Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Ashoor Ahmed and Abood Assaid

Ashoor Ahmed

On November 7, 1914, a British sergeant, probably of the Dorset Regiment, looking for tough Turkish soldiers, burst through the flimsy door of a mud house or serifa in the small village of Fao (called Faw in the newspaper reports of the Iran-Iraq and recent Gulf wars) situated at the extreme southern tip of what was then Mesopotamia but today is Iraq . He so startled the young pregnant girl inside that she gave premature birth to a baby boy right then and there.

Equally startled himself, the sergeant called for his company's first-aid attendant to help the neighbour women look after the mother and child. Later, as the Mesopotamia campaign took him far up the Shatt-al-Arab river to Basra and eventually Baghdad, the sergeant sent back small presents and good wishes to the baby's family.

Thirty three years later, that somewhat premature baby, Ashoor Ahmed, stood six-feet-two-inches tall on the bridge of the Iraqi survey ship, the S.V. El Ghar (the dove) of which he was the serang or sailing master and told me that story of his spectacular birth.

And now, after arriving in Basra at the very tail end of 1947, that vessel had become my command—I was now the hydrographer in charge of El Ghar with the job of checking the miles of busy shipping channels leading in to the broad Shatt-al-Arab river from the wide, deep, blue waters at the head of the Persian Gulf.

Our ship was manned by a crew of twenty men of Iraq. The El Ghar was 110 tons, 98 feet long, had twin Gardner diesel engines, drew a draught of six feet and was built in Bombay in 1914, the same year as Ashoor Ahmed’s British Army assisted birth.

Iraq at that time was a monarchy, ruled by a regent who deputized for the young King Faisal who was at school in England, and with a seemingly civilized prime minister, Nuri Said. Sadly during later uprisings all these personages were brutally murdered to make way for successive villains of differing stripe.

Ever since Saddam Hussain’s long and ghastly war with Iran, during which my old area of operations became a major war zone, I’ve often wondered about the fate of the twenty Iraqis I had as the crew of the survey ship I commanded from 1947-52—the old El Ghar. Some of my younger ex-crew members may still be alive. Others could be in their nineties.

But there's one crew member I don't have to worry about:

Abood Assiad, one of the ship's sukhanys or helmsmen.

The El Ghar had a massive manual steering wheel as big as a cart-wheel to operate the heavy chains running in their iron channels from bridge to rudder. Moosa Sagar, the other sukhany, big and brawny as he was, had to stand off to one side to pull mightily on the big spokes when we went hard over to port or starboard.

But Abood—standing tall and built so big and broad that, if stood side by side with many of today’s Olympic athletes he would make them look puny—could stay standing dead centre on the quartermaster's floorboard and twirl that great wheel through his fingers with ease. Jet black, with a haughty bearing, handsome visage and with red-painted finger and toe nails, Abood Assiad was a man to value aboard a ship.

In a gale of wind, with a sand haze hiding the distant shoreline and with a 60-ton Muscat and Oman dhow anchored on the centreline of the outgoing channel—right in the path of an oncoming, but as yet unseen, 32,000-ton, fully-laden, T2 tanker, it was Abood who, axe in hand, leapt over the dhow's bulwarks. There amidst the considerable physical protests of disapproval of their forty-man crew. Abood chopped through their anchor hawser so we could pull their vessel away from certain disaster with just moments to spare. And it was Abood who swam mightily through the evening ebb tide to rescue the bhandary, the crew's cook, when he was being swept away out to sea.

One day, when we had steamed in error over one of the dozen big angle-iron, wire and canvas submersible drogues with which we tracked and measured the currents and tides, the El Ghar was lying adrift with both propellers held fast. The serang and all hands were down aft trying to free our propellers. Only Abood and I stayed up on the bridge. As our vessel just drifted at will into the deep waters at the head of the Persian Gulf, I spent a busy half hour at the chart table plotting the tidal measurements we had taken so far that day. Then I stood up and asked Abood if he could tell by the commotion of shouts and cries in Arabic, if the crew were making any progress in their rescue task. ‘It was getting late,’ I said, ‘the tide was more than half spent. We would loose the several other buoys we had set adrift for tracking the tide. They were now miles away.’

Abood just simply said: ‘I go fix, sahib’. And down the companionway from the bridge he went, making his way aft, stripping off his clothes as he went. Then he dived deep down under the ship. Long anxious minutes later Abood reappeared on the surface with the whole heavy mess of hardware, wire and canvas in his hands.

But, tragically, it was also big, strong, cheerful Abood, two years later, while I was away on leave, who, at the tiller of a motor boat while stretching a thousand feet of seven-stranded measuring wire from a marker beacon, was enmeshed by that same wire when it snapped and curled back. Helplessly pinioned, Abood disappeared for ever in the swift currents of the silt-laden waters of the Shatt-al-Arab estuary. That event still haunts me. I am certain that if I had been there that day it would not have happened. I would have had that wire carefully examined for flaws before putting such a strain on it. And anyway I would have used another method of measurement. How I wish the fickle finger of fate had not sent me on leave at that particular time.

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