by Dr. Sydney Ellerton
The last commission I took on after retirement took me to a country at war, in fact it was to Iraq in the middle of its six years’ war with Iran. The British Sugar Corporation had a section devoted to overseas consultancy and they had been commissioned by the F.A.O. (the Food and Agriculture Organisation) of the United Nations to conduct a feasability study on the development of a sugar industry in Iraq. This was part of a larger project that involved several crops, but work on all the others had been completed and the reports duly submitted.
The desire of nation states to become independent often makes no economic sense at all: growing wheat in Saudi Arabia for instance, watered with desalinated sea water far too expensive ever to give a sensible return on cost. Growing beet in Iraq was more logical than that, indeed there was already a small and very inefficient beet sugar industry. What was less logical was the hope of extending the national self-sufficiency to the production of their own beet seed. This was where I came in, since the Sugar Corporation knew all about growing and processing beet, but very little about seed growing.
A very competent and likeable young man called Tony Houghton was out there handling the problems of beet cultivation on behalf of British Sugar. I joined him for two periods of two months each and Tony and I became very good friends. In fact we had known each other for years previously. Probably I should not have taken this job on, for I had not realised how very worried Lilian would be about my going into a war zone, even though the war was being conducted on Iranian, not on Iraqi soil. Communications back home were difficult. I only got one telephone call through in the whole time I was there and letters had to go in the U.N. diplomatic bag to their New York headquarters and then back to Britain.
Getting to Baghdad was not that easy. Iraqi Airlines were supposed to have one flight a week, but at Heathrow they never knew whether it was going to run or not. I finally went out by British Airways to Amman in Jordan and from there by the Iraqi line. For security reasons there were only night flights and the main landing lights at the airport were all switched off, as were the lights in the aircraft cabin, as we came in to land. It was all a bit eerie. I was met at the airport by a U.N. driver and taken to my hotel about 4 a.m.
Next day I was taken out to the office, a room at the University of Baghdad well out of the city on the road going west to Amman. This journey fell to my lot on most days and the traffic was unbelievable. In the city centre there was dense car traffic not unlike any other big city in the rush hour except for quite a bit of indiscipline. Out on the road there was a constant, head-to-tail procession of heavy trucks bringing in supplies, mostly from Eastern Europe. It was the main artery for supplies for the war effort and for the civilian population. On the way out there was a military roadblock, but the guards seemed to know the U.N. cars and never stopped us. We passed large military encampments.
The university campus was well laid out and quite pleasant, though the buildings were basic and the rooms rather spartan. There was no question of air conditioning and there was purely nominal heating for the cold weather. Our room had a two-kilowatt fire. One bar would work, except during the numerous ‘power-outs’. If we put the second bar on, it would blow the fuses.
The U.N. staff at the university consisted of three people besides the two of us. The boss man was a Tamil from south-eastern India, named Rajan. A nice person with not much to do, for his scheme, originally concerned with several crops, was nearly finished. He and his wife lived on the other side of the River Tigris in a district called AI Mansour. He had learnt to find his way round government departments and round the U.N. offices and we would have been lost without that kind of help. There was a secretary, a pretty but rather sad lady, for things were going wrong for her. She came from San Luis Obispo in California and had married a brilliant and outstandingly pleasant young Iraqi out there to do a Ph.D. After returning home to Iraq with his wife he had done well, becoming head of his department and then of his faculty. The family had a house within the campus and there were two daughters, the elder of which was quite a beauty and was making a name for herself in Iraqi television. Then it began to go wrong. The authorities discovered that Ibrahim had an Iranian grandmother, which was nearly as bad as having a Jewish grandmother in Nazi Germany. When I left he had been demoted in the university and they were expecting to lose their house on the campus. His wife was forced to surrender her U.S. citizenship if she wished to stay with her family. There was also a third staff member, young Abdullah. A Palestinian, he could ‘fix’ almost anything, like getting supplies through customs or arranging any kind of transport.
There were other U.N. personnel based on the university. One was a Swede who gave Tony and me transport most days. He was an engineer, with the task of teaching Iraqis how to keep tractors and other machinery in working order.
Baghdad is, of course, an ancient and most interesting city. Its most famous ruler in the past had been Haroun al Rashid, the subject of various more or less apocryphal stories we heard in school, though he was certainly a real and powerful king. The most infamous ruler is probably the present one, Saddam Hussein, though there have been some pretty gruesome regimes from time to time in the past. It is on one of the two great rivers which, flowing through the Mesopotamian Plain, formed the birthplace of civilisation. Here, supposedly, was the Garden of Eden. The Tigris meanders gently through the city. There is an old town with a crowded market. This is a pedestrian area, with little open-fronted shops crowded together, with here and there craftsmen plying their skills – sometimes, as in the case of coppersmiths, very noisily. In this and neighbouring Rashid Street my biggest surprise was that it had not gone up in flames years ago, for there was the most rickety electric wiring you can ever imagine, strung haphazardly from point to point. There is a strip of gardens, then much neglected because of the war, along the river bank. There are the fish restaurants and they even have a species of fish peculiar to the Tigris. Lots of old men seat themselves at tables along here and play dominoes, apparently all day long. There are a few modern high-rise hotels belonging to international chains such as Sheridan, Meridian and Novotel. Their construction had been heavily subsidised by the government to the tune of 90 percent. There were some fine mosques and the call to prayer, blasted from loudspeakers at the top of minarets, seemed interminable. Away from this central area, residential New Baghdad stretches far in every direction, mostly well laid out with wide, straight streets, but quite without the interest of the old city.
We stayed at the Dar-al-Salaam hotel on Sadoun Street, one of the wide, modern streets near the city centre. Most of the time, that is. While we were there an international trade fair was held and in order to accommodate the organisers and visitors, most hotels, including ours, were commandeered. We went to the Adam Hotel across the road. Not all that bad, but one unusual feature I remember especially. One of the double doors leading into the dining room had a V-shaped notch cut, or rather knawed, in the bottom edge. When we were at breakfast we noted the resident rat, coming down the stairs and then coming in to see what could be scrounged. I am sure that the Sheraton lacked such interesting touches.
The hotel food was adequate if dull. All buying was bulk buying by the state. Some days there was lamb (rather mature lamb!) in the shops, some days poultry. Spaghetti bolognaise was a great standby. What the meaty portion consisted of we never knew, but it seemed to do us no harm. The food did get very monotonous but we hesitated to be too adventurous. There was what at first sight appeared to be a Wimpy bar in Sadoun Street. Closer scrutiny showed that it was a WIHPY bar, clearly meant to deceive because the ‘H’ was cleverly distorted to look quite like an ‘M’. We did not venture to eat one of their burgers. Beer was available and some very inferior wine, which was to be tried once and never again. The usual soft drink was PepsiCola, in bottles with the familiar label on one side and the equivalent in Arabic on the other. It was expensive. In summer the water from the tap was always lukewarm. Tony and I used to fill plastic bottles and store them in the fridge. The water was cloudy when poured and when settled there was a brown sediment at the bottom. It looked ominous but did us no harm. Even the ‘sons of the prophet’ quite openly drank beer in the hotels and bars and indeed the regime did not be too slavish in observing Muslim customs. Tony and I developed a ritual for Friday mornings. We took a walk along the river bank and ended up drinking, believe it or not, Nescafe at the Meridian Hotel. Even that was a very pleasant change from the hotel coffee, but it must be admitted that part of the pleasure was being waited on by a young Indonesian waitress, dainty, beautiful and utterly charming.
Most women wore Western dress and seemed to be quite free. Girls seemed to have the same educational opportunities as boys. The older women for the most part wore a long black robe with a hood, very like the costume of some of our nuns. Their faces were uncovered. There seemed to be none of that vile institution called purdah. I only saw two veiled women during my stay, which included visits to some of the holy cities.
As the war progressed, more and more Iraqis were sucked into the armed forces and the shortage of labour was made good by importing many thousands of Egyptians and later Filipinos and other Asiatics. The Filipinos solved one problem. There had always been a great many feral dogs in Baghdad and from time to time shoots or poisonings had been organised to bring down their numbers. Now the problem had entirely disappeared. For the Filipinos, dog was a delicacy!
Iraq, a big producer of oil, had benefitted from the big rise in oil prices engineered by OPEC (the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries). As in some of the other member countries, it seemed to have been assumed that the exponential rise in the oil price would continue indefinitely, which of course it did not. Again not alone, many massive contracts were placed for capital improvements and when the time came to pay there were problems. Some of the expenditure was quite fanciful. The footbridges over the busy road to Amman, which I traversed every day, had escalators instead of fixed stairways. They never worked because the cloud of dust stirred up by all the heavy trucks, or sometimes blown in from the desert, clogged the works in no time.
The new sewerage system was working but the manhole covers had not arrived and there were gaping holes in the streets, usually quite without barriers. Great fun at night in the black-out!
The war affected us in various ways, but it was nothing like living in the London Blitz, even though Baghdad was only a few flying minutes from the Iranian frontier. During my four months’ stay there was one air raid warning and no activity followed that. Food was dull but adequate, as we have said, and easy communication with the outside world was limited to our short-wave radio. We could get the B.B.C. (just then reporting the progress of the Falklands war) and often listened in the early morning to the Englishlanguage news from Dubai. The Israelis were at that time setting up their buffer zone in Southern Lebanon and they were predictably not too popular with the Arabs. I can claim not to be anti-semitic, indeed several of my friends had been Jewish, but I would find it easy to sympathise with the Palestinians and to become anti-Israeli. There was an English-language newspaper published in Baghdad but it reflected the viewpoint of Sadaam’s government. Hardly impartial.
We were issued with identity cards in Arabic and allowed to shop for goodies in the Diplomatic Shop, where most things could be bought but had to be paid for in hard currency. F.A.O. looked after us almost too well, being anxious that no diplomatically embarrassing ‘incident’ should occur. We all had Jordanian visas and would have been got out at the drop of a hat if things had become dangerous. British employees of commercial firms could get about much more freely than we could. If we wished to go anywhere, to a state farm for instance, we had to give notice to the appropriate ministry two weeks in advance.
For my seed-growing project only the cooler, mountainous area of the north could possibly be useful. Sugar beet is a biennial, but it does not ‘realise’ that it is into the second, seed-bearing year of growth unless it has been through a winter. There has to be a long enough period of cool enough temperatures, which was quite out of the question in the Mesopotamian plain. There was an immediate problem, for the north was where the Kurds lived. They had been agitating for an independent Kurdistan for many years and seized a time when the Iraqis were busy fighting the Iranians to be a bigger nuisance than usual to Sadaam. So I never saw the mountain valleys where seed might perhaps have been grown. Tony and I had one trip north, through the oil town of Kirkuk, through Arbil to Mosul. There we had a few days in a very reasonable hotel on the eastern bank of the Tigris. Then we had leave to go to Dohuk and further north again to Zakho, at both of which were experiment stations where in normal times we would have made very helpful contacts. Zakho was most pleasant, with a lovely, graceful stone bridge across the river and the mountains of Turkey a very few miles away. But the unrest was such that all visitors had to be out of the town by 4 p.m. We returned through Aqra, a small town with attractive houses spilt on the sides of several hills. Even in a marked U.N. car we were advised to drive straight through without stopping. Many of these places figured large in the world news during the Gulf War and for a long time afterwards.
The way back took us through grassland where shepherds grazed their multi-coloured flocks and I was tempted to get out of the car to take a picture. Walking nearer I was quickly called back. “These people have guns”, I was told. We went along the edge of a fertile valley where rice was grown in the flat land near to the river. At a couple of places we saw ancient monasteries perched inaccessibly on the mountainside. It is easy to forget that Mahomet lived more than six centuries after Christ and that Iraq was Christian before it became Muslim. Religions other than Muslims were still tolerated in modern Iraq. Our driver grumbled about the road, which was well furnished with potholes. He particularly grumbled at us because, he said, the British built it. When asked how long ago he said “in 1924”!
The ancient sites of Iraq are in some ways more spectacular than any in Greece, certainly much older. Names like Babylon and Nineveh and their rulers Nebuchadnezzar and Senaccherib are familiar names to us all, and there are others even older. Ur of the Chaldees is justly famous, but at that stage of the war was quite inaccessible to us. It was too near to the battle zone. It is not surprising that the Iraqi Tourist Agency was jogging along at a very low level. There was one bus leaving Baghdad each Friday (the Sabbath), alternatively for the north and the south. In this way we got to Babylon and to the Shi-ite holy city of Kerbala and to Samarra. Other visits, to Nineveh, Hatra and Nimrud were squeezed in as unauthorised side-trips while on official journeys. Apart from such visits, other cultural activity took place in the fine State Theatre in Baghdad. We saw shows of traditional dancing and a concert of music with traditional instruments. The museums in Baghdad, said to be very fine, had been stripped of their treasures to preserve them from war damage.
Babylon had been left literally high and dry. The site had been occupied for more than 4000 years but the main development was under Nebuchadnezzar around 600 B.C. It was once flanked by the River Euphrates, but in flat plains rivers wander about considerably in the course of time and now it was 18 miles away. Construction is mostly in adobe faced with weather resistant fired brick. The site is impressive and has been largely excavated and not excessively restored.
Kerbala, to the south of Baghdad and Samarra to the north are ancient holy cities, Kerbala being especially revered by the Shi’ite Muslims. The main Muslim sects are Sunni and Shia or Shi’ite, the disagreement between them hinging upon the question of who was to succeed the Prophet on his death. Iraq is mostly Sunni and the Iranians are fairly solidly Shi’ite. It was distressful to the Iranians to have some of their holy cities in enemy territory. Tony and I went to both these places by tourist bus and saw (from the outside only, since we were infidels) the beautiful mosques with their immaculately shaped domes covered entirely with gold leaf. In Kerbala we saw what happened when a Shi-ite died. The family would hire a taxi with a roof rack and put the coffin (usually a very simple box) on top. It would be driven to the holy city and the coffin would be carried into the mosque for a blessing. The wealthy families could have their dead buried within the limits of the city, but most took them right back to their village to be buried there.
Of the Samarra mosques, one was enormous, with capacity for a congregation of 10,000 persons. It had a conical minaret 170 feet high, with a spiral footpath winding around it to the top, with a handrail attached to the wall and a sheer drop on the other side. It was a very hot day, so I let Tony climb it while I took pictures from a shady spot below.
Nineveh, near Mosul, dated from around 700 B.C. and had a massive perimeter wall, partly restored, ten miles long. It had water ducted from a distant river and an elaborate irrigation system at the time of Senaccherib. There are impressive remains.
Nimrud, for us another detour on an official trip, was the one-time capital of the Assyrian empire and preceded Nineveh as such. It had been impressively excavated and partly restored. A whole history was engraved on its rocks, if only one could read cuneiform. Hatra, another impressive site built in limestone and with many Greek architectural features, flourished in the first three centuries of the Christian era.
Present-day schisms in the Muslim religion had occasional funny results. Sadaam Hussein, a lover of grandiose memorials to his overdeveloped ego, built a new airport at Baghdad which was opened while I was there. It was absolutely splendid, with what seemed to be acres of polished marble. On top rose an enormous illuminated sign which read SHIA, standing for Sadaam Hussein International Airport. The sign did not last long, for it was quickly realised that SHIA was the name of the rival sect, Iraq being very largely Sunni.
Sadaam, of course, became very much a world figure during and after the Gulf War and has fully proved his remarkable staying power. There seemed to be two main sources of this: ruthless elimination of dissidents, a process which put deadly fear of any backsliding into his followers, and skilled handling of public relations. This included the media. Sadaam could be seen on Iraqi T.V. nearly every evening, pinning medals on soldiers, visiting hospitals or waving to cheering crowds in Baghdad. Thus there was a carefully cultivated picture of a kind and caring leader who was the subject of popular adulation. We knew how it worked. When a big ‘spontaneous’ demonstration was planned in Baghdad, all the schools, colleges, government offices, state farms and other state enterprises were closed down for the day. Every available bus or lorry was commandeered to bring all the personnel into Baghdad and each person was given a packet of sandwiches and a flag to wave. The apparent enthusiasm was easy to explain: it would have been dangerous to act otherwise. There was a sting in the tail too: since all these people had taken a day off to demonstrate their zeal, they were required to do their normal work on the following Friday, which should have been a day off.
On the farming front, the private sector seemed to be doing well. Composed mostly of small family farms, they grew fruits and vegetables that sold at a high price in the town markets. The state farms were utterly hidebound by bureaucracy. We found some competent people on the sites, but every decision had to be sanctioned by a distant office. We heard of crazy happenings, like a number of combined harvesters being requested in good time, but only arriving weeks after the barley crop had ripened. By that time the grain had mostly shed on the ground. Cropping plans were often imposed without any regard to local differences in soil salinity, which is a major factor in an area which has been irrigated for thousands of years. Even on one farm the soil could vary from high fertility to salt desert.
So there it was, a most interesting but quite futile activity for us. Our report was completed, approved by F.A.O. and doubtless shelved by the Iraqi government. They were to go on with the Iranian war for several years more and then, having brought that to an inconclusive end, before much longer they were to invade Kuwait. This had consequences known to all.