Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 April 2003
Issue No. 634
Baghdad Supplement
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Doing good to people who don't want it


Click to view caption
Freya Stark in Arab garb
Baghdad, October 1929

Dearest Venetia,

It is very remarkable -- here I am in Baghdad. I sometimes wonder how it comes about. It is a long flat city in a flat land, and all you see as you come from the West is a fringe of palms and a mosque. The bridge of boats is not nearly as beautiful as it sounds, and there is a faintly English flavour of the "High Street" about the one tarred road which runs down the length of the town. There are no beautiful bazaars like Damascus, and the mosques with their gaudy domes do not seem beautiful from what I have seen (but I haven't yet examined). But the people are there, and I shall be very happy I do believe. That is after all the real interest: buildings and the beauties of nature I do think are subsidiary; and the people here are of all fascinating sorts, the beautiful ones being Kurds. Never have I seen more fine-looking men, so agile and strong with legs bare to the thigh and red turbans, and long hair under, and a wild aquiline handsomeness that is quite intoxicating and I only wish I could paint it.

Lovely to see the yellow sunset sky from Mrs Drower's terrace on the Tigris. The old Babylonian deluge legend says that the dove, the swallow, and the crow were sent to seek for the dry land: and there as I looked was the dove below me, and the grey-backed crow high up- stream, and a little bird I thought to be a swallow, only it turned out to be a bat.

The morning was again old Baghdad of The Arabian Nights -- the hanging painted balconies, the streets opening and narrowing in surprising sudden ways, the flapping white gown with bare leg showing through its slit side, the turban with bit of fringe falling on the neck, the shadows which are still pervaded by the intense sunlight above. Dust everywhere, scarcely worse when the white donkeys, with their dab of henna on the forehead and a raucous driver shouting from behind, pass along at a canter, filling the space from wall to wall. I was in the Jewish quarter. A bright neat small boy took me to the big girls' school, talking charmingly: he told me the Jewish school is better, and that his uncle travelled in all the world.

Mu'ailim takes me to visit his brothers -- wild day, sticky descent into the motor boat, and had to jump quickly to avoid sinking over my shoes in the soft bank: Tigris all small mud waves, splashes of water over us from the bows, and gleams of sun and a rainbow on the left. Pretty going down the banks, and Karada has a good front of nice houses with not much untidiness between one and the other. Find the brothers not in the guest room, but two Arabs and one European-dressed guest sitting smoking. Man from Hillah: black silk 'abba and 'aghal. Tells me that the men like to wear silk wound round their body when they fight because it strengthens them. Told that they had a Syrian girl in their house: had been a guest there for four years and he had never seen her nor heard her voice.

Painful silence whenever British are mentioned as such. The brothers came in: elder one 'Abdal-'Aziz the advocate and the younger brother 'Abdal-Qadir: the advocate very anti-British I should say, and rather a nice face but sulky. Tired after going to Kut and back, having been prevented by mud from actually reaching the town. Woke up when we began to trace Arab derivations in English.

Great disadvantage it is to us that we call ourselves Christians: puts us in the wrong from the first, for we are not only non, we are really anti-Christian: that is to say that if Christ were living now and were proposed for the Alwiyah club say -- not only would he not be elected, but the proposal would be generally considered absolutely bad from every point of view. Muhammadans may neglect their religion, but there would be none of this fundamental antagonism to Muhammad if he were to appear to-day. Our whole position is a lie in this most important point, and we have no business to feel so very superior to the people who think nothing of their everyday lies, but yet have so far more truthful a standpoint essentially.

The new High Commissioner arrived this afternoon -- nine aeroplanes very loud in the sky over the palm groves. "I hope he will be loved," said I to Salih the bellamchi. "I hope he will be good and beloved," said Salih. I wonder if there is one Iraqi in the country who really wants us: and the poor people like the boatmen are really those who benefit by our presence.

Baghdad, 10 December 1929

Dearest Venetia,

This afternoon, in a clear blue sky with a few shining white clouds floating about in it, I was watching the nine aeroplanes which brought the new High Commissioner; three of them headed the flight and turning separate ways came slowly down in great circular sweeps to the palm groves, while the escorting six flew away. No one is too hopeful, for the difficulties are beyond any High Commissioner, but they are specially hard for anyone with no experience except Indian.

While the arrival was taking place Mrs Drower and I went to a big Jewish wedding in a house outside the town on the N W, or the loveliest reach of the river I have seen, where it bends into a broad sheet of smooth brown water with brown boats and the waving palm gardens and the four minarets of Kadhimain and the blue dome where Abu-Hanifa is buried, shining up among the tree tops. One never gets accustomed to the sudden alternation of beauty and squalor, kindness and cruelty, every contrast jostling about in this chaos of a world.

My room on the Tigris looks very nice now: a square curtained place like the Kaaba hides my dressing arrangements, I have my camp-bed and have bought a rug, covers, cushions, a chair, table, lamp and stove. Kind people have: lent sofa and curtains and I have bought four ornamental candlesticks and two gazelles (metal) and feel that I live in elegant and refined surroundings and I pay 4s 6d a day to be fed and bathed and generally looked after by my landlady. She is a pretty woman and looks really lovely when I can ever see her tidily dressed. I vary in the most inconstant way between liking the friendliness and charm of the people and being exasperated by their hopelessness, and the same with the British -- they are such splendid people and doing such magnificent work, then just our insular stupid way of hurting everyone's vanities makes us hated all round and one's feelings just torn all ways. This is a very poor letter, but I wanted to be in time for Christmas and am so sleepy.

On the river bank southwards are flat mud hovels where the peasants live: a little pale maid in her dark blue gown and with her slim little figure and silent bare feet comes every morning with a bottle of milk: she has a gold circle with turquoise and little gold discs hanging from it sticking in one nostril, and her name is Jamila. I am glad I have no such obstacle for my handkerchief just now.

Baghdad, 5 January 1930

Darling B,

I had a pleasant ride yesterday by the north of Baghdad, the Middle Gate which is the only one of the old gates still left, a melancholy round bastion and bit of wall in the midst of an untidy depression filled with tombs and railway shunting and children and buffaloes where the suburbs and the Assyrian refugee camp begin. You get a good view of Baghdad as you approach the Ghilani Mosque, with its blue dome and minarets and palm trees before it.

What one misses here is that the beautiful things are so rarely in beautiful settings: it is almost impossible to feel satisfied, as one does in Italy: always there is a jarring or sordid or cruel touch somewhere. And yet it is indescribably fascinating.

Dearest Venetia,

I do wish you were here. Partly also because I have been so depressed by the sort of general dubiousness about my character and aims, I badly feel the need of someone to help combat the general disapproval. Did you ever read The Passage to India? Some have been like that, other people the very extreme of niceness but all finding it very peculiar that I am here at all, and this is what I find so tiring. The orgy of politics they indulge in has got on the nerves of Iraqis and British alike, so that they really have lost the perspective. I don't think the Iraqis have any real grievance, on the other hand I don't think our people, and they really are a splendid lot of people, realise how much more influential the unreal grievances are with all races, even our own, but much more so with people made up of variety like these. We don't go to their houses, and we ask them to be grateful for things like police and bridges; and they would probably much rather be without these latter and not feel inferior.

Everyone agrees that Iraq is not fit to govern itself (might be said of lots of countries in Europe too). I think the Iraqis themselves agree on this: the difference is that they don't care so frightfully much about being well governed. It is rather peculiar of us to be so particular about it, don't you think? And a mistake to assume that other nations are the same. I am sure that Italians prefer good opera to good laws; and these people, who suffer dreadfully from an inferiority complex, would much rather do without police and roads and bridges and not have constantly to admit themselves inferior by being brought up against us. One can see how it works with the servants here: our people treat them well and have trouble, or have to pay enormously for avoiding it. The Iraqis treat and pay them badly, but let them sit about and talk in their drawing-rooms, and have hardly any trouble at all. I find the same thing over and over again in all sorts of unexpected ways.

I don't know why one should bother so much about how Iraq is governed. The matter of importance to us is to safeguard our own affairs. It is only because we assume that the two are bound up together that we give so much weight to the local politics. It seems to me that the one only vital problem is to find out how the things we are interested in can be made safe independently of native politics. If this was solved, all the rest would follow -- including as much Arab freedom as their geography allows: for I imagine no one would wish to stay here for the mere pleasure of doing good to people who don't want it.

The position at present is so uncomfortable that everyone knows in their heart that it cannot get any better without some radical change. There seems to be no constructive vision behind it. But until some idea emerges, the present groping sort of system continues because it is not safe to let it go. The danger is that it might continue so long, that we might have to let go before any alternative is solidly established.

Freya Stark, Beyond Euphrates: Autobiography 1928-1933, London, 1951.

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