On a hot afternoon in early July I asked Bill, the van driver for Leahurst,Liverpool University’s Veterinary Field Station, to give me a lift into Liverpool. Three times a week Bill used to drive the 28Km from the field station to the main veterinary faculty building which was on Brownlow Hill in central Liverpool, taking the road through the famous, fume filled, Mersey Tunnel. In those days in 1972 a PhD student’s grant was less than £60 a month and a free return trip was a great opportunity for a few hours away from the countryside of the Wirral Penninsula between Merseyside and the river Dee in the hustle and bustle of the city of Liverpool.
One of Liverpool’s main attractions for me was the huge Lewis’ department store by the Adelphi Hotel on Lime Street, yet being as poor as the proverbial church mouse I could not afford to buy anything from the store! I would usually make my way to one of the student hostels near the university to drink an Estikan, (a tiny tea glass), of tea with one of my fellow countrymen who were also studying in the same university. There were a number of Iraqi students living in those hostels and they all envied me as I lived in the rural area of Cheshire while I envied them because they were living in the exciting city of Liverpool! Liverpool, the city where you were able to stay out all night if you wished in one of the discos, and not be controlled by curfews as under the decrees of Saddam’ early regime. If I missed the ride with Bill back to the Wirral. I had to catch the ferry across the river Mersey to Birkenhead then catch the number 15 bus that would take the route through the villages of the Wirral and drop me off near Leahurst. On more than one occasion I missed the bus or the ferry and I still do not want to think of those miserable evenings spent waiting by the banks of the Mersey.
However, before I lose track, back to my trip that day to Liverpool with Bill. I went into Liverpool because I had a cheap return ticket to Baghdad costing the princely sum of £50! I wanted to see my friends and ask them if they wanted me to do something for them in Baghdad (July 1972). In those day were there was no e-mail or mobile phones and making international telephone calls was difficult and costly. After a struggle up Brownlow Hill from Lime Street, carrying my luggage, I finally reached the room of Farouk . Farouk was my friend from Secondary School in Baghdad (1958-1963) and as I opened the door of his small, student room I saw it was full to bursting point. I had interrupted a heated discussion; we Iraqis are renowned for that, between three of my friends and their girlfriends. The girls wanted to know how all three of the boys had the same birthday which, as for most Iraqis in those days including myself, was July 1st.
My colleagues were grant holders from the Baghdad Government and were either sympathizers with, or members of the Ba’athist Party and they were reluctant to inform the girls that this situation of all Iraqis having the first of July as their birthday was one of the early decrees of Saddam Hussein’s regime. I decided to use my veterinary humour and to get my colleagues out of the situation. I explained to the girls that we had a system for people’s ages that was like that used in the U.K. for giving the age of thoroughbred racehorses. Breeders endeavour to have mares foal close to January 1st as each thoroughbred horse has a birth certificate for the first day of January of the year it was foaled. I do not think that my comment went down well with my friends and indeed they were worried in case someone mentioned my comments to their controllers and that could have a negative impact on their grants. Fortunately I had a two year grant from the Caluste Gulbenkian Foundation. Later I discovered from some Sudanese friends that the government in Sudan also registered the same day each year as the birthday for people born that year, in the case of Sudan it was January 1st, like the thoroughbred horses. While some think birthdays are not important, in our Islamic world we mark the lives of many holy men who were born centuries ago when there were no records, or even writing, yet their followers insist on marking their birthdays as if they have indisputable records of these birthdays.
I enjoy celebrating the birth of my children. I also believe it is a right of the individual to know one’s date of birth and remember the day that your mother struggled to bring you into the world. In recent years more attention has been given to birthdays and families mark children’s birthdays with parties and one recognizes the ‘Happy Birthday’ tune even when the language it is sung in changes. By the standards of the day I was born into quite a family that was quite well off and I was told that when my mother was pregnant with me she used to see Dr Ghali, who I believe was the Minister of Health in Baghdad at one time, and she received good care yet there was still confusion as to the date of my birth. Through my childhood I was told that I was born on the day a local man called Shaaban Alawar killed another man in our alley way!. Shaaban was the murderer’s first name and Alawar means ‘the man with one eye’. So the anniversary of my birth was eclipsed by the anniversary of the murder! I was in fact born on the 29th of September, two weeks before the inauguration of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that I would spend nearly two decades working for until my retirement. My wife was born on October 24th, this is United Nations day, celebrated across the world to mark the birth of the UN. What a coincidence for a UN family.