Concerning Smells
True happiness, we consider, is incompatible with an inefficient drainage system. It is one of those points on which we differ most fundamentally from the East, where happiness and sanitation are not held to have any particular connection.

In spite of many efforts, Baghdad still remains triumphantly Eastern in this respect. It lies so low and in so flat a land that there is no possibility of draining anything anywhere. That is what makes it so depressing for Officers of Health and so amusing for people who like to study microbes. Every house is built round a paved yard, large or small: in the middle of the yard is a trap-door, which does not usually fit extremely well: under that is a cistern where all the refuse waters go. The Sumerians used to bury their relatives under the dining-room floor close by, a thing which is no longer done.

My little court as time wore on seemed to smell more and more like a Sumerian ancestor. I used to lie awake and wonder about it at night, and admire the malignity of a smell which could lie dormant all day when one might escape it by going out, and leaped upon one as soon as one was safely imprisoned in one's bedroom. There was something of the Babylonian fiend about it. Indeed, I believe it was an infliction called up by the Mulla next door, who did not like infidels in his quarter. What could be more easy to one who knows the ropes than to call up a Smell from the Baghdad underworld? The only difficulty would be to choose which, for there is a great variety. This was a particularly wily one. It never appeared by day so that I was unable to prove its existence to my friends and neighbours: it never troubled Marie, who slept with her head in the very midst of it over our diminutive cistern-court: but it curled under or through my closed door, crept up to the corner where I lay trying to breathe the comparatively innocent air of the street, and had me at its mercy for the rest of the night. It left me with a sore throat every morning.

The diphtheria, however, was started by people who lived a most sanitary life at Rustum Farm, far from such slums as mine. That they should get it and not I was the sort of injustice which makes one wonder whether the gods really approve of prudence as much as people who give advice would like you to believe.

I got a lot of advice at this time. The variety of ways in which I might die appeared to be surprising. The mere mention of the Smell made people look at me as if I were dead already. It would get worse, they said, in winter: after rain, the accumulated smells of ages would rise in one solid mass and hang over the paved cistern-courts of my regrettable district. I would be marooned, for those little sideways would be so deep in mud that I should be unable to walk in and out to the civilization of New Street. It was, as a matter of fact, already beginning to get difficult, for people were mending their roofs in preparation for winter: this meant caulking them over with a mixture of straw and mud, very liquid, which was dumped in the street close to the house to be treated, and turned it for the time being into a sticky soup from wall to wall. The masons stood in it nearly to their kness, sending it up in little buckets as it was called for: the man above took it and slapped it down with a sad little chant that gave his work a cadence.

"Where is my loved one?" Down went the bucket.

"Where is my son?" Up it came again.

"Where are my brothers?"

"Where is my father?"

"Where is my dear one?"

"Where are my friends?"

After listening a while one felt as if all the world were lost or missing. The traffic of the street, being mostly barefoot, went on cheerfully undisturbed.

--- From Baghdad Sketches
Journeys Through Iraq

Freya Stark
©2011 Tauris Parke Paperbacks
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