Via Basel: Little Man in the Big House
The Big House in Baghdad, Part 3
The descent of the afternoon summer sun goes on simultaneously with the rise of the people in the Big house. A beehive of activity again, after being dormant for awhile, working adults go back to work, women do their household tasks before preparing for a social evening, and the young hit the books or fool around. But there is always time for another cup of tea which the maid has dutifully prepared. I follow Jiddu to the garden in the back where there is plenty of shade, on the grass, among flowers, shrubs, and the eucalyptus tree. He sips his precious tea while telling me a little about his day at work but mostly smiles and holds my hand enveloping me in his love and protection. He promises to take me with him this evening to the men’s café.
During that time of day we had two different rituals for men and women. As a little boy I usually accompanied my mom and grandma. It was therefore a treat to go with Jiddu on occasion which also made me feel more like a little man. In our neighborhood there were several Muslawi families that moved to Baghdad in the 1930s and 40s and formed strong social bonds. Before the era of TV, let alone the Internet, their connections were actual rather than virtual. The women visited each other daily and set up a weekly schedule to host it; ours was on Thursdays. They dressed up, had tea & cake, and chatted the evening of. I loved the fabulous homemade desserts as well as playing with their children. Soon, however, I outgrew these female-centered gatherings. I either stayed home with my aunt Marie, who was not interested in these social events, and invited a playmate, or, better yet, went out with grandpa to where the men gravitated.
Within walking distance, situated on Sa’adoun street, one of the lively thoroughfares in Baghdad, radiating from its center, Bab Al-Sharji, there accumulated a series of plain, spartan, mostly outdoor establishments, about four or five next to each other. They offered thin metal chairs, cheap fragile tables, and maybe a few decent wooden booths. Only two items were on the menu, sweet tea and strong coffee; anything more you would get from the street vendor. Their main attraction, however, were the games of Tawli (backgammon) and dominoes, where sane adult men competed insanely just for the pleasure of beating and humiliating their opponents, shouting loud in a language just shy of rudeness. You would think they were winning championships or enormous cash prizes. In fact they played for pennies or not at all. Usually there were more spectators than participants, but all had a good time. Grandpa was a spectator mostly as I sat quietly beside him totally absorbed in this strange spectacle. In addition they conversed about business, politics, and old times. Absent were sports, religion, or the weather, which at that time in the evening was a lot better than a few hours earlier as it turned cooler and more humane.
A few blocks away a completely different experience: Baghdad had its own river promenade on the banks of the Tigris, along a famous street named Abu-Nawas, for a 8th century poet of fun, wine, and pleasure. Here, there were open-air restaurants where fresh-caught fish from the river were splayed and fire-roasted to be consumed with delicious thin bread, a ritual called masgoof by Iraqis. Frequented by families as well as young couples in love, the promenade was a tradition treasured by people of all segments of Baghdadi society.
Night falls and family members return to the Big House sooner or later as in the case of the young men, my uncles. The maid has already prepared the skinny beds for the final act of the day, sleeping on the roof, by bringing out the mattresses and coverings earlier. The whole family participates just like the afternoon nap in the sirdab. I bid grandpa and grandma goodnight, jump onto my bed exhausted and pull up my blanket quickly. There is a chill in the air as I lie back looking up, mesmerized by the innumerable little stars, shining and shimmering in the dark, vast, silent sky, high above the Big House in Baghdad, just before I fall asleep.
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.