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   Chapter 6 BAGHDAD SKETCHES

War in the Garden of Eden By Kermit Roosevelt Characters: 16319

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Although never in Baghdad for long at a time, I generally had occasion to spend four or five days there every other month. The life in any city is complex and interesting, but here it was especially so. We were among a totally foreign people, but the ever-felt intangible barrier of color was not present. For many of the opportunities to mingle with the natives I was indebted to Oscar Heizer, the American consul. Mr. Heizer has been twenty-five years in the Levant, the greater part of which time he has spent in the neighborhood of Constantinople. The outbreak of the war found him stationed at one of the principal ports of the Black Sea. There he witnessed part of the terrible Armenian massacres, when vast herds of the wretched people were driven inland to perish of starvation by the roadsides. Quiet and unassuming, but ever ready to act with speed and decision, he was a universal favorite with native and foreigner alike.

With him I used to ferry across the river for tea with the Asadulla Khan, the Persian consul. The house consisted of three wings built around a garden. The fourth side was the river-bank. The court was a jungle of flowering fruit-trees, alive with birds of different kinds, all singing garrulously without pause. There we would sit sipping sherbet, and cracking nuts, among which salted watermelon seeds figured prominently. Coffee and sweets of many and devious kinds were served, with arrack and Scotch whiskey for those who had no religious scruples. The Koran's injunction against strong drink was not very conscientiously observed by the majority, and even those who did not drink in public, rarely abstained in private. Only the very conservative-and these were more often to be found in the smaller towns-rigorously obeyed the prophet's commands. It was pleasant to smoke in the shade and watch the varied river-craft slipping by. The public bellams plied to and fro, rowed by the swart owners, while against them jostled the gufas-built like the coracles of ancient Britain-a round basket coated with pitch. No Anglo-Saxon can see them without thinking of the nursery rhyme of the "wise men of Gotham who went to sea in a tub." These gufas were some of them twenty-five feet in diameter, and carried surprising loads-sometimes sheep and cattle alone-sometimes men and women-often both indiscriminately mingled. Propelling a gufa was an art in itself, for in the hands of the uninitiated it merely spun around without advancing a foot in the desired direction. The natives used long round-bladed paddles, and made good time across the river. Crossing over in one was a democratic affair, especially when the women were returning from market with knots of struggling chickens slung over their shoulders.

Asadulla Khan's profile always reminded me of an Inca idol that I once got in Peru. Among his scribes were several men of culture who discoursed most sagely on Persian literature; on Sadi and Hafiz, both of whom they held to be superior to Omar Khayyam. I tried through many channels to secure a manuscript of the "Rubaiyat," but all I succeeded in obtaining was a lithograph copy with no place or date of publication; merely the remark that it had been printed during the cold months. I was told that the writings of Omar Khayyam were regarded as immoral and for that reason were not to be found in religious households. My Persian friends would quote at length from Sadi's Gulistan or Rose Garden, and go into raptures over its beauty.

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Below the consulate was a landing-place, and when we were ready to leave we would go down to the river-bank preceded by our servants carrying lanterns. They would call "Abu bellam" until a boat appeared. The term "abu" always amused me. Its literal meaning is "father." In the bazaars a shop-owner was always hailed as "father" of whatever wares he had for sale. I remember one fat old man who sold porous earthenware jars-customers invariably addressed him as "Abu hub"-"Father of water-coolers."

My best friend among the natives was a Kurdish chief named Hamdi Bey Baban. His father had been captured and taken to Constantinople. After living there a number of years in semicaptivity he died-by poison it was said. Hamdi was not allowed to return to Kurdistan until after he was a grown man and had almost forgotten his native language. He spoke and read both French and English. Eventually permission was granted him to live in Baghdad as long as he kept out of the Kurdish hills, so he set off by motor accompanied only by a French chauffeur. Gasolene was sent ahead by camel caravan to be left for him at selected points. The journey was not without incident, for the villagers had never before seen an automobile and regarded it as a devil; often stones were thrown at them, and on one occasion they were mobbed and Hamdi only escaped by driving full speed through the crowd.

His existence in Baghdad had been subject to sudden upheavals. Once he was arrested and convoyed back to Constantinople; and just before the advance of the British his life was in great danger. Naturally enough he had little love for the Turk and staked everything on the final victory of the Allies.

He intended writing a book on the history of his family, in which he was much interested. For material he was constantly purchasing books and manuscripts. In the East many well-known histories still exist only in manuscript form, and when a man wishes to build up a library he engages scribes and sends them to the place where a famous manuscript is kept with an order to make a copy. In the same way Hamdi Bey had men busied transcribing rare chronicles dealing with the career of his family-extant in but one or two examples in mosques. He once presented me with a large manuscript in Persian in which his family is mentioned, the mention taking the form of a statement to the effect that seventeen of them had had their heads removed!

Next to various small tradesmen with whom I used to gossip, drink coffee, and play dominoes, my best Arab friend was Abdul Kader Pasha, a striking old man who had been a faithful ally to the British through thick and thin. The dinners at his house on the river-bank were feasts such as one reads of in ancient history. Course succeeded course without any definite plan; any one of them would have made a large and delicious meal in itself. True to Arab custom, the son of the house never sat down at table with his father, although before and after dinner he talked and smoked with us.

A jeweller's booth in the bazaar

I had a number of good friends among the Armenians. There was not one of them but had some near relation, frequently a parent or a brother or sister, still among the Turks. Sometimes they knew them to be dead, more frequently they could only hope that such was the case and there was no further suffering to be endured. Many of these Armenians belonged to prominent families, numbering among their members men who had held the most important government posts in Constantinople. The secretary of the treasury was almost invariably an Armenian, for the race outstrips the Jews in its money touch.

With one family I dined quite often-the usual interminable Oriental feast varying only from the Arab or Turkish dinners in a few special national dishes. All, excepting the aged grandmother, spoke French, and the daughters had a thorough grounding in the literature. Such English books as they knew they had read in French translations. The house was attractively furnished, with really beautiful rugs and old silverware. The younger generation played bridge, and the girls were always well dressed in European fashion. Whence the clothes came was a mystery, for nothing could have been brought in since the war, and even in ante-bellum days foreign clothes of that grade could never have been stocked but must have been imported in individual orders. The evenings were thoroughly enjoyable, for everything was in such marked contrast to our every-day life. It must be remembered that these few Armenians were the only women with whom we could talk and laugh in Occidental fashion.

By far the best-inf

ormed and cleverest Arab was Père Anastase. He was a Catholic, and under the supervision of the Political Department edited the local Arab paper. All his life he had worked building up a library-gathering rare books throughout Syria and Mesopotamia. He was himself an author of no small reputation. Just before the British took Baghdad the Germans pillaged his collection, sending the more valuable books to Constantinople and Berlin, and turning the rest over to the populace. The soldiers made great bonfires of many-others found their way to the bazaars, where he was later able to repurchase some of them. When talking of the sacking of his house, Père Anastase would work himself into a white heat of fury and his eyes would flash as he bitterly cursed the vandals who had destroyed his treasures.

It was in Baghdad that I first ran into Major E.B. Soane, whose Through Mesopotamia and Kurdistan in Disguise is a classic. Soane was born in southern France, his mother French and his father English. The latter walked across the United States from ocean to ocean in the early forties, so Soane came by his roving, adventurous spirit naturally. When still but little more than a boy he went out to work in the Anglo-Persian Bank, and immediately interested himself in the language and literature of the country. Some of his holidays he spent in the British Museum translating and cataloguing Persian manuscripts. Becoming interested in the Kurds, he spent a number of years among them, learning their languages and customs and joining in their raids.

As soon as we got a foothold in the Kurdish Hills, Soane was sent up to administer the captured territory. His headquarters were at Khanikin, twenty-five miles from Kizil Robat and but a short distance from the Persian frontier. One morning during the time that I was stationed in that district I motored over to see him. It was a glorious day. The cloud effects were most beautiful, towering in billows of white above the snow peaks, against a background of deepest blue. The road wound in and out among the barren foot-hills until suddenly as I topped a rise I saw right below a great clump of palm-trees, with houses showing through here and there-the whole divided by a lovely river bestridden by an old seven-arch bridge. I picked my way through the narrow streets, scattering ragged Kurds right and left; past part of the covered bazaar, until I came to a house with a large courtyard, thronged with a motley array of Kurdish irregulars, armed with every sort of weapon. It was there that Soane administered his stern but practical justice, for he thoroughly understood how to handle these men.

The district had suffered fearfully, for it had been occupied in turn by Turk and Russian, and then Turk again, before we took it over, and the unfortunate natives had been pillaged and robbed mercilessly. Thousands starved to death. When I was at Deli Abbas ghastly bands of ragged skeletons would come through to us begging food and work. Soane turned a large khan on the outskirts of the town into a poorhouse, and here he lodged the starving women and children that drifted in from all over Kurdistan. It was a fearful assemblage of scarecrows. As they got better he selected women from among them to whom he turned over the administration of the khan. They divided the unfortunates in gangs, and supervised the issue of dates on which they were fed. Such as were physically able were employed in cleaning the town. The Kurds are a fine, self-respecting race and it was easy to understand Soane's enthusiasm for them.

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In Baghdad you lived either in the cellars or on the housetops. The former were called serdabs. A large chimney, cowled to face the prevailing wind, served for ventilation, and on the hottest days one was cool and comfortable. We slept on the roofs, and often dined there, too. Since the town was the General Headquarters of the Expeditionary Force, one was always sure to meet many friends. A comfortable and well-run officers' club was installed, as well as warrant officers' and enlisted men's clubs.

Occasionally race meetings were planned and the various divisions would send representatives. Frank Wooton, the well-known jockey, was a despatch-rider, and usually succeeded in getting leave enough to allow him to ride some general's horses. An Arab race formed part of the programme. Once a wild tribesman who had secured a handsome lead almost lost the race by taking off his cloak and waving it round his head as he gave ear-piercing shouts of triumph. The Arab riding second was less emotional and attended better to the business in hand, but his horse was not quite good enough to make the difference.

The scene at the race-course was a gay one. The color was chiefly contributed by the Jewesses who wore their hooded silk cloaks of lively hue-green or pink or yellow. The only crowd that I saw to vie with it was one which watched the prisoners taken at Ramadie march through the town. Turkish propaganda, circulated in the bazaars, gave out that instead of taking the prisoners we claimed, we had in reality suffered a defeat, and it was decided that the sight of the captive Turks would have a salutary effect upon the townsmen. Looking down from a housetop the red fezzes and the gay-colored abas made the crowd look like a vast field of poppies.

When I was at Samarra an amusing incident took place in connection with a number of officers' wives who were captured at Ramadie. The army commander didn't wish to ship them off to India and Burma with their husbands, so he sent them up to Samarra with instructions that they be returned across the lines to the Turks. After many aeroplane messages were exchanged it was agreed that we should leave them at a designated hill and that the Turks would later come for them. Meanwhile we had arranged quarters for them, trying to do everything in a manner that would be in harmony with the Turkish convenances. When the wives were escorted forth to be turned back to their countrymen, they were all weeping bitterly. Whether it was that the Turk in his casual manner decided that one day was as good as another, or whether he felt that he had no particular use for these particular women, we never knew, but at all events twenty-four hours later one of our patrols came upon the prisoners still forlornly waiting. We shipped them back to Baghdad.

Occasionally I would go to one of the Arab theatres. The plays were generally burlesques, for the Arab has a keen sense of humor and greatly appreciates a joke. Most of the puns were too involved for me to follow, but there was always a certain amount of slap-stick comedy that could be readily understood. Then there was dancing-as a whole monotonous and mediocre; but there was one old man who was a remarkable performer, and would have been appreciated on any stage in the world. The topical songs invariably amused me-they were so universal in spirit. The chorus of one which was a great hit ran: "Haido, haido, rahweni passak!" "I say, I say, show me your pass." There had been much trouble with spies and every one was required to provide himself with a certificate of good conduct and to show it on demand. It was to this that the song referred.

Captain C.G. Lloyd was my companion on many rambles among the natives. He had been stationed in Burma and India for many years, and was a good Persian scholar. Like every one who has knocked about to any extent among native peoples, his career had not been lacking in incident. I remember on one occasion asking him why it was that he never joined me in a cup of coffee when we stopped at a coffee-house. He replied that he had always been wary of coffee since a man with him was poisoned by a cup which was intended for him.

I always looked forward to a trip to Baghdad, for it gave me a chance to mingle in a totally different life from that which daily surrounded me, and temporarily, at least, forget about the war in which the world was plunged. Still, the morning set to leave invariably found me equally glad to shove off once more into the great expanses of the desert.

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