Via Basel: Little Boy in the Big House


As a little boy I was so happy I believed this must be the paradise adults talk about: I could roam the Big House at will, find secret rooms, explore dark closets, and unlock strange old chests. There was even a dungeon where dangerous prisoners were kept. Alas, it was only a few steps down but it was large, windowless, cool, and damp. With my wild imagination, this lower-level room served the purpose. The rest of my family, however, called it the sirdab, something like a cellar or basement.

In fact the sirdab served another important and practical function. It was also the scene of a ritual during the hot summer days of Baghdad, which has consistently ranked among the hottest large cities on the planet. Set on the Tigris River in central Iraq, supposedly subtropical, it lies on the western edge of a large desert. Maybe this is the culmination of 10,000 years of farming, urban clusters, empires leading to wars, plundering, deforestation, and other environmental catastrophes. After all, Mesopotamia was the “cradle of civilization” where it all started. So are we in this modern era paying the price of “progress”? So sorry, I digress.

Back to a Baghdad afternoon where it is unhealthy and unwise to be outdoors under the blazing sun even for a short time. Hence the ritual, which starts soon after lunch; one by one, we all start filing down the steps of the sirdab for a long siesta. Under the watchful eye of Jiddu we pick our favorite jodalia, thin homemade quilted pads, and spread them on the floor. The coolness transmitted by mother earth to this underground dwelling, along with a touch of humidity and the gentle air circulation provided by ceiling fans is a stark contrast to the hot, dry and stifling outdoors. The dim lighting, quiet, as well as the fear of disturbing Jiddu, were additional incentives for a most needed and refreshing long nap.

In the meantime the mighty sun starts its afternoon descent, gradually loosening its grip on the inhabitants of the city and the Big House in Baghdad.

For what happens next you will have to wait for my next post.

Basel Al-Aswad, father of EIL founder Christopher Al-Aswad, is a yogi trapped in an Orthopedic Surgeon’s body. His loves in life include reading, hiking, enjoying nature, meditation, and spending time with his large Iraqi family, and now, retired, he will have more time for that. And for the next adventure.

Via Basel: The Big House in Baghdad, Part 1