Thursday, November 19, 2015
(Iraq 2) : From Easington Colliery to Basra.
The area of Easington Colliery where I lived before I was sent to Basra in Iraq to undertake my National Service.
I was brought up at Easington Colliery on the east coast of County Durham. Before I was called up to undertake my National Service in the RAF in November 1954, I had never travelled any further south than York. That journey had been made two years earlier, when I had applied to be a railway clerk after leaving school. I then had to travel to the railway head office at York for an interview. It landed me a job which I then undertook covering passenger and parcels office work, mainly at Easington's neighbouring railway station which was at Horden Colliery. But it was a job that was to have bigger implications for my travels than I ever anticipated.
When I undertook my basic training in the RAF at West Kirby, I was interviewed by a Sergeant to help determine what form of work I should seek to undertake in the RAF. As I had been a railway clerk, he suggested that a position in a "Movement's Unit" might be appropriate. He pointed out that there was a large unit of this type at Hull. I felt that would be ideal for me to be able travel home regularly. So that became my first and accepted option.
But amongst our Squadron at West Kirby where I did my basic training, I was the only person to then be sent straight overseas. For it was felt that I did not require any training for my post. I could work and learn under a corporal who already was undertaking the tasks I needed to follow. These involved working closely with Iraqi State Railways in Basra. RAF equipment and goods arrived at the port at Basra to then be sent by rail to Baghdad, from where they were collected by personnel from RAF Habbaniya to then be taken to their camp by road some 55 miles away. There were also regular (but limited numbers) of troop movements of those travelling by rail to and from Baghdad, which had to be catered for. In English, I filled in arabic passenger forms and goods' notes. But no-one ever taught me any arabic. I just learnt what to put where, in English. The best I did was to understand arabic numerals. All the Iraqis I dealt with spoke English - including those who worked at our Movement's Unit which was situated on the banks of the Shat-el-Arab river. This included many Iraqis who undertook manual functions.
I regularly visited Basra railway station, its docks and its goods yards. Then when our Movement's Unit downsized, I also took up some similar clerical and organisation work with shipping companies, handling "Bills of Lading" relating to shipping merchandise.
Not only did the RAF fail to facilitate (or even encourage) us to learn arabic; no-one ever explained why it was that we were in Iraq. Furthermore, we were just a small movements unit with many of us being only 18 to 20 as we were undertaking our National Service. I shared areas of accommodation with those up to the rank of corporal and we socialised. But those in higher ranks lived a separate existence. Even our cricket team only contained two sergeants (which may, however, have been a fair proportion), the rest being entirely from lower ranks - including myself as the scorer and standby. No one I ever came across used their holiday breaks to visit historical sites such as the Ziggurat of Ur, which was less than 100 miles away - although officers might well have done this unknown to us. But we only communicated with high ups in relation to our duties. Nor was information made available to tell us that Iraq covered land which had been the cradle of civilisation. Neither was there today's modern technology to click into, which can be used as a form of self-education. It was not for us to ask where we were, nor what we were doing there.
Yet my time in Iraq helped to transform my life. When I left Britain, I initially had a six day stay in the canal zone in Egypt, I then boarded a flight to Habbaniya; via Jordon where we landed late at night and saw little but a landing strip, desert and the inside of a large reception tent. At Habbaniya, I stayed for a period to undertake a weapons' course run by the RAF Regiment. This gave me time to spend a weekend at the YMCA in Baghdad, travelling via Fallujah. Then when I finally travelled by rail from Baghdad to Basra, the train was delayed as we were due to pull out of the south of the Iraqi capital. I was looking out of the window at a scene which seemed to me to be from an ancient world. Everything was made out of mud. Mud houses, mud walls, mud walkways, open sewers cut into the baked mud, with a drinking well close by. Men and women were neatly and cleanly dressed in the Muslim tradition, with children playing beside them. But this was a world I had never glimpsed nor thought about before in a modern context. It came to have a huge impact upon me.
Mud houses in Iraq
Later in the dock area in Basra, I observed heavily exploited labour at work. For instance, men were bent double carrying what were huge (and now old-fashioned) commercial refrigerators on their backs. Manual labour still often being a substitute for the technology of that age.
A double question began to pray upon my mind. How could God and man allow such things to happen? Matters of a philosphical and political bent were emerging for a thinly educated young man. These would help to reshape my values, self-studies and key interests. But life at the Movements Unit with regular weekly trips into Basra town centre, gave me the false impression that Iraq was a place of peace and tranquility. The first seven sections in the previous item on this blog (click here) cover a brief military history of Britain's involvement in the area over the 41 years before I arrived in Iraq. When I now reflect that it is 60 years since I arrived in Basra; the preceding period of 41 years seems to be a relatively limited time span. Many of the Iraqis I met and passed had lived through those years of military conflict and imperial domination. Unknown to me, these were experiences that had not gone away from their minds.
The only hint that some problems existed was when I attempted to order a copy of Marx's "Das Capital" from an English bookshop in Basra. The proprietor who originated from India, later felt the need to check matters out with the local Chief of Police. He was not allowed to order a copy. I only learnt much later that the Iraqi regime had been in a period of conflict with its own home grown Communists - see Hanna Batatu's "The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq" (Princeton University Press, 1978 and here).