Request a high resolution copy

Diary entry by Gertrude Bell written for Charles Doughty-Wylie

Reference code
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 entry, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

March 26. [26 March 1914] Baghdad. But what days those were during which we rode up to Nejef [Najaf, An]! They were the only difficult days of the journey and I am prepared to swear on the book, the book most sacred to you, that the Ri'u deserve all the ill that is commonly said of them. On March 18 we set off gaily with 2 rafiqs - I must tell you we had all become the greatest friends over the camp fire after dinner. This particular sept was the Beni Hasan with one of whose shaikhs I had once travelled for 2 days before, in 1911. Well, we set off gaily, and rode all day and saw no one and camped khalawi, in emptiness. And all was well. So we rode for 2 hours next morning and then they sighted flocks and tents and were thrown into paroxysms of anxiety. For would it be one of the Ri'u clans who would kill them at sight (our rafiqs I mean) or again not? So we all waited in a hollow and they rode off to the tents to find out what men were there. Oh but I know these moments of waiting! we've done it so often. On a careful analysis of my feelings I have come to the conclusion that I'm afraid at these times. That must be fear, that little restiveness of the mind, like a very fresh horse that keeps on straining at the reins and then letting them go abruptly - you know the feeling in your hands, like an irregular pulse. One of my horses at home does it, a very mad one. And then the profound desire to be safely through the next hour! Yes, it's fear. What fun it is to write to you about it, but I expect you don't know the irregular pulse feeling in the mind. But what's very singular is that I don't really dislike it. I dislike it in a way, I suppose, because I wish it were over, and yet I find it `exciting. Everybody feels like that I imagine. Well, enough of fear. There was no reason for it that time. The rafiqs came back with 2 other horsemen. They were the Beni Salamah, closely allied to the B. Hasan, and they were to come on with us. For there was no doubt as to the sentiments of the B. Hasan; they were afraid and they were not enjoying it. They would not go on another step. We rode on with the B. Salamah men for about 6 hours, and then paff! we saw sheep. You don't think that was alarming? but they did - the men, not the sheep, were alarmed. For the previous hour they had been saying that they would not go on, that they could not possibly camp with us that night. "People we don't know" - the vague phrase which means in the desert yuth bahuna - they will slay us. "Yuth bahuna" they said when they saw the sheep. Should we camp, or should we go on and look for the tents? the question was settled by our sighting the tents quite close. They would be sure to see us; we must go on. You understand we were a very salient feature, we on camels, in a landscape composed otherwise solely of donkeys. For these 'Arab don't have camels; only the Bedu have camels. They have sheep and they carry their tents on donkeys. Seeing us they would take us for a small raiding party of Bedu, or a small party of merchants up from Hayyil [Hail], and in either case - yuth bahuna, if they could! (I love writing this silly story to you.) So then we persuaded one of our horsemen (he was rather reluctant) to ride up to the tents, and we followed slowly. I wasn't afraid that time; I was beginning to be bored. He alighted at the tent and engaged in conversation with the owner; when he saw that we at once proceeded to pitch tents. We were all right. He came back and said they were the Ghazalat. 'Ali and I looked at each other and Al hamdu lillah! we said. The Ghazalat are just as impish as the others - accursed of their two parents, all of them - but they are much more powerful, and if we were their guests and got a rafiq from them we were safe. And it turned out so. We got an excellent rafiq, Dawi was his name. He is rafiq to Ibn Rashid's caravans when they come to Nejef for rice, a well known man, grave and silent, with a grizzled beard and a wonderfully fine, clean cut face. We had found a pearl among swine, our usual good luck. But it was indeed good luck. We had come to the end of our water - this was the 5th night from water and we had been very sparing. I had had no bath and scarcely any washing - horrid, isn't it. Therefore we had to fill our water skins next day. We did so at some foul and stagnant pools in a small hollow bottom. And there we found 20 or 30 'Arab engaged in the same task. They would have stripped us to a certainty. They offered Dawi Pound £T30 if he leave us. He could not, of course; but I don't think he wished to leave us. Meantime these sons of the devil were all most merry with us and I photographed them and so on. We went on and saw no more people and camped alone. Next day the 21st, we dropped into the Derb Zubaidah, the high road in the desert up from Hayyil - it was the road I had wanted to take. I thought we really were safe then, but al khauf qarib, as they say - danger is always near. In the afternoon we met a great band of 'Arab coming up from Nejef - they had been buying provisions. In a moment we were surrounded. Stalwart devils, many of them green turbaned came up on every side, laid hold of our camels by the halters and would have couched them. The Dawi lifted up his voice: in a moment the face of things was changed. "Is that a Sayyid I see leading off the dulul" said he (it was one of our baggage camels) "amazing billah!" The Sayyid slunk off and we passed through. When we were well past them he said to 'Ali "They would have stripped you." "I have news of it" said Ali "Am I not a son of 'Iraq?" That was not quite the end. We turned off the high road for we were going to a place called 'Ain al Sayyid next day; and as we looked back we saw a large caravan behind us on the road we had left, and then we heard shooting in the big valley from which we had turned away, and then we saw men following us, galloping on donkeys. We hurried on. It grew near sunset. At last one of the donkey riders ("Like a horseman, wallahi!" and he did go fast) heaved up on the top of a neighbouring ridge. It was no good going on without knowing what they wanted of us; we dismounted Dawi, gave him a rifle, and sent him back to inquire. It was all right, as usual. It was they who were afraid; they thought us a ghazzu and they had sheep in the valley. The shots had been a feu de joie apparently, or so I made out; they may have been more. We camped; the men were not quite happy, but I was sleepy - we had had 11 hours that day - and I slept as soon as my head was on the pillow. If they were going to slay us in the night, why so it would be - nasib! But they didn't; no one came. We were about 3 hours from 'Ain al Sayyid and it is 6 from Nejef. 'Ain al Sayyid was once called Qarqisiyyeh - it was near this village that the riders of Islam defeated the Chosroes. He fled back broken to Ctesiphon, was defeated there again and so ended. At Qarqisiyyeh the history of the world was changed - I wanted to set eyes on the place. Besides there might be old ruins. I knew there was a village there and a castle of some kind. Soon we sighted it across that immense flat; we also saw flocks of sheep, but this time we paid no attemtion until a rifle bullet came whizzing actually between our camels' legs. We heard it with remarkable clearness. It came from one of the shepherds - exploratory, no doubt, rather than aimed in anger, but still disconcerting. Dawi couched his camel at once, lest a second bullet, better aimed, should come, took a rifle and ran out to expostulate and explain. There were two or three of them with the flocks; they looked rather sheepish themselves. 'Ali was very indignant. "Does an enemy come riding over the plain, on camels in broad daylight? no face of God; he creeps up the low ground by night. And if you were afraid the custom is to send a bullet over the heads of the riders, and see whether they are friends or foes - that is the custom." They admitted that they had broken the rules - I was sufficiently content that they had broken nothing else, a camel's leg, for instance. We were only shot at once more before we reached 'Ain al Sayyid, and that was from far off. But there was nothing there, a great spring, old village mounds, and a castle, no doubt on the old site, but itself built not more that two or three hundred years ago, as I should judge - I may say, as I know. I had meant not to go to Nejef but to ride straight up through the desert to Kerbela [Karbala] and touch civilization there, so avoiding the weary high road from Nejef to Kerbela. But my men were rather shaken by the experiences of the last few days, and there was no real reason for more desert, so I gave way. We turned to Nejef - we could see the golden dome glittering - agreeing to camp short of it. I have camped at Nejef before and it's not nice - there is no camping ground and it's alive with robbers. No camping ground near the town because of the graveyards. But there are no trees for the camels to eat for the last 3 hours into Nejef, so we camped at the limit of the trees, at 1 o'clock, in sabkha - you know sabkha? the salt ground in which palms grow. It was horrid, infested by sandflies, but I sat in anger (because of the sandflies) and wrote up notes and my diary for two hours - jotting down the headings of our adventures - and then it occurred to me to go and ask 'Ali if he thought we were safe camping there - he had chosen the place himself I must mention. And it turned out that he did not think we were safe at all - far from it. We were too near the road, and at night these accursed of their two parents would not know that we had Dawi with us, and in short his mind was very ill at ease. So after some talk - I, thinking it was silly to run the risk of a regrettable incident 3 hours out of Nejef, and for no reason (you see how prudent I am), hustled them out of camp. The dinner, which was cooked, was carried in our good pots, we packed and loaded in half an hour and off we set, with 11/4 hours before sunset. It was a preposterous episode, but Fattuh and 'Ali were deeply relieved at my decision. Just at sunset we came to a small village of wattle huts - felalih, cultivation. There were corn fields ahead and the inevitable irrigation canals, probably bridgeless, into which we should slip and founder at night - we turned off and camped near the village perfectly safe at last. Fattuh rose up soon after midnight, and with a guide rode a donkey back to Nejef to secure a carriage for me. I determined not to ride along the high road. We followed at dawn; the canals were difficult with camels but we reached Nejef safe and sound. And then no Fattuh! We searched and searched for him round the town. I went down into the bazaar, found out where he had hired the carriage and that he had gone off in it some time ago, searched again, went into the bazaar again (the people were all mighty civil) and finally learnt that he had gone to Masalla [Khan al Musalla], the first stage on the road. What his idea had been I have never been able to understand; it was all a micmac, but we had wasted 3 hot and weary hours over it. I bought oranges (oh the delicious fruit - I eat 6 running!) we mounted our camels and set off along the Masalla road. And an hour out we met Fattuh, hot and dirty, poor dear, and very anxious, walking back to look for us. He had left the carriage - it was a post carriage and supposed not to stop for God or man - at Masalla; whether it would wait he didn't know. It did wait. We reached Masalla at 1 o'clock - I had camped there 3 years ago and was greeted by many acquaintances. We bundled my personal baggage into the post cart and me after it, and off we jolted. It was 6 hours to Kerbela with 2 changes of horses. The gendarmes came up and chatted with us as we changed horses - each posting station is a nuqtah with 3 or 4 gendarmes. I could have fallen on their necks, the good jondurma - I was so much pleased to see them again. "Your 'Arab are accursed of their two parents" said I and they burst into the relation of their woes and difficulties. The knife, the rifle, the revolver, that was all these 'Arab thought of, and dib! dib! dib! - the popping of the rifle bullets, you understand - where were the days of Nazim Pasha! That's the ring of it in 'Iraq - where are the days of Nazim Pasha! The whole thing has fallen to pieces again, the tribes all out of hand, everyone armed - I saw them carrying rifles in the bazaar at Nejef. Turkey moves, but round and round, not forward and we have come to the dark side of the moon again. It's hopeless. They have just sent out a new Vali here, Jawid, perhaps you know him? a soldier - he is said to have been the only general who remained undefeated in the Balkan war. My own impression is that he has not laid and is not going to lay the fear of God on them. The Nejef post was robbed but a week or two ago and 4000 odd pounds of Govt. money taken - the Nejef post has not been robbed for ever so long before. And our dear little Indian vice consul at Kerbela - oh but I haven't got there yet. We reached Kerbela in the dark, after some trouble with irrigation canals (I thought we were going to spend the night in one of them). I left my baggage at the posting inn and went to Muhammad Hussain Khan - he was an old friend, I stayed with him once, before a nice man. He kept me to dinner (an excellent dinner he gave me) and I stayed talking till past 10 - the last lap was of Islam and their law and religion, very interesting. We talked in English - I hadn't heard English since Dec. 15. There were carriage difficulties too, which he arranged for me, God give him the reward! Our talk on religion opened by his saying he was coming to England on leave. "What will you do with your family?" said I. "Oh I shall leave them here" said he "and I shall probably divorce my wife before I leave." "!!!!" said I, or something of that nature. And then he told me his family difficulties - she was not a pleasant wife he said, and he had put up with her for 15 years and could stand it no longer. That led to a long talk and he said many sensible things but I don't think the Abp of York would see eye to eye with him. So perhaps he will be in search of a bride when he comes to England - I wish I could find him one, a pleasant one. I like the good little man. I got to bed long past 11 and got up at 2, for the post carriages start at 3. I was cross and sleepy and tired and very anxious for my letters - those dreadful anxieties that come out to meet you across the desert - and the wide Babylonian landscape seemed particularly desolate and monotonous - kharban, ruined, nothing left of all its great history and prosperity. We reached Baghdad at 1.30, Fattuh was with me of course, and I snapped at him, Heaven forgive me, being tired and anxious. I asked him to forgive me afterwards and explained how it had been. I went straight to the Residency and got my letters from Col. Erskine. Mrs E. is in bed with a wound in the leg - a fall she had 3 weeks ago. He didn't ask me to stay and I didn't mind, for I wanted to be in peace and read my letters and recover my temper. I read them all the evening till late at night, over and over again - such a pile there were of them and I had not had news for so long. You know the sad Lorimer tragedy? he shot himself by accident in Bushire [Bushehr]. They wouldn't have been here anyway; they had gone to Bushire. But, I am so sorry about it and I miss the dear Lorimers so much. Also Col. Erskine - I lunched with him yesterday and spent a long time with her in her bedroom - of course he knows nothing, having been here some 3 months only, or less. He wasn't even sure who Ibn Rashid was - how Mr Lorimer would have loved to hear my tales and what a great deal we would have unravelled together with the help of what I know! There it is! And the end of an adventure always leaves one with a feeling of disillusion - don't you know it? I try to school myself beforehand by reminding myself how I have looked forward and looked forward at other times to the end, and when it came have found it - just nothing. Dust and ashes in one's hand, dead bones that look as if they would never rise and dance - it's all just nothing and one turns away from it with a sigh and tries to fix one's eyes on to the new thing before one. That's how I felt when I came into Baghdad. And this adventure hasn't been successful either. I have not done what I meant to do. But I have got over that now, since yesterday. It's all one and I don't care. Already I want the next thing, whatever it may be - I've done with that. No, I suppose I haven't really done with it. I don't feel at all inclined now to write about it, but perhaps I am too near to it. Perhaps it will look better when it is a little further off and perhaps I may find things to say about it. I don't know. I think the only things that are worth saying are those that I can't say - my own self in it, how it looked to the eyes of the human being, weak and ignorant and wondering, weary and disappointed, who was in the midst of it. I can't say them because they are too intimate, and also because I haven't the skill. But perhaps after all I may write of it - if I do, will you send me back this little journal, lend it to me? It is yours if you care to have it, but it was written in the midst of it all, with an attempt to ...... the road to one who was only looking on it through my eyes and it may have things of the moment which remind and give the clue to me when I come back to those days afterwards. One doesn't put those things into one's own diary because one is not trying to draw the picture - it is there before one. Perhaps I shall not write - I don't know. Arabia Infelix? I wish I had seen more of it - that name would be too big for what I have to say. But I would like that name. - Well I'm glad I've unburdened my soul to you about the disillusionment that comes with ending. You know it, too, most certainly and you will understand. And I feel as if I had shaken it off now that I have told you it to you. The mail does not go till next week and I may hear local politics which are of interest, and then I'll write them here before this is posted. I've sent word to my native friends that I am here and I am going to see Meissner Pasha - he is here constructing the railway. The first thing I saw as I came into Baghdad was the railway station - it's the only thing that looks like going forward instead of round and round, and I am glad to see it. My camels won't come in till tomorrow. I have some arrangements to make about them and then I think I shall go to Babylon for a few days and stay with my dear Germans. Back to Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Shams, Damas)] across the Syrian Desert, travelling very light. I intend to send most of my baggage home by sea. I shall not go by the post road - post road no more, they don't send letters that way now - but by some other places I want to see. It's perfectly safe, the Syrian Desert - one can go where one likes if one has a man (as I have) who knows every creature that lives in it. 'Ali knows them all.

IIIF Manifest