Reading my grandfather's stories of old Iraq have given me hope for the future

A family memoir paints a picture of early-20th-century Iraq as vibrant crossroads of commerce, intimately connected to its neighbours and trading partners

Mustafa Alrawi’s grandfather, courtesy Al-Rawi family. FOR ONE_TIME USE FOR COMMENT ONLY.
Powered by automated translation

Right now, two generations of my family are working together to translate, from Arabic into English, the memoirs of my late grandfather. Abdul Jabbar Al Rawi was born in the village of Rawa, in what is now western Iraq, at the end of the 19th century. Read today, his words paint a fascinating picture of life at that time.

"Not a man in Rawa stays idle. They were either merchants, farmers, or owners of camel herds transporting merchandise or boat owners ferrying merchandise or fire-wood to Karbala," Abdul Jabbar wrote.

He describes in great detail the movement of goods between the mercantile centres of Aleppo, Mosul and Baghdad. From Aleppo, came fabrics, ready-made clothes and luxury items such as the city's famous soap. These would be traded with Bedouin, on credit until the next spring, when the merchants would be supplied with ghee and wool in exchange. The wool would be spun to make cloaks and exported to Deir Ezzor, in what is now eastern Syria, and many other cities.

“The camels, which transported Aleppo’s goods, returned laden with Mosul’s walnuts, buckets, tobacco, clothes, shoes, and many more kinds of merchandise,” reads one evocative passage.

The Euphrates was during this period a vital artery for the region, filled with the traffic of small boats running goods from town to town, starting from Maskanah, moving through Raqqah and eventually on to Fallujah. From there it was overland to Baghdad.

These thriving trade routes not only created a lucrative relationship between cities, they forged bonds between the people who lived in different parts of the Middle East.

We are, of course, talking about the Ottoman period, when borders were rather different to today. My grandfather noted that after the dissolution of the Ottoman empire in the early part of the 20th century, and the creation of Syria and Iraq – separate countries, with different customs regimes and border posts – this trade and the revenues it produced diminished considerably.

The Euphrates was during this period a vital artery for the region, filled with the traffic of small boats running goods from town to town

Since then, the bonds of respect and co-operation between the peoples of the region have been further eroded by more than a century of upheaval.

Don’t think for a second that I’m indulging in ill-considered nostalgia or saying that Arabs would be better off if they remained under imperial rule. My grandfather explains that while life on the banks of the Euphrates could be idyllic, it could also be brutal.

Oppression by Ottoman officials across the region provoked conflicts with local tribes, and Abdul Jabbar recounts how as a child he experienced a particularly nasty battle in the city of Nasiriyah, where he studied. During that incident, government forces used cannons and machine guns to defeat the attacking tribesmen.

My grandfather's own ambitions as a student at the Teachers Institute in Baghdad were also abruptly cut short by the Ottoman Empire's involvement in the First World War. He was conscripted into its army as a teenage officer and took a bullet in the arm during the siege of General Townshend's British-Indian army at Kut, which is now known as worst defeat of the Allies during the conflict.

After centuries being ruled by an outside power, it was only natural that the region’s people should yearn for independence and self-determination. As a result, it is not surprising to find out that Abdul Jabbar played his part in the revolt that ended Ottoman rule in the Arab world.

Since then, much of what made the Middle East what it once was has been steadily worn away. My grandfather’s memoirs are a reminder of what we need to restore, strengthen and build if we are to achieve a lasting and prosperous peace.

More than 100 years later, the region is still grappling with the consequences of its modern history.

Sadly, not all countries in the Middle East can say they truly determine their own fate, free of the influence of foreign powers. But while nations such as Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon are struggling to various degrees to do so, and Syria is completely consumed, we can take some consolation in the fact that Gulf nations have been able to plot their own course for decades.

The window on the past that my grandfather’s memoirs have opened has given me a newly optimistic view. Thinking of how close Arabs from across the region were when he was a boy, there are many reasons to be hopeful for the future. This spirit of fraternity and mutual co-operation existed in the past, I have faith that it can once again.

Mustafa Alrawi is an an assistant editor in chief at The National