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Michael Jansen: A woman of many facets
March 08, 2013
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Dressed in layers of black, necklaces and rings, and a whiff of musky perfume, Ma opened the door to the Beirut flat, bursting with colour from Nuha’s etchnigs and paintings, Indian divan covers and wall hangings. Ma made tea, the Iraqi way, spouted pot perched on top of spouted pot, and offered dates fresh from Baghdad. 

“I stayed with friends in a walled compound with alarms and guards. The whole family lives there, parents, married children, grandchildren. Whenever they go out they don’t know if they’ll return,” she said.  Kidnappers, bombers and shooters stalk the streets a decade after the US invasion and occupation.

Baghdad is not the city where Su’ad Al Radi, “Ma” to her friends, was born in 1917 at the Ottoman Empire’s close and the outset of the British occupation. Her fore-bearers had been muftis in southeastern Turkey and in Baghdad the clan was known as Abbas-Diyarbakiri.

Ma bragged that she had Georgian, Kurdish, Turkish and Arab blood. Her great uncle was Mahmud Shevket Pasha, assassinated in 1913 while serving as grand vizier of the Ottoman sultan. Naji Shawkat, Iraqi prime minister in 1932-33, was a cousin and a “perhaps” distant relative Samira

Shahbandar married President Saddam Hussein in 1986.

Loyal to the Ottoman Empire, Ma’s father “refused to swear allegiance to Iraq and became a farmer,” said Ma’s son Abbad over coffee in Shakespeare’s cafe in Jumeira. 

The land holdings were large; home was near the Serai, the seat of government. 

Ma’s first contact with Iraq’s British rulers took place at the weekly open house of Gertrude Bell, who drew the boundaries of modern Iraq. Ma’s memory of Bell was, “She was so tall.”

“But Ma was only five,” remarked Shahoob, Abbad’s wife.  

Ma had an “Ottoman upbringing,” said Abbad. Her father used to say, “‘My girls are not allowed to cry.’”  Her self-control was heroic, enabling her deal with deep grief over the deaths of her daughters, Nuha and Selma.

Ma began school with French nuns but her father, believing English was the world language, sent her to Baghdad’s American school and Beirut College for Women.

When she was 20, Ma met Mohamed Selim Al Radi at a family gathering where he chose her over the girl he was expected to make his bride. Ma turned him down but eventually accepted because, she said, “He has a sense of humour and I have none.”  His other great quality was broad-mindedness.

Born in 1900, he studied in Houston and was among the first Iraqis to go to Berkley where he took a degree in agriculture. They married in 1937 and went to Europe on honeymoon.

Ma was horrified by the tramp of soldiers’ boots on Munich’s streets that heralded a life with war.   

In Vienna, as Ma returned to the hotel after buying gloves at a fashionable shop, the reception clerk rang to say a lady wanted to speak to her. In the lobby, Ma found a well-dressed woman who took out a large diamond broach and asked Ma to take it out of Germany. The woman explained, “I know you’re Iraqi. We are Jews and can take nothing when we leave. Someone will collect it in six months.” 

“If no one does?” Ma asked. “I prefer that you have it than those people.” The broach was reclaimed in Baghdad and Ma learned the woman and her family had escaped to the US. Abbad believes the woman had connections in the Iraqi Jewish community, large and prosperous before Israel intruded.

During World War II, the Radis stayed in Baghdad where Muhammad was in charge of agriculture. Selma was born in 1939, Nuha in 41 and Abbad in 44.

In 1947, Muhammad was posted as Iraqi ambassador to Iran and in 1949 he became the first Iraqi envoy to independent India where they met the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi. Ma packed off the children to the first of several dozen boarding schools they attended.

Ma played bridge, learned Japanese flower arranging, and made life-long friends. Once Muhammad was asked at what time she could be expected at home. “When she’s hungry,” he quipped. 

India was an exciting land to explore. Ma was an avid student of places, people, and philosophy. She consumed the philosophical writings of J. Krishnamurti, met him frequently and visited his centres. “India was a revelation for Ma. She loved its simplicity,” stated Abbad.  “Philosophy was not based on religion.”

While taking in interest and respecting other faiths, Ma was a firm Believer who read and reread her Quran and performed the Umrah.    

Following the 1958 Iraqi revolution, the Radis returned to Baghdad where Muhammad headed the men’s section of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society and Ma the women’s section. In the mid-1960s they moved to Beirut and rented a flat with a view of the Mediterranean. Muhammad died in 1971.

I met Ma, Nuha and Selma in ‘73 in Beirut; Abbad and Shahoob some time later. They live between Abu Dhabi, where he is an architect, and Toronto, a favourite Iraqi home-away-from-Baghdad. 

Ma, Nuha and Selma were in Beirut at the outset of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, but Selma left to pursue her career in archaeology and Nuha, a ceramist dependent on electricity to run her kiln, shifted between Baghdad and Beirut.

I chanced upon Ma in the collonade outside a bookshop in Cannaught Place in New Delhi in 1986. She was there for the wedding of the son and daughter of a prominent family and invited me and my friends to attend. A few extra people among the thousands scarcely mattered. While the guests waited for the groom to arrive on his horse, Ma and I chatted with Ashraf, the son of Liaqat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s assassinated first prime minister.  

The night “Papa Bush” launched his war on Iraq the windows on the Tigris-side of Ma’s house were blown in. Thereafter she slept at Nuha’s home in a nearby palm grove. Her tragi-hillarious narrative of the war, Baghdad Diaries, became an international best seller.

Ma could not live comfortably in turbulent Iraq but hated to be away from home. Whenever she arrived in Beirut from Baghdad after a 12-15 hour journey overland via Damascus, she would bring flat Iraqi bread stuffed with meat or cheese, kubbeh Muslawi, spices, and dates. Familiar food assuaged her longing for her house on the sluggish Tigris and her homeland laid low by bombing and sanctions.

Ma was as fiercely against the second Bush war as the first. She said she preferred “our” Saddam to “their” Bush. When the attack came she and Nuha were again in Baghdad.

Selma and I went there by road a month after the city fell. Selma was charged by the UNESCO to investigate the looting of the Iraq Museum. I went along to report. 

On our last night, Ma and Nuha gave a pre-curfew party in Nuha’s house. Ma slew a duck and a chicken and grilled a fish (masgouf). When Selma, her colleague Mac Gibson and I pulled out of the drive, Nuha rushed out and threw a bowl of water at the back of the car: a blessing and an appeal to return. Nuha died 16 months later in Beirut and was buried in the Martyr’s Cemetery.

While in Baghdad, Ma fell during her daily walk backwards with eyes closed, a practice some doctor said would preserve her balance. But she was in her garden that sloped down to the Tigris. She broke her hip and risked replacement in post-war Baghdad where there were long power outages and shortages of medicines. 

She refused to budge from Beirut in 2006 while Israel bombed the southern suburbs, the bridge to the Casino du Liban, a dairy that provided fresh milk and cheese, and other “military” targets.

Although Ma walked with a cane, it did not slow her down or curb her globe trotting. She flew to Kuala Lumpur in 2007 to see Selma accept the Aga Khan Prize for architecture awarded for the magnificent restoration of the Amiriya, a 16th century palace in Radha in Yemen.

Every summer Ma travelled to France to spend several weeks at Selma’s half-rebuilt palace. Ma flew to Toronto and Sienna to visit Abbad and his family and London to see Naira, her sister, nicknamed “Needles.”  Ma continued travelling to Baghdad by road until she was over 90 when her lawyer ordered her to fly.

Selma died in September 2010. Her memorial service (Maulud), held in Amman that December, was a deeply moving event bringing together Sunni, Shia, and Christian Iraqis and foreign friends. This was the Iraq of Ma’s childhood and youth, an Iraq where no one knew or cared about sect or ethnicity. Post-US occupation Iraq, obsessed with communal identity, is a viciously violent country.

Ma was in Baghdad when she suffered the stroke that silenced her briefly. She rallied enough so Shahoob could convey her to Abu Dhabi where she died, holding Abbad’s hand. Ma’s final journey was to Beirut where she is buried alongside Nuha.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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