Request a high resolution copy

Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother, Dame Florence Bell

There is currently no summary available for this item.
Reference code
Bell, Dame Florence Eveleen Eleanore
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Person(s) mentioned
Cecil, Robert
Richmond, Herbert
Balfour, Frank
Hussein, Abdullah bin al-
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Naji, Haji
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter plus envelope

33.315241, 44.3660671

March 14 Dearest Mother. I've telegraphed to you about the riding habit. It really is rather a tragedy. It was stupid of me not to write a clearer letter but as I've never in my life got anything but riding clothes from Busvine[?] (he's far too expensive for ordinary clothes) it didn't occur to me as possible that he should think I was ordering anything else. It would have paid me royally if dans le doute you had telegraphed to me at my expense, for I shall now have to pay some £16 for a coat and skirt I don't want and shall probably never wear. Added to which I shan't have the thin habit for weeks and weeks. However -
I've not got the telegram from Father yet announcing his arrival at Bombay. I'm glad it's not this week I was going to Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)] for I've had and have got an unspeakable cold, and feel as if my chest were a solid mass. I didn't make it any better by going to Kadhimain [(Al Kazimiyah)] yesterday and returning late, but the visit was worth making. I've been describing it to Lord Robert as a justification pro vita mea - he cast up against me my love for the horrible Easterns - so to save trouble I'll tell you the same story:

It's a problem here how to get into touch with the Shi'ahs, not the tribal people in the country; we're on intimate terms with all of them; but the grimly devout citizens of the holy towns and more especially the leaders of religious opinion, the mujtahids, who can loose and bind with a word by authority which rests on an intimate acquaintance with accumulated knowledge entirely irrelevent to human affairs and worthless in any branch of human activity. There they sit in an atmosphere which reeks of antiquity and is so thick with the dust of ages that you can't see through it - nor can they. And for the most part they are very hostile to us, a feeling we can't alter because it's so difficult to get at them. I'm speaking of the extremists among them; there are a few with whom we are on cordial relations. Until quite recently I've been wholly cut off from them because their tenets forbid them to look upon an unveiled woman and my tenets don't permit me to veil - I think I'm right there, for it would be a tacit admission of inferiority which would put our intercourse from the first out of focus. Nor is it any good trying to make friends through the women - if the women were allowed to see me they would veil before me as if I were a man. So you see I appear to be too female for one sex and too male for the other.

There's a group of these worthies in Kadhimain, the holy city 8 miles from Baghdad, bitterly pan-Islamic, anti-British et tout le bataclan. Chief among these are a family called Sadr, possibly more distinguished for religious learning than any other family in the whole Shi'ah world. A series of accidents led them to make advances to me, to which I replied that if they would like me to visit them I should be delighted to honour myself but that I wouldn't stand on the doorstep while they made up their mind because that wasn't a fitting place for a political officer. The upshot was that I went yesterday, accompanied by an advanced Shi'ah of Baghdad whom I knew well - I rather fancy he is secretly a free-thinker. We walked through the narrow crooked streets of Kadhimain and stopped before a small dark archway. He led the way along 50 yards of pitch-dark vaulted passage - what was over our heads I can't think - which landed us in the courtyard of the saiyid's house. It was old, at least a hundred years old, with beautiful old lattice work of wood closing the diwan on the upper floor. The rooms all opened onto the court - no windows onto the outer world - and the court was a pool of silence separated from the street by the 50 yards of mysterious masonry under which we had passed. Saiyid Hasan's son, Saiyid Muhammad, stood on the balcony to welcome us, black robed, black bearded and on his head the huge dark blue turban of the Mujtahid class. Saiyid Hasan sat inside, an imposing, even a formidable figure, with a white beard reaching half way down his chest and a turban a size larger than Saiyid Muhammad's. I sat down beside him on the carpet and after formal greetings he began to talk in the rolling periods of the learned man, the book-language which you never hear on the lips of others. Mujtahids usually have plenty to say - talking is their job; it saves the visitor trouble. We talked of the Sadr family in all its branches, Persian, Syrian and Mesopotamian; and then of books and of the collections of Arabic books in Cairo, London, Paris and Rome - he had all the library catalogues, and then of the climate of Samarra which he explained to me was much better than that of Baghdad because Samarra lies in the third climatic zone of the geographers - I need not say that's pure tosh. He talked with such vigour that his turban kept slipping foreward onto his eyebrows and he had to push it back impatiently onto the top of his head. And I said to myself "If only that great blue turban of yours would fall off and leave you sitting there with a bald head I should think you just like everyone else." But it didn't and I was acutely conscious of the fact that no woman before me had ever been invited to drink coffee with a mujtahid and listen to his discourse, and really anxious lest I shouldn't make a good impression.

So after about 3/4 of an hour I said I feared I must be troubling him and I would ask permission to take my leave. "No,no" he boomed out "we have set aside this afternoon for you." I felt pretty sure then that the visit was being a success and I stayed another hour. But I tackled this next hour with much more confidence. I said I wanted to tell him about Syria and told him all I knew down to the latest telegram which was that Faisal was to be crowned. "Over the whole of Syria to the sea?" he asked with a sudden interest. "No" I answered "the French stay in Beyrout [Beyrouth (Beirut)]." "Then it's no good" he replied and we discussed the matter in all its bearings. Then we talked of Bolshevism about which he was very sensible. He agreed that it was the child of poverty and hunger, "but" he added "all the world is poor and hungry since the war." I said that as far as I made out the Bolshevist idea was to sweep away all that ever had been and build afresh. "If what has been is bad?" he asked. I replied that I feared they didn't know the art of building. He approved that. Then as I made signs of going he said "It's well known that you are the most learned woman of your time and if any proof were needed it would be found in the fact that you wish to frequent the society of the learned. That's why you're here today." I murmured profound thanks for the privilege (with a backward glance at the third climatic zone and other points in the conversation) - and took my leave in the midst of a shower of invitations to come again as often as I liked.

On my way home I went to see Frank Balfour who was in bed with a touch of fever and heard from him the afternoon's news which was that Faisal had been crowned king of Syria and 'Abdullah king of the 'Iraq.

Well we are in for it and I think we shall need every scrap of personal influence and every hour of friendly intercourse we've ever had here in order to keep this country from falling into chaos. Even that afternoon's visit to Saiyid Hasan seemed providential. Today I've been to a luncheon party given by Haji Naji in his gardens to see the fruit blossom. He told me to invite the guests and I asked various generals and political officers and their wives. We had an extremely good lunch under flowering peach trees and Haji Naji was a perfect host.

Mrs Hambro is going home tomorrow for the summer. I'm very sorry she is going; she is a nice woman. She is coming to see you in London. Also I've told one of my nicest colleagues to go and see you, Major Yetts; he is going home on leave. He is an architect and an artist by origin but he has taken to political work like a duck to water. Elsa and Herbert would love him - will you introduce him to them? And I think Aunt Maisie would like him too.

Will you please tell darling Mrs Wilson that the yellow hollyhock seeds have come and I've sown them in my garden and in all the gardens of my Arab friends. I may mention I've got daffodils in flower - the first daffodils seen in Mesopotamia. Ever your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

IIIF Manifest