Memories of Baghdad, 1952-53

A Chico man recounts what life was like for an American boy living in a very different Iraq

This photo shows the author, then 6 years old, with an unidentified Iraqi friend in his family’s back yard in Baghdad. As with all homes in the city, it was surrounded by a high wall.

This photo shows the author, then 6 years old, with an unidentified Iraqi friend in his family’s back yard in Baghdad. As with all homes in the city, it was surrounded by a high wall.


Phil Dennis is a cultural anthropologist who now teaches part time at Chico State. He earned his doctorate at Cornell and taught at Texas Tech University for 34 years before moving to Chico in 2007. He has done fieldwork in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, among Zapotec people, and among the Miskitu people of northeastern Nicaragua. He directed the Associated Colleges of the Midwest program in Costa Rica for four years, and as a Fulbright fellow he taught anthropology in northeastern Brazil. He now lives happily in Chico with his wife, Becky, and their two small dogs, Rugrat and Sassy.

The U.S. military occupation of Iraq ended last December, after nine years of bloody, inconclusive, and difficult-to-comprehend military conflict. It cost more than 4,000 American lives, left 32,000 U.S. soldiers wounded, and cost billions of taxpayer dollars. Iraqi loss of life was much, much higher, and more than 4 million people were displaced from their homes.

The future of this small, rich country, where some of the earliest civilizations on earth developed, seems very uncertain. The sadness of the whole, tragic conflict is especially poignant to me, because in 1952 and ’53 I lived in Baghdad as a boy, and I still remember life in a very different Iraq.

My father was a groundwater geologist who taught at Texas Tech University, but who also took foreign assignments for the United Nations in different parts of the world. In Iraq, his main assignment was helping develop groundwater resources in rural areas of the country.

Our family lived in a very ordinary middle-income residential area of Baghdad, and we had many close Iraqi friends. With some of them, we attended the coronation of King Faisal II in 1953. Iraqis were happy, and we were happy along with them. As beautiful, extravagant fireworks burst open in the warm Mesopotamian air, we cheered alongside our new friends as young Prince Faisal was crowned king, there in the cradle of civilization.

The author’s father, P. Eldon Dennis (center), with his friends and fellow geologists Abbas Baghdadi (left), an Iraqi, and John Brand, an American.

Photo courtesy of Phil Dennis

Iraq had just gained its independence from British colonial rule. Many middle-class Iraqis were optimistic about an independent future, toward which their new young king would lead them. They were happy to have, at last, an independent country of their own.

I was just 6 years old, and this was to be my first year in school. My parents enrolled me in a French convent school, where I joined many other children of expatriates. It was supposed to be one of the best schools in the city, and I studied with children of many different nationalities. My classmates included Indonesians, Europeans, children from various parts of the Arab world, and me, the only American.

We studied in both French and English, but not of course in Arabic, which was considered only a local, colloquial language, not the sort of thing young, up-and-coming professionals needed to know. We learned nothing of the glories of Mesopotamian civilization, whose ruins surrounded us.

My older brother, Art, attended Baghdad University, and my older sister, Lynn, attended another school whose nature I no longer remember. Both of them made many friends their own ages and were out of the house a lot. Our chief complaint, as far as I remember, was occasional bouts of diarrhea from contaminated drinking water. I remember going to a very kind Dutch doctor who prescribed anti-diarrheal medicines and warned us to be more careful about our drinking water.

My father, in his own innocent way, hired our gardener to teach me Arabic. The gardener was a poor man who came two or three times a week to work in the yard and the flower beds. He was barely literate in his own language, but he dutifully tried to teach me basic words and phrases, since it was the will of Sahib that he do so. I remember him as a kind, cheerful man, dressed in rags for working in the yard, sitting with me in the shade and patiently teaching me words and phrases.

The author (front row, center) with a group of family friends.


One day he didn’t show up to work in the garden, and several days passed with no sign of him. Finally he appeared, disheveled and distraught. With hand signs and his few words of English, he told us that his wife had died. She had evidently touched a live wire near the poor hut where they lived, probably one of the wires used to pirate electricity from a main line. We tried to comfort him as best we could, in spite of the language barrier. His pain and his sorrow moved us very deeply.

The nearby Catholic convent I attended was staffed by French and English nuns. I remember the English nuns as fat and self-consciously proper, quite concerned with reminding us of who they were and who we were, respectively.

I dressed each day in my black uniform and went off to school with my French friend, Pierre, who lived near us. The school must have been quite close, for I don’t remember my father and mother ever driving me there or picking me up. I think my mother took me to class the first few days and met me at the school gate to take me home afterward. After that Pierre and I were on our own.

Our parents apparently didn’t worry about us being alone in the street, and we were not at all afraid ourselves. It was an adventure, and we were surrounded by the local Arab people, who were unfailingly kind and helpful. Our neighborhood, near the school, included many middle-class Iraqi professionals, as well as various sorts of expatriates.

One day, walking home from school, Pierre and I ran into a group of teenage Iraqi schoolgirls, who were on their way home from high school. Like us, they were wearing their own distinctive school uniforms. They watched as the two foreign schoolboys, obviously first-year students, made our way home with our book bags, and they stopped to see who we were, blocking the sidewalk.

This silver tray was a gift from Abbas Baghdadi to the author’s parents, who came to share their friend’s Baha’i faith. Years later, when Saddam Hussein was in power, Baghdadi was tortured to death because of his religious beliefs.

Photo by Tina Flynn

“Who are you?” they asked Pierre first.

“My name is Pierre, and I am French!” he responded.

“French, ugh, horrible!” they said, and made faces. The French, although I did not know it then, had fought with the British over a large part of the Middle East and Africa. It was an unhappy legacy for poor little Pierre.

“And who are you?” they asked me.

“My name is Philip, and I am American!” I said proudly.

King Faisal Square.

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“American! American!” the girls shouted happily. One of them picked me up, kissed me on the face, then passed me off to another. I was handed from teenager to teenager and suffered dozens of happy kisses until I finally managed to squirm free and escape. For a 6-year-old, there is nothing more horrible than being kissed by teenage girls! Ten years later and I would have been in heaven.

I arrived home, covered with lipstick and thoroughly disheveled, disgusted at having been passed around as a trophy by those teenagers. When I came in the door, my mother saw me and burst out laughing. “What in the world happened to you?” she asked, in her warm, beautiful Texas accent. When I told her the story, she laughed until she cried.

For young American males, in those days, the main danger in the Baghdad streets seemed to be getting kissed by pretty girls.

I could not know it at the time, but my friend Pierre was rejected simply because of anger at his French imperialist heritage. We Americans, on the other hand, had overthrown the British colonials who ruled us and driven them out through a popular revolution. We had then set up our own country as a representative democracy, the model for the modernizing world yet to come. Unknowingly, I was heir to a proud example of sovereignty, independence and self-rule, a destiny Iraq was not destined to share.

The English nun I remember best was old, fat and rather grouchy. She tolerated no hint of insubordination and ruled with an iron fist. As the only American child in the class, I spoke English—well, not really English, but American. The difference was very clear to Sister Mary Magdalene. She corrected me constantly, reminding me that whatever I thought I spoke, it was certainly not proper English!

Coronation of 18 year-old King Faisal II, 1953.

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The French nuns, the majority in the convent school, were quite different. They delighted in teaching me their language, and smiled and kissed me when I learned a new word or expression. Consequently, I loved French and hated English, a prejudice that has lingered, in modified form, into late middle age. The message I learned was that a language is to be caressed and admired—delighted in and not simply spoken properly. It was a powerful message that I have never forgotten, after many years of speaking and working in Spanish and Portuguese.

My French teacher was Sister Annemarie. I remember her as young and warm and beautiful, and very kind to me and to the others in my class. She praised me as I learned verbs and practiced reading from our beginning French textbook.

Neither my father nor my mother spoke French, so I had the beginnings of a new, secret language of my own, to use with Pierre and to continue learning with Sister Annemarie. She praised me with each new phrase I learned. Annemarie obviously loved teaching me and the other children her beautiful language.

I paid particular attention when she bent down to help me with my work, for then I could catch a slight hint of her perfume. It was a very light and delicate scent, a promise of pleasure and beauty, of forbidden delights.

At that point I could not imagine adult sexuality. What adults did in their bedrooms was not a total mystery, but I couldn’t have given a very coherent account of it. Nevertheless, I did imagine Sister Annemarie without her clothes, close to me, her warm body with her slight hint of French perfume pressing up against me, both of us speaking to each other in perfect French and laughing happily.

Looking down Rashid Street.

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It was a lovely fantasy to go to sleep with at night—one I obviously could never share with my rather prudish parents. They were proud that I was a good student, and that I got especially high marks in French. Only now can I finally confess my infatuation with the beautiful nun, and with her wonderful language.

After my mother died, in 1989, I cleaned out most of her belongings, giving some to my grown children and keeping a few things for myself. However, there were two trunks full of clothes and other things that I hadn’t had the heart to deal with. One was a heavy old trunk from Baghdad that I still have with me, one of the few belongings that have survived my many moves and changes.

When I opened the trunk and began unpacking my mother’s clothes, I found a small autograph book from my early years in Baghdad. I opened it and began looking at the scrawled drawings and greetings from those early childhood friends. Then I found one page carefully done by an adult—by Annemarie herself! Almost unconsciously, I lifted it to my face, and there was the very faint but unmistakable scent of Sister Annemarie’s perfume—an erotic message from so long ago.

In Baghdad various European friends encouraged my parents to join the British Club, a sort of country club with a swimming pool and dining area. It was a place for white Europeans to socialize, and especially to enjoy swimming and playing in the pool during the scorching summer days.

The pool came to be a delight for my family, but it almost killed me early on. My older brother and sister had taken me to the pool and left me on my own to play in the shallow end, while they socialized with their teenage friends. I played and played in the water, gradually daring myself to go in deeper and deeper, right up to my nose. My brother and sister had neglected to watch me, and suddenly I was in over my head, choking and trying to cry for help, and swallowing lots of pool water in the process.

New American Embassy under construction.

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Luckily someone, I don’t know who, saw me drowning and swam over quickly to pull me out and then press hard on my stomach to make me regurgitate all the water I had swallowed and get my lungs functioning properly again. After that close call, I had serious swimming lessons, and soon I could get along safely on my own.

The pool and the British Club were an important part of my life in Baghdad, although I was far too young to understand the racism and colonial mentality they embodied. As far as I can remember, there were no Iraqi members of the club, although the waiters and pool cleaners were all, of course, brown local folks. The racial and class boundaries were taken for granted.

One of the great delights of Baghdad was going with Iraqi friends to eat masgouf, down along the Tigris River. There were many big, open-air restaurants specializing in preparing masgouf, a large carp that was plentiful in the Tigris. The big fish were split open and planked to boards of some kind, then roasted slowly over open fires. They were absolutely delicious.

I remember many evenings, sitting with Iraqi friends, the adults talking over cool drinks, and we children playing happily around the large outdoor eating area, waiting for our masgouf to be ready. The soft, flaky flesh of the fish was delicious, and the warm, friendly atmosphere of these popular eating places made them a local treasure. McDonald’s had yet to arrive, but local delicacies were cheap and plentiful.

My father had developed a warm friendship with a sheikh from the north-central part of the country, a man who he had helped with development of the groundwater supply in his area. The sheikh was also a colonel in the Iraqi army. When my father told him that he had a 6-year-old son, the sheikh promptly asked him to bring me up for a visit to go gazelle hunting with him. He promised my father that he would take good care of me and treat me as kindly as if I were his own young boy. When my father asked if I would like to go, I said yes enthusiastically.

Public swimming pool.

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My mother, on the other hand, was terrified! Guns and killing were abhorrent to her, and entrusting her little son to a man she didn’t know was going to be difficult. My father said he trusted the man, however, and since I really wanted to go, my mother finally relented.

On the given day, we left for the north. When we arrived at the meeting point, the sheikh was already there waiting. He promised my father he would take good care of me, and off we went. The colonel and I drove first in an open jeep with a driver. The sheikh rode shotgun—literally, sitting beside the driver with his loaded shotgun held upright between his legs. I sat in the back in a sort of jump seat.

Behind us came an Iraqi military truck with all our camping supplies and a handful of soldiers to cook and set up camp for us. Once we got to our camping spot, we left the truck and soldiers at their tasks, and off we went to hunt gazelles.

The idea was to scan the horizon and when we saw a herd to gun the jeep and head for the gazelles across the desert at full throttle. I was hanging on for dear life in the back, the sheikh bouncing up and down in the passenger seat, and the driver trying to avoid all the potholes and obstacles and still be able to catch up with the gazelles. Most of them escaped easily enough, bouncing on their strong, nimble legs and slipping through places where we couldn’t go. Catching up with a herd was not going to be easy.

I thought it was great fun, hanging on in the back as the driver maneuvered across the sand and rocks at high speed, avoiding all sorts of boulders and ravines, trying to get close enough for a shot. Finally, toward the end of the day, the sheikh did get in a few shots and managed to kill two gazelles. We honked and waved at the truck far behind us, and they eventually arrived and picked up the dead animals, to clean and prepare them for dinner.

Unidentified Iraqi family, summer 1953.

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We hunted gazelles for two or three days, camping each night in the desert. I sat next to the colonel near the campfire as the men prepared gazelle steaks and other food. The desert nights were cold, and my host insisted I wrap up in a warm blanket by the fire. I remember how delicious the food tasted!

The sheikh told me interesting stories of his experiences in the desert, and he said he especially liked eating food around the campfire and camping under the stars. When I got sleepy he took me to the warm nest of blankets he had already prepared and tucked me in, telling me not to be afraid because he would be sleeping right next to me before long. As I drifted off to sleep I could see the colonel sitting around the campfire, talking to his men, laughing, and drinking hot chai with them.

It turned out to be two or three memorable days, bouncing over the desert by day looking for gazelles and sleeping near the campfire at night, looking up at the clear, star-filled desert sky. My love of the desert began that year, I think. Later on I was to live in southern Arizona, a very different but also quite beautiful desert.

My father’s Iraqi counterpart was a geologist named Abbas Baghdadi. They spent a lot of time together doing fieldwork in geology and came to be very close friends. Abbas turned out to be a member of the Baha’i faith, a new, progressive sort of religion founded in the 19th century. Abbas introduced my father to the faith, and eventually both my parents became Baha’is. Abbas and his family eventually came to visit us back in Lubbock, Texas, deepening the ties of friendship.

However, after the government of Saddam Hussein came to power, the Baha’is, among other minority groups, were systematically persecuted. Abbas was thrown in prison, but his wife, who was a Swiss national, managed to escape from the country with their children. My father was shaken when he learned, through Baha’i friends, the terrible story of the torture and execution of his friend Abbas. There was no question of the brutality of Saddam’s regime, although the sectarian and regional violence that followed his removal was to be just as horrifying.

Thinking back, I’m glad my father didn’t live to see the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent years of upheaval and violence. It was a country he had loved, where he found the religion to which he dedicated the latter part of his life. To see the hatred of the American invaders, the people who had replaced the British and the French as colonial overlords, would have broken his heart.

What did the ignorant but well intentioned Americans mean with their military invasion of this ancient country? Why in the world did they think that toppling a dictator, and then occupying his country with their own military, would bring peace or happiness? To what depths of foolishness had we descended? And how do we prevent such colossal mistakes in the future?