Large rats, large dhows, and large fat dates
— life aboard the Iraqi Survey Vessel,
The five big seagoing suction dredgers operating at the head of the Persian Gulf spent a week or ten days, or more, out at sea sucking up the sea-bed silt washed down from the Shatt-al-Arab and then sailing over to Abdullah Point to dump their spoil. Then usually for a weekend they would come up the river to tie up at Fao for two or three nights before heading back down to the head of the Gulf again.
At that time the port of Fao consisted of a wooden wharf connected by a crane track to the workshops a few hundred feet inland. From the end of the wharf a chain of four massive iron barges was permanently anchored in a line parallel with the shoreline. The dredgers and other large vessels tied up to the outsides of the barges and smaller craft like the El Ghar tied up to their inshore sides.
In the compound onshore there was the large marine workshop, the administration office and the generator house. There were half a dozen bungalows for such people as the works manager and the electrical-radio engineer and their wives; and the bachelors: the medical officer; the communications officer; and the overall boss—the Dredging Superintendent or DS. There was also a modest office building for the small number of Iraqi administrators, draughtsmen and clerks. Around about were the various dwellings of senior Iraqi office staff, a small hospital, a swimming pool, a couple of tennis courts and in the centre of everything a sandy football field. As well there was quite a lot of greenery and date palms.
Importantly, there was the club or Port Officers Shore Mess, a rather nice looking, high-standing, cool, building containing a polished red tiled hall about the size of a school gymnasium, a billiard room with a very good snooker table, a small library and again importantly, a bar. It was here that the dredger and other port vessel officers intermittently congregated and where special parties and dances were held. It was the social centre of our small community, isolated as we were by ninety miles of desert track from Basra to the north..
Outside, through the always open compound gate, and all around and along the shore line was the actual spread-out village of Fao, with serifa, mud dwellings and a few minor places of commerce.
Half a mile to the west, away from the river through the date palms, the desert abruptly began.
Just down river from Fao there would often be several dozen deep-sea dhows anchored. Some would be from far off Zanzibar, Malaya and other parts of the Indian Ocean perimeter. They were of a size larger than the vessels in which Columbus and other western explorers had made their epic voyages and had crews of fifty or sixty men. These lateen-rigged sailing dhows showed distinct characteristics as to their place of origin especially in the shape of their bowsprits which ranged from scimitar shapes to dauntingly two-fathom long painted phallic symbols.
Though they traded in general merchandise the main cargo they loaded in Fao consisted of tons of dates for which they would get high prices owing to their top-banana quality. This because their limited cargo tonnage would mean much of their load would be in good shape and not overly squashed. This was in like manner to the top layers of bananas, carried by freighters in other parts of the world, which are better preserved from damage by not having the weight of many other tons piled up on top of them—hence the term ‘top-banana’.
The crews of the dhows would often be many weeks at sea, hindered by adverse winds and storms and sometimes we would see one flying a distress flag as it approached the estuary of the Shatt or laying becalmed some miles off. So we would give them a few gallons of fresh water and a sack of rice to last them until the flood tide would make and take them up river. When becalmed a dozen of their crew might man a long boat and tow their ship by pulling on the oars to the rhythm of a song and conch shell.
When they came ashore at Fao after so many hard weeks at sea I was intrigued at seeing the captain and his senior officers saunter proudly up the wharf dressed in highly coloured ladies swagger coats, mostly tailored by New York garment factories. If out of fashion or mis-made in some way these cut-price slim-waisted coats would be shipped out east by their manufacturers to find an eager market.
After an hour or two sitting in the coffee-shop outside the compound gate or doing whatever else they did for relaxation these sea captains would return to their ships perhaps dangling a half-dozen small sardine-like fish from a string. Forbidden by religion from usurious dealings the dhows carried gold for buying and selling their cargoes.
Often through ignorance or because of bad visibility a dhow would anchor in the deep water of one of the shipping channels to wait for a favourable wind or time of the tide. But sometimes a loaded tanker was on its way up or down. In this case we would go alongside the dhow, make ourselves fast to it, and tow them to safer waters. And then often the knockader or captain would invite me and my serang, Ashoor Ahmed on board for coffee. This was served during a rather elaborate little ceremony as we sat squatted down by the ship’s steering position upon the raised aftercastle. A young boy would come with a tray of little metal cups and a typical long, thin-spouted metal coffee pot nestled over his shoulder. He would hand one a cup and with a little twitch of his shoulder a spurt of coffee would unerringly land in the cup without a drop spilled. A few little noisy sips and the tablespoonful of extremely bitter hot coffee would be gone whereupon another shoulder twitch by the serving boy would send a refill into one’s cup.
I soon found out that this sequence of events would go on and on despite my holding up my hands and making other gestures of ‘No thanks. No more coffee.’ Little spurts would continue to come my way until I learned to use the correct ‘no-more, thank you’ signal, which was to waggle the little cup from side to side.
Using my serang, Ashoor, as interpreter I would question the dhow captains about their navigation techniques which were both surprisingly simple and involved at the same time. Passed down from fathers to sons over the many centuries they relied heavily on clearly seeing the night heavens during deep sea passages. But they also showed me their copies of Admiralty charts and some showed me their sextants, all made by the Hughes factory in Barkingside where I had worked as a young teenager.
It was strange being there in such exotic circumstances and seeing the testing and error calibration certificate affixed to the inside of the lid of the sextant box, with the certifying signature of Mr Perkins, the sextant shop manager at Hughes whom I had known, reproduced at the bottom. Often I would explain how that test sheet should be used, how to look after the instrument and how to adjust the index error. Of course I could only do this because Ashoor had such a fine command of English.
One totally wrecked dhow aground on a mudbank had a dozen or more crazed rats running back and forth along its broken spars. But I sent a couple of men to take off the ship’s wheel for me. I had some idea of using it as an ornament. But it disappeared, to where I just don’t know. I found that strange because over the years I never lost anything else even though I was careless in leaving things all over the place.
In the same way, even in Ashar, the old part of Basra, there was no fear of being mugged nor did any of the wives and daughters of port officers out shopping alone. Iraq under the royal family of King Faisel, prime minister Nuri Said, and the Nakibs, was safer then than are our own cities today.
Rats abounded on our ship. At night I used to balance empty tins on the angle-iron longeron that ran alongside my bunk so that any rat running along it would make a clatter and wake me up—and it was a common occurrence. I also had a stick by my pillow with which to rap on the double deckhead above my bunk. The rats’ constant scuffling and pattering in there would sometimes keep me awake but often a loud tattoo on the metal would quieten them down long enough for me to fall asleep.
Once a year we sailed up the river to Basra for our annual fumigation. With the El Ghar alongside the wharf all the crew were ordered off the ship to nearby accommodation for three days while I took off to the rest house and the amenities of the luxurious Port Club. Then the next morning the vessel was sealed up and the cyanide pumped in and left to poison everything for a day and a night.
The first time this happened the serang told me that during the first night all the rats left the ship. Then the night the ship was left open to air out the gas all the rats jumped back on board. The only rat caught was one which in the middle of the night was seen to be undecided as to whether to go in a cage-trap after the bait, or not. The serang said one of the lascars leaped out of bed and kicked it into the cage. After the fumigation the crew swept up several buckets of dead cockroaches from the underdecking and bilges. We sailed back down the river with a brand new certificate of fumigation attesting to our vessel being rat-free in my desk drawer. That night I was awoken by something heavy on the covering over my legs. I looked down into the eyes of the largest rat I had yet seen on the ship.
Sometimes before going ashore in the evening to our club in Fao I would bait the rat trap cage at the bottom of the ladderway leading down to my cabin. If the dredgers and tugs were all out at sea all would be quiet along the mooring barges which were connected end-to-end by little wooden bridges as walkways. This deep silence was enhanced because as soon as our ship tied up to the farthest barge the vessel’s mistri, or engineer, would plug us into the shoreline's 220-volt current and switch off the ship’s 110-volt generator. So in the midnight silence as I walked back along the crane track and was still about four hundred feet from the El Ghar I would know if I had caught a rat. Because I would hear it starting to scream at the sound of my coming.
As I stepped from the first little wooden bridge onto the metal surface of the first massive barge my footsteps would echo eerily in the still night and resound from the surface of the fresh water stored below in each barge. And the trapped rat would scream louder. As I crossed the next little bridge onto the second barge the screams would become louder still and even louder as I crossed onto the third. When I trod down onto the fourth and last barge I would wonder why the terrible screams did not wake any of my crew who were sleeping on board, let alone the watchman fast asleep, as usual, at his post.
Then I would climb down my ladderway and see the frenzied rat with its mouth a bloody mess from trying to bite through the cage and its droppings and urine fouling the deck. Then I would grasp the rope tied to the top of the cage and climb back up the ladderway and carefully cross the upper deck to the ship’s side and lower the screaming cage into the water and at last listen once more to the blessed silence of the night.
Then. leaving the trap well submerged, I would bend the rope to the ship’s rail with a clove hitch and go back down the ladderway once more, step over the mess where the trap had been and get into my bunk. And fall asleep. For this night at least, for an hour or two, after the screaming of my victim, the rest of the rats would lie quiet and subdued.