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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
Cox, Percy
Cornwallis, Ken
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Saud, Abdulaziz ibn
Sa'id, Nuri al-
Balfour, Arthur
Loraine, Percy
Haldane, Aylmer
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

Dec. 4. Baghdad Dearest Father. We are now seeing the air mail from its less agreeable aspects. It doesn't work in wet weather and consequently, though we succeeded in getting off our mail last week, in an interval when the aerodrome had got comparatively dry, they haven't been so fortunate from the other end, there has been no incoming mail for 3 weeks and no prospect of one as yet, for the rain continues and our world has vanished in mud. Whether we shall get our letters off on the 11th is very doubtful, but anyhow I write.
My last letter, the huge one about Kurdistan was dated Nov. 25, I think. It wasn't possible to do anything amusing last Sunday because of the mud, but Mr Thomson came to lunch and we walked a long way down the river afterwards, the sun having dried up the path on the embankment. On Monday 28th it rained again and it was through a very muddy universe that I went early on Tuesday morning to welcome the King on his return from Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An]. In spite of the mud and rain there were a good many people at the station but the train was three quarters of an hour late. However it was rather a good opportunity to see and talk to people. The Naqib always sends his eldest son, Saiyid Mahmud, to represent him on these occasions, the Ministers turn up, one or two of the Advisers and a ragtag and bobtail of Faisal's Syrian hangers on and extreme Nationalists of a measily kind. There are getting to be too many of the Syrian hangers on, I think. A new one has just arrived, Dr Qadri, the brother of one of the ADCs. He has been appointed personal physician to the King, a post he held in Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)]. The ADC is a merry, harmless little grig but the doctor I don't like; he has the reputation for being a mischievous intriguer and looks as though he could fill the rôle.

There had been a good deal of talk about a demonstration which was to be made at the station, speeches and petitions, asking for the immediate summoning of Congress and the freeing of Arab ministers and administrative officials from the control of British Advisers. Nothing came of it and though it was probably only idle gossip these two matters are occupying the public mind. Faisal privately doesn't want the Congress to be convened (it's duty is to draw up the organic law) until he has got the terms of the treaty satisfactorily settled and defined the respective responsibility of the British and Arab Govts. It's this question of responsibility which perturbs everyone; on it the position of the Advisors, and indeed most other things, rests. Roughly the skeleton of the problem is whether we can assume responsibility for {attack} defence if the country is attacked from without - ie by the Kamalists. If we can't, Faisal's contention is that he must be given a free hand to defend his country his own way, namely by rallying the spirit of nationalism round an independent Moslem king - but then he must be able to show that he really is independent, that is to say we must genuinely be advisors and the final decision must rest with the Arab Govt and with him. My own view is, as you know, that we can't excercise [sic] a compulsory veto because, when all's said and done, we haven't the means to compel. We must therefore always resort to persuasion and if that doesn't succeed all we can do is to go away. But we must be able to satisfy the League of Nations that we can fulfil the international obligations with which the mandate entrusts us, even if we drop the mandate and call it a treaty, that treaty must make certain reservations which the Arabs must accept. I think we shall have to go further in the direction of concession than HMG are prepared at present to contemplate. I doubt if the Arabs will accept the complete control of foreign relations and they will be encouraged in refusing to do so by the fact that the {USA} Americans, who have never recognized the mandate, are extremely eager to make a treaty of their own with the 'Iraq state by which they could make more profitable arrangements for themselves. Oil is the trouble, of course - detestable stuff!

The word Mandate produces much the same effect here as the word Protectorate did in Egypt. Fisher's declaration to the League of Nations that the Mandate represents our relations to the League while the treaty represents our relations to the Arab State has raised a minor hurricane. Even Faisal was taken aback - the Mandate, he understood, was to be dropped and here it was reappearing in another form. Dropped I expect it will have to be, just as the Protectorate was dropped, and I shall not wear mourning for it. What we must remember is that the more unable the Arabs really are to do without our guidance and control, the more their prickly honour takes offence at the presence of the word control in the political nomenclature, or of the word guidance if it means anything more than advice offered and freely accepted. I may mention that these reflections are all private but I would like you to show this letter to Domnul.

The Kirkuk deputation has arrived. They came straight to Sir Percy for his advice. He refused to give advice and told them that they were free to enter the Arab state or to hold on for a year and see if a Kurdish state developed, according to the treaty of Sèvres (NB, unratified and unratifiable) He recommended them, however, to go and talk to Faisal. They went and he has seen them several times. He told me that what they had said to him was that if a genuine native independent state were set up here, capable of carrying on the administration of the country, they thought their best interest was to join it, but if it was only to be a make believe under an ultimate British sovereignty they prefered to remain directly under that sovereignty and not approach it through more or less puppet Arab officials. Faisal thought this a reasonable position but he still believes that he can induce them to take a hand with him in organizing the native state and privately I hope he can. He asked me to tea on Thursday - he had asked one or two other people also but there was some mistake as to dates and they didn't turn up. So we had an hour's talk in which we covered a great deal of ground. But you mustn't think for a moment that I have any part in settling these problems. I know about them because Sir Percy tells them to me in outline but I'm merely an onlooker, and though Faisal is very affectionate and agreeable, he doesn't, quite rightly, consult me. I hadn't seen him for nearly 5 weeks, what with his being away and my being away, and I very carefully abstain from offering advice in matters the delicate manipulation of which had much better be left to Sir Percy. All I can do and all I try to do, is to give him as accurate an impression as I can of what people are saying and thinking.

I paid a long call on the Naqib on Wednesday - he is a person whom I love and admire more and more. His unbroken loyalty to Sir Percy is a very touching and beautiful thing. He has made up his mind that the future salvation of his country depends on the British Govt and he doesn't swerve a hairsbreadth from his determination to accept the policy laid down. He has also played a very fine and unselfseeking part in his relations to Faisal. He is so lame that he can't go and see the King as a Prime Minister should and the result is that he is left out of counsels when I think his advice would be valuable. Faisal who lives in an atmosphere of flattery, has been persuaded that a King ought not to go and visit his Prime Minister. I've done my best to counteract that idea, with Sir Percy's approval, and I rather hope that my representations are going to bear fruit.

Today being Sunday, and I imprisoned by mud, , advisor to the Mutasarrif of Baghdad and Major Wilkinson (Wireless) came to lunch. After which Taufiq Khalidi, a sensible intelligent man but not an ardent Nationalist, came to tea and on his heels Dr Maluf, an Egyptian who runs the medical side of the Arab Army. The last named is an interesting and enlightened man with whom one can talk about politics as one would talk to an Englishman. He speaks admirable English.

Dec. 5. [5 December 1921] We have had over 5 inches of rain in the last ten days and never in all my experience of Baghdad have I seen anything like the mud. I had a well spent morning at the office making out the southern desert frontier of the 'Iraq, with the help of a gentleman from Hail and of darling old Fahad Beg the paramount chief of the 'Anizah. The latter's Bellief in my knowledge of the desert makes me blush. When he was asked by Mr Cornwallis to define his tribal boundaries all he said was: "You ask the Khatun. She knows." In order to keep up this reputation for omniscience I've been careful to find out from Fahad all the wells claimed by the 'Anizah and from the Hail man all the wells claimed by the Shammar. One way and another, I think I've succeeded in compiling a reasonable frontier. The importance of the matter lies in the fact that Ibn Sa'ud has captured Hail and at the earliest possible opportunity Sir Percy wants to have a conference between him and Faisal to settle definitely what tribes and lands Bellong to the 'Iraq and what to Ibn Sa'ud. The conference will probably be at Kuwait [Al Kuwayt]; I do wish Sir Percy would take me too, but I can't see any reason why he should and of course I shall not suggest it. After office I plunged out through the mud - even in a motor it's no small adventure - to call on the Kiurkuk deputation. I met most of them in the house of 'Izzat Pasha, Minister of Public Works, who is a Kirkukli. We had a very friendly and cordial talk about all sorts of indifferent things, in the course of which I observed that Sidi Faisal had been much struck by the reasonableness of their attitude. They replied that he had been extremely gracious to them and we then went on to discuss the possibility - and advantages - of a peace with Turkey. When I went away, 'Izzat Pasha followed me out into the muddy lane and in a stage whisper observed "It is all going as you wish" which cryptic expression I hope may mean that Kirkuk is making up its mind to come in to the 'Iraq.

Today I have a letter from Mother dated Nov. 2. It's just as well that she didn't send it by air mail because, as I observed before, the airmail can't get here because of the mud. She and Elsa, from whom I have a letter of the same date, both make gloomy suggestions that all the banks are going to collapse and plunge us into bankruptcy. That would be very unpleasant, but meantime, as I can't do anything to prevent them, I shall, as Mr Balfour said about Eastern politics (absit omen!) turn my mind from these distressing possibilities! Sir Percy says that the bank rate has fallen recently, which looks as if money were more easily obtainable. I devoutly trust that may be so. But darling what chiefly disturbs me, is the thought that you must be terribly bothered at times, though at other times I hope that your wonderful courageous buyoyancy of temperament comes to the rescue. I should wish to add that my financial principles are based on the axiom that everything you do is the best that could possibly be done - much the same as Fahad's feeling about my knowledge of tribal frontiers but for much better reasons, I'm free to admit.

Dec. 6. [6 December 1921] Today the airmail arrived and I got letters from you and Mother dated Nov 17. I must say you both of you always leave me in breathless admiration at the variety and extent of your activities. Your account of you creeping about among the corpses of railway officials caused me much amusement, but what you say about currency leaves me gaping for though I enjoy reading it I don't really understand. As a comment on your remarks I observe in today's Reuters that the improvement in the mark has plunged many German banks into disaster. Another piece of news in the Reuters touches me more closely - the death of Fritz Jackson. I think of the good soul he was and feel very sorry. I must write to Tiny[?].
I'm much interested at the prospect of the Heart of Yorkshire being given in London. What a run it's having! As for auto-suggestion (this is in answer to Mother) I feel I'm the Geist der stets verneint. No, it hasn't come my way, but then I don't think it ever would for I expect I'm blind and deaf to things of that nature. The truth is they don't interest me. The results always seem to me to be so meagre. I think I can do better by seeking counsel with my own judgement, however infirm it may be, than by listening to the jejune advice from heaven knows where, for anyway it's probably only my own inclination indirectly transmitted to me.

Today I had to tea Sata' Beg al Hisri and his wife. He's a Syrian who was Faisal's Minister for Education in Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)]. I don't like him much, he's a dry little stick of a man and I think very prejudiced, but she is a perfectly lovely Turkish woman talking admirable English, having been educated at a Mission school in C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)]. Having been accustomed to the almost complete emancipation that Turkish women now enjoy there, she finds our Baghdad seclusion and the obligation to wear the veil extremely trying. What will come of it I wonder. I can't help feeling that the Young Arabs are busy pouring such very new wine into such very old bottles.

I then spent an hour listening to the woes of Mr Farrell, Director of Education, who has come into serious collision with his Minister, the only Shi'ah in the Cabinet. Poor Mr Farrell! what are you to do with a Minister of Education who when a Shi'ah student fails to pass an examination writes to the examiner and directs him to provide him with a diploma! I suppose he holds that there's neither ignorance nor wisdom but thinking makes it so. A thousand thanks to Mother for reminding me of Lord Melbourne's definition of life. I nearly quoted it to Mr Farrell this evening.

Did I tell you that Sir Percy is building an extra room onto my house? it's causing me acute discomfort at this moment but it will be a great blessing when finished. The plan is thus: [sketch of house layout] One of the joys of my new sitting room will be that it has a fireplace. My little sitting room at the opposite corner of the garden which I never use in winter normally (I'm using it now because of the mess the builders are making) I shall turn into a bachelor's flat, adding to it a tiny bathroom, so that I offer a lodging to Major Yetts or any other intimate friend when they come into Baghdad for a night or two.

I believe the workmen will be out of my dining room tomorrow - anyhow I hope they will for I've got a dinner party next day.

Dec. 8. [8 December 1921] Last night I dined with Sir Aylmer to meet Ja'far and Nuri and their wives! I doubted whether they would be bold enough to bring them, the wives I mean, but they were - it certainly is a great step forward. I had to do most of the entertaining of the ladies as only one of them can speak a little French and there was only one man there who could speak Arabic. However I think they liked it - they behaved perfectly, their complete absence of self-consciousness giving them a natural distinction which many greater ladies might envy.
Today Percy Loraine arrived on his way to Persia. After lunch he and I retired to my office and had a real good talk which was most refreshing. It's such a comfort to have someone of one's own kind who talks the same language - even if it's a tongue I've almost forgotten for want of practice. I came home at tea time to prepare for my own dinner party, the foundation of which was three of the Kirkuk delegates. I had just had time to get my room into some sort of order - not the new room but my old dining room which had all been repainted and rewhitewashed - when at 5.30 (the hour of the dinner party being 7.30) the first of my guests arrived! I entertained him with conversation for a solid hour after which, with many excuses, I went away to wash and dress. The other invites dropped in about 7, and finally my English colleague, Major Longrigg (you know him as P.O. Kirkuk) at the appointed hour - I had Fakhri Jamil and Abdul Majid Shawi (Mayor of Baghdad) to meet the three Kirkuklis, the last named as usual a tower of strength, always ready to fill up gaps in the conversation with anecdote and comment on the world in general. I think and hope my Kirkuklis were happy though they were rather on their best behaviour and one couldn't achieve the ready give and take of a purely Baghdadi party.

It's disgusting dank and dreary weather and I'm struggling with a cold on the chest which I've every hope of overcoming shortly but under the circumstances the effort of making conversation for 5 solid hours has been rather severe!

Darling I hope this letter will reach you about Christmas time and carry my love and good wishes to you and Mother and all my family. This is the 8th Christmas that I've been away. Ever your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

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