Thursday, December 10, 2015
(Iraq 3) : No Guide For UK Forces In Iraq 1955/6
When American troops moved into Iraq in 1943 to help to pursue their Second World War objectives, they were issued with a booklet which they could slip into their light summer-style tunics. It gave them some details about Iraq, its local customs and how to respond in a friendly and understanding way to the local population. It gave hints on Arabic translations and about the pronunciation of some 400 local words and phrases. Information was supplied about the local currency, weights and measures and about climatic and health problems. Care was taken so that the troops would not cause offence to Muslims, especially about their religious practices and about the role of females within their culture.
A copy of the booklet was re-published in 2008 with a preface added to explain its purpose and nature. The 2008 version can be obtained cheaply via this link.
Whilst a close examination of the document might produce criticisms and suggest shortcomings, I would have found it invaluable to have been presented with an equivalent British document when I arrived in Basra in 1955 at what was my permanent RAF posting for the period of my National Service. But I never received any form of document to explain where I was, nor why, nor how to behave. Neither were we ever given any verbal explanations about the equivalent matters covered by the United States' War and Navy Department's document. There was, for instance, no form of educational service at our small Movements Unit.
Beyond knowing that the local currency was Dinars and Fils and my being able to follow Arabic numerals and pick up some Arabic swear words from my fellow troops, I never learnt any Arabic. The Iraqis on our camp tended to talk English. This was whether they worked with us in our offices, drove us by boat on the Shat-el-Arab river to the docks in Basra, washed and ironed our clothing, emptied barges and transferred goods to railway containers, drove taxis into Basra town centre or served in shops and night clubs. At least they shared sufficient English for us to get by. When I regularly rang up a Basra railway official to book seats for troops on the train, I would say his name "Abdul Sarhib ?". He would start to answer me in Arabic, then quickly realise that my accent did not fit and turn to English saying "Hello RTO", which was my RAF designation as a Rail Transport Official. My job included filling out Passenger Rail Forms and also forms for the transhipment of goods. These forms were in Arabic, but I merely knew what went into each box and I filled in these in English. I had little incentive to learn Arabic in order to get by.
Yet there were aspects of life generally on religion and politics which I was keen to examine. I wanted to test out and examine my preconceptions in these areas. But I never picked up on the tensions in Iraqi politics which existed round about me at that time. Life just appeared to me to be harsh (but tranquil) for the people living round about me. It was a misunderstanding that came from mainly being tucked away in an RAF camp which had its own separate form of existence.
I came almost weekly to make use of an English Book Shop in Basra Town Centre, which was run by someone who originated from India. I ordered the "New Statesman" whose air mail edition came out weekly on rice paper. I also ordered "The Observer" and "Reynolds News" which both came by sea and could be up to three weeks old before I read them. I was into reading plays having earlier been a regular theatre attender at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle. So I ordered copies of the complete plays of both Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. I was also into reading Shaw on politics. Then Corporal Murphy and I used to debate religion, as I started out as a Methodist and he had been a Catholic who had become an atheist. Although I initially attended the Anglican Church in Basra, I too eventually became on atheist. My developing concerns about religion may have been pushed along by the fact that my bookseller had a good selection of books for sale by the Rationalist Press Association. The local Anglican Vicar even preached a sermon against these, which only made them even more interesting for me. Corporal Murphy also got me into ordering and reading books by James Joyce.
But I only picked up bits and pieces about Iraq and its past. And this was mainly ancient history, in works such as "Ur of the Chaldees : A Record of Seven Years Excavation" (Pelican 1954). Although this is a book which I might only have turned to on my return home.
During my time in Iraq, the major political events I was aware about which effected developments were (a) the signing of a Treaty known as the Baghdad Pact in 1955 and (b) the impact of the Suez Invasion as it reverberated in Iraq. But the latter only happened as I was moving to be flown out of Iraq at the end my National Service. So matters only touched my radar at the end of my time in the country - although this was to be in a big way. The Baghdad Pact also then took on more significance for me than it had at the time of its adoption.
Within less than two years of my leaving Iraq, there was a massive and dramatic change of regime. By then, I was aware that there were some things I had missed about developments in Iraq during my period of National Service.
I will try to fill in some of the gaps in my 1955/6 understanding in my next item on Iraq. I just wish I had known more about such things at the time. An equivalent to the booklet issued to the war-time American troops would have helped.