During the project Beyond Destruction, we have been lucky enough to meet and get to know Dr. Emily Porter. Emily’s father Cyril Porter was an engineer in the British army during the First World War.
Cyril was stationed in Iraq between 1914-1918, where he worked to bring about great changes to the infrastructure of the Middle East. During his time away from home, he wrote to his family in Carlisle about his experiences.
We have featured below a couple of these letters home. The full collection of correspondence is available to buy from Amazon, as Emily has self-published these letters. This publication is a vital resource for filling in some of the gaps in Middle Eastern history during this time of war.
Two Letters – April 1917
Baghdad to Bangalore Cyril to Dora
After a long journey on the Doba we arrived in a city called Baghdad which you might have heard about because, my dearest Dora, your general knowledge is undebatable…. I am glad you are not here, life is miserable but exciting. Our troops arrived in Baghdad on 11 April, so the Baghdad-Berlin railway dream has vanished. Mesopotamia has formally been called Iraq for the first time. Now Baghdad is becoming ours, this is an indisputable fact.
General Mood’s speech was very inspiring. People were gathering around him out of curiosity but they were full of fear, hesitation, awe and doubt. I myself was doubtful of the Empire’s intentions. Didn’t we rule India as a partner with the Western India Trading Company, but then we founded the Raj?
There is a branch of that company called Lynch (after mom’s maiden name). You won’t believe who the manager of this branch is. Uncle John’s son! Isn’t that surprising? This company is importing, installing and maintaining water pipes and motor equipment and is opening workshops along the Tigris. This company also deals in imports and exports.
The majority of people here are Muslims and there are some old mosques but all are in ruins. Most houses are built of very bright yellow bricks. The houses are strangely shaped indeed. You see nothing but the hanging windows from outside. A strange design don’t you think? This kind of building is called Shanasheel. I saw similar architecture in India. These windows provide protection from the sun and sometimes they are unreasonably close to each other. I could imagine a lover on the left side of the road climbing up to the window of his beloved. Sometimes I hear women’s voices but cannot see their faces. Water cups and plates of food are passed through these windows. These windows are completely closed at noon and opened only in the mornings and evenings.
Doors are wide and made of wood and on each one there is a copper door knocker in the shape of a grasping hand. Rusty copper nails encircle the door. The doors are made of hard, bright wood. These doors look very nice especially in the dark.
There are no main streets in Baghdad, only narrow lanes. The houses have very high fences. When we are walking in these lanes, the sun hardly touches us; we can’t even feel its rays because overhanging windows are protecting us and lessening the sun’s exposure. It is strange indeed that I have never seen a garden in front of any house. I don’t know whether people here are keen gardeners or not. There may be some gardens behind high walls, which are usually covered with barbed wires or by shards of glass.
Different kinds of animals carrying goods run through these lanes. Water is the most expensive thing carried on the backs of animals.
The political bureau here warned us against mixing with the locals but it gave us no other important information. I was looking for any excuse to go around these lanes because there was no good reason not to mix with people. People did avoid me. They looked indifferent while going about their business. I heard people speaking strange dialects and languages, wearing fashions that I had never seen before. I don’t know which class or group these outfits belong to.
There are many markets simple in construction and structure. They are not like the huge markets in Bangalore, but goods are available in spite of war. Very appetizing vegetables, fresh fruit, baskets filled with rice, grains and herbs were all offered in front of shops. Meat comes from cows and sheep. Chickens are put in cages made of palm- trees and the chicken’s legs are tied by pieces of cloth to prevent them escaping their destiny.
There are dimly lit shops with wooden benches inside, where men sit together. Some of them sit down on very low benches drinking tea with cardamom or cinnamon and some other refreshments. I dared once to ender one of those shops and ordered a tea, I tried to drink the tea but couldn’t. The waiter saw that I hadn’t touched it and after a while came back smiling with another cup of tea with milk and sugar. I was astonished by his initiative; is it very complementary or clever? Is it good behavior? Is it understanding a stranger’s customs? This behaviour left me with a very good impression I will never forget as long as I live, it is just a small thing but very effective and I tried to communicate with them with the simple Arabic language which I have learned.
The population of Baghdad is not more than 200,000, the majority is Sunni Muslims and there are Christians and Jews.
While in the eighth century A.D., during the Abbassaid era, a Muslim Caliph named Al- Mansur built Baghdad filling it with wonder and excitement and with people of all nationalities and races. At that time, Baghdad suqs were full of goods, and commercial deals were made there. Its schools taught math, medicine and languages. Shops specialize in copying books and translating into Arabic and in its Palaces plans and conspiracies were made. On the roof of a big building, there is an observatory to study astronomy and to think about the future. People relax in the public baths and think about their large Empire that extends from Asia to North Africa of which they are very proud.
I am sitting in a coffee house drinking tea with milk and sugar imagining the noise and uproar of the past, while now calm and carefulness are the dominating factors.
Baghdad to Bangalore Cyril to Dora
We are now encamping in a place called Hinaidi near Baghdad. It is a large rural land planted with sesame, wheat, barley, roses, narcissus, jasmine and citrus trees. The scent of flowers covers the whole area. We started developing some of its wasteland, building offices and accommodations, but for the time being we are still living in tents. We are trying to make our lives comfortable. The first thing we did was plant the oleander trees that we brought from India, trying to make hedges out of them, to provide us with shade and beautiful scenery. These trees are fruitless, so they will not attract the local children as the mulberry trees do. Children enjoy climbing them, picking their sweet delicious fruit.
By the way, something strange happened to us here. While we were trying to salvage this wasteland, plan streets and buildings, we found trees in our way. We ordered the local workers to cut them down. They all refused and started reciting a verse from the Koran, which we couldn’t understand. The translator said it meant “God, forgive us” which was a sign of a bad omen. After arguing with them, we discovered that this tree is very important to the locals. It is called lote-tree (Nabiq) and those people believe that it is a menstruating female! So they avoid cutting it but they use its leaves to bathe the dead in Najaf (the holiest city to Shiite Muslims). The fruit of this tree is very small but it is red when ripe and delicious.
Here in our camp we are getting better acquainted with the locals than in the south. It might be because we are used to them or it might be for political reasons. Since they are sure that the Turkish have been defeated, they are encouraged to mix with us. We found many skilled workers of various religions and nationalities. One of them, who works in my turnery, is a handsome young Armenian and friend of Haritoun, I am excited at his ability to speak Arabic, Turkish, French, Armenian, Kurdish and Persian. He is also adept at English. Both Haritoun and his friend told me in detail what happened to Haritoun’s family and most other Armenians.
They told me about the massacre of the Armenians. Haritoun told me the miracle of how he and some of his friends survived the massacre; they were exchanged for a sheepskin given by an Arab Bedouin man to a Turkish Gendarmerie who was taking them to be killed. After a daylong journey, the Bedouin set them free and pointed them in the direction of Rutba, a village close to the desert on the west. The Armenian man added: “They gathered more than 12,000 of the Armenian men, women and children in Ras al-Ayen putting them under intensive security, guarded by unorganised Kurdish tribal forces. These forces are gathered from Kurds of Mosul and Diyyar Bakr. They are geographically and socially isolated. They have never seen a city or another nationality other than Kurds. The Turks gave them orders to kill the infidels! These forces weren’t a regular army but a tribe. In fact, they were murderers. They had been ordered to accompany the Armenians to villages in Syria or somewhere in Iraq, but that was a lie. The truth was that they had been ordered to kill all the Armenians without mercy.
Though most of the Armenian prisoners were sick with typhoid and dysentery, but the Kurdish Gendarmerie didn’t care and killed them all. Whoever survived was because of the generosity of the Bedouin Arabs who didn’t see the reason for this killing and that is how some were saved. The Bedouin man who paid for us with a sheepskin for the Kurdish Gendermerie set us free after a long day’s walk and provided us with water and three pieces of bread. He gave my mother, who was nearly naked, his aba’a. I didn’t know why he didn’t take us with him to his camp, maybe because we were very weak and couldn’t survive the long journey. We were terribly weak, hungry and terrified. He was a very noble man. He buried some of the corpses, mainly women whose breasts were cut off, and those whose bellies were slashed open, saying ’no God but Allah…no God but Allah.’ Anyone who saw the bodies of those women would no longer desire a woman. After many-days of a long journey, we arrived in Rutba bare-footed and semi-naked saved by that noble Bedouin’s aba’a. During the day the sun burned us, and at night the cold desert winds chilled us. While approaching Rutba an Arab Bedouin woman came towards us with extended hand and gave us barley bread and hip flask filled with water. It was the nicest gift I have ever received.”
That was the story of Haroutioun the Armenian. Whatever he said I cannot add to it but whatever happened here maybe could happen again because of the rumours about dividing the territory of the “sick man of Europe” between France and us. No one knows the details. What I finally heard was published in a French or Russian newspaper and also Haroutioun confirmed that a treaty between Mr. Sykes and Becot was signed. Mosul, a city 500 kilometers from Baghdad and which I have never visited, will become French and Basra will fall under the Government of India. A ruler would be appointed to Baghdad for granting this city some sort of self-rule but under our military control. Jack, you know how I hate politics, talking about it and even being a member of a political party for all of them are rotten, greedy and narrow-minded.
We will play the same game here as we did in India. Wilson, the military man, is most arrogant and ignorant, obviously very prejudiced; he didn’t try to win their hearts and minds his hatred of the local population and even the Indian service men were mistreated.
I am quite sure that the security situation is not well established yet but that does not justify cruelty. During wars, disturbances are common but people here are powerless. Lawlessness and chaos have ruled their lives for centuries. Though they are socially mature, they are unaware of the importance of political administration of a unified state or even of a civil administration. They are accustomed to the corrupt Turkish administration and neither trusts themselves nor anyone else! But are very friendly, generous and cooperative, but administratively isolated. Therefore they are indifferent to what happens in other cities and villages and don’t pay any attention to what happens to members of other tribes with whom they have no ties. Religion unifies them and the Arabic language does this as well but at the same time both divide them because the varieties of sects and accents. Sectarianism is stronger than faith. Here the sectarian and tribal commitment comes first and foremost.
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