Askari Street, shari’ al-askari in Arabic. That was the name of the street I lived on in Baghdad in the 1950’s. It’s still a name that I associate with the river breeze in early winter. I remember Baghdad back then. In my mind’s eye, its still as it was, a hot, dusty city packed with red double-decker buses, Kurdish porters carrying enormously heavy loads on their backs, fishermen spreading their nets on the Tigris, and horse-drawn carriages in which silent, covered women sat in their black abayas as the driver made his way around the city.
Shari’ al-Askari was named after a great national hero, Jaafar Pasha Al-Askari, the first Minister of Defence of Iraq and brother-in-law of Iraq’s then strongman, Nuri Pasha Al-Sa’id. Two of his sons lived opposite my father and grandfather’s houses, and their children were our best friends. We formed a bicycle gang, cycling up and down the street to the bemusement of the laborers squatting under the palm trees and warding off the afternoon sun. Blonde, white children wearing shorts, while everyone else wore the black abaya or the grey thawb. My sister and I even had wooden swords made for us by the carpenter at my grandfather’s factory, and we engaged the third generation Askaris, Walid, Omar and Faisal(Issam was too little then) in mock battle up and down the street.
Shari’ al-Askari was built on the muddy green river, a perpetually changing body of water. Usually peaceful, the Tigris carried many “native” boats as well as sailing craft of every description. The most widespread were the guffas, circular boats made of animal hides which carried everything from livestock to watermelons. They’d come zigzagging down the river and make a dash for one of Baghdad’s bridges, a whole throng of them looking like inflated hula-hoops. Sometimes in the early morning, we’d run to the balustrade of my grandfather’s verandah and see a dead water buffalo floating past on the river, feet stuck in the air. “Fatisa! Fatisa!” we would roar, jumping up and down, using the Iraqi term for…well, dead water buffalo.
On the 14th of July 1958, Walid al-Askari, then nine years old rushed into our house. We were eating figs in the garden. Breathlessly he told us that a revolution had occurred that had consumed the monarchy, and with it, the young, blameless King Faisal II. For me and countless other Iraqis, that was the day that it all changed.
Shari’ Al-Askari changed too. Literally. Under the Revolution, it was now renamed Shari’ Dijla, Dijla street. The new government could not countenance a name that had “reactionary” value so they called it after the Arabic name for the river.
I went back and saw the street in June 2003. Our houses had been demolished by government fiat in 1971 to make way for the Medical City, the year Saddam Hussein officially took on the reins of power. I couldn’t even retrace the location of our house. Nothing was left of it. Then I looked out across the Tigris at the other bank, and saw what I had seen a thousand times before. Because the other bank of the river had not been built up in the decades after the July 1958 revolution, I saw the same scenery before me and the same houses, and heard the faint sound of the muezzin in the distance. It was the same street, it was only I that had changed.
OLAFF BJORN LARSON - 2/8/2010
DEAR SIRS ,AL ASKARI STREET AS ,AS DR. HALA FATTAH MENTIONS IS FULL OF MEMORIES & EVENTS .IF ANY ONE OUT THERE HAS ANY PHOTOS OF THE STREET TAKEN AT ANY TIME WOULD YOU PLEASE ATTACH THEM FOREWARDING THEM TO MY E.MAIL ADD"Olaffbjorn@gmail.com"I AM MOST GRATEFULL TO ANYONE OT THERE OR IF & WHEN POS. CONNECTIONS TO FACEBOOK i.e."TAMARA ALDHAGISTANI" WHO HAS LOADS OF PHOTOS OF OLD IRAQ BUT NON OF AL-ASKARI ST !! THANK YOU ONE & ALL FOR YOUR KIND ATTENTION CHEERS OLAFF
Hala Fattah - 5/8/2004
Thank you very much, Jonathan. Georgetown is good a connection as any! I hope we can continue to broaden our virtual relationship.
Thanks again, Hala
Hala Fattah - 5/8/2004
Thank you very much for your warm welcome. I hope I won't disappoint you.
Jonathan Dresner - 5/8/2004
Ralph got here first, but I'm not going to let that stop me. It's high time someone with your expertise and perspective joined HNN's cabal.
And I've a soft spot for the many folks who passed through Georgetown on their way somewhere else, but I graduated in '89, so we didn't technically cross paths.
Ralph E. Luker - 5/7/2004
Welcome to the family of HNN blogs! Your contributions here should be a wonderful addition to our discussions.
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