Rats, dhows, and dates
— life aboard the El Ghar, my little Iraqi Survey Vessel.
After India was given its independence in 1947, the year in which the Jewel in the Crown was so awkwardly and hastily chiseled from its Imperial setting, there was one outlying and functional adjunct of the Royal British Raj that still continued working smoothly and peacefully for several more years. This was the Basra Port Directorate in southern Iraq.
The Colonial Indian Government had long considered the extreme southern tip of Iraq, as also was the Kyber Pass leading down from Afghanistan, to be part of a vital first line of defence against any encroachment or invasion from possible Russian expansion. So the Indian Government, which often acted surprisingly independently of the British government in London (even siding with the French against Westminster on one occasion) fostered much interest in the Basra area and the wide reaches of the Shatt-al-Arab river.
Following the British-Indian Army’s overthrow of the Turkish Empire’s 500-year-long occupation of Mesopotamia, in the opening years of the First World War, 1914-1918, the Port of Basra had operated as part of the British Mandate, formed in Paris during the 1919 Peace Conference under the auspices of the League of Nations.
Though in 1932 Britain persuaded the League to grant Iraq full independence as a royal kingdom under King Faisal, the directorate remained responsible for keeping the commerce of Iraq, and the flow of Iranian oil from Abadan steadily available for the sea-going tankers arriving in a steady stream from many nations around the globe.
This was especially important as before the 1960s there was no hardened road across the desert between Baghdad and Syria or other Mediterranean country. The only such travel was by infrequent desert buses across the sandy wastes following an ever shifting track marked out and constantly updated by empty oil drums every two or three miles.
So the port of Basra was of vital national importance. Before the advent of air travel most all commerce and passengers arrived and departed by ships sailing up the Persian Gulf.
In the post-war years following 1945, British influence in Iraq, though militarily unobtrusive, was still diplomatically significant in the region. It was quietly backed up by the presence of two semi-operational RAF stations, one near Baghdad, another near Basra, and also by the frequent courtesy visits of Royal Navy warships, which regularly patrolled the Sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf, displaying their White Ensigns.
Thus the flavour of colonial India was ever present in Basra and especially in the tiny compound of Fao, nestled on the Shatt-al-Arab river shore amid the date palms that sheltered it from the nearby empty desert.
In Basra, a few days staying at the notably luxurious rest house with its pleasant bar and fine dining room was always a festive occasion. This holiday spirit was augmented by visits to the nearby luxurious Port Club not far down the road in Ma’gil, the pleasant residential area for the authority’s officials.
Mainly because of the myriad little lights strung through the trees and bushes around the spacious club gardens with its swimming pools and tennis courts, it always seemed to be Christmas at the club. And the long curving bar and sumptuous meals served in the spotless dining room were delights to enjoy. Much of this sumptuous living was due to the meticulous professionalism and diplomatic competence of Mr John, the club’s Armenian manager.
Though it was a faithful remnant of colonial bureaucrats and office wallahs in their air-conditioned administrative quarters in the ornate Port Office Buildings up in Basra who dealt with the paperwork and diplomacy it was a smaller force of mainly wartime hardened British Merchant Navy officers stationed 75 miles down river in the tiny compound called Fao, who kept the ships coming in and the ships going out.
The main force of this prosaic operation consisted of five big seagoing suction dredgers, which operated at the head of the Persian Gulf.
There, where the Shatt-al-Arab, carrying the combined outflows of Iraq’s Euphrates and Tigris rivers, was massively swollen in springtime by water from melting winter snows in the far distant Persian mountains. All these formed a torrent of outgoing silt-laden fresh waters, which confronted head on, the strong incoming tides of salt water of the Persian Gulf itself. The result was huge deposits of silt that if left to natural forces would block the river’s entrance to any but the smallest of vessels.
The five tough sea-going dredgers, built in Scotland, and each manned by three deck officers, three engineer officers and scores of Iraqi crew members, spent continuous periods of ten days, or more, far out at sea, continuously sucking up the sea-bed silt washed down from the Shatt-al-Arab and keeping open the ever-changing shipping channels across the far reaches of the estuary, far off from the sight of land.
Periodically for a weekend, they would come up the river to tie up at Fao for two or three nights before heading back down to resume their lonely work at the head of the Gulf again.
At that time the little 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 extremely muddy and soft silt shoreline. The dredgers and other large vessels tied up to the outsides of the barges and smaller craft like my El Ghar survey vessel tied up to their inshore sides.
In the compound onshore there was a marine workshop, a modest office for a small number of Iraqi draughtsmen and clerks, and a generator house. Half a dozen bungalows housed such people as the workshop manager, the electrical-radio engineer, the Cable and Wireless man, and their wives. Others bungalows served the bachelors: the medical officer; the communications officer; and the overall boss—the Dredging Superintendent. Also there were several dwellings for Iraqi office staff, a small hospital, a swimming pool, two tennis courts and, in the centre of everything a bare sandy football field for the local Iraqis. As relief there were patches of greenery and date palms. There was also a thick mud-walled building, left over from the centuries-old Turkish era of the Ottoman Empire. This housed the local Iraqi customs chief, his harem and his motley force of a dozen khaki-clad, rifle-toting, soldier-constables.
Most importantly, there was the club or Port Officers Shore Mess, a rather nice airy, high-standing, cool, building containing a polished red tiled hall about the size of a school gymnasium, a billiard room with snooker table, a small library and again most importantly, a bar. It was here that the dredger and other port officers intermittently congregated and where our special parties and dances were held. Isolated as we were by the ninety miles of indistinct desert track stretching south from Basra, our club was the social centre of our tiny community.
Outside, through the compound gate, which was left permanently open to all, and all around and along the shore line, were scattered the spread-out serifa mud dwellings of the local inhabitants, interspersed with date palms, narrow irrigation ditches and a few rickety places of basic commerce.
Half a mile to the west, away from the river and the last date palms, the desert abruptly began.
Our small compound, of perhaps six acres in extent, populated with its sparse dozen and a half British residents, and distanced from contact with any other compatriots, was the ideal setting for an Agatha Christie mystery. But any small intrigues that may have been present were either mild or tinged with good humour. The unchanging lives for the compound’s dozen officials and a few wives and children were harmonious. The swimming pool and tennis courts, books and a rare film show in the club, helped ease our placidly quiet lives.
In many ways Fao’s traditional close links with the newly defunct British Raj in India were apparent day by day. Our dredgers would sail to Bombay for boiler cleaning when necessary, several local shopkeepers were Indian, many of our Iraqi crewmembers spoke Hindi or Punjabi, as did many of our Port Officers. Our daily routine included being addressed as sahibs, burra sahibs, memsahibs, and noonday Tiffin-time chota pegs were followed by distinctly Indian curries with chappatis.
My crew members would accuse each other of being jungly if considered careless or ignorant, and most every day one of the British-India Steamship Lines’ passenger vessels, either the Dwarker, Dumra or Daressa, would pass up or down river, on their routine voyages between Basra and Bombay. In fact there were still a dwindling number of travelers between India and Britain who took passage by ship from London to Beirut, then rode the big overland Nairn Transport Bus over the unstable and ever-changing track across the desert between Damascus and Baghdad, (roads were non-existent at that time) then by train to Basra and passage by BI liner down the gulf to Bombay. Two or three years later burgeoning air travel would eclipse such romantic forms of travel.
Just down river from the jetty at Fao there would often be a score of deep-sea sailing dhows anchored just offshore. Some would be from far off Zanzibar, Malaya and other parts of the Persian Gulf and far distant parts of the Indian Ocean perimeter. Many were larger in size than the vessels in which Columbus and other western explorers of old 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 some 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 too many other tons piled on top of them—hence the term ‘top-banana’.
The crews of the dhows would often be many weeks at sea if hindered by adverse winds and storms and sometimes, while I was surveying the far offshore areas, we would see one flying a distress flag as it approached the estuary of the Shatt, or perhaps lying 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 northwards 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 the haunting playing of a conch shell.
When they came ashore at Fao after so many hard weeks at sea I was intrigued at seeing the dhow 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 miss-made in some way these cut-price slim-waisted coats would be shipped out east by their western 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 already traversing the narrow dredged channels on its way into deep water. In this case we would take the El Ghar 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, to go 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 to each and with a little twitch of his shoulder send a spurt of coffee that would unerringly land in the cup without a drop being 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 yet puzzlingly 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 their deep-sea passages. But they also showed me their copies of British 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. I could only do this because Ashoor had such a fine command of English.
One totally wrecked dhow aground on a mud bank had a dozen or more crazed rats running back and forth along its broken spars. 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 somehow it disappeared, how 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 my things all over the place.
In the same way, even in Ashar, the oldest part of Basra, there was no fear of being mugged nor did any of the wives and daughters of port officers worry, even when 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 survey vessel. 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 up 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 myself 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. Then 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 a rattrap cage placed at the bottom of the ladderway leading down to my cabin. If the dredgers and tugs were all out at sea all would be extremely 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 our 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 yet still about four hundred feet from the El Ghar I would know if I had caught a rat. Because at the sound of my coming I would hear it starting to scream.
As I stepped from the first little wooden bridge onto the metal surface of the first massive iron 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, who as usual, was fast asleep 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.