Alexander Richard Svoboda

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Alexander Richard Svoboda (July 7, 1878 - 1946?), was the son of Joseph Mathia Svoboda and Eliza Marine Svoboda. He was born in Baghdad ten months after his parents' wedding, which shortly followed the death of his mother's first husband Fathallah Sayegh. Alexander is notable for the journal he kept detailing an 1897 journey by land and sea from Baghdad to Paris that he undertook with family members as well as the outgoing British Consul Colonel Edward Mockler. During his three year stay in Europe, he married a French woman Marie Josephine Derisbourg, who returned with him to Baghdad. Alexander Svoboda died in Istanbul in the 1940s.


The whole story of Alexander’s life must wait on the study of Joseph Svoboda’s 60 diaries, a project that is now only in its infancy. In a fragment from 1888-1889 that we have explored, there is some information about Alexander at the age of 10-11 years, which will give an idea of the life of a boy in late 19th century Baghdad.

At the age of 4, Alexander went to the same school as his cousin Thomas. From 1883 – 1884, he attended the Chaldean school for a few hours every day. Additionally, his father spoke with him only in English. He insisted that Alexander should receive English lessons at the Latin Church and school where they taught him French. In 1887, Alexander regularly attended the Chaldean school where he learned Arabic from the school master. The examination in Arabic language at the Chaldean School was a much celebrated event, and the Governor of Baghdad attended with the commander-in-chief and the high Turkish officials. The Turkish band even played as the children passed their examination. In 1877, a representation of Joseph and his Brothers was held at the Chaldean School, and Alexander played the role of Benjamin, reciting in Arabic. Alexander started to write Arabic and English from 1888 – 1889. At this time, his father took him to the Latin Church to put him in the school where Père Polycarp was the headmaster. In 1895 he began work at the English Consulate, and, at the same time, was taking lessons in Turkish language. In December of 1888, it is recorded that Alexander was often ill, especially with the Basrah fever and was attended to by one Dr. Bowman, who treated him with his own special concoction. There continue to be mentions of his illnesses throughout the next year. His youthful bouts of illness seem to have affected Alexander’s self-perception, for in the travel journal, we will also observe that even at 19 he shows an extraordinary concern for his own health. In January of 1889, Joseph, still traveling with the Lynch Company steamers, received Alexander’s first letter written in Arabic and subsequently took him to the school run by French fathers at the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church where the head teacher was Father Policarp. February sees Alexander still in school from 9 am to 2 each day, attending church regularly, and still beset by fevers treated with Dr. Bowman’s elixir. At one point, Joseph even takes him on a steamer-ride downriver to Basrah for his health. His mother’s daughter Medula (his half-sister) is very pregnant and about to give birth. Meanwhile, he writes to his uncle Alexander Sandor Svoboda, the painter who is, at the time, in London. In March he was still in Basrah and on his return he entered Baghdad riding on a donkey. By April it was spring and the time for outdoor activities. He went out with a servant to ride a donkey in the Manimgar (mun’imkar = Pers. “beneficence granting”???) Garden and with his father to ride on the river in a goffa. On another occasion, the whole family—Joseph, Eliza, her daughter Tookyeh, and Alexander—took a goffa to the Farhat Garden where his aunt Medula and Grezeski, her husband, were camping. Alexander then returned from the gardens on a donkey.In May, Alexander wrote a letter to his cousin Cecile (Uncle Alexander’s little daughter). A family group consisting of Alexander, Tookyeh, Roofa’iil, Eliza, Joseph, and Artin, his uncle on his mother’s side, made an excursion by goffa to an island across from Kher to spend the day. The men shot doves; they roasted a fish, and sat beneath the poplar trees. They walked home along the Kerradah because the donkeys they had arranged for did not show up. Alexander felt unwell and became feverish because of the heat. Sometime later, Eliza made plans to go with Alexander, Tookyeh, and Rūfāʾīl to the Shifteh Garden in Baquba, which was owned by the Marine family. Accompanied by Razooki Sayegh, Roofa’iil and Tookyeh’s uncle, Fetoohi Kasperkhan and the garden agent they all traveled to the garden. Razooki sent a telegram to Joseph aboard ship telling him that they were enjoying themselves in Baquba, but they suffered from mosquitoes and sun flies. On their return Alexander once again grew feverish from the heat. During this period, Joseph had begun taking photographs of his family, preparing the film and developing the pictures himself. Later in his life, Alexander would expand his father’s hobby into a business of his own taking photographs all over the Middle East and selling them as picture postcards. In June Alexander suffered from an inflamed liver (possibly childhood hepatitis) and was kept out of school. He was attended by Dr. Woods, but his mother rejected the medicine prescribed by the doctor and used instead a compound mixed with wine that was recommended by Mr. Greziski. Alexander was out of school for more than twenty days following his return from Shifteh. One day in July, Joseph, when preparing to sail downriver, sent to Alexander’s school to have his son come to the ship to breakfast with him. The head teacher, Father Policarp refused permission for him to go. Joseph sent for him again and then made his servant wait at the school. Then he sent a third messenger but they again delayed the servants and finally sent them and Alexander to the boat at 11:30. When they finally showed up, Joseph was enraged and sent for his son’s books and communicated to the school that he would not be sending him there again. In the end he sent a servant to explain to Father Policarp that it was his wish that his son come and take breakfast with him every morning an hour before noon on the days he was scheduled to make a trip downriver. Father Policarp finally consented to this and Alexander was returned to the school. In late July and August, the hot weather seems to have bred sickness throughout Iraq. Many Christians died because of the heat and fever. Cholera was spreading north, with Jews and Christians fleeing Basrah in large numbers. A quarantine station was established on the Tigris across from Kut but the disease reached Baghdad regardless. Alexander spent the Holiday of the Virgin Mary on the steamer with his father. On the 20th of August, his aunt Caroline, Joseph’s sister and the wife of Thomas Blockey, died of cholera. Finally Alexander and his mother fled Baghdad as people in the Christian neighborhood shouted and wept in fear and sorrow. They made their way to the Nawaab garden below Gerarah where they planned to stay until the danger passed. Meanwhile, the Blockey’s daughter Jessy, a five year-old, died of cholera just a few days after her mother on August 22. Such was the life of a boy in the Christian community of Baghdad in the last years of the 1880s. In the travel journal, we will pick up his life some 8 years later and see what kind of a young man this boy became. His grandfather Antone died about a month short of a year after the dramatic wedding of his mother and father. His father lived until 1908 and continued to keep his diaries. His mother would die not long after in 1910.

Journey to Paris

In April of 1897, Alexander Richard set out on a journey by caravan from Baghdad, through the central Middle East, to Cairo and thence by ship to Italy and by train to Paris. Before leaving, he had an emotional goodbye with his extended family, and he reported feeling intense sadness. He kept a detailed diary of his journey in Arabic. During his three year stay in Europe, he married a French woman Marie Josephine Derisbourg, who returned with him to Baghdad.

Education in Paris (1897-1900)

Joseph arrived back in Baghdad on November 4, 1897 after travelling with Alexander and Eliza on their way to Europe. He began corresponding with Alexander by mail, whom had begun studying several subjects in Paris, specifically mentioning learning German. Eliza would return separately from the journey to Europe, arriving in Basra aboard the SS Arabistan. On Monday, November 8, Joseph sailed down to Basra to meet Eliza. After reuniting, she complained that in Paris their family friend Ibrahim had been less than hospitable; even charging Eliza and Alexander more to share a room. During his first year of study in Paris, Alexander complained bitterly of the freezing Western European climate that he was unaccustomed to. On January 10, Alexander sent his father an urgent telegram begging permission to travel to Cairo for work with the international commission that was overseeing the management of the Egyptian public debt. Joseph urged him to wait which Alexander replied to, compromising that he would wait until the end of February before committing. A week later (possibly 18 January, 1898-9), Joseph received two letters from Alexander that more thoroughly explained his motivations. Through Sherif Beg, the son of Moosa Kadem Pasha, he met the unnmaed son of Serkis Pasha. Serkis in turn promised to introduce Alexander to Nubar Pasha, the former Egyptian Prime Minister that had retired to Paris (It is unclear whether Alexander ever followed through with his expedition to Egypt). While in Paris, Alexander also participated in a number of business ventures with his father. Most notably, in February 1898 Joseph records sending a number of Arabic manuscripts for Alexander to sell in Vienna. Alexander travelled by sea to Vienna, where he sold the goods his father had sent. Apparently not having enjoyed his previous journey to Vienna, in April 1898 Alexander asks his father's permission to return to Vienna for his return home by a land route instead. Along the route he visited Lyon, Milan, and Venice. For the second leg of his journey, Alexander again requested to travel by land from Vienna back to Baghdad via the overland route at Aleppo, as he disliked travel by sea.

Works by Alexander