Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother Florence Bell, beginning on the 4th of February and ending on the 29th of March, 1914.
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Feb. 4. I have really delayed too long in beginning my next letter to you. Since I sent off the last by Sayyâh - I wonder if you will get it? - we have changed our plans several times, and I still hesitate to pronounce that we are really on the road to Nejd [Najd], though I think we are. At any rate we are in Arabia, in the very desert and no doubt about it. But you must hear. When it came to the point of leaving Harb's tents I found that the question of who was to serve as our new rafîq was by no means settled. On the contrary, all the Arabs and all my men were gathered round the camp fire, with faces the one longer than the other. It seemed that the desert before us, the way to Taimah [Tayma'], was khala, empty, ie there were no tribes camping in it. It would be, they all assured me, infested by ghazzus who would fall upon us by night and undoubtedly rob us if not worse. Whether this were true or no, I had no means of judging, but I take it to be against the rules of the game to persist in taking a road against which I am warned by all, and moreover there was the conclusive difficulty that we could get no rafîq to lead us along it. Therefore, after prolonged consultations, it was decided that we should strike east, go to Jof [Jawf, Al (Al Jauf)], throw ourselves on the kindness of the Ruwalla and make our way south if possible, and if not possible, east to Baghdad. We set out next morning with Harb's brother, Awwad as rafiq, for Jof and the Wadi Sirhân [Sirhan, Wadi] in pursuance of this plan. I did not add anything to my letter, though Sayyâh was not yet gone, because the future seemed so doubtful, and it was as well I did not. I should have said we were going to Jof and it would have been no truer than that our way lay to Taimah. Riding over the low hills - they were very delicious, full of herds of camels - we came presently to the big tent of 'Audeh, the great shaikh of the Howaitât. 'Audeh was away, as we knew, raiding the Shammar, but we stopped for coffee and photographs and then rode on east. But it happened that a man who was among the coffee drinkers had given Awwad the information that some of the Ruwalla were camped in the W. Sirhân. Now as any man of the Ruwalla whom he might chance to meet would cut his throat at sight, it was clear that he could not conduct us to the Wadi Sirhân, and I was again rafîq-less. I sent him off to the tents of Muhammad, 'Audeh's brother (he turned up in Harb's tents the first night we were there, if you remember - a formidable personage) to fetch a Sherâri of repute who had no blood feud with the Ruwalla, and we came into camp and waited results. He returned in an hour or two accompanied by Muhammad himself and several others who all stayed to dine and sleep. Muhammad brought me a lamb and a beautiful ostrich skin, and further, over the coffee cups, he told me of a ruin in the Jebel Tubaiq [Tubayq, At], which, if I would come back with him to his camp he would take me to see. Now I was very reluctant to turn back, but a ruin is a ruin, and moreover it is my job to determine what kind of ruin it may be. So next day we rode back with Muhammad, my men inclined to grumble, and I not a little inclined to doubt my own wisdom. We had got our Sherâri guide, Musuid[?], and might have gone on if we wanted. But after all I was right. In the first place the ruin was worth seeing. It is a halting place on the old N. and S. road of which Ba'ir is another station; it has a Kufic graffito and all complete. To get to it I rode 5 hours across the Jebel Tubaiq, saw and photographed a pre-Mohammadan High Place (so I take it to be) and got a far better idea of these exceedingly interesting hills. They are full of wild beauty and full of legend; they deserve a good month's study which I may perhaps give to them some day, and me such friends with the Howaitât. For I made great friends with Muhammad. He is a good fellow and I like him and trust him. In the 3 days I spent with him - one, indeed, and a long one, was spent in riding over the hills and back - I saw him dealing out justice and hospitality to his tribe and found both to be good. Of an evening we sat in his big tent - he is an important person, you understand - and I listened to the tales and the songs of the desert, the exploits of 'Audeh, who is one of the most famous raiders of these days, and romantic adventures of the princes of Nejd. Muhammad sat beside me on the rugs which were spread upon the clean soft sand, his great figure wrapped in a sheepskin cloak, and sometimes he puffed at his narghileh and listened to the talk, and sometimes he joined in, his black eyes flashing in question and answer. I watched it all and found much to look at. And then, long after dark, the nagas, the camel mothers, would come home with their calves and couch down in the sand outside the open tent. Muhammad got up, drew his robes about him, and went out into the night with a huge wooden bowl, which he brought back to me full to the brim of camels' milk, a most delectable drink. And I fancy that when you have drunk the milk of the naga over the camp fire of Abu Tayyi, you are baptised of the desert and there is no other salvation for you. I saw something of the women, too. Muhammad's wives and sister - yes, those were interesting days. They were prolonged beyond my intention for this reason. The day I visited the ruin we had sent our camels to water at a khabra and bring us water. You know what a khabra is? It is a rain pool. Now this khabra proved to be so far away that the camels took 15 hours on their way there and back, and one never came back at all. It sat down, and it wouldn't get up, and they left it 6 hours' away. That's what camels do, if they are tired and don't mean to move nothing in this world or the next will induce them to stir. It was clear that we could not abandon a camel. We despatched a man in the middle of the night to feed and fetch her and waited another day. During that day we changed all our plans once more. Muhammad al Ma'râwi came to me and said he thought if we went to Jof we should have great difficulty in getting on to Nejd, since the Ruwalla are foes of the Shammar. Moreover Masuid, our Sherâri rafîq, was prepared to take us south - to Taimah if we liked, or if we liked better, S.E. and direct to Nejd. The ghazzus, the perils, the rifle shots at night, seemed to have vanished into this air - I questioned Masuid very closely, made up my mind that the scheme was feasible and told my men that the less said about it the better. Nominally we were still going to Jof - one becomes very secretive in these countries. The camel messenger came back that night and reported that he had persuaded the camel to move on 3 hours - we did not mind her non appearance, for our new road lay in her direction. The real danger ahead, as I made out, was the lack of camel food. If we found no pasturage in the deserts to the south we had only 6 days' 'alîq with us - alîq is fodder; we should be faced by starvation for the camels and with I did not know what for us. But the reports, if they were to be believed, of the country ahead were good and as all other chances of getting to Nejd seemed so remote I resolved to take the risk. Muhammad gave us half a load of corn, his crowning act of hospitality - and I gave him a Zeiss glass in return for all his kindness. We set out and rode 3 hours to the southern edge of the Jebel Tubaiq, dropping down by a rocky gorge into the plain Bellow where we camped. Here we found our camel, more or less recovered and fit to go on next day. The "trees" were greening and there was plenty of good pasturage. Before us lay the country in which we now are a country of red sandstone and the resulting sand. But the early winter rains have been good and the sparse thorny bushes growing in the sand have sprouted into green, all the rain pools are full, and (so far) raiders non existent. We have with us not only our Sherâri rafiq, but still better a man to conduct us into the heart of the Shammar country - not a man, a family. We met them in our last Tubaiq camp, at the foot of the hills, a Shammar family who wanted to return to Nejd. Without us for company they would not dare to take this direct road, and we are no less grateful than they, for if we meet a Shammar ghazzu, we are guaranteed against them. So here we are, camped in red gold sand among broken hillocks of red sandstone, with all the desert shrubs grey green and some even adventuring into colourless pale flowers. They smell sweet and aromatic "Like amber" said 'Ali sniffing the wind as we came into camp this afternoon. And the camels have eaten their fill. We march slowly, for they eat as they go, but I don't mind. I never tire of looking at the red gold landscape and wondering at its amazing desolation. I like marching on through it and sometimes I wonder whether there is anywhere that I am at all anxious to reach.
Feb. 7. [7 February 1914] Three days' journey have not brought us along very far. There is such abundance of green shrubs and flowering weeds that the camels stop and graze as we go and yesterday we came into camp very early so as to give them a good feed. A day or two more of this sort of country will make a wonderful difference to them. Yet it is nothing but sand and sandstone, long barren hills and broken sandstone tells. But the early rains have been good and today there were places where the bare desert was like a garden. It is very delightful to see. Also the rain which fell upon us the day we left the J. Tubaiq [Tubayq, At] was very heavy over all this land. We find the sandstone hollows full of clear fresh rain water and scarcely trouble to fill our water skins, so plentiful is the supply each night. It is wonderfully fortunate. Yesterday we had an absurd adventure. Besides the Shammar family we have a couple of Sherârât tents with us, the people miserably poor (they seem to be kept from the ultimate starvation which must overtake them by small gifts of flour from us) possessing nothing but a few goats and the camels which carry them. These goats had gone on with their lord[?] before dawn; just before the sun rose, the Shammar and Sherarât followed on their camels and I went behind them on foot, for I wanted to take bearings from a little ridge ahead - we had been camping in a very shallow valley. Masuid was with me. We may have walked about 100 yards when all those in front of us turned round and hurried back to us. "They are afraid" said Masuid "They have seen an enemy." Ghâdi, the chief Shammari came riding up. "What is it? I asked "GÃ¬m" he answered - foes. "How many?" said I. "20 camel riders he answered and shouted to my men "To the valley, to the valley!" We couched all the camels behind the sand heaps and tamarisk bushes, got out our arms and waited. Nothing happened. Presently Ghâdi crept back to the ridge to scout. Still nothing happened. Then Fattuh, Masuid and I went across to the ridge and swept the world with my glasses. There was nothing. We waved to the others to come on and marching down the hills in complete security, came to the conclusion that the 20 camel riders could have been nothing but the Father of Goats who was found presently pasturing his innocent flock ahead of us. At night I announced that I intended to take a rafîq of the Beni Ma'az, the Goat Tribe, and this not very brilliant witticism threw the whole company round the coffee fire into convulsions of laughter.
Feb. 10. [10 February 1914] On Feb 8 we fell among thieves - worse than the goats. An hour or two after we had struck camp we met some of the Howaitât who told us that Sayyâh Shaikh of the Wadi Sulaimân was camped a few hours to the east. Since it was pretty certain that he would hear of our presence we thought it wiser to camp with him that night and take a rafiq from him - otherwise, you understand, he would probably have sent after us in the night and robbed us. He received us with all courtesy but it was only pretence. Presently the one eyed ruffian (God remove from him the other eye also!) came into our camp, examined all our possessions and asked for everything in turn. We thought at first to get off with the loss of a revolver, but it ended by my having to surrender my Zeiss glass also, to my infinite annoyance. He swore that no Christian had ever visited this country, and none should go, that he would send no rafiq with us so that he might be free to rob us, and finally he proposed to Sa'îd and Fattuh that they should aid him in killing me and share the spoil. He got no encouragement from them and I do not know whether any of the threats were more than words. I clung to my glass as long as I could, but when at last Sa'id, who knows the Arabs, advised me to yield lest things should take a worse turn, I gave way. We got our rafiq, Sayyah's cousin and are therefore assured against the "accursed of both parents." We took also two men of the Faqîr, another tribe whom we may meet. They are said to be still more unfortunate in their ancestry than the Wadi Sulaiman. One of their shaikhs was camping with Sayyâh and he sent his brother and another with us. This brother, Hâmid is a very pleasant fellow traveller and I have no fault to find with Sayyâh's cousin, Zayyid. But Sayyâh has a name for roguery. It was typical of him that he mulcted our Shammar companions of 3 mejidies before he would let them go on with us. They had no money and could not pay but Muhammad al Ma'râwi stood surety for them and I shall of course give them the ransom, poor souls. We had a very dull day's journey yesterday over rolling pebbly sand hills, nothing whatever to be seen - except that once we crossed the tracks of an ostrich. Today has been rather more varied, hills on which to take bearings; and we have come into camp in a valley bottom full of green plants for the camels. We have recovered from the depression into which Sayyâh's conduct threw us and we are in good hopes that we shall not meet any more shaikhs!
Feb. 12. [12 February 1914] We rode yesterday over a barren pebbly waste and came down through sand hills to a desolate low lying region wherein we found water pools. We watered our camels and filled our water skins and then turned our faces S.E. into the NefÃ±d [Nafud, An] which lay but an hour from us. The NefÃ±d is a great stretch of sand hills, 7 or 8 days' journey across. Our path lies through the S.W. corner and I am glad to see this famous wilderness of sand. It is the resort of all the tribes during the winter and spring when an abundance of vegetation springs from the warm sand, but there is no permanent water except in the extreme borders and in summer it is a blazing furnace. This is the right moment for it. All the plants are greening and putting forth such flower as they know how to produce and our camels eat the whole day as they march. But the going is very heavy - up and down endless ridges of soft pale yellow sand. Occasionally there are deep gulleys hollowed out by the wind and we make a long circuit to avoid them, and from time to time the sand is piled up into a high ridge or head, a ta's it is called in Arabic, which stands out yellow over the banks for its precipitous flanks are devoid of vegetation. Towards midday we came to a very high ta's and I climbed to the top and saw the hills near Taimah [Tayma'] to the west and the first of the mountains of Nejd [Najd] to the S.E, Jebel IrnÃ±n. When I came down Fattuh greeted me with the news that one of the camels had sat down and they could not make her stir. Muhammad, FellÃ±h and I went back with some food for her, thinking she might be weary with walking in the deep sand and that with food and coaxing we could get her on, but when we reached her we found her rolling in the sand in the death agony. Muhammad said "She is gone. Shall we sacrifice her?" I said "It were best." He drew his knife and said "In the name of God. God is most powerful." With that he cut her throat. She was, he explained, sick of a malady which comes with great suddenness. Fortunately she was one of the 3 weak animals which we have with us. I should have been been obliged to sell her at Hayyil [Hail] and she would not have fetched more than a pound or two. She is no great loss, as far as that goes; but I am deeply attached to all my camels and grieve over her death for reasons of sentiment.
Feb 15. [15 February 1914] We continue our peaceful course through the sands of the NefÃ±d [Nafud, An], for according to all the information which comes to us from the Arabs we meet encamped, it is the safest road and I, who am now so close to Hayyil [Hail], have no other desire but to get there without being stopped. We are now skirting within its southern border and from every sand hill top we see the mountains of Nejd [Najd]. Yesterday we camped early in order to water - we had seen no water since the khabra. The well, Haizân [Bir Hayzan], was an hour and a half from our camp and I rode down with the camels to see the watering. Wells are very scarce in the NefÃ±d; they are found only on its borders and they are very deep. Haizân lies at the bottom of a great depression enclosed by the steep sandbanks of the NefÃ±d. Our well rope was 48 paces long; we carried two stout sticks with us and a little wheel, with which we made a pulley for the rope. There was an Arab camp near ours and the shaikh, Sâlim, was there with some of his people, watering their camels. They used a pulley like ours. It was interesting to watch and I took a lot of photographs. There were some who objected at first to my photography and asked what it was for. I asked the Shammar with us - the 2 brothers who have come with us from the J. Tubaiq [Tubayq, At] - whether I ought to stop, but they said no, it didn't matter. And so I went on and no word was said. When you consider what a strange sight I must be to these people who have never seen a European, it is remarkable that they leave me so unmolested. Desert manners are good.
Feb. 19. [19 February 1914] Marching through the NefÃ±d [Nafud, An] is like marching through the Labyrinth. You are forever winding round deep sand pits, sometimes half a mile long with banks so steep that you cannot descend. They are mostly shaped like horseshoes and you wander along till you come to one end and then drop down into low ground, only to climb up anew. How one bears it I don't know - I should think that as the crow flies we barely covered a mile in an hour. But there is something pleasant about it too; the safe camping grounds among the sands, the abundance of pasture, the somnolent monotony. But we have done with it; we came out of it today. Two days ago we were held up by heavy rain. It began just as we broke up camp; we marched for 2 hours by which time all the men were wet through and I was far from dry. The clouds lay on top of the sand hills like a thick fog and at last my rafiq declared that he could see no landmarks and could not be sure of our direction. No Arabs march in rain and I had to give way. We pitched camp and dried ourselves at an immense wood fire. It rained and hailed and thundered most of the day and night and all the world rejoiced. "Today the shaikhs will sacrifice a camel" said my rafiq. "The camels will pasture in the NefÃ±d for 3 months after this rain. Last night we got to the first Shammar camp - the Shammar are the Arabs of Nejd [Najd] - and took as a rafiq the oldest and raggedest shaikh in the world. Beduin are not noted for strong and steady judgment, but he is one of the most bird-witted whom I have met. And this morning we reached the barren sandstone crags of Jebel Misma [Misma, Jibal], which bound here the Nefud, and passed beyond them into Nejd. As we topped the last sand bank the landscape which opened before us was more terrifyingly dead and empty than anything I have ever seen. The blackened rocks of Misma drop steeply on the E. side into a wilderness of ..... jagged peaks set in a bed of hard sand, and beyond and beyond stretches the vacant plain, untilled and unpeopled and scattered over with isolated towers and tables of sandstone. We have camped once more on the skirts of the NefÃ±d for the sake of the pasture and tomorrow we go down into the plain.
Sun. 22. [22 February 1914] It proved to be a very pleasant place, that dead country. The sandstone hollows were all full of water and there was plenty of pasturage. We marched gaily over a hard floor all day and camped in the midst of hills, on a sandy floor between high cliffs. We had some Shammar for neighbours about a mile away. Yesterday we had a dull journey over an interminable flat and up sandbanks to another hill camp, but this time high up in the heart of the little range. Somewhere in the sandbanks we passed the boundary between the sandstone country and the granite. I had noticed that the strange shapes of the sandstone hills were not to be seen before us and when we came to our camp in Jebel Rakhâm behold the rocks were granite. I climbed onto the top of one of the peaks and found flowers growing in the crevices, small white and purple weeds and thistles and a dwarf asphodel - not a great bounty, but it feasted the eyes in this bare land. And today we passed a tiny village with corn plots round it - the first houses we have seen since Ziza [Jiza] - there were only 6 or 7 of them. And thereafter we were overtaken again by the Nefud [Nafud, An], which puts out a long finger to the S. here, and marched by hollow ways of sand in a very hot sun. We are camped in sandhills today.
Feb. 24. [24 February 1914] We are camped within sight of Hayyil [Hail] and I might have ridden in today, but I thought it better to announce my coming and therefore I sent on Muhammad and Ali and have camped in the plain a couple of hours or so from the town. We finished with the NefÃ±d [Nafud, An], for good and all yesterday, and today we have been through a charming country - charming for Arabia - of great granite rocks and little plains with thorny accacia [sic] trees growing in them and very sweet scented desert plants. We passed a small village or two, mud houses set in palm gardens - all set round with a mud wall. It looks wonderfully settled and inhabited after weeks of desert. I hope the Hayyil people will be polite. The Amir is away raiding and an uncle of his is left in charge.