Letters

19 November 1922

From/To: Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

Nov 19. [19 November 1922] We had to dinner the policeman (Capt Cabot) whom I know and like, and Capt Gowan[?] (Arab Army, a particularly capable person) and the O.C. troops at Mosul [Mawsil, Al] whose name I'm blessed if I remember. And afterwards we played Bridge. My hostess, poor soul, is an exceptionally tiresome woman. She emits an avalanche of talk all about nothing at all.

So on Nov. 7 we made a fairly good start about 8, Major Wilson, Major Murray and I, driven by Capt Slater in our motor and Zaya and the luggage following. It was a delicious day and we a very cheerful party. An hour or two out we met Col. Dobbin with his ADC, Mr Renton and Col. Bentinck, a Guardsman and a charming man; I had not met Col. Dobbin before but I instantly laid my heart at his feet. He is an extremely nice man. Unfortunately he was the bringer of bad news - the battle was off! That the Turks meant to force the tribes to attack some time or other, he felt certain, but the tribes were reluctant and it would not move without much pressure. So we went on, presently joining the Zakho road, by which I had ridden in 1909, with the long rocky chain of hills to our right, up which the road abruptly turned into the Zakho pass. The hills were covered with oak scrub, the rocks a joy to eyes accustomed to gaze on mud only, and at the summit of the pass there opened before our delighted gaze the valley of the Khabur backed by the towers and ragged heights of the Kurdish mountains. Here we sat down and lunched, guarded by a party of mounted police sent up by the Qaimmaqam to patrol the pass while we journeyed over it. A little lower down the Qaimmaqam himself awaited us, Daud Beg, together with the Mayor, 'Abdullah Agha, chief of the local Kurdish tribe and a stout fellow. I had made acquaintance with him in Baghdad when he came down to the coronation, and as Major Murray transferred himself to the Qaimmaqam's motor, I took the Mayor in mine. Yes, he said, and his bright Kurdish eyes were not devoid of a twinkle, it was true the Turks were doing all they could, but with the aid of the Great Government and my special condescension - Moreover the Qaimmaqam certainly took it rather too heavily to heart. Zakho lies on an island encircled by the arm of the Khabur. We stood chatting on the old citadel walls above the river till I wandered off with Major Wilson to see the new suspension bridge he is building. There the Mayor joined me and led me on to his charming garden where we sat on a green sward under poplars till the others came.

Finally we went to tea with the Qaimmaqam and there the Mayor produced for us an Agha of the Shernakh, the group of chiftains away in the mountain towers across the Khabur whom the Turks are specially bent on hurling against the 'Iraq. He was brother in law to the Mayor; I liked him, he looked you in the face and grasped you strongly by the hand. His tale was this: the Turks were pressing them by all known means to attack Zakho before the conference met at Lausanne. The Shernakh Aghas, who have always been a thorn in their side, objected that the Zakho folk were their friends and relations and they had no desire to harm them. "Que Messieurs les assassins commencent" said they, or words to that effect. No, said the Turks; you must go first, but be sure we'll follow "to restore order." You see the game? The movement is to be represented as a spontaneous protest against British tyranny - what can the Turks do? They follow their secular habit and go in "to restore order."

Meantime the Qm was all of a twitter - obviously not the man for a frontier post. (He is going to be moved). Major Murray promised guns for the Levy camp above the town - they've now gone and I trust the Zakho valley reverberates with the sound of their practice. I've urged on Sir Percy that we shouldn't allow the Turks the advantageous position of heads I win and tails you lose, but that presently a message should be addressed to Khalid Agha and his Shernakh kinsmen declaring that we don't wish to harm them any more than they want to harm Zakho, but that we must regretfully inform them that if they come they'll have the warmest welcome they ever met with. The guns they've heard; the Levies are ready and behind them aeroplanes enough to obscure the light of the sun.

It was near sunset when we reached the Levy camp which lies in a cup on the top of the foothills with the British flag flying over it - the Levies are Imperial forces. 350 Assyrians, the very same that you saw at Ba'quba [Ba'qubah], saved from death by us and now guarding our furthest outpost. Smartly they came to the salute as we entered the camp; khaki clad, the meagrest of shorts revealing the finest pairs of mountaineers' legs, broad hatted, the brims cocked up with a white or a scarlet feather, they look for all the world like large sized Gurkhas. And in fighting quality they are not inferior. They have their wives and children with them, all living in well built huts, and four families to the hut. They don't mind. They are better fed than they ever were in their rugged hills, the children go to school - it's a sight to see them do physical drill under an Assyrian NCO who uses English words of command - and as for the men, they carry a fine rifle and they are being trained to fight the Turk and the Kurd, if necessary, whom of all other human creatures it's their greatest ambition to fight.

We went quickly to the flagpost to see the sun set. There, down the Khabur valley, where the Haizil Su [Hezil] joined it, we could see our last police post, and on the further bank of the Haizil the first Turkish guard house - so near we were.

I occupied the hut of our host, Capt Merry - well named he, a more simple, cheerful, self-reliant young officer you would go far to meet - luxuriously fitted with rugs and cushions, and a large bathroom attached. I availed myself of the bath before I went to the mess hut for dinner. We were waited on by four Assyrian boys, in full native dress - striped embroidered trousers, scarlet and yellow tassels flung over their shoulders under the white felt zouave jacket, white peaked caps with a white or scarlet feather at the side - they looked like friendly gnomes in a Grimm picture book. But through entirely satisfactory to the eye, they were the worst waiters possible, partly because they took themselves so terribly seriously. Hours of concentrated thought went to the laying of the table. It was this way: they brought in three lamps and placed them all askew; then they considered them attentively for a minute or two, shifted them a little more askew and considered them again. And [not] till they had got them right to the acme of wrongness were they satisfied. So with the knives and forks, the glasses, everything. And at the last the essential things were missing; we had no water till the pudding came and at breakfast no bread till we had eaten up all the innumerable other things. I dined and breakfasted, for my part in a fit of suppressed giggles.

Before we left next day, I inspected many of the huts - spotlessly clean and the women all dressed up in their best in anticipation of a visit, but their feathers are not so fine as those of the men. I went away much impressed. Truly we are remarkable people. We save from destruction remnants of oppressed nations, laboriously and expensively giving them sanitary accommodation, teaching their children, respecting their faiths, but all the time cursing at the trouble they're giving us - and they cursing us, not infrequently, for the trouble we're giving them with our meticulous regulations. And then behold, when left to themselves they flock to our standards, our Captain Merrys for their chosen leaders. Our regulations their decalogue - even the mysterious syllables "keeps firrrm [sic]" I've no doubt had some hieratic flavour for the children I saw doing physical excercises [sic] - and on all this we gaze without any amazement. It's the sort of thing that happens under the British flag - don't ask us why; we don't know.

On the way back we turned aside to the village of Dohuk [Dahuk] and in the valley met an Assyrian column tramping down over the hills from Amadiyah [(Amedi)] where they had been engaged on punitive operations connected with a Kurdish raid, inspired by the Turks, which had caused the death of some Christian villages. We sent up a Levy column and we summoned the friendly tribesmen, Assyrians and Kurds, and the raiders' villages went up in smoke. The column looked well pleased with itself.

At Dohuk we called on the darling old Kurdish Qaimmaqam who has a face like a Yorkshire farmer, and on the Assistant Advisor, Capt Alban, a gentleman I should judge to be difficult to fluster. After which we stopped at a spring under the Dohuk ridge and Major Wilson and I climbed up through oak scrub and rocks to see the 9th century Assyrian reliefs on the hillside. Fearfully steep it was to us unaccustomed to pulling ourselves up rocks, but well worth it, we agreed, as we lay gazing at the Kings and gods strangely mounted on wild beasts that walked in procession before us. With that we went down and lunched at the spring and got in to Mosul just before dark.

Next day was a Friday, Nov. 10. Nevertheless I found the Mutasarrif in his office (Mr Nalder's house) and held his hand for a little, after which Major Maclean and I motored across the river and wandered about the mounds of Ninevah [Nineveh]. In the afternoon the Mayor gave a tremendous teaparty for Major Murray and me at which we met all the respectabilities of Mosul. I dined that night with Major Maclean, Major Murray and Col. Bentinck - a very cheerful party. Major Maclean has a sad story. He was married to a nice [sic] of Lady Stuart of Wortley, a Millais, and she died shortly after the birth of a daughter leaving him inconsolable. She was a widow and she was with me at the Red X in London - a charming, attractive creature.

On Saturday, pursuing my scheme of being as much as possible out of doors, I spent the day motoring with Major Wilson over all the country between Mosul and the Zab [Zab, Great (Zei Badinan)] - he was inspecting roads and bridges. The Mutasarrif had a dinner party in the evening to which we went to meet the local officials - very well done.

Mosul is naturally much affected by the Turkish situation. Rumours that we shall hand it back to the Turks are causing much perturbation and no one dares to commit himself with such prospects in view. In the midst of this flux, the Qadhi is steadfast and the notables at his bidding avoid an unnecessary amount of wobbling.

On the 12th Major Wilson and I motored to Arbil [(Hawler)], lunching at the Zab crossing. Do you remember those huge mounds between the river and Arbil? At the largest of them we stopped, waded across a little stream and climbed to the top. As usual the Arabs had buried themselves all over the summit and each grave was marked by an Assyrian brick. So we set about to look for one with an inscription and at length he found one - a king's cartouche. I observed that Major Wilson had always remarked that Assyrian bricks were made that size because each one was a man's load and that the time had come to prove it. So we rifled the grave and he carried it down the mound. It was a man's load, sure enough. But now I hope we shall find out one at least of the kings who were busy there.

Capt Littledale, the policeman whom you know, and Capt Lyon, Assistant Advisor whom you don't know, made us very welcome in Major Hay's old house. For gallantry and humour they are a perfect pair and their tales of all their wars - we are never at peace on that frontier, thanks to the Turks, were inimitable. One of Capt Littledale's I've stored up for your special benefit. He was out on some expedition or other where an officer who was a great friend of his was killed. He was particularly anxious to conceal his grave so that it might not be dug up again, so he got a fatigue party to stamp down the earth, after which he sprinkled it with bits of straw and broken pots and made it look like all the rest of the ground round the village. Next out of the kindness of his heart, he wrote to the mother and told her her son had had a soldier's funeral, firing party and all the rest, and that he had erected a marble cross over the grave with a suitable inscription. She answered that he shouldn't have done anything of the kind - he was a Jew.

You note the delicacy of the situation. It was impossible for Capt Littledale to write and tell her there wasn't a cross.

I spent next morning talking to the Mutasarrif, Ahmad Effendi, who had some of the notables in to see me. Ahmad Eff. is one of the outstanding people of the country. A Turkoman of Arbil, he has worked loyally with us from the first and if the Turks came back he would have to leave the country. He is a well educated and exceptionally intelligent man with whom you talk as to one of ourselves. He has the division in the hollow of his hand, and if once the Turkish question is cleared up, he will guide it safely and easily into quiet waters. The outstanding fact at present is the appearance of Simko and Saiyid Taha. Simko is the Kurdish chieftain who has been unsuccessfully fighting the Persian and the Turk for Kurdish independence, and S. Taha is his henchman with a great deal of personal influence in Rawanduz [Rawandiz], where the Turks are at present. They have fled over the frontier to us and offered to turn the Turks out of Rawanduz where S. Taha would probably remain as Governor, Simko biding his time to make peace with the Persians and return to his own country. Rawanduz is well within the limits of the 'Iraq and the King has jumped at the suggestion. S. Taha was in Baghdad when I was at Arbil. He is going to have a detachment of Kurds and guns from the Arab army with aerial support from us and I strongly suspect that he will be as good as his word.

Ahmad Eff. is a cousin of Mulla Eff - you remember the charming old man who lives outside the town? We all went to tea with him that afternoon. He too is a staunch as steel. Next day, the 14th, Major Wilson and I motored to Kirkuk where I stayed with Mr Edmonds who is acting for the Adviser, Major Marshall. The latter is just going back after having had an operation for goitre in Baghdad - it's a mercy he has recovered. Mr Edmonds and Major Noel are to accompany S. Taha's expedition. The same house in Kirkuk that you remember. The Mayor and the Mutasarrif are both great friends of mine. They called on me the first evening and I returned their calls next day, besides visiting the Chaldaean Archbishop and the chief religious light of Islam, Muhammad 'Ali Talabani, the head of the Qadiriyah Takiyah. It's just the same story here as in Arbil - remove the Turkish doubt and the course is easy. The Mayor, Muhammad Effendi, intends to herd the division into the 'Iraq; as for forming part of an independent Kurdistan, they won't hear of it.

On the 15th I caught the train at Qaraghan and reached Baghdad on the 16th without incident, except that the train was some 6 hours late - you know our ways. I arrived to find a political crisis for which I was partly prepared by letter. The Naqib has at length resigned, and between ourselves it's full time, for the dear old thing is not capable of the activity which is at present necessary. Moreover it has happened quite simply and without anyone's feelings being hurt - the Cabinet has just died of inaction. So now they are busy Cabinet making as hard as they can go and with luck I think they may have a much stronger lot than before. This morning, being Sunday, most of the ex-Ministers and Ministers-to-be came to call, including Naji Suwaidi who is to go to the Interior, and Yasin Pasha who will be included somewhere. I hope he'll play straight but anyway I thought it a good sign that he should fly to see me. Mr Cornwallis dined with me the first night to tell me all that had happened and yesterday I saw the King at the races, but we talked mainly about my news from the north. He is, however, enchanted to be rid of the Naqib! Sir John Salmond also was there and General Bulfin who has been spending a week here finishing up Disposals. He came to tea today and sent you and Mother many messages. Nice man.

Tonight Sir Percy goes off to the Persian Gulf to meet Ibn Sa'ud - a long postponed conference which I hope will end in the conclusion of a satisfactory treaty between Najd [(Nejd)] and 'Iraq, but it's rather agitating to have Sir Percy away when so many things are happening. We've had however very reassuring telegrams from home about the attitude they are going to take up with the Turks in defence of the 'Iraq frontiers. I wonder if by any chance you saw Ja'far Pasha in London - he left while I was away or I would have sent you a letter by him.

So we too have emerged from our political crisis - I must say I'm glad that the present Cabinet has a substantial majority, for the reasons detailed in in my last letter. We haven't yet got all the particulars - I'm sorry that Edwin has lost his seat. He doesn't deserve it. But someday people will recognize that he laid the right foundations in India, as I believe. I really can't much pity Winston though he has put up a good fight for us here. For all that I've never really trusted him. What does seem to me surprising and alarming is that Labour on that programme should have got so many seats. I long for your comments.

Your last letter, begun in Paris, I found waiting for me. The tale about the Times is most interesting. Also Mother's letter of Oct 30, full of news of all kinds. If I had Salmon Reinach's address perhaps I would write to him, but I forget it.

The Kamalists, thank Heaven, seem to be going quite mad. Their action with regard to the Sultan is going to be of immense help to us here where it is already rousing great indignation. It is a comic position after all the pan Islamic agitation against us that the Khalif of Islam should be a fugitive in British territory! My visitors of this morning expressed the hope that we should send him to India to do a little propaganda in the other direction.



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