The Trials And Tribulations Of One Of Basra’s Longest-Serving Postmen
Despite e-mail, one of Basra’s longest serving posties still brings the mail. He’s been through wars, invasions and regime change and exchanged letters with everyone from Sophia Loren to Muammar Gaddafi.
In a small room at the back of a building in Basra, Ayad Abdullah Mohammed is going about his work, sorting mail, before mounting his small motorcycle and heading out into the city to deliver the post.
He’s been doing this job for years – through various stages of Iraq’s evolution, through wars and regime change - and he still loves the work, because at one stage he was a dedicated pen pal.
When did you start working as a postman?
I started in the mid-90s and on my first day of work I accompanied the former postman to see if I could do the job. So I helped him distribute mail as we rode on two separate motorcycles.
I had gained experience in remembering geography and streets as a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war. I also had a hobby – being a pen pal – that I really liked. So my future was postal.
Being a pen pal was your hobby?
Yes, I was the president of the Iraqi Pen Pal Association. I got a lot of letters from around the world. I wrote to many famous people and I received many replies. For example, from Sophia Loren, the Italian actress. I wrote to the former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, and in fact he responded to my request to attend a conference on globalization in Libya in 1987. Unfortunately I was in the military at the time and I couldn’t go.
I also wrote to Fahad al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, the head of the Olympic Committee in Kuwait, before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. He was very polite when he answered my letters.
I wrote to Uday, Saddam Hussein’s son, to congratulate him on his marriage. He sent me a gold-coloured greeting card in return saying he was surprised that I was one of the first to congratulate him.
A lot of people develop intimate relationships when they write to pen pals.
I had two strong relationships with pen pals – one was with an Iraqi woman and the other a Moroccan woman. The Moroccan lady wanted us to get married at her aunt’s place in France. It was a great opportunity to start a new life. But the letter in which she detailed the plans was lost and in Iraq, the situation was changing fast. By the time we connected again, I was already married.
Did you keep all the letters?
I kept thousands of them in a large wooden box. Although one day I opened the box and found a large snake inside it. But I didn’t disturb it. I left the snake there and I kept to my bed, and she kept to hers, almost as if she was guarding a precious treasure.
When I married, we moved houses and my new wife did not appreciate my hobby as a pen pal. All the letters were eventually lost or destroyed, something I still regret to this day. I stopped writing letters 18 years ago now.
So how do you feel about your work in the postal service now?
In the old days, it was exhausting. We had to deliver so many letters and there were no mobile phones or digital communications. That has changed a lot. We still have registered mail and there is also post from government departments. I would say that now only around 10 percent of the people here use the postal service.
Can you tell us about some of your most memorable deliveries?
There are certainly some. I remember how one day I brought a letter from the UK to a car dealer – this was during the US invasion of Iraq. A British tank had crushed his car and he wrote to the British government demanding compensation. He said that if he opened the letter and he had received compensation he would reward me. But if not, he would simply give me a glass of water.
So he opened the letter and he had been compensated. He was really happy. But I just told him my reward would come from God and I preferred a glass of water!
Another time, a mad man stole one of my letters while I was not paying attention and he ran down the road. I had to chase after him. I was completely out of breath. Thankfully some store owners stopped the lunatic and gave him a sandwich and some juice and convinced him to return the letter to me. It took a while and I was afraid he would just rip it up. But he gave it back.
Do you think that, in this digital age, a postman still means something to the community?
Most of the people of Basra know me. One day, a child ran out of his school, calling: Postman! Postman! He had seen a picture of a postman in a reading book and he said it was me. We took a picture together.
Another time, I delivered a letter to a candidate in the elections, he liked what it said and he started to praise me and told me he would reward me if he was elected. He also took pictures with me. Later on, I met him again but he had forgotten me and all those promises. But I did not mind because I was only doing my duty.