From Baghdad to Miles City

by Clay Scott
Photos by Clay Scott

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December 25, 2011
Miles City, Montana
Clay Scott

CLAY SCOTT: You’re listening to Mountain West Voices. I’m Clay Scott. Basil Pius is someone who’s always been comfortable moving between cultures. He has been a teacher since the 1960’s in Miles City, Montana. But he was born into Iraq’s Assyrian Christian minority. He spoke Assyrian at home, and Arabic at school and on the street. He also mastered English at an early age and read widely in all three languages. Still, he was on the verge of flunking out of college when he met a woman who had a profound influence on him. He was working at the time at his family’s book shop in Baghdad. The year was 1955.

BASIL PIUS: One day, Agatha Christie came by, came inside the bookstore, curious, you know. A writer – top notch mystery writer Fortunately I had just opened some boxes of her books, her titles – five, six of them, I can’t remember – and when she saw them she was really amazed. “Hey, you sell my books here! I am Agatha Christie!”

We talked and we visited, and I was a little bashful, I admit.
But when she asked me, “What do you do besides this?” I said I attend college, and I felt embarrassed because I was afraid to tell her, I’m not doing well, but I did. And I felt badly. And that moment she looked at me, and really came closer, and shook my hand, and she said, “One day you’ll be very happy you did go to college, and you finished.”

So that changed my attitude and start paying attention to school. 0405 And I finished college. And I give Agatha Christie a lot of credit for that. Had I not finished college I couldn’t leave Iraq after the revolution of 1958.

SCOTT: Basil managed to get a student visa to the U.S. and he enrolled at the University of Portland. He had only intended to stay in the U.S. for a year or two, but the situation in Iraq was chaotic, so he put off going back. In the meantime, he got married, earned a master’s degree in education, and started sending out resumes. He was hired to teach at Miles Community College in a place called Miles City, Montana. It was different from Baghdad, and different from Portland. But he loved it.

PIUS: The adjustments haven’t been difficult. Really. They’re fairly easy. For one reason Miles city has really given me the opportunity: number one offered me a job; number two friendship; number three security. There’s something about Miles City that’s secure. I do a lot of walking, and I feel that I’m closing to heaven. Really! Many people will greet you and sometimes I don’t even know them. When I’m walking I would occasionally make sure I’m concentrating on the road. Hear a ‘beep,’ horn. Automobile horn. You know. Saluting or saying hi, you know. So it makes you feel like ‘we know you.’ ‘we’re glad you’re here.’ See?

SCOTT: After more than 50 years in the U.S., Basil says he still has a deep attachment to the smells and sounds and foods and languages he grew up with.

During the night in Baghdad, we slept on the rooftop. Because it was too hot downstairs. And all roofs are flat. And you hear the most beautiful music…the flutes, the drums…the singing. You think indeed it is like the city of the 1001 nights. That part – romance of Baghdad – is special. I keep telling myself, I’m glad I was born and raised in Baghdad…now I am in a different culture…

Every time I take a walk, I look up to heaven and think thank God you brought me here, in this town, where I have benefitted, where hopefully…I call myself an ambassador for peace.

SCOTT: You’ve been listening to Mountain West Voices. Our series is produced in association with the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, a regional studies and public education program of the University of Montana. Additional support was provided by the Greater Montana Foundation. To see images from today’s story, and to listen to dozens of archived stories from around the Rocky Mountain West, go to I’m Clay Scott