Memoir: Robert M. Martin; Iraq, 1965

(A world-traveler's personal experiences)

Visiting Iraq between Anglo Occupations

The British military entered Iraq in 1915 to fight the Ottoman Turks. The British defeat was thorough and disgraceful; never the less, they returned as an occupation force at the end of World War I and ruled Iraq as a Mandated Territory under The League of Nations.

A monarchy was established in 1921, independency granted in 1932, and Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979. The Americans invaded and briefly occupied the country in 1991, returned in 2003, and remain in Iraq at the writing of this episode.

—Robert Martin

Arriving in Iraq, 1965

In my mind's eye things were happening in slow motion. The Iraqi border guard moved his hand across the stock of his weapon. A single round slid into the breech. The safety was released. "What‚s going on here", I murmured. "I must have dozed off. Got to wake up. I've got to leave for . . . Oh, oh!" The gray muzzle was raised, staring me in the face. The epiphany of the moment was sobering and, in an odd way, relaxing. The guard's order was terse and clear, "Out!"

"I smiled and politely said, "Yes." Then, in a deliberate and unprovocative manner, I opened the cab door, stepped down to the ground, reached behind the seat to pull out my backpack and shoulder pack, always making sure the guard could see every move I was making."

The guard momentarily focused back to the truck driver. He was instructed to continue on his way across to the Syrian side of the border, 100 yards or so farther on. Returning his attention to me, the guard waved his free hand, indicating that I should walk ahead of him to a small ramshackle hut near the guard box. As I approached the doorway, I thought about the past several weeks since I had left East Africa.

From Tanzania to Iraq

Six weeks earlier, in mid-1965, I had completed my teaching assignment with the Peace Corps in Tanzania. I was offered an air ticket home to San Francisco or its equivalent in cash. I chose the latter. Within days, I was sailing across the Indian Ocean to Bombay via the Seychelles on a British steamer.

India has always held a magical charm for me with its uniquely singular blend of cultures and customs, stunningly beautiful temples and mosques, and a myriad of tasty cuisines. Weeks of subcontinent train and bus travel later brought me back to Bombay, where I again booked ship passage.

This time my vessel was headed into the Persian Gulf. It promised to be a unique experience with scores of Hindu and European passengers, as well as Muslim pilgrims in route to Shiite holy sites in Iraq. Kuwait City was my chosen port of disembarkation.

A taxi was my choice of transportation to the Iraqi border. These modern ships of the desert usually carry four or five passengers, nearly always men. It is normally a congenial group of passengers and driver, whose preference is a "don't-spare-the-throttle" ride. And for this exhilarating experience all passengers share the fare, paying at the start of the journey.

Cultural taboos forbid most male-female mingling unless the individuals are from the same family. When the fairer sex do travel by taxi a male relative will hire the vehicle and escort the ladies of his family for both safety and protocol.

I expected to find a stately old customs house on the Iraqi side of the border, maybe something from the Ottoman or British colonial period. Instead, there was only a series of tables, end to end, outside in the sun, not even a tent or canopy above.

There was no lack of Iraqi customs staff and police to help clear the large volume of bus and auto passengers. I went through most of the table stops in the line, getting my papers stamped again and again.

Officer number five was not in a stellar mood. He snatched the documents out of my hand with a strong tug, glanced at my passport and declaration paper, stamped them, then thrust them onto the table in front of me with a concise, "Go".

There was one more possible table stop to make, but his order was definite and clear. I left the line and showed my paperwork to the policeman standing behind the tables. He took them; hastily checked each, handed them back to me with a head movement that suggested, "Scram", and went back to his conversation with a fellow officer.

Basra, a city of genteel grace

Over the years I had read that Iraq was sometimes open, other times closed to U.S.A. citizens. Since this was one of those rare opportunities for Americans to enter the country, I was determined to travel Iraq, rude customs staff or not.

That first afternoon and the next morning, I spent time walking the old quarter of Basra. This city of charm and beauty at the confluences of the Tigris and Euphrates had seen centuries of history before the British military came in 1915.

It was easy to imagine a 19th century Ottoman Pasha and staff riding through the neighborhood, or a street vendor calling the household servant to lower her goods basket from the balcony for some of the fresh produce stacked high on the vendor's cart, or pause for a moment, to watch the sailing craft moving up and down the nearby grand canal.

Unfortunately, when I viewed that waterway, it was void of any commerce. Its stillness only reflected nearly perfect images of buildings and palm trees on the opposite bank.

"Hello there. I say, hello." I heard an affected British English accent just behind me. I turned and saw a youngish fellow, maybe in his late teens or early twenties. "Are you English?"

"No, American from San Francisco."

A deflated, "Oh", came on a disappointing note. But his voice perked up without missing a beat. "Are you interested in our Iraqi architecture?"

"Yes, it's interesting to me. It seems to be a beautiful blend of Ottoman and Iraqi."

"Yes, it is. The Turks were the colonial power for hundreds of years. We Iraqis didn't like them very much, but we made the best of our situation."

It turned out that Salem and I were both visitors in Basra. He was paying respects to his relatives before leaving by plane to the U.K. where he had won a scholarship. I was traveling north to visit Baghdad and Mosul.

He was well informed and I enjoyed his numerous cultural and historical footnotes on Iraq as we viewed a number of well-preserved venerably old buildings, mostly homes. Along the way, we saw examples of Ottoman Period balconies, graciously designed archways, and carved wooden doors.

"Will you join me at one of our traditional tea houses?", Salem suggested.

"Sounds like a good idea to me," I responded.

We had been walking for a while, and the day's temperature was climbing. A short break would be just right. We stepped into a large cavernous teahouse, packed with dozens of other gents. Custom dictated a separation of the sexes and no women customers were allowed.

Inside, the lighting was good, due to large plate glass windows facing out onto the sidewalk, and lit coverless neon tubes hanging from the ceiling.

There were a couple of antiquated pot bellied stoves in the room, idle for the time, but in place and ready for the next cold spell. Waiters moved effortlessly among the tables carrying trays with demitasse size cups of coffee and slightly larger sized glasses of tea.

Over tea with single lumps of sugar, we spent some time ruminating on the Beatles, Mark Twain, and Hollywood films; but intuitively skirted Iraqi politics.

"Do you know any of the stories of Nasrudin Hoja?" Salem asked.

"No, do you have an example?"

Salem had one ready. "Nasrudin called at a castle to collect for charity. 'Tell your master'‚ he said to the doorkeeper, 'that Hoja Nasrudin is here and asks for money.' The man went into the building, and then came out again. 'I am afraid that my master is out'‚ he said.

'Let me give you a message for him, then', said Nasrudin. 'Even though he has not contributed, he can have this advice, free. Next time he goes out he should not leave his face at the window. Someone might steal it.' "

"The Nasrudin stories are popular folk tales told throughout the Middle East and Turkey in dozens of variations. Hoja Nasrudin is a teacher, resourceful, clever, and maybe just a bit sly. Most often, his tales make a philosophical point, but only after capturing the attention of the audience."

North to Baghdad

The road north to Baghdad was serviceable without amenities except for an occasional petrol station. My mini-bus traveled the Westerly route north, often close to the Euphrates. It was soothing to see fields under cultivation, green and healthy, and clustered with date palms.

There were also large stretches of parched landscape, baking under an unrelenting sun, where summer temperatures often soar above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This land between the rivers became a fertile crescent only with the magic of artificial irrigation.

Baghdad was delightful. It had a fine blend of modernity and Arabian Nights mystique. It seemed to have everything needed to be a thriving metropolis with its trendy shopping boulevards, crowded sidewalk cafes, fashionably dressed shoppers, and, yes, even traffic jams with frustrated drivers and irritated cab drivers. I chose The Hanging Gardens and the National Museum as my blend of the historical and cultural.

"Are you perplexed by this archeological puzzle with so many pieces missing?" asked a senior gentleman in Western dress and an archeological paperback in hand.

I admitted, "Absolutely, it takes a good bit of imagination to mentally reconstruct what had once been here with so few remains on display. But recalling sketches from old copies of National Geographic does help."

We walked along together, stopping at a number of descriptive placards. The gentleman translated from his book, which added much more relevant information than the posted card. He was living history, not only for the information he had in hand but as he began to interject bits of his own life in Iraq.

"I first came here as a boy of four years. My father liked to take his children to historical sites throughout our country, giving us a sense of the historical richness of our antique land and the major part it played in the development of civilization. He was a highly placed civil servant, both during the Ottoman, and the later British occupation period. Both occupiers sought my father's counsel because he knew many important people and was well respected by all who knew him."

"The British were frequently heavy handed during their rule, and often did not treat the Iraqi people with respect, but they found that my father's influence could make a difference between cooperation and obstinacy from the Iraqi people, so they treated him and our family very well."

"We kept our large house, retained our servants, and continued to have one of the few automobiles in Baghdad during the British occupation. Our family lacked for nothing," he reminisced.

I appreciated the glimpses into the colonial and mandate periods, the short-lived monarchy, and the republic that followed. For the second time since I arrived in the country, someone knowledgeable in things Iraqi skirted the current political situation.

I surely did not want to evaporate the pleasant bond of friendship we had developed by asking an embarrassing question that could be answered at most public libraries in San Francisco. My preference was to appreciate his wellspring of information about things Iraqi, his warmth of personality, and his gift of feeling for humanity.

Iraq's National Museum, among the World's Best

The National Museum brought things into perspective. The colorful diorama of the ancient Chaldean city and its walls, glazed bricks that may have been fired during the period of Nebuchadrezzar, detailed renderings of a Ziggurat and royal palaces, and drawings of Babylonian nobility added substance and meaning to the archeological remains.

Like visiting any of the world's great museums, there was too little time to view, appreciate, and absorb the massive number of artifacts in just one day.

Among the Dedicated: Those Serving with CARE: C(ooperative for) A(merican) R(elief) E(verywhere)

Back on another bus the next morning I continued north. A young fellow dressed like an American sat next to me. "How far are you going?" I asked.

"To the end of the line at Mosul. I'm one of five CARE Relief workers in the area."

He didn't mind talking about the conditions he was working under, and I had questions.

He said, "Our effective coverage is about a twenty mile radius around the city, most of it is in the midst of the Kurdish Tribal region. Right now, the tribes are not having an easy time of it. They are a suppressed minority, and want autonomy, and, if conditions were a bit more equitable, they would demand a reasonable share of the oil revenues from their region." [Ever before U.S. President Woodrow Wilson neglected to include the Kurd tribes as a people designated for their own homeland after World War I, the Kurds had been a thorn in the side of one middle Asian neighbor or another].

There was no question as to where the Kurdish territory began. Iraqi roadblock-checkpoints, barbed wired enclosures, and large numbers of military personnel were highly visible, belying any assurances by the Baghdad government that the Kurdish north was a secured area.

As dusk turned to night, campfires began dotting the hill country to the north of Mosul. They were Kurdish. The Iraqi military periodically sent punitive forces into the mountains to pacify the Kurds, but they usually returned badly mauled.

I stayed with Samuel and two of his co-workers that evening, exchanging stories well into the night, over cups of coffee and snacks.

Another hurdle!

After breakfast, the following morning before going to their job site, the workers gave me a lift to the main road, where I'd have a good chance to hitch a ride down to the Mediterranean Coast. As luck would have it, I didn't wait long. Before the morning heat had really taken hold, I was riding in the roomy cab of an oiler on route to the Syrian port city of Latakia.

First we had to pass the checkpoint at the Iraqi-Syrian border. Our truck slowed to a stop. "This shouldn't take long," I thought. We were the only vehicle at the border.

The Iraqi guard on duty came over to inspect the vehicle and to check our documents. The driver was cleared. I was not. "I can explain," I began, remembering the rude Iraqi custom's officer at table number five on the southern border, and the last table I hadn't visited.

No explanation was expected, and none was accepted. His command was, "Out", end of conversation.

At that point, I didn't care to speculate on what was going to happen to me next, but whatever it was, I was going to be polite.

An Iraqi officer arrived, told me that I was being sent back to Mosul because my paperwork was not complete. He ordered the next incoming truck to give me a lift into town. It was late afternoon by the time I arrived back into Mosul, and later still when I arrived at the CARE workers' house.

Samuel thought that my best bet was to visit the Chief of Police. He had the power and authority to give me an exit stamp out of the country.

The Chief was definitely not pleased to see me or anyone else on that cold-dark night after working hours, but he knew Samuel, and made an exception.

I was allowed to explain my case. Reluctantly, and after a long suspenseful pause, the Chief considered aloud whether he should send me back to Basra for my stamp or give me one on the spot. Samuel and I were as quiet as church mice, smiling politely.

"Okay", the Chief barked frustratingly. He would give me an exit stamp, but only if I agreed to be out of Iraq before sunset on the following day. He indicated that there would be consequences if I failed. I jumped at this window of opportunity and agreed.

True to my word, I was on the Basra-Istanbul train the following afternoon.

It didn't bother me a bit that the train arrived late at the Mosul station, just as long as it cleared the Iraq border before sunset. It did, but just barely.

Copyright © R. M. Martin, Visiting Iraq Between Anglo Occupations, 1965.

Memoirs Directory for Robert M. Martin.