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Letter from Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

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Reference code
Bell, Sir Thomas Hugh Lowthian
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Person(s) mentioned
Askari, Ja'far al-
Suwaidi, Yusuf al-
Naqib, Talib al-
Cox, Percy
Philby, Harry St John
Eskell, Sassoon
Cox, Louisa Belle
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

Baghdad Dec 4 Dearest Father. I wish I kept a diary - if only the day were a few hours longer! My only record of this time is my letters to you, so I write in detail and you keep my letters I know. Saiyid Talib's pranks are the chief interest. I told you about his resignation and its withdrawal. It's sole object was to curry favour with the nationalists. He showed his hand clearly in an interview with the editor of the extremist paper, the Istiqlal {(Liberty)} (Independence) which appeared after he had withdrawn his resignation. He said he had watched public opinion closely and come to the conclusion that it was against the present Cabinet. For his part he had put forward a series of demands to be made from Sir Percy by the Council. They included the return of all deportees and refugees, greater freedom of action for Ministers etc. It had not been favourably received by his colleagues and he had felt it his duty as a patriot to resign. He hoped all those on the Council will follow his example if they loved their country, and he darkly hinted that if the Council accepted his scheme he might reconsider the position. It was all a tissue of misrepresentations. The matter of the deportees is being considered between Sir P. and the Council and Sir P. has already agreed to the return of some of them. As S.T. well knew, Sir Percy has been telegraphing home urging the instant repatriation of the Iraqi officers in Syria. And as for the ministers Sir Percy himself has asked the Council to consider their functions. The truth is, as I think Sir Percy intends to tell the Naqib, S.T. is working for the fall of this Govt. And there is no doubt that by his manoevres he has improved his position with the Young Arabs who up to now have loathed him. It falls to me to support and comfort Sasun Eff and Abdul Majid Shawi, for both of whom I have the deepest regard. They are the only two who really stand out against S.T. on the Council. I think I have convinced them that though it is not our business to decide what form of Govt they ultimately want, it is very much our business to see that the decision is a genuine one, not influenced by the intrigue of anyone. Saiyid Husain Afnan, who is now secretary to the Council, shakes his head and says that Talib has spent 30 years outwitting the astutest Turkish officials and he knows every turn of the game. But for all that I don't believe he will succeed. Ja'far Pasha is at present playing in with him but I had formed the conviction that he was only doing it till he finds his feet and above all till he gets some of the Syrian Iraqis back to help him, and that view was confirmed today by Abdal Majid, who told me, in the deepest confidence that Ja'far had come to him and said he wanted his help and support, that they both had the same views and must be friends and allies. That's the right combination and I'm glad it's coming about. Meantime they've appointed Rashid al Khojah (vide my last letter) Mutasarrif of Baghdad province which is a step in the right direction and will help Ja'far. He is a rogue, Talib. If they elect him Amir all I can say is they've got what they deserve. But they won't. One of the points in his memorandum to the Council was that a Commission from the Council should be sent to Najaf [Najaf, An] and the Euphrates generally to put up a scheme for the administration of those parts. Sir Percy on the same day had written the same proposal to the Council and they've appointed a Commission, consisting of Ja'far and the two tribal shaikhs, 'Ajil and Muhammad Saihud of the Bani Rabi'ah (both on the Council) It's very good. It was also pure lies when Talib said his colleagues had turned his programme down. He had submitted it to the Naqib only, who, very properly, said he must have a little time to think it over. Meantime the Cabinet crisis being happily terminated (and the article in the Istiqlal having not yet come out) we all dined with Talib last Tuesday, the Coxes, Sir Edgar, the Philbys, Mr Garbett, Ja'far, Sasun, Saiyid Daud (the Naqib's cousin) Saiyid Muhi al Din (the Naqib's son) Ahmad Pasha of Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)] and I. It was extremely pleasant. I sat on Talib's left with Muhi al Din, whom I like very much, next me, and Ja'far opposite. Talib had been warned by Husain Afnan (who was also there) not to talk politics and we never touched on any difficult question. We had a very merry talk at dinner, at my end of the table, about such things as the Arabic language, plants and fruits and tribes. Ja'far is a tower of strength on these occasions and Sir Percy beamed and joined in occasionally. After dinner I sat in a corner with old Ahmad Pasha, who is a very sound man; Ja'far joined us and we made Ahmad Pasha talk about date growing and selling, about which no one knows more than he. I was delighted with Ja'far for coming and taking trouble with him and I hope it will help him to think that Baghdad is not as black as he had painted it. He is going to be Mutasarrif of Basrah. Ja'far had come to me the previous morning to ask me what I thought was at the back of Talib's resignation. I gave him my frank opinion, in which he concurred. Sasun Eff. joined us and I told them both what I thought, without making them give themselves away in each other's presence. For they don't yet quite trust one another. Ahmad Pasha and 'Abdul Majid Shawi came to tea on Thursday. We talked of the pro-Bolshevism of the Istiqlal which they both strongly condemned. Next day Mrs Philby and I went to tea with Saiyid Muhi al Din in his garden - you remember, where we went with Mrs Howell. Saiyid M. opened out and said Islam and Bolshevism would never combine and for his part he thought the fall of Venezelos would remove the reason for the alliance and that we should see the Turkish nationalists shake off the Bolshevists. It's exactly what I hope and think and I'm glad that idea is getting about. I never heard Saiyid M. talk so freely; he is usually extremely cautious and rarely expresses an opinion. The garden was looking lovely, with all the orange, lemon and citron trees weighed down with fruit. We brought away a huge basket full. I've also had a morning visit from a very interesting man, Saiyid Mhd Ridha Shabibi. I knew him in 1918, and then he suddenly went off in a huff (I never knew why) to the Hijaz and Syria, where he wrote very violent anti-British articles in the local press - condemning the way we were governing this country. He came back this week and at once sent me word that he wanted to come and see me. I fancy he has been much disappointed at the way the Syrians have settled down under the French - his condemnation of them was the first real testimony I've had to the success the French are having, which seems to be greater than I thought. Anyhow Mhd Ridha has come back saying he is determined that what we're now doing here is right, and that the only hope for the country is an Arab Govt under the British mandate. He is a well-known man with a very brilliant pen; we had a heart to heart talk and I've asked him to dine to meet Mr Philby and Capt Clayton, at which he was delighted. If he will honestly work with us, at the risk of being called an Englishman by the hotheads, I fancy he may be very valuable. The transparent honesty of Sir Percy's line of conduct is what helps one in dealing with nationalists of this stamp - if I'm right in thinking Mhd Ridha to be of this stamp. We get rumours of Arab nationalist combination against us, the Hijaz, Ibn Rashid and the remnants of the Syrian party; and of Turco-Arab threats from the north, whither all the leaders of the rising here have fled (Yusuf Suwaidi et Cie), but if we can keep Mesopotamia steady, I'm not afraid of them. And I've a feeling we can. Sunday Dec. 5. [5 December 1920] Yesterday afternoon I rode out to Kadhimain [(Al Kazimiyah)], to see an old Persian princess, Banu Ozma is her title, and she is a daughter of Nasr al Din Shah. Hamid Khan (a cousin of the Agha Khan and her invaluable Political Assistant at Najaf met me at the entrance of the town and took me to her house. Hamid Khan talks excellent English so that when he occasionally makes a slip it sounds particularly comic. As for instance when [he] asked me whether I had seen the daughter of so and so and added "She is my nephew." Banu Ozma has bought a house at Najaf in anticipation of dying and being buried there. She has come to Kadhimain on a visit and has hired a small house. There I found her in a little room opening onto the courtyard, carpeted, cushioned and curtained to keep out the cold. A charcoal brazier and a parrot in a cage completed the furniture. She was lying on a mattress on the floor, leaning against cushions and covered with a wadded quilt. What you could see of her was swathed in black, down to her eyebrows and up to her chin. All that was visible were delicate voluble hands and a finely cut face with enormous eyes behind spectacles. She must at one time have been very beautiful; the Kajar women are famous for their looks. She lay there and talked the most exquisite Persian, quick and sweet and faint, like the shadow of a wonderful voice. Hamid Khan helped me out and found the word I wanted (often enough) when I was looking for it. She told me how infernal she found Mesopotamia after her lovely gardens at Isfahan [Esfahan] and how she had nearly died of the heat. And then we talked of her design to endow a hospital at Najaf and of her rogues of sons who are trying to sieze her property. She is an intrepid woman, holds her own against her men folk and goes about in Najaf scarcely veiled. She told me she was very lonely and asked me to come and see her again, which I shall certainly do. Meantime she is suffering from rheumatism and wants to go into our civil hospital. I hope I have arranged the matter for her. These old Kajar princesses who turn up from time to time, mostly on pilgrimage, are extraordinarily interesting. They are such great ladies and such remarkable personalities, but Banu Ozma is the one I've liked far the best. I think I never saw greater native distinction than in that little old Persian lady lying on the floor. Capt Clayton, and I dined with the Tods to meet Sasun Eff and Ja'far Pasha. It was very merry. I sat by Sasun and he, Mr Tod and I had a most interesting talk about Turkey. I asked Sasun what he thought of Enver; he described him as a brilliant military leader, perfectly fearless but of no intellectual worth. It was Enver's conviction that Germany was bound to win, said Sasun, which brought Turkey into the war, and up to Sep 1918, when victory was in our hands, he was still convinced that Germany would end as conqueror. After dinner I had a long talk with Ja'far about the native army. He has said from the first that he could do nothing without some form of conscription; he relies entirely on townsmen - tribesmen he declares to be valueless for regular forces. He is very eager to get the Syrian road open with the help of Arab gendarmerie. The French have more or less guaranteed it from Aleppo [Halab] to Dair [Dayr az Zawr]. I told him that Capt Clayton and I thought of going to Ramadi [Ramadi, Ar] for Xmas. "I come too" said Ja'far firmly - we were speaking English which he likes because it gives him practice, though I infinitely prefer his particularly vivid Arabic. I said I feared we might have to go before he got back from his Najaf mission. "I come after" he replied. I hope he will - it would be the greatest fun to have him and see him at his job, and I'm sure our host, Major Yetts (P.O.) would love to have him. And today we went out shooting beyond Aqar Kuf, Capt Clayton, Capt Cheesman, , Saiyid Husain Afnan and I. It was a glorious day, being cold air and hot sun. We tramped through some very boggy cultivation Bellonging to the Bani Tamin - the barley was coming up in little matted plants between the desert thorns; one wonders how it manages to come up at all. Then we lunched by the little canal the B. Tamin have dug recently - it's water from Euphrates - and it happened to be just the time the sand grouse were lunching too, and great flocks of them came flying over our head and the men got 8 or 9 brace. We stopped at Aqar Quf on the way back and climbed up to the Zigurrat [sic]. The desert looked amazingly lovely in the brilliant afternoon light - an enigmatic place, isn't it, that capital in the midst of a wilderness. It has been bitterly cold this week, hard frost every night and the temp down to 24¯. The Coxes' move into their new house has been delayed by the bursting of frozen pipes, a thing you wouldn't expect in Baghdad. I find oil stoves are insufficient means of keeping out frost and shall be glad when it's a little warmer. But it's good for one all the same. Dec. 7. [7 December 1920] I'm staying at home today with a cold in the head. It's so impossible to keep warm in the office and I hope a day off may cure me. Ever your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

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