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Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother, Dame Florence Bell

Letter from Gertrude Bell to her stepmother Florence Bell, written over the course of several days from the 14th to the 16th of February, 1920.

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Reference code
Bell, Dame Florence Eveleen Eleanore
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Person(s) mentioned
Naji, Haji
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter plus envelope
Iraq ยป Baghdad

33.315241, 44.3660671

Baghdad Feb. 14 Dearest Mother. I had a really delightful 3 days in Hillah [Hillah, Al] where I arrived feeling half dead and recovered steadily. I was staying with the Political Officer Major Tyler, and all his staff, some 10 young men; great fun it was. I arrived at lunchtime and spent the afternoon half in sleeping and half in talking to Major Tyler about local affairs. He is admirably wise and of excellent counsel. Next day we started early in the morning and motored to Tuwairij [Hindiyah, Al (Tuwayrij)] on the western branch of the Euphrates. There we took horses and accompanied by a few young men, rode out nearly to Karbala, cantering through the nice fields and jumping the irrigation channels. Every now and then we passed through a tiny reed village with palm trees growing about it. It has been so bitterly cold this winter, also rainless, that almost nothing has begun to grow, but cold and drought can't prevent the geranium family from doing their valiant part towards gladdening the world's surface, and sure enough, there were the tiny purple flowers by every runnel. Our job was to inspect the first beginnings of the land survey, the agrarian settlement which lies at the root of all our tribal problems - a gigantic task it's going to be but if we get it done right it will mean agrarian peace for ever and a day. So we met the surveyors and looked at maps and boundary marks - heaps of earth in this country, not stones, for there are none. And then we rode back and half way stopped and lunched at the mudhif of the chief shaikh of the district. He had gathered in representatives of all neighbouring tribes concerned in the settlement, but being a poor man he had let it be understood that he intended to provide only for us and the Bani Hasan, his nearest neighbours. So when our great tray of foods had been set before us another was laid in the end of the mudhif and the Bani Hasan summoned to it - the rest of the company contented themselves with cigarettes and coffee. After lunch there was a great talk - this is how business is conducted in the provinces and there's no better council chamber than a shaikh's mudhif. I must tell you that before 1917 this part of the world had almost gone out of cultivation for lack of irrigation. It was we who brought the water and gradually the whole country is coming back to life. The talk was largely about the remittance of taxation. "Sahib" said one of the shaikhs "only for two years have we eaten bread." He stood up and held the edge of his cloak open to show us how little it contained. "That's true" agreed the rest. "Only for 2 years, with the help of the government." It was a delightful scene. Our host had fought against us at Kut [Kut, Al (Kut al Imara)]], having mobilized his tribe at the order of the Turks. "What was it like" I asked "when you fought with the Turks?" "Khatun" he replied solemnly (that's what they call me - Madam) "we had nothing to eat. Mind you they had plenty, but they gave us nothing." "Did you fight hungry?" I asked. "Wallahi, no" he answered. "We returned home."
Next day Major Tyler and I motored to Diwaniyah [Diwaniyah, Ad]. I hadn't been there for 2 years and I shouldn't have known the place again. Clean and tidy, with widened streets and a good hospital - it was a miracle. So was Hillah which I spent the following morning in inspecting, after a couple of hours' talk with the two leading inhabitants. School, hospital, gaol, bazaars - like a rose as we say in Arabic. And I remember it in the time of the Turks, the dirtiest old ruin heap in Mesopotamia. The last part of my experiences was not so fortunate. I got into the train at 4 p.m. expecting to be back in Baghdad for dinner, the engine broke down (as it frequently does, for our rolling stock is all worn out) and I reached home at precisely 9 a.m. having had nothing to eat since the previous day's lunch.

That afternoon I had a great function at the Civil Hospital where we've just opened a female ward. I asked the leading ladies of Baghdad to a tea party there; they came in flocks and after tea I made them a speech explaining the advantages of good treatment in hospital - especially when you're having a baby - after which we showed them round. It was a real success and I hope it may lead to considerable developments, with which I'm now busy. One of the doctors has been dining with me this evening and we've been laying plans. I've been to two Mohammadan tea parties this week and I do feel as if we were beginning to get hold of the women. They say constantly "Before you came we never did these things" and I believe it's true. Some of them are real friends and the affectionate welcome they give you is delightful.

But today I had a half holiday. There were races to which everyone went but me. I thought I could amuse myself better. It was the first pleasant day after 3 weeks of bitter cold winds. So I got onto my pony and rode out to Haji Naji who showed me the earliest apricot tree in Mesopotamia - at any rate it was the only one in flower - and then gave me a huge tea while we talked of the weather and the crops and of Syria and Dair al Zor [Dayr az Zawr], and other matters - including my new hospital scheme of which he warmly approved. My big grey hound rides with me now and follows beautifully; next week I shall take out the two greyhounds together.

My furniture and crockery arrived 3 days ago - having left England in Oct. Don't send anything to me except by post. It takes 4 months on the way. By the bye did two muslin gowns arrive from Baghdad after I had left England? If they did will you post them back to me, if you haven't already done so?

I forgot to tell you that I had already paid all the bills you sent me, but you see the post takes a month.

No mail this week. Would you please tell Smith and Sons to stop sending the Spectator which I really can't bear any longer and send me the New Statesman instead.

Feb. 16 [16 February 1920] Your letter of Jan. 14 just received - thank you so much for your arrangements about the linen. Your affectionate daughter Gertrude

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