It seems I just can’t get enough of Levantine Jewish memoirs; after polishing off Aciman and Sciaky, I’ve embarked on The Last Jews in Baghdad by Nissim Rejwan, about his family’s life in Iraq before the mass exodus of the Jews in 1951. (I came to Rejwan via a recommendation by my man Ammiel Alcalay, who quotes him enticingly in his wonderful After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture.) You can read the first chapter here; I’ll quote this illuminating description of the hib, or terracotta water filter:
Whether drawn from taps or brought by the saqqa directly from the banks of the bountiful River Tigris, which ran right in the middle of the city dividing it into its two parts—Al-Risafa to the east of the river and Al-Karkh to its west—there remained the problem of where to keep the water clean and relatively cool. This was the easier part. On its arrival, the precious liquid was poured directly into a huge earthenware container usually standing in a prominent place in the inner courtyard. The hib—that is how it was called in colloquial Iraqi Arabic—was a center of attention and of a significance second only to that of the kitchen. Placed strategically in the shade, it was always carefully covered with a wooden top to keep away flies, mosquitoes, and other natural intruders from the air.
The hib was a many-faceted device. Apart from keeping the water clean and fit for drinking it also served as a kind of primitive refrigerator. The water was always cool thanks to the breeze which, no matter how burning hot it was itself, always managed to cool the outside of the hib by contact with its damp walls. Moreover the hib, which was rounded and with a very narrow base, was placed on a sturdy wooden “cage” with small holes that, while permitting the draught to circulate inside and out, kept the place out of reach of scorpions, cockroaches, snakes, and certain other intruders from land. It was in this “cage,” qafas, that some of the most valuable necessities were tucked away. Besides the special jug that was placed right under the hib‘s base to gather the water dripping therefrom, there was ample space in it to accommodate pots, bottles, and plates containing cooked meals, milk, yogurt, liquid medications, and fruit and vegetables, which were preserved in reasonable coolness through the sweltering heat of summer and kept out of harm’s reach. The qafas also prevented the cats from reaching the meats and the milk products. Ice and ice boxes were introduced only in the 1930s and were used in the better-off households to preserve meats, vegetables, and fruits.
This segues into a description of how people dealt with snakes, which they were forbidden by custom to harm (“In certain households, again, the mistress of the house left a plate of milk around so that a snake drinking it would become pacified and friendly to members of the household. In such cases the mother chants, ‘O snake of the house, do not do us harm and we won’t harm you!’”) I’m thoroughly enjoying it, even though the haphazardly transliterated Arabic sometimes gives me a hard time (in the book he calls his native neighborhood “Abu Shibil”; in this essay he uses the more accurate Abu Shibl).
And as lagniappe, in the course of investigating his “tcharkhatchi” (‘night watchman’), I discovered WikIraqi, which has an Expressions page that includes an entry “جرخجي Pronounced [CHARKHACHI] A night guard. Also the name of a well-known Iraqi family. The word is of Turkish origin.” The coverage is spotty and some of the explanations dubious, but it’s a valuable resource.
Oh, and if anyone can tell me more about the word hib or the Turkish origin of charkhachi (I presume it includes the -ji suffix), I’ll be grateful.