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

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dateline: Iraq 1948 — A Lost Weekend

A Little Drink before Dinner

In the little port of Fao, Iraq, in 1948, two of the dredger engineer officers had become particular cronies of mine whenever their ship was alongside the mooring barges. Jock Tonner, Frank Hudson and me just seemed to share the same sense of humour and the ridiculous. So we spent much of our leisure time together.

Jock Tonner was fairly full figured and of a very agreeable placid nature. Sometime in the past, probably down in a ship’s engine room during a storm at sea he had injured his foot and this had left him with a slight limp. It also left him with a strong penchant against taking long walks. There was little need for long walks in Fao as everything was so closely together but, during our occasional visits up to Basra, Jock was noted for his encouragement of the taxi trade. Wandering around the Suk or market places he was given to hailing a taxi to take him to that shop over there, pointing to his destination no further away than a hundred yards. So when Jock’s dredger was alongside in Basra the taxi fellows competed avidly for his custom. We soon realized that if ever one wanted a taxi for oneself it was just a matter of finding Jock and picking up one of those trailing him.

Frank Hudson was just one of those especial people who is simply blest by nature to be liked by everyone. ‘Uncle Tank’ as he was known by all was a nice quiet guy who somehow, with no effort on his part, seem to make all men and women just simply glad and comfortable to be in his company. He had no pretences, no grandiose personality, just a nice way of making apt, calm or dry observations and of merely being around.

Thus early one evening in Fao found the three of us walking together along the crane track which ran from the mooring barges, and heading for the club, when we encountered Hashim the regional chief of customs. Hashim was often out in his fast machine-gun equipped motor boat looking for smugglers. That he was successful in apprehending many of the villains was evident by the fact that his zeal for doing his duty led him to sample much of the contraband immediately it was confiscated in order that he might prepare his official reports the more accurately. Often his dedication in this manner led to him having to be helped home along the crane tracks to his ancient but rather palatial residence.

But on that particular evening we met the rather diminutive Hashim he was in very good shape and invited us to join him in his fortress-like home for what he termed a little drink before dinner. We accepted gladly and followed him through the sentry-guarded gate set in the high mud wall surrounding the several ancient buildings of Turkish origin which marked the southern limits of the old Ottoman Empire, as they were back in the late seventeenth century, and lasting up to when the German Kaiser started the Great War and a British army took over.

Hashim led us into a very large room furnished in typical Arab style with two or three settees and couches interspersed with small tables arranged around each of the four walls. The entire centre of the spacious room was empty, devoid of any furniture except for an exceedingly large and beautiful carpet.

Apart from the eight or ten wall-hugging settees the only other item of furniture was an imposing and ultramodern radiogram. Hashim motioned the three of us to sit individually, each stationed at one respective wall, while he himself took what was probably his accustomed place at the fourth wall next to the radiogram.

We sat there in respectful near silence for quite some time. Then we bestirred ourselves and murmured compliments to Hashim on his fine carpet. And we all looked at it intently for some several long silent minutes. Then we started on the couches and little tables and had a good look at those. Then we examined closely one another’s walls.

Finally we said to Hashim what a really good radiogram that appeared to be and he beamed proudly. So we all looked at it. Intently and long. Very long.

At last one of us ventured to ask if it actually played. Hashim said yes and once more beamed proudly. So we all looked at it some more. Then we started on the carpet again. By now half an hour had passed. We wondered silently about our suggested little drink before dinner. So to spur things on apace someone asked Hashim if he could receive London on his radiogram. More proud beams. Not only London, said Hashim, but Rome, Tokyo, Moscow — the world. So we all looked at it again. Respectfully and proudly.

Suddenly, Hashim had a brilliant idea. Would we care to have a drink while we were looking at the silent radiogram. Jock Tonner, his eyes rolling in relief, said from his place in the centre of wall number one, that yes he might be persuaded that way. What would he like asked Hashim. Jock said Scotch whisky if there was any available. What brand asked Hashim. Dimple Haig, ventured Jock, hopefully. After this flurry of excitement silence reigned again, The carpet was re-examined. Then it was wall number two’s turn. Hashim questioned Frank Hudson as to his specific desire in alcoholic refreshment. Then all relapsed into silence again until it was wall number three, my own wall’s turn, to be interrogated. That completed we all had another good look at each others wall while Hashim gloated in silence by the side of his radiogram. Lulled into a semi-daze by the inactivity we were startled by Hashim suddenly clapping his hands. A few moments later a uniformed customs guard with a rifle slung over his shoulder came in the door. Hashim rattled off a few commands in Arabic and the soldier clumped over the fine carpet and out of the room. I wondered where he had managed to get his big, fairly-well-matched, pair of boots.

After another session of room gazing the soldier finally returned and held the door open. Then five other soldiers, all with rifles over their shoulders, and equally well-booted, came clumping in. One carried a tray of glasses and jugs of iced water. The other four soldiers carried two bottles each of the chosen brands of refreshment. As each soldier went to his respective and allotted proper wall they placed the specified two bottles on the table nearest to the wall owner, opened both of them and placed the bottle caps in their uniform jacket pockets. Then they hitched up their rifles and left the room.

Soon we three invitees were getting much more convivial despite our being such distant individual wall dwellers, and so well apart from one another. Yet, in fact, as the evening and in turn the night wore on we were to value the value of each possessing his own wall.

Because though the next few visits by the rifle-slinging clumping soldier-waiters brought before us some quite amazingly frugal offerings such as a few dry crusts of bread on a silver tray, a half handful of dates, a square of sickly sweetmeat, after an hour or two, we were each presented with a whole roast turkey, a leg of lamb, freshly-made chapattis, a chicken or two, rice and vegetables and such an assortment of other foods and drinks that even more tables were required to be set up around each person’s wall. It had taken time to get underway but evidently a troop of domestic people somewhere nearby was now cooking up a continuous storm.

Much earlier on Hashim had excused himself for having his empty gin bottle replaced by bottles of arak because, he fuzzily explained with glazed-over eyes, English gin was just like water to him and did not produce the desired beneficial effects he enjoyed.

And so the time passed with Jock, Frank and myself getting ever deeper into loudly broadcast discussion and occasional ribald song even though we were unable to fraternise too closely with each other due to having to manage, and being hemmed in by, our groaning tables of provisions and drinks, massed all around and along our walls. Now and then intriguing little female giggles and dulcet tones indicated an unseen audience composed of other members of the household.

The only somewhat detracting aspect of the occasion was having to now and then navigate through our forests of tables in order to visit a vile and awesome toilet excavated in an adjoining semi-indoor outhouse. It had been well seasoned over many former decades, probably centuries, of Turkish army leavings and had festered ever since. But as the long night passed and turned into day it became less and less a disharmony and by the time night returned once again it was an accepted way of life.

At times I noticed that the occupants of the other walls appeared to be asleep for odd periods now and then or at least were mutely immobile while studying the carpet again. And once Hashim had one of his armed retainers turn on the radiogram so we could listen to foreign voices and wonder at how incomprehensible, remote and ill-conducted was the mundane universe outside our four walls.

When daylight came about once more I roused and picked my way between my tables and went over to the silent radiogram and handed in my resignation to Hashim, the chief wallflower. I thanked him profusely for his little drink before dinner and all the other recreations with which he had so amply provided me. I indicated that my wall was now vacant and free for another occupant. Hashim seemed not to understand me completely so I just saluted all the soldiers and made off to my silent and idle survey vessel, the El Ghar, tied up alongside its mooring barge. I went aboard and climbed up to the bridge. There, I vigorously rang the engine room telegraphs, sent messengers to round up the crew, then set sail for the far outer bar and worked with such industry for the next several days that I became so far ahead in my work that I could then relax for a day or two at a more accustomed and gentler pace. And I firmly resolved to not ever again stop by Hashim’s abode for another 'little drink before dinner'. At least, not for another couple of months, anyway.

Jock Tonner and Frank Hudson later told me they had stayed another day and night on wall duty after I left, making their little drink before dinner last a grand total of three nights and two days, during which they had sampled a further medley of offered delights. Luckily, it was a long holiday weekend and they were safely back aboard their ships for sailing time.

In the event we never saw Hashim again. Shortly afterwards he departed from Fao.

No doubt assigned to other parts and duties.

And sitting alongside his radiogram within other walls.

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