Friday, October 24, 2014

Sasson Heskell, Iraq's architect

One of the most outstanding architects of modern Iraq was Sir Sasson Eskell, who served as Minister of Finance in five governments in the 1920s. So influential was he that Saddam Hussein bestowed on him a posthumous award. Here is a biography, compiled by Nissim Benjamin. 


Sir Sasson Heskell (born 17 March 1860 – died 31 August 1932) was an Iraqi statesman and financier. Also known as Sasson Effendi ( from the Turkish Effendi, a title meaning Lord). Regarded in Iraq as the Father of Parliament, Sir Sasson was the first Minister of Finance in the Kingdom and a permanent   member of Parliament until his death. Along with Gertrude Bell and T.E.Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), he was instrumental in the creation and the establishment of the Kingdom of Iraq post- Ottoman rule and it was he himself, who founded the nascent Iraqi government’s laws and financial structure.
He was knighted by King George V in 1923. King Faisal conferred on him the Civil Rafidain Medal and he won the highest medals from the Shahinshah of Iran and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He also received a number of posthumous decorations among which was one from Saddam Hussain of Iraq!
Sir Sasson is a scion of an ancient and distinguished jewish family of affluence in Baghdad the Shlomo David’s. His father Hakham Heskel Ezra Shlomo David travelled to India in 1873 to become the Chief rabbi of the thriving Baghdadi community there. In 1885 he returned to Baghdad as the leading rabbinical authority and a great philanthropist. He built the  Hakham Heskell Synagogue which was considered one of the most prominent synagogues in the city.
Sir Sasson obtained his primary education in the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Baghdad. In 1877 at the age of 17, he travelled to Constantinople ( Istanbul) to continue his education, accompanied by his maternal uncle Menahem Salih Daniel who was elected deputy for Baghdad in the first Ottoman parliament in 1876 during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid the second and later became Senator of the Kingdom of Iraq (1925-1932). Sir Sasson then went to London and Vienna to receive his higher education in economics and law. He was known to be an outstanding student. He finally returned to Istanbul to obtain another law degree.
Following his education abroad and fluent in nine languages ( Arabic, English, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, German, French, Greek and Latin) Sir Sasson returned to Baghdad in 1881 where he was appointed a deputy for the province of Baghdad in which post he remained until 1904. In 1885 he was appointed Foreign Secretary to the Wali ( Governor-General). On the announcement of the new Ottoman constitution in 1908, he was elected deputy for Baghdad in the first Turkish parliament, a position he occupied until the end of the first World War  when Iraq was detached from the Ottoman Empire in 1918. In the Ottoman parliament he showed extraordinary tact and ability – he worked as a member of various committees and was chosen as a Chairman of the Budget committee. He was sent to London and Paris on special missions including as a member of an Ottoman delegation to London in 1909 as under-secretary of state for trade and agriculture.
In 1920, after the end of the First World War, Sir Sasson returned to Baghdad from Istanbul and was appointed Minister of  Finance in the first Iraqi government under the premiership of Abdul Rahman Al Naqib. The Council of State of the first Arab government  in Mesopotamia since the thirteenth century met on 2 November 1920 along with Sir Sasson as Minister of  Finance, Jafar Pasha Al-Askari as Minister of defense and Talib Al Naqib as Minister of Interior.

The next step was to choose a King to unite the tribally fractured country. Sir Sasson has already offered his opinions on the matter. To reach a final conclusion on the choice for ruler, Sir Winston Churchill, then British colonial secretary summoned a small group of orientalists to Egypt, for the famous Cairo Conference of March 1921. Representing Iraq were two members of the Council, Sir Sasson Heskell and Jafar Pasha Al Askari. With their approval Emir Faisal was chosen for the throne of Iraq.
When Faisal was enthroned as King of Iraq, a new ministry was formed on 1 September 1921 by Prime Minister Abdul Rahman Al Naqib in which Sir Sasson was re-appointed Minister of Finance. He was consequently re-appointed Minister of Finance again in five successive governments until 1925.
Gertrude Bell described Sir Sasson as by far  the ablest man in the Council, genuine and disinterested to the core – extremely able and enjoying vast  experience.
During his period as Minister of Finance, Sir Sasson founded all the financial and budgeting structures and laws for the kingdom and looked wholeheartedly after the interests of the monarchy and the proper fulfilment of its laws. Rather famously, one of his most financially prolific deeds for the State was during negotiations with the British Petroleum Company in 1925. Through a pure stroke of genius and foresight, Sir Sasson demanded that Iraq’s oil revenue be remunerated in gold rather the Pound Sterling – at the time this request seemed bizarre since Sterling was backed by the gold standard anyway. Nevertheless his demand was reluctantly accepted. Later this concession proved to be of great benefit to Iraq’s  treasury during World War Two when the gold standard was abandoned and the Pound Sterling plummeted. He thus secured countless additional millions of Iraqi dinars for the State. This is something that the Iraqi nation remembers with appreciation and admiration.
In 1925 he was elected deputy for Baghdad in the first parliament of the Kingdom and was re-elected to all successive parliaments until his death. In the Iraqi parliament, he was Chairman of the financial committee and was regarded as the Father of Parliament in light of his vast knowledge, depth of experience and his views were accepted whenever a conflict arose concerning enforcement of internal regulations.
Sir Sasson died in Paris on 31 August 1932 while undergoing medical treatment. He was buried at the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery on Boulevard de Menilmontant in Paris. On 7 September 1932, a commemorative service was held in Baghdad in his memory. Prime Minister Yasin Al Hashimi published a eulogy in an Arabic daily newspaper in which he praised  the late Sir Sasson’s character, culture, outstanding personality, his vast knowledge, his sense of duty and the proper fulfilment of that duty irrespective of the enormity of the sacrifice involved. He said that the stupendous efforts which had been exerted by the deceased in regulating and establishing on a solid footing the affairs of the Kingdom will be remembered by future generations. All leading Arabic daily newspapers similarly eulogised the late Sir Sasson’s character and achievements and all agreed that his death was an irreparable loss to the nation of Iraq.  

Sasson Eskell and the house of dreams


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