Memories of Iraq: caviar, dust, and jazz dancing

A Canal in Basra circa 1950

A Canal in Basra circa 1950 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her earliest memory of Iraq is singing Ring-a-Ring-o’-Roses as a child on the flat roof of her family’s apartment in Baghdad, overlooking a river. Diana Maseyk, now 89, remembers seeing a boy with a tray of buns on his head. Diana was sent back to grow up in England, but returned nearly twenty years later, for a stay of six months.

Her father, Colonel Arthur Sargon, had first come to Iraq in 1915 fighting the Turks during the First World War, in the Maharattas regiment, for which he would be awarded the Distinguished Service Order, or DSO. He would stay on for 32 years, occasionally visiting England, and would receive an OBE for this commitment as a public servant.

When Diana returned to the country as a young woman, her father was head of police in Basra, though when she was a child he had been head of police in Baghdad. After the First World War, the League of Nations granted the former Ottoman regions of Basra and Baghdad to the United Kingdom for administration, later adding Mosul, to complete the modern-day boundaries of Iraq. Independence was granted in 1932, but nine years later a new leadership’s links to Germany and Italy – as well as fears over oil supplies – led to invasion in 1941 by British forces. Occupation continued for six years.

December, 1947. Diana set off on her own from Liverpool on a ship that carried her as far as Port Said in Egypt, where an obliging army officer took her to a party in Cairo, before taking a train to Haifa, which was then in Palestine. From Haifa a bus journey to Damascus, past the Sea of Galilee. In Damascus local regulations required curtains to be drawn across the windows of the bus. Then a journey across the desert in another bus. There was a breakfast held in a tent, where travellers sat cross-legged eating hard-boiled eggs. The drivers were all Arabs, but spoke English. Most of the journey was on a huge, famous highway stretching between Beirut and Baghdad. Flat and empty desert, no palm trees. Diana remembers a fellow passenger leisurely picking his teeth with a toothpick.

On reaching Baghdad a day later a kindly English judge waited with Diana an hour for her father to arrive. From Baghdad they took an overnight train to Basra. The heat was fierce, with temperatures in the 90s. Basra was known as the Venice of the East, criss-crossed by canals, a city where the Biblical rivers of the Tigris and the Euphrates meet and were used for irrigation. Palm trees everywhere. On arrival at the hotel by the airport, where her father, and mother Hilary lived, Diana was presented with an enormous birthday cake, some of which she ate for breakfast before stowing the rest under her bed.

Colonel Sargon’s high ranking post meant that Diana’s parents were prominent members of Basra society. Both were keen polo players. Their daughter divided her time between swimming in the hotel pool and playing tennis during the day, and then spending most nights dancing to jazz bands. The handful of young English women in the city were delightfully spoiled for choice with a near-limitless selection of army officers to dance with. Diana had two cotton frocks made for her, happy to escape rationing back home in England. There were little cups of black coffee to drink, Turkish coffee, and she liked it because it was very sweet. Strangely, for a Muslim country, Diana doesn’t remember hearing the ezan, or call to prayer, during her stay. Though she recalls frequently hearing the sound of donkeys clip-clopping around.

In Basra the sky was cloudless blue, and dust was everywhere. Outside, most things were the colour of dust. The buildings in the city were largely of one or two storeys, nothing much higher than that. She remembers watching seaplanes landing in the river. Diana was taken around the city by a driver in her father’s car on wide, dusty roads, and also picked up some Arabic words on her travels: alhamdulillah (praise be to God); inshallah (God willing). But on one occasion, the driver swerved to avoid a train at a level crossing, and rolled the car. Diana was mercifully uninjured, but was taken to hospital nonetheless where she held the hand of a girl being treated by an RAF doctor.

Alcohol was available in the English quarter, and Colonel Sargon would get through an entire bottle of brandy in a night when entertaining sheikhs. Although the rule was that no women were allowed at social events attended by Iraqi men, on one occasion she went to a sheikh’s house for such a gathering and ate caviar for the first time. They also went to kuzi kuzi parties, where locals roasted a whole lamb on a fire out in the desert. She met with Iraqi royalty, and there is a black-and-white photograph of her with two grinning young princesses. Though she doesn’t remember talking with many Iraqi women.

There are several photographs that offer glimpses into this time, and others reaching back to the 1920s. Colonel Sargon standing on a rooftop or balcony with a fez-wearing Turk. Her father on horseback, posing with police colleagues – Iraqis – while playing polo. Parades of horses and camels, one strikingly similar to a scene from the film of Lawrence of Arabia: a large, dark flag bearing Arabic script leading a procession. Wide expanses of a river, ancient stone buildings. The exterior of her parents’ apartment in Baghdad, a two-storey house with an Ottoman-style wooden balcony overhanging the street. A middle-aged English couple standing beside a heavily robed, perhaps desert-dwelling, man and woman.

After six months, the Sargons were preparing to leave Iraq. Diana has a cutting from an English-language newspaper with an article on one of the highlights of the season, a round of parties given in honour of Colonel and Mrs Sargon, soon to depart for South Africa. It says that lunch parties gave way to tea parties, then cocktail parties, followed by dinner parties. There is a black and white photograph of one such gathering. The caption lists Sir Adam Ritchie and H A Hammick, of the Turkish Petroleum Company. Its major shareholders included the British government-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which would become BP in 1954. The article mentions a number of Indian businessmen also present.

“They got out just in time,” Diana said. The occupation was at an end. It had restored the monarchy to power, in place of the nationalist leader who prompted oil fears because of Second World War Axis links. It lasted nine years before a series of military coups ended in the Arab Socialist Baath Party taking control in 1968.

Diana did not accompany her parents to South Africa. After decades in Iraq, the Sargons wanted to retire somewhere warm. Diana returned to England by boat, a journey that took her from Basra down the Persian Gulf, through the Gulf of Oman, around the Arabian Peninsula, and into the Gulf of Aden. There were flying fish in the Red Sea. Then across the Suez Canal, where there were hundreds of mosquitoes, to Port Said, and from there to Liverpool. Soon after Diana began working as a cook in King’s College Hospital, London.

She enjoyed her time in Iraq, she said, though it was “not at all like the Arabian nights.”

First published in September 2009, in Lucid Magazine; available in This Is The World That We Live In, a collection of Lucid Magazine articles (2010):  http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/sylvia-arthur-and-athena-kugblenu-and-paul-knipe-and-james-willsher/this-is-the-world-that-we-live-in/paperback/product-12034251.html 

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About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher jamesgwillsher@hotmail.co.uk
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