Friday, February 11, 2011

Dad’s 38-year-old Gulf letters

While looking for photographs for my “Gardens, roses and LTC” post earlier this week, I fell on an envelope that I did not – nor wanted to – open for 38 years.

Sure, I have seen and toyed with the envelope before. I put it on the table in front of me and looked at it several times. Each time I thought about it I ended trying to forget it. A couple of times I even slipped my fingers inside.

What the envelope contains are the last four letters I received from my father, Esa, between 30 October 1973 and 1 December 1973 -- four days before he was killed by a drunken driver in Bahrain.

A life so uselessly and tragically robbed by a young, irresponsible and drunk driver was all the more heartbreaking because Dad had just gone back to his first career and passion as a lawyer shortly after retiring from 30 years of loyal work as a civil servant.

He was always a bon viveur, much loved and respected by his friends and peers; a sports lover who was tennis champion and football player at the same time; a wonderful father who I would have loved to have known as an adult. We always joked that he looked a bit like Aristotle Onassis -- but without the money. He was generous to the extreme and our house was always open to everyone.

On retirement, he was excited to have landed a dream job with a law firm in Bahrain. The Gulf was still a mystery to us, so it was decided that my mum, Vicky, and I would live in Beirut. The understanding was that we would travel back and forth to see one another until he settled into the new job. The plans were for a Christmas 1973 family reunion.

He was a prolific letter-writer, which is something we rarely do now. The letters, two of them dated 17 November 1973 -- one typed and the second handwritten – were always close, but never read since that fatal day on 4 December 1973.

Why read them now? It may be part of the growing up process. Or pain can possibly feel less piercing after 38 years… Who knows?

But when I saw a first sentence that read, “Many ships have passed through this Gulf since I wrote to you last…” which was only a week or two earlier from the dates on the letters, I couldn’t resist.

It was a trip to the past -- the typewriter I can remember so well, the turquoise ink Dad always filled his Parker pen with, his special handwriting. It was also an insight into his first months in the Gulf.

I was surprised to learn he was planning to move to the Dubai or Abu Dhabi offices of his firm… “As I am expected to do early in 1974… I should have gone to Abu Dhabi four months ago; but every time I set to go more and more work pours in, very big and complicated work, and I have to stay to churn it out and to have more pile up on me.”

In the pre-Internet age, there’s one paragraph I found priceless. Dad tells me, “Did you know that Bahrain has all-color TV, no black and white, and it gets ARAMCO, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Iran stations as we used to get Rome in Tunis. I have a fine large and expensive SONY Radio which I will pass on to you at the first opportunity; I know how pleased you’d be to operate such a splendid Radio with 9 wave bands and FM.”

In his letters Dad was trying to share his impressions of Bahrain and his surroundings: “I have bought a lot of postage stamps [my brother, Emile, collects them]… stamps of Fujeirah, Ras Al Khaimah, Dubai, Umm al-Qiwain etc… (all these being autonomous sheikhdoms federated in the U.A.E., United Arab Emirates).

“There are so many fascinating things here to buy, I hope one day you will come on a visit and see for yourself and pick up some items. Happily, gold and silver here is cheap. There is a terrific “Kashmere Emporium,” the loveliest handicraft and woodwork and so much jade of all colors in every object of art, too fascinating to describe and not at all expensive; some artful boxes will grace royal saloons studded with jade. Indian and Chinese silk is plenty and some Indian silk shawls with handwork design are breathtaking. If only I could send you a planeload of all these.”

At the end of one of the letters, he says: “We have taken on an office in a new building in Dubai with accommodation for living in by whosoever is going to man that office, which would in all probability be I when I shall be responsible for Muscat also.”

Dad was very excited that I had enrolled at law school and tells me I have “already been assigned to our Muscat branch…I am happy to know that you are finding pleasure in law studies; it will get more and more interesting year after year. Keep up the good work…”

Even then, the rents were high. Dad says: “Living in Bahrain is far more expensive than I had thought. Rents are high and so is cost of living since everything is imported by airplanes and with so many foreign companies with large personnel having to be accommodated at company’s expense and the companies having no taxes to pay – no income tax or any other tax existing in Bahrain – just pay any rent landlords demand.”

The weather has certainly not changed. In the 30 October 1973 letter he writes: “It is still scorchingly hot here and assailingly humid and I am beginning to wonder if it will ever cool down a bit in this area, We are almost 1 November and the heat is still in the 35-36 Centigrade and the humidity 95-98% but I seem to be managing well and you need have no worry about me.”

The letters mostly end in the same loving way: “…Remember that your Daddy is constantly thinking of you and in your future, bright and successful may it be… Nothing will make me happier than to know that you are progressing and doing well in your work. God bless you and keep you safe in his care and with all my love to you… Daddy”

All my love to you too, Daddy…