fleas and mosquitoes. At school, up on the roof, there are no fleas and my faithful old army net keeps the mosquitoes off. When I got up, so did the boy, but alas there was nothing to eat. The servants had gone home after the last meal and taken the keys to the kitchen with them, because they don’t eat or drink or even smoke during the day. It must be awful to have to do without drinking, especially in the hot weather. I almost dried up during the few hours I stayed there that morning. I can understand why people get out of sorts during Ramadhan. I was down and out with just one night of it. Anyway, I am glad that I have seen that side of it for myself.
By the time you get this I suppose school will be closed and everybody gone home again. I was surprised to get a letter from Crissy from Boyden last week which she wrote during Easter vacation. She was surprised to be home at that time, too. It’s mighty nice the way you have treated her and the way you have made her feel at home at our house during the whole year while she was in Pella.
May 24, 1923
Just now it is weather here as we might have over there after a hot summer day. It has been a hot and sultry day with the temperature hovering around a hundred degrees. It doesn’t bother me very much tho, I hardly notice it, perhaps because instead of going out to work on the pavement (note 32) or going out into the field to pitch bundles or work in the hay, I don’t go out in the sun at all. I guess its a lucky thing that I am not bothered by this weather or else I don’t know what I will do pretty soon when it gets to be about twenty-five degrees hotter. But it almost always cools down at night, and since we are sleeping up on the roof now, we can always get a good rest even if the days are hot and humid.
Last Saturday night I went to a concert given by some members of the Church of England church. I was just longing to hear the Glee Club. I haven’t heard any real music as long as I have been out here, at least very little besides a phonograph. Native music is rather fascinating with its weird minor tunes, but still I was hungry for familiar music. It was amateur music but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have been going to the Church of England lately on Sunday nights since Mr. Van Ess stopped the evening English services in the mission church. Miss Kellien and I were the only ones left after Mrs. Van Ess and the children went away.
May 31, 1923
The so-called King Faisal is said to be planning a visit to Basrah in a couple of weeks and it will be “much-ado-about-nothing” for the people of Basrah. The people here don’t want King Faisal, they don’t even want Arab government, but they will have to put up with a lot of stuff and make a big show while “King Faisal of Iraq” is here. The rest of the year Basrah and Basrah district just follow their own sweet ways and pay very little attention to the whims of Baghdad. Basrah is thoroughly pro-British and they see that the only thing that will save Iraq is continued occupation by the British.
You may have read about the new Anglo-Iraqi Protocol – that is, the new treaty between England and Iraq, changing the twenty year mandate to a four year mandate – that is, four years from the time Iraq enters the League of Nations or the signing of the peace with Turkey. What it means I don’t know – nobody knows but everybody is speculating. The general opinion of the local British and British sympathizers is that England put one over the Iraqi nationalists, that this four year agreement merely opens the way for some direct action by the British and also that Iraq is going to get into the League of Nations only and strictly on British terms. When the non-political natives here first heard of this new Protocol they said, “What are King George and King Faisal exchanging ‘portical’ for anyway?” Portical is Arabic for orange. King Faisal and the Faisal government is a joke in the opinion of most people around here (note 33).
Last week, the day after I wrote you, I had a birthday. I didn’t do anything radical, simply edged off into my twenty-fourth year. I got the piece of “rook fleis” you sent a couple weeks ago and also the greeting cards and birthday wishes you sent. Thanks so much for your greetings. That hair pomade you said you sent hasn’t yet appeared. I suppose it all melted in the Red Sea or some other oven so they just threw it away. You ask what kind of bread we have here. Yes, they raise wheat in this country, not here but a little up toward Baghdad. We can get ordinary white bread here but only a few Europeans use it. The native bread is made of whole wheat ground course like graham. It is baked in flat cakes, not doughy like graham bread but crisp. I like it very much and hardly ever touch the white bread. It is very healthy, too.
You will be interested to know how we keep our water cool in the hot weather. Of course we have no deep wells and the city water is always hot because the tanks are right out in the burning sun. First the water is put in a large earthenware vessel holding about 25 or 30 gallons. This tank is very porous so that the water filters thru quite quickly. As it filters it leaves behind even the smallest particle of dirt and also gets rid of the taste of chlorine. All city water is chlorinated. As it filters from the big tank, it is collected in smaller earthenware jugs, also porous but only slightly – just enough so that the outside of the jug is always damp. Now according to the laws of physics, evaporation takes heat, as you notice when you put a drop of gasoline or alcohol on the back of your hand and it feels cold. So as the moisture evaporates from the outside of the jug, it takes heat from the jug and from the water inside, and it really is quite cool. And the strangest thing is that the hotter the weather and the more you set these jugs in the sun, the colder the water gets because the evaporation is faster. These are the same old kind of earthenware jugs they had in Bible times. We have ice plants here and ice can be gotten quite cheaply, but it is usually a lot of bother and besides it may not be as sanitary and I suppose it isn’t good to put ice in drinking water. But it gets very little colder with ice than it does in these jugs.
June 8, 1923
Well, I’ve changed my place of abode – we have closed down the boarding school and dormitory. Most of the boys have begun to stay at home since the hot weather began, even tho they have to come some distance. Especially as we have school in the morning and they have the whole afternoon with nothing to do. With only two or three boys left it did not pay to keep the cook and servant, so we made other arrangements for them and I have moved down and am living with Mr. Van Ess. The Dykstras have been here for almost a week from Amarah, so we have had quite a mission family again. The Dykstras invited me to visit Amarah this summer and take a tour with them of a couple weeks in the launch. I surely would like to do that.
You talk of having lettuce – we’ve had our lettuce season already and we surely had loads of it. I don’t want to make your mouth water but just the same I want to tell you what we have been having lately. We’ve had cucumbers and tomatoes and a kind of small apple and apricots for several weeks. This week we had sweet corn, not canned but real roasting ears. We have had grapes and musk melons and we have fresh buttermilk everyday. We’ll have melons now until the end of October. It’s a good thing we have so much fruit during the summer because you can’t eat much of anything else when it is so hot.
All summer long, no matter how hot it gets during the day, the nights, at least after midnight, are always quite fresh, at least they feel fresh, even at 75-80 degrees, compared to the 110-112 degrees we have had for several days recently.
June 16, 1923
Major Yates, a good friend of the Van Esses from Baghdad, was down here for one day this week. He was here too last Christmas – I believe I wrote you then about him – and we had a good time with him again. For one thing, he took us to a swimming pool, one where all the railway people (Major Yates belongs to the railways) and a great many British civilians go.
Your school has been over for a week, but I still have four weeks to go. After that we will stick around here a couple weeks to move all the school stuff over to the hospital building here on the mission compound. And then I am going along up to Baghdad with Mr. Van Ess and will nose around there for two or three weeks. I’ve got an invitation to stay with Major Yates as long as I am there. Then I’ll come down the river and stay in Amarah with the Dykstras. And so a great part of the summer will be gone again. Then it will be time for Annual Meeting, this time in Bahrain, but I hardly think that I will go. I have no business there as my work comes under Mr. Van Ess’s report and I don’t have a vote. Anyway I may have to stay here to open school as school must start here before Annual Meeting is over.
June 23, 1923
I saw the king yesterday – “His Majesty King Faisal the First of Iraq” – and I can never again say I have not seen a king. He arrived in Basrah yesterday afternoon, and of course they had a big parade from the pier (He came by river boat.) to the place where he was to stay. They were to have the King in a car at the head of the parade with his personal body guard and an honor guard of forty mounted policemen. There was also to be a formation of aeroplanes overhead as a guard of honor in the air. Behind the King’s car were to follow all the notables of the city and surrounding country, British advisors, etc. etc. Well, it started all right but they were so slow in starting that the air guard got impatient and went off and didn’t return. Then all kinds of cars and garies (note 34) and even wagons which had no place in the parade at all simply fell in with the parade anyplace where they could squeeze in. Then all the spectators who were supposed to stay on the sidelines started to crowd out into the street and chant and do tribal dances, etc. and even the King’s car had to stop once in a while before the road could be cleared, and after the King passed this whole hoard of people just swarmed in back of his car regardless of the rest of the parade that was following. Then the horses of the mounted guard started to get wild because of the confusion of people and they all scattered. It was confusion everywhere. However, before they got to the end of the parade I believe they got the thing straightened out again. Today everything is going very nicely, at least as far as appearances go. The Basrah people are great actors – they don’t really want King Faisal, but they are putting up a big show for him. You ask anyone from a taxi driver to a member of the city council if they have been up to pay their respects to the King and they don’t say very much, but you can see the twinkle in their eyes as if to say, “Great joke, isn’t it?” I guess that the King’s visit down here will help to straighten out the rub between the Basrah people and the King’s crowd and things may go more smoothly after this.
I had a game of tennis one afternoon this week, the first since I’ve been here. I played as if I didn’t know what a racket was for. There are some pretty good players here, people who have a court of their own, and they play almost every day. There used to be a court on the compound here but a few years ago there was a very high flood and the whole thing got washed out, along with a lot of fruit trees, rose bushes and other flowers, and it’s never been fixed up again. Next fall, after we are thru building the new school building, we are going to get the whole compound fixed up again.
I had a swim again this week – this time at another place. The Port Director has staked a large barge down in the big river, just so deep that there is always about seven or eight feet of water in it. It has holes in the sides so that the river current flows thru but no sharks or anything of the kind can get in. Fine place.
Say, I have something funny I want you to do if you can – send me a “komijne” cheese – you know the kind that has little seeds in it. Vander Ploeg’s Bakery usually has it. Send a whole one if you can and pack it in some kind of tin box and seal it. Mr. Van Ess and I were talking the other night and we got started on cheese. When I mentioned this cheese, he almost went wild. He said if I could get you to send some to me, he would go half the expense even if I wouldn’t let him more than look at it.
Got your letter this week and one from Prof. Sadler and two from Crissy. One of hers came in 32 days!
June 29, 1923
You may remember a few weeks ago I was writing to you as how I hadn’t had a touch of any fever at all yet as long as I have been in this fever stricken town. Well, I guess I forgot to knock on wood at the time because I did have fever this week – two days of it, Wednesday and Thursday. I felt crazy as a bat, just fever, but that was enough – going on about 100 to 102.5. You feel it coming on. You begin to feel hot inside and you stop perspiring, so you take a dose of aspirin and quinine and go to bed and keep yourself quiet – that is as quiet as you can with that fever in your head. Pretty soon you begin to get the chills and cold shivers begin to go up and down your back and you turn off the fan and pull the blankets over you – mind you, with a temperature outside of 119 degrees. Well, you are in the siege of ice bergs for a while, and then you all of a sudden begin to perspire, and you absolutely get drenched in your own perspiration. You almost have to swim, but you dasn’t turn on the fan for fear of catching cold. Well, this stretch of intense humidity brings down your fever and you begin to feel like yourself again, only pretty much like a washout, and you sit down to read or do something but before long you begin to feel your insides begin to burn again. You dose yourself with aspirin and quinine again and try to ward it off, but you are in for another attack. That’s all there is to it. That’s all I did for two days. I guess I have made it sound perfectly terrible, but it really isn’t so bad (note 35). It’s a little fever, that’s all – there’s nothing really serious about it. You feel like a rag and you dope yourself with quinine and aspirin to get rid of it. The quinine makes your head buzz like a hornet’s nest. I guess I am still a little silly as a result of the fever, at least so it looks from the way I write, but I am really first rate again today. I went to school again today. I could have gone yesterday, although I was still feeling a bit fagged, but Mr. Van Ess told me to stay home and Ali, the servant, looked after me as if I was a baby.
Well, King Faisal and his crowd left Basrah again and Basrah is settling back into its own quiet ways. The King left without doing much harm. He visited several of the government schools and they gave him rather a poor impression. Then at a dinner, at which Mr. Van Ess was present, the man sitting with the King told him about our school and the King seemed pleased and said he was sorry he hadn’t visited it also, as he was disappointed with the government schools. We didn’t suffer any by not having a visit from the King, but the government schools did. The King’s secretary told Mr. Van Ess that if the mission would open a school in Baghdad, we would have it full immediately. Well, I guess we wouldn’t hesitate long to open a school there if we had the men and money for it (note 36).
July 6, 1923
This has been a very quiet week again, nothing happened out of the ordinary. Wednesday was the Fourth of July and I spent a very safe and sane “Fourth.” It’s the first time in my life that I have gone to school on that day. The most excitement I had was in the afternoon when I was just dropping off for a snooze and the ceiling fan above me started to act funny and all of a sudden decided to come apart altogether and the pieces came down just missing my head. I got up there, screwed the pieces together, turned on the juice and went back to sleep as if nothing had happened. Exciting, hey what! In the evening Mr. Van Ess and I went out for an ice cream sundae and with that we called it a day
Our new school building is coming right along. We are surely going to have some plant here next year. This will be the first building here that is actually built to be a school. Others are all big old native houses used for schools, like our present school.
July 14, 1923
Well, school is over. Yesterday morning we had our last exercises. We had invited about two hundred notables of the city and each of the graduating boys gave a speech or what you might call an oration – or rather three of the boys gave orations in Arabic and one of them gave a short reading in English. The fifth would also have given an English speech but he came down with a heavy case of malaria fever the day before and couldn’t be there. The boys did very well. Mr. Van Ess says the Arabic orations were every bit as good as any commencement oration that is ever given at home. Then Mr. Van Ess gave a short address in Arabic and presented diplomas to the boys. A couple of the prominent men of the audience also got up and gave short talks, and we also had a couple of songs by the school boys and that, together with sherbets, soda water and coffee, finished the program. It was a nice little show.
We have been having a terrible siege of malaria fever lately and it is still raging. It’s a kind of malignant malaria and knocks one completely out. I guess I had a touch of it a couple weeks ago but nipped it in the bud, at least I only had a light attack compared with what most people have now. Mr. Van Ess went down with it the first part of the week, too, altho he too got rid of the fever pretty quickly. But he had more of the malignant fever than I had. He was down for twelve hours with a high fever, and do what he could he could not bring the fever down. When the fever left him it left him weak as a rag and he did not go to school for the rest of the week and I had to do the finishing up. He had all he could do to attend the exercises yesterday morning, and even then he got off easy compared with some others. Some people go down with high fever and are delirious and unconscious for four or five days. I am still keeping absolutely fit, but I am taking ten grains of quinine a day as a safe-guard. It makes you head buzz, but I take it at night so I don’t notice it at all.
July 20, 1923
Now it is your turn. Perhaps I am a bit late and you won’t get this letter in time for your birthday, but I want you to have my sincerest birthday greetings and wish you many more. I only wish I could have some of the candy and fudge or cake or whatever you are going to have at Grandma’s and Grampa’s. Well, you take my share, too. I’ll soon have done the rounds with birthday letters. Nick, the slow poke, is way behind. Say, Nick, how’s the brush salesman anyway? Maybe you could do a pretty good business out here.
You wrote that you had a big argument about lodges one Sunday. Well, I’ll say first that I don’t ever intend to join a lodge, not because anything is wrong with them, but simply because I don’t see any particular use in them. Of course there are a few things about the lodge that I don’t agree with, but that is no reason to condemn the whole works. I can’t see anything wrong with the general principle. Dancing – altho it has been carried to extremes from which it gets its shady reputation – if it were not for the extremes, would have a physical as well as social and moral uplifting influence. Same way with cards or even checkers or dominoes. Sometimes people divert the use of these things to wrong channels, gambling, etc., but as long as you stick to what cards and checkers and the rest are meant for, it is not only good exercise for the mind but entertaining as well. Mr. Van Ess and I sometimes sit up on the roof at night until long after midnight talking about things like that. Mr. Van Ess does not belong to any lodge – I don’t believe anyone in the mission does – but he says if he saw that his joining a lodge would in any way help him in his work for the mission, he would not hesitate about joining. He does not dance, but has nothing against dancing itself – he even took a few lessons from Mrs. Van Ess’s sister one time. These are just a few more things in a missionary’s life which are best not published far and wide among people at home, so use discretion. A missionary with his eyes open to world problems cannot help but become a little more liberal minded than the conservative country minister who has a multitude of thirty families in his flock and thinks of very few things that happen out in the world.
Mr. Van Ess is going to Baghdad next week and I may go with him – I am not sure yet. It depends on the progress they make with the new school building. If they keep on working, I am staying here to oversee the work until about the middle of next month and then go to Baghdad. Otherwise, if they call a halt to the work to let the walls get settled and dry before they start on the roof, I may go with Mr. Van Ess next week, spend a couple weeks there, then come down to Amarah and spend a couple weeks with the Dykstras, and be back in Basrah by the first of September to oversee work on the building and get the whole compound fixed up before the opening of school.
July 27, 1923
We are still here in Basrah. Mr. Van Ess has not been feeling well for a couple days this week and didn’t get his work done before he could leave and I, too, had a lot of work that I could do. We are planning to leave next Wednesday. We’ve had pretty good weather this week except for a severe dust storm a couple days. The whole sky was filled with dust, so much that you couldn’t see the sun, and it was rather dark all day long. Otherwise it was very nice, a good fresh wind blowing all the time and the temperature wasn’t above 106 degrees.
This week is another four day Mohammedan feast in honor of the hajj (pilgrimage rites) at Mecca. In reality it is a feast in commemoration of the time when God told Abraham to make a sacrifice of his son Isaac, only they believe that it was Ishmael. They say that Abraham was a pioneer Moslem.
Well, Robert, if you are going to keep on sending me directions on where to milk a cow, etc., I’ve got a few questions I would like to have you answer which I have been racking my brain about. First, why is a mouse when it spins, and if so, why not? Second, what is the correct way to spell the following sentence: “There are three ways to spell the word “to.”? That way is wrong. Now you find the right way.
Yesterday I had a nice little trip up river about ten miles in the morning with an Englishman to pay a visit to an Arab friend of his. The Euphrates has taken a new course a few years ago. It used to join the Tigris about fifty miles up, but now it comes in just a few miles above Basrah and we had to cross it there in a car ferry. Then late in the afternoon we made another trip down the river about ten miles to another prominent Arab. Both were nice trips. That’s what they do in this country. On any big holiday all these big notables, shaikhs, etc. do nothing but sit all day long and receive callers. You go there, pay your respects, talk a while, drink a cup of coffee and then go off again. Mr. Van Ess had to do it all day long last Christmas.
Baghdad, August 8, 1923
We’ve been in Baghdad a week now. We had quite a nice trip up, although there wasn’t much to see along the way – nothing but desert on both sides most of the way, occasionally a small Beduin camp or shepherd with a few sheep. At Ur Junction we got a nice view of the original Ur of the Chaldees about a mile across the desert from the station. All we could see was just a big mound with a particularly high mound at one corner where the Temple of the Moon is supposed to have been. We arrived in Baghdad on Thursday morning and were met by Major Yates, and we are staying at his house now. He has a nice bungalow with a beautiful garden and lawn away from the heat and noise of the city.
Mr. Van Ess has a room in one of the hotels in the city where he does all his work and where he meets people that come to see him. I go in with him every morning and he goes to work and I start off by myself thru the bazaars, seeing interesting things, visiting a few of our school boys who live here, taking a few pictures. I visited the American Consul one morning – and, by the way, we heard of President Harding’s death. It was in the papers here thirty-six hours after he died. The Consulate is closed for three days and the American flag is flown at half-mast for a week.
Toward evening we usually go out together for a ride in Major Yates’ car. He is surely giving us a fine time. One evening we went out to the site of an old city about ten miles out in the desert. Digging just a few inches below the surface we found bricks with the real Nebuchadnezzar stamp on them. They were big heavy things so I couldn’t slip one into my vest pocket. Besides the Iraqi government has recently passed a law which makes it a crime for any private person to possess any antiquities of this country. Foolish law, but it’s so. On the way back we had some hard luck – first we had two punctures, then going over a little bump a radiator hose connection broke and we lost all our water – and there was no water within five or six miles, so while Major Yates tried to fix the connection, Mr. Van Ess and I started out in search of water. It was already quite dark. But we didn’t have far to go as we soon met some shepherds who let us have some of their water and soon we had everything fixed and were off again.
It was after ten when we got home. The worst of it was that we had a dinner engagement that evening with the High Commissioner. But when we went to apologize to him, he thot it was a good joke on us and invited us for the next night (note 37) “Dining with Royalty!” Mr. Van Ess is good friends with many of these people in high office because of things he was able to do for them during the war, and now I’m getting in on all these things, too.
Another night we went to Kadhimain (note 38), a famous mosque about five or six miles up the river – a famous place for pilgrimage, two famous saints are buried there. The mosque has four minarets and two golden domes. Of course we were not allowed to go inside, but we got a nice view from the roof of a neighboring house. It was beautiful in the twilight. But a sight like that only impresses one with the discouragingly big job that we have. Thousands come there every day to pray, utterly ignorant of the Light and saving Grace which our Savior gives us and is meant for them as well. Then Baghdad with its two hundred thousand and hundreds of thousands in other cities – and we can only touch a speck of them.
Baghdad, August 15, 1923
I am still in Baghdad and enjoying myself very much. I hardly know what to write about, there are so many things that I have seen and done, few of them of much importance – tramping around thru the bazaars, endless rows of shops in narrow crooked streets, stopping to wrangle a while with shop keepers in broken Arabic and English. Once in a while I meet someone I know, someone from Basrah or one of our students who lives here. Then some evenings we take a ride out to a neighboring village or straight out into the desert until we get to some beduwin camp and we stop to talk. They like it, too, especially as Mr. Van Ess talks Arabic with them and has been among the tribes a good deal before he was married. They come out with coffee and will hardly let us go again. I’ve been out to dinner several times with Mr. Van Ess. I hardly know where the two weeks here have gone.
I been trying to get a visit in to Babylon, but I don’t think I can make it. It’s about fifty miles from here and the train gets in just at noon and the train back leaves four hours later, not enough time to walk a couple miles from the station to the ruins in the hottest part of the day, and besides there is nobody working there now and nobody to show me around. So I am going to let it go now and will probably get a chance next winter. Professor Clay of Yale is going to start a school of archaeology in Baghdad next winter and they will do much of their work at Babylon. He is very likely coming to Basrah to spend Christmas with the Van Esses, and Mr. Van Ess says that if I want to go back with him and look at Babylon, he will let me off five or six days. At that time the British Museum will be working again at Ur, so I could also stop there on the same trip.
Tomorrow morning I am starting for Amarah by river steamer. That ought to be interesting. A good deal of the land along the river here is in grain, instead of date palms as in Basrah. Of course the grain will be cut by this time but they will still be threshing. They still do that in the old fashioned way on a threshing floor, throwing it up in the wind to separate the grain from the straw and chaff. And there are also quite a number of fields of cotton. That is a new thing here and it’s is only experimental, but it looks as if it is going to be an important crop in a couple years.
Baghdad, August 24, 1923
Well I am in Baghdad yet or again, I don’t know which. I left last Thursday morning on the river steamer and we had hardly been going an hour and we got stuck on a sand bar only about six or seven miles out of Baghdad. The river is very low at this time of year and it is very uncertain when ships will get there if at all. There were only three Europeans on board and the rest were all Arabs who had been on a pilgrimage to different shrines up here. Tuesday morning it didn’t look any more hopeful of getting thru so most of the passengers went back to Baghdad, and I did, too. All that the ship could do was see-saw back and forth trying to drag itself off the sand bar, and all we could do was watch. There was a good bunch of sailors on board and they worked hard and long. During the five days that I was there they worked almost twenty-four hours a day, and they were just as optimistic and full of fun as ever. You could hardly help laughing, and yet at the same time the shivers would go up and down your back to hear them swearing in such a whole hearted way while they were hauling or some rope or cable, yelling “Allah! Allah!” with every jerk at the rope. Profanity doesn’t faze them. It’s that way with all the Arabs – they can hardly make a sentence without putting in the word “Allah.”
We didn’t have such a bad time. One of the cabin passengers was an agent of the Standard Oil Company and we two managed to find some entertainment. Every evening, when the sun got low enough, we jumped overboard and had a swim. We could walk straight across the river, there was so little water. Of course it was boring to be stuck there so long, but it was funny to think of being there on the Tigris, in the oldest country of the world, in the land of the Chaldees, of Abraham, and a large part of the history of the Old Testament.
I guess I’ll give up my visit to Amarah but I am not going to Basrah just yet. Mr. Van Ess advises against it because there is a bad epidemic of cholera in Basrah just now. There is very little danger of getting it if you are careful about what you eat and drink, but all the same, I’m taking the inoculations for cholera this week. But I am not going to risk it by going back there yet. I may go to Mosul with Mr. Van Ess and stay there for about a week and then see how the epidemic is getting along. Epidemics of cholera usually don’t last very long. At least don’t worry about me. I’ll take care of myself.
Mosul, August 31, 1923
We left Baghdad Monday night. Mr. Van Ess and I were intending to travel second class as we did when we came up from Basrah, only the line we were going on this time to come to Mosul is only a mixed freight and passenger jerkwater train and there are two trains a week. However, only a couple hours before it was time to leave, the director of the railways dropped by. He asked how we were traveling and we told him. He looked at Major Yates and said, “Is that the best you can do for your guests?” They mumbled around a little bit and then one of them went off to the telephone and when we got to the station we found that a special private coach had been hitched to the train especially for us – a regular parlor car with a kitchenette and cook aboard, too – a car that is only used by officers of the railway and “royalty.” Well, that took us to Shergat, a small station about seventy miles from Mosul – the railway does not go all the way to Mosul yet, they are still extending it – and the rest of the way we had to go by taxi.
Soon after you leave Baghdad you begin to see the foothills of Kurdistan in the distance, and after you leave the train and take the car, the road goes partly thru desert and partly thru some of the foothills – very rough land. Mosul itself is a queer city, absolutely different from anything else in Iraq. I haven’t seen very much of it yet but what I have seen gives a pretty good impression, at least a whole lot better than Baghdad. There is a lot of marble here and most of the houses are built of marble or limestone instead of mud brick as in most of the rest of Iraq.
We are staying here with two young fellows who belong to the Persia Mission – Presbyterian. They only have Mosul as their headquarters. They do most of their work in the mountain villages of Kurdistan.
Basrah, September 8, 1923
Well, I’m back in Basrah, arrived just this morning. About all I’ve done since I arrived is read letters. It surely was good to hear from you all again – about Uncle John and Aunt Katie’s visit, Nick’s brush business, Nina’s C.E. convention, Robert and Dad’s harvesting, etc. and last but not least, Mother’s visit to Holland, Michigan. I was glad to hear that you did go even tho you weren’t very keen on going. You may think you were pretty well satisfied at home without a vacation, maybe so, but goodness me! Life is too short to slave away in one place day in and day out, year in and year out, with always the responsibility of the farm and house hanging over you. You, all of you, Dad as well, let the old farm go hang for a couple days or a week once in a while – it won’t go kerplunk the moment you leave it for a little while. Get into the car with the whole family and take a little trip at your leisure, forget about your work and see what other people are doing. If you don’t like summer resorts or fishing or camping at a lake someplace, drive up to some old farm place in whatyoum’callit county, hitch the car to his gate post and tell the farmer you want to harvest corn or stack grain for him – anything – just so you get away from your own farm and responsibilities – and you’ll come back in a couple days with six times as much pep for your own work, a wider horizon on life, a greater appreciation for your own position and ever so much more. And don’t go thinking you have no right to these things because I can’t enjoy them also. I’m getting more than my share, in fact I have had so much that it has left me flat broke. However, I have seen so much on this trip that is it is worth it to go a little financially tight for a short time now. Don’t think I am getting a big head or trying to order you around, but both of you, Mother and Dad, have raised a good family of kids and you have a right now to begin to think of a little enjoyment for yourselves once in a while.
Well, now to tell you something of my Mosul visit. As I said, we stayed with two young fellows from the Persian Mission (note 39). As we were coming near Mosul in the taxi, we met two men on horseback, both wearing a fez and both with full beards. At first we didn’t take any notice, but they shouted at us and then we recognized them as our hosts. They had just gotten back a few days before from a three month trip up thru their mountain villages, and as most of their trip has to be done on foot, they travel light, which means leaving their shaving gear behind and also wearing mostly native clothes. They have their own horses and we went horse-back riding almost every day. Every afternoon toward evening we went swimming in the Tigris about a mile from their house. The water is beautifully clear and cold.
One afternoon we went to Nineveh, just opposite Mosul across the river. There is not much to see there except some mounds. One high mound is said to be Shenecherib’s palace. Many years ago, before the war, some German archaeologist did some excavating there and made some pretty good finds, but now it is all closed and sealed until the authorities can begin work again. No private person is allowed to do any digging and the archaeologists are still too busy with Babylon, Ur, Kish, etc. to touch Nineveh. As you go along in the train, almost everywhere, along rivers and waterways, even out in the middle of the desert, you see mounds, places that used to be flourishing villages and cities in ancient days. How much history there may still be buried in these places. In one part of the ruins of Nineveh there is the mosque and tomb of Nebi Yunis where Jonah is supposed to be buried. Visitors are allowed to go into this mosque and we went in. One room contains the supposed coffin of Jonah and on the walls of the room are displayed the bones of the fish that is supposed to have swallowed Jonah. There is a tall minaret in Mosul which leans so far over that you would expect it to fall over any minute. It is said to be nearly eight hundred years old. There is a tradition that says that when Mohammed visited Mosul, all the minarets bowed to him except this one, and Mohammed with his little finger pushed this one over into a bowing position and it has remained that way ever since. Too bad it does not bow toward Mecca.
Mosul surely has a conglomeration of different kinds of people and sects. A great many are Christian refugees from Turkey and Kurdistan. There are Syrians, Kurds, Turkomans, Persians, Arabs, as well as some Russians. There are Syrian Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, Jacobites, Nestorians, Syrian Orthodox, Protestants and I don’t know what else. The place swarms with Catholic, Orthodox and Jacobite priests and bishops. Catholics will have nothing to do with the Mission and to some extent oppose it. Jacobites are quite friendly toward the missionaries but don’t do much to help. The Protestants and are just the same helpless bunch of Nasranies that they are in Basrah – will do absolutely nothing, not even to support their own church. Even tho they are quite a crowd and well to do, they can’t even raise fifty dollars a month to support a minister. They depend entirely on the mission to support them. The Persian Mission has resolved not to continue to support a missionary for direct work with these Protestants. The Catholics have several large nice churches there, but they get help from Rome and France.
Wednesday we started back for Baghdad. We met the Amir Zaid, King Faisal’s brother, who was on the same train (note 40). We arrived in Baghdad Thursday morning and I started for Basrah on Friday. Mr. Van Ess is stopping to visit Hilla and Kerbala.
September 14, 1923
I am glad to hear that Mother was still in Holland. Nick was up in ‘Soo County.” Dad was still plugging away at home – couldn’t be dynamited away. Of course Nina and Bob were at home, too, but they are only high school sprigs! I guess I’d better pas op talking about a high school senior and high school sophomore that way. I can’t imagine what Nick is doing up in that part of the state, just across the border into the next state. I don’t think he has gone there to sell brushes! Crissy said she had talked to you over the phone from Sioux Center and expected to see you at the Mission Fest in Hull. I’ve asked her to keep an eye on you and also on that Roelofs girl. You may want to keep it a secret but people won’t think it’s a secret very long if you go gallivanting about the country that way. I don’t think they would think you had gone up there to sell brushes. However, go to it. Here’s wishing you loads of satisfaction and happiness.
I haven’t been doing as much as I expected to get done this week. Our school building is just about finished. I was going to clean up the compound, make some new paths, and do some repair work, but I cannot get any workmen. The contractor of the new building who was to get men for me can’t even get enough for himself to work on the building. Everybody has gone to the cherdachs – the date packing places. This is the height of the season and everybody moves out to the date packing places. They take their families and simply live there until the work is done. I am eating my share of ripe dates and they surely are good. They aren’t at all like the packed dates you get at the grocer. They are very soft and when you put them in your mouth, they simply melt away like honey. But of course they can’t be packed that way – they have to be dried first.
September 21, 1923
Last Monday the brother of one or our teachers came and asked me to go to a date packing place for a couple of days. Mr. Van Ess said he could manage alone and encouraged me to get that experience. Our teacher is chief manager of the place. It was about fifteen miles down the river, right on the river front, and it was almost like camping. He has his whole family out there, as well as his brother’s family, his mother-in-law and I don’t know who else, living just the way they do at home, about two dozen family members living with them. It surely is a social place, especially with about a hundred and fifty workmen and women living all around, like a big family. They have a house built of cane and reeds and mats inside the enclosure in which all of the dates are packed, and the workmen have their huts just outside the enclosure. At night we spread a couple of blankets and went to sleep in the moonlight on the river bank. A couple of times I went fishing on the river, but didn’t catch much, only a few shad, the fish of the season now.
Of course I watched the date packing process, but it is hard to describe. I will send you pictures when I get them printed. It was interesting to watch the whole process, from when they are taken down from the trees, brought to the cherdach, and then packed by hand by women packers in seventy pound boxes. When you see how they are packed you almost say that you’ll never eat another date. These packers are not very clean and the place all around is sticky with mud and discarded dates, and the dates are pressed down in the boxes with bare feet on a piece of board. It’s lucky that germs can’t live very long in dates. A certain acid or something in the sugar kills them very quickly. The women packers get about an anna a box and good packers can pack fifteen to twenty boxes a day (30 to 40 cents a day), which isn’t so bad a day’s wage for ordinary laborers. The boxes are weighed, stamped and sealed and are ready to be loaded on lighters to take them out to the middle of the river where the date ship is anchored and is loading. One of the biggest companies has already sent a ship directly for New York and Hills Brothers is sending their first boat in a day or two. There is always a big competition between Hills Brothers and the native companies to see which can get to New York first. Hills Brothers has bigger, faster ships and usually wins.
Gosh, Nick! A thousand pardons. I almost forgot that this was supposed to be your birthday letter. Happy birthday to you on your twenty-first birthday.
September 28, 1923
I am all alone in Basrah again, in fact I am the only missionary in the whole of Mespot at present. The others have all gone to Annual Meeting at Bahrain and won’t be back until the twelfth of October.
I am just puttering around here doing a little of everything and not much of anything, getting the new school building finished and equipment in shape for school to start on the fifteenth of October, getting some painting and other odd jobs done on the mission property. The seasons for gardening are altogether different here and very few people seem to know much about flower gardening, except for rose bushes and oleanders. So I am beginning to experiment a little on my own. Mrs. Van Ess has sent for a big batch of flower seeds and garden seeds from England and she has given me the run of the compound to plant the seeds, how and where I want. The mission has property equal in size to about one half a square city block. On it are two mission houses, the church, the hospital, a small bungalow (formerly for nurses’ quarters) and now also the new building. There are date trees all over, also some young pomegranate trees, grape vines and a couple of other kinds of fruit trees. There used to be more fruit trees than there are now, and also a good tennis court, but there was a high flood in 1916 and most of the young trees and tennis court were washed out and have never been replaced.
Since school is going to be right here on the compound this year and I will be able to be here all the time, I’m going to put in my exercise getting these things in shape once again. We have two gardeners on the compound whom we allow to cultivate part of the ground for themselves and in return they have to do all the irrigating that is necessary for whole compound and take care of the date trees, which is no small job. In the spring each of the fruit bearing trees has to be pollinated. The blossom has to be taken from the male tree and hung up in the branches of the bearing tree. Then at this time of year the dates have to be harvested, sorted and packed. And all thru the year, as the lower branches die, they have to be cut off and disposed of as fuel for poor people. These men also do any gardening we want them to do but they don’t know a thing about flower gardening, so I am going to make it my job this year. Mr. Van Ess doesn’t like gardening at all.
I was glad to get your letter again this morning. I guess that story about my fever must have created quite a sensation, according to how you all mentioned it in your letters. I guess I made it sound worse than it really was. I feel fine now. I got Doc Kramer’s prescription which you sent and if I ever have occasion to use it, maybe I will. Aspirin and quinine serve the purpose very well, and I don’t think they are as harmful as some of the doctors over there claim. Quinine does make your ears ring, but I’ve never heard of any deafness caused by it. There is a very good European doctor here – the head of the Basrah Civil Hospital and Chief Health Officer. He is always very prompt in attending to any calls from the mission and he will not take a cent for his services from any missionary. Also within a block of the mission compound is the Civil Nursing Home for Europeans, with four trained nurses, and it is always open to us. So we are not at all badly fixed for medical services.
There soon will be another way to get my weekly letter to you. Besides the air mail service to Baghdad there is also the Overland Motor Transport service between Baghdad and Haifa across the desert. It carries passengers and mail. The company which runs the service has bought a fleet of specially equipped Cadillac cars, with a special radiator, large gasoline, oil and water tanks, an ice chest, camp equipment, and rigging on top to carry baggage and mail. They go two cars at a time and each two cars has three drivers. You would appreciate that if you knew native drivers. They make the trip of five hundred miles in two days, camping out in the desert one night. By the time I’m ready to go home, I will certainly go that way. This way you can be at the Mediterranean in two days instead of sixteen or seventeen if you go around by ship. And you can save a lot of money.
American Mission Compound
October 7, 1923
Our Bible shop man holds Arabic services in the mission chapel when Mr. Van Ess is away, and I went there this morning, even tho the service was in Arabic. Many of their hymns are set to English hymn tunes and I sing along with the English words. Also the Lord’s Prayer, creed, etc. They have one hymn which they sing quite often set to the tune of “Old Black Joe” and another to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”
I keep plugging away at all kinds of jobs that have yet to be done before school starts. Last week I got all our old school seats washed with lye. We have about eighty American school seats and there was about an inch of dirt and grime and varnish on them. I tried almost everything to get that dirt off, even burning, with no success. Then I found some caustic soda (lye) in the bazaar and tried some of that, made up pretty strong, and the dirt, varnish and everything came off in a flash. I got a couple of men to work at that and they finished the whole job in a jiffy. Then I found some good varnish in the storeroom, and one of the teachers, who has been helping all along, got to work on those seats. I got some black enamel for the iron parts and finished them up in good shape. Some people have asked in earnest if they were new. I’ve also been putting up blackboards. We are using wall board. You remember we used that once in the old country school. We got blackboard paint from India. We are also getting still more seats from India, so we ought to have a rip-snorter of a school next year. New building, new and cleaned furniture, blackboards, two new teachers – everything.
Last Saturday I attended the funeral of a fellow American, in fact I was one of the pall bearers. It was a simple service with just five Britishers and myself for bearers and the Church of England chaplain. The padre read a few short scripture passages, said a prayer and it was over. A couple Arabs came along and started filling the grave again before we left. The cemetery is quite a nice place, well kept but it is only a large open space surrounded by palm trees. Several thousand British soldiers are buried there and off to one corner is the civilian part where several British civilians are buried and also two of our missionaries, Harry Wiersum, one of the first missionaries here, and Mrs. Bennett, who contracted typhus and died of it while tending Turkish soldiers during the war. This man was a driller for the Anglo Persian Oil Company and had been in the nursing home for over a month with malaria fever and dysentery. He seemed to get better again and left, but had a relapse and had to go back and he utterly gave up hope. He was down and out and said he never expected to get out alive again. He never adjusted to the food here and was pining away for some American food. I almost believe a good piece of American coconut pie made by an American cook in an American restaurant would have saved him, but there is no such thing in this land. I wouldn’t mind having a piece of coconut pie myself, but I’m not going to let myself die because I can’t get it.
October 14, 1923
Well, things are settling down again to normal. Mr. Van Ess and Miss Kellien came back from Annual Meeting in Bahrain. Mrs. Van Ess and the children will be back in two or three weeks. School starts tomorrow, or at least we will have registration. We won’t start classes until the end of next week because there is still a lot of work that has to be done on the building. Our contractor has done pretty well on the new building but it is next to impossible to get him to finish the last things. I have been getting after him to put the door knobs on and clean the building and other little things, and he says, “Tomorrow workmen are coming.” But tomorrow never comes. Mr. Van Ess says he did the same thing last year when he built the house the Van Esses live in.
Mr. Van Ess and I have been talking a blue streak today about Annual Meeting, but not any of that would be of much interest to you. The first part of the week I got a letter from Bahrain to which about half of the people at the meeting had added something. That surely was nice. Mr. and Mrs. Hakken have passed their first year’s language study examination.
October 21, 1923
We are surely going to have some party here this winter. We expect Mrs. Van Ess and the children back from India at the end of this week, and Mrs. Firman, Mrs. Van Ess’s mother is coming with them. Mr. and Mrs. Firman used to run a city settlement house in Chicago, but since Mr. Firman died several years ago and her children married and scattered all over the world, she has been traveling around visiting them. She has just come from China where her daughter and her husband are in Y.M.C.A. work. Mr. Van Ess tells me that she was President of the Congregational Women’s Mission Board at one time. Then the Jackson sisters, who will finish language study the first of December, have been appointed to Basrah, one to help Mrs. Van Ess and one to help Miss Kellien in the Girls School. They will be here before Christmas. Then Mrs. Conklin and her daughter, of our mission in India, are coming to spend the Christmas holidays in Basrah, so we’ll have a merry crowd. Major Yates also always comes down for Christmas.
We’ve registered students this week and Mr. Van Ess has been reorganizing the whole works, so we’ll run on a different schedule this year. I’ve still been doing about the same as the weeks before, cleaning and leveling off the compound and getting everything in general fixed up. I also set up forty-eight new school seats that just arrived from India this week. They were all knocked down so that they could be shipped better. I am pretty proud of myself. I actually managed to work up a pretty good tan and some calluses on my hands. The sun is getting so that you can be out in it all day without getting “overhet” or being uncomfortable. Of course, when you work your sweat runs like a river. So I’ve flung local tradition to the winds the last couple weeks and donned a khaki shirt and shorts and showed the workmen how to get things done. I can’t simply stand by and oversee while these workmen are making a show of work but not getting things done. I feel fit now because of all the exercise I’ve been having.
Your loving son and brother, George
Besides the Kurds, there were Sunni and some Shi’i Muslims, Yazidis, Turkomans, Assyrian and Chaldian Christians and several other small groups.
The odd shaped national boundaries of Jordan, with an eastern salient reaching out to touch Iraq, were drawn by the British to secure access to oil from Iraq through the territories of Jordan and Palestine, which they also controlled.
The origin of this name is disputed, but the best explanation perhaps is that the Sassanid Persians referred to the Mesopotamian region of their empire as “Eraq Arabi” - Arab lowlands - and the Arabs themselves have traditionally called that area “El Iraq.”
William R. Polk, Understanding Iraq, 2005, p. 74.
Polk, p. 80.
Faisal was, of course, a descendant of the Prophet and might appeal to both Sunnis and Shi’is.
If any of the foregoing history of Iraq sounds similar to what has been happening there since 2003, it is further testimony to the fact that the American leaders did not learn the lessons that Britain’s experience might have taught them.
Van Ess felt he knew enough to generalize about “the Arab.” He titled his 1943 book Meet the Arab, and dedicated it to King Faisal the First “who made me promise that I would always tell the Arabs the truth about themselves.”
Janet Wallach, Desert Queen, 1966, p. 256.
Dad never met Gertrude Bell. She seems not to have visited Basrah while he was there, and on the one occasion when he spent time in Baghdad with Van Ess and might have met her, she was in England on leave.
Article XII of the treaty governing relations between Britain and the new nation of Iraq stated: “No measure shall be taken in Iraq to obstruct or interfere with missionary enterprise or discriminate against any missionary on the ground of his religious belief or nationality, provided that such enterprise is not prejudicial to public order and good government.” It seems probable that this clause was included at Britain’s insistence rather than at Iraq’s initiative.
Pillow fights between two boys straddling a horizontal pole.
Dad had spent one summer during his college years working on a crew paving the streets of Pella with cobblestones.
While this opinion sounds somewhat presumptuous on the part of young George Gosselink, he may have been largely correct. He was greatly influenced by John Van Ess, who was very politically minded and had his own strong biases. Basrawis had a reputation for being apolitical, more concerned with commerce than government, as long as public order was maintained, but they – and John Van Ess – had also favored Sayyid Talib Pasha for King before the British put forward the Emir Faisal of the Hejaz in Arabia as their candidate.
Horse drawn carriages
Malaria was not something to take lightly and could have serious consequences. But having described his symptoms so graphically, he now seems to have had second thoughts and had to assure his mother that it was not really so bad after all.
The United Mission of Mesopotamia, with which the Arabian Mission cooperated, did open a Girls school in Baghdad, which quickly gained a reputation as one of the best schools in the city. The Mission did not compete with the Jesuits who established Baghdad College, an excellent preparatory school for boys, which many of the present leaders of Iraq attended.
Sir Henry Dobbs had just recently been appointed British High Commissioner for Iraq, the senior British official in the country. Van Ess had known him in Basrah during the War when he had been second in command to the chief Political Officer Sir Percy Cox.
The Kadhimain mosque was bombed and its golden domes destroyed in a terrorist attack of March 2004.
These were Roger Cumberland and Edwin Wright.
It would be nice to know more about this encounter. Dad makes no mention of the political instability in Mosul that summer. The diverse population there, which Dad wrote about, was not yet committed to the idea of an Iraqi nation under King Faisal. Turkey was still claiming territory in northern Iraq and the Kurds were demanding independence. Faisal favored an autonomous Kurdish government within the boundaries of Iraq as long as the Kurds accepted Iraqi sovereignty. Zaid had been sent by his brother to win the Kurds and other dissidents over to the Iraqi side.
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iraq.html; 21 November 2012