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Letter from Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

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Bell, Sir Thomas Hugh Lowthian
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Person(s) mentioned
Cox, Percy
Churchill, Winston
Creation Date
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1 letter, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

Jan 3 Baghdad Dearest Father. I got back here on Dec 31 to find letters from you and Mother dated Nov 24. I don't suppose anyone ever had parents who are such good correspondents and I can't tell you how I love having all your letters. I'm not very happy about what you say of Elsa's slow recovery. [Deleted sentence.] I hope your next letters will give a better account of her. Here's Mrs Green's letter back, poor thing. When I read the Irish news I wonder we've the face to set up as a guide to anyone in statecraft or administration. As for statecraft I really think you might search our history from end to end without finding poorer masters of it than Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. But why did we put them where they are? it's our fault. No, no, you mustn't publish my interview with Saiyid Hasan al Sadr - it would make a terrible scandal for all the English papers are read here and everyone would know it was written by me.
The Ramadi [Ramadi, Ar] visit wasn't a great success, at least for some reason or other I didn't enjoy it much. Partly perhaps because the weather behaved badly. Capt Clayton and I motored over on the 26th - a gorgeous day, mild and sunny. Major Yetts put me up - he lives with all his staff in a native house, comfortable as native houses go but that's not saying much. The windows are unglazed so that you either have to shut the wooden shutters and sit in the dark or open them and sit in the cold. At night however we had a blazing fire and all sat round it. He has an extremely nice staff, particularly charming boys being Capt Carver, A.P.O., and Capt Williams, Levy officer, both very young and as eager about their work as they can be. It's all Dulaim country; the paramount shaikh, 'Ali Sulaiman, who has stood by us steadfastly all through the troubles and kept his tribe quiet, is an extremely capable, intelligent man. He is also very wealthy and is making a lot of money by building bazaars and a hotel in Ramadi and buying up garden property. He is much perturbed by the prospect of Arab Govt; he wants to invest his capital profitably and he fears that there won't be the necessary security. The next man in importance is Shaikh Mishhin, of whom I think even better than of 'Ali Sulaiman, but he is younger and hasn't the same influence. They've worked excellently together. Both of them came to call while we were having tea.

It rained in torrents that night but next day was sunny with a strong cold wind. It was far too deep in mud to do anything, but about 11 we got onto ponies, waded through the mud and went to lunch in Mishhin's tents on the other side of the river. There was an enormous tribal party in the big diwan tent, a huge 9-poled tent, but the food on these occasions is only palatable when you're half-famished. After lunch Mishhin took me to see the women in the other half of the tent; they are strictly secluded for the Dulaim have lost the free habit of the desert - they are not Beduin. There was one exception, however, Mishhin's aunt, Na'mah, who having never been married is allowed to go about as if she were a man. She returned my call that evening and suggested accompanying me to Baghdad. I prevaricated, I don't deny it, when questioned as to the date of my departure.

The big Dulaim chiefs who live in tents all the winter (only 'Ali Sulaiman lives in a house outside Ramadi) inhabit during the summer dwellings which are unknown elsewhere. They are called Sairab and they are, as you might say, the mud counterpart of a tent - a long narrow room with very thick mud walls, windowless, but low down in the north wall just where your head comes when you're sitting on the floor, a line of little openings made in patterns by the omission of mud bricks at regular intervals, so that the north wind blows in to cool you. Some square openings at the top of the wall take off the hot air and they say the room keeps wonderfully fresh. In the men's room the east end is left open and terminates in an open air diwan, a mud floor with a low wall round it, where they sit at night; but by day it can't be as cool as the women's room which is closed on all sides. No one builds these sairab but the Dulaim.

We meant to motor out next day to see some springs, about 40 miles west of Ramadi in the desert, which the shaikhs want to develop. Wizah the place is called, a curious underground spring - I passed it in 1914 and put it into the map. We started out about 7 with 'Ali Sulaiman, Mishhin and a Shammar shaikh, Fihran of the Sayih who was a guest of 'Ali's; and our guide was a son of Muhammad al 'Abdullah who rode with me in 1909 (the father did) when I was looking for Ukhaidhir [Ukhaydir]. We got out some 7 or 8 miles - it was bitter cold but delightful, with the Dulaim coming and going about their businesses and the gazelle and bustards similarly employed; and then the ground became too sodden, the clouds blew up and we decided we couldn't go further. So we returned dejectedly to Ramadi and having had some breakfast Major Yetts, Capt Clayton and I motored to Hit [(Is)] - bad going, but we got through. There we lodged in the office of the Arab DAPO, furnished with our camp beds and a couple of wooden benches. Hit, on its ancient mound with the pitch wells bubbling up round it, is like nothing else in Mesopotamia - but to me it's too full of the memory of rolicking journeys, of ghosts, which were once me, riding about on camels, before the world which was my world crashed together and foundered. I don't think I'll go there again. I don't like the look of those ghosts - they are too happy and confident. It's I who feel a ghost beside them.

We walked round the town in the afternoon and amused ourselves by setting one of the pitch wells alight. The gas laden water comes bubbling up, carrying with it writhing black snakes of pitch which form a crust on the pool. We threw in a lighted newspaper and the gas flamed and flickered over the bubbling pool, as if the water burned; then suddenly, after we had watched this devil's miracle for a long time, a thick pitch-snake struggled up, choked for a moment the bubbling water and gas, and the flame went out. Two boys were drawing off the pitch crust, twisting and breaking it off like toffee (a very difficult trick though it looks easy enough in their skilled hands - from father to son they've been at the job some 5000 years) and throwing it up to where a donkey stood waiting for his load. "It's hot" they said while our hell fire danced over the pool and the pitch crust.

At night we climbed up the steep town, which stands fortress-like on its mound - no doubt it was the ancient citadel as far back as history goes - till we reached the house of a big wig, Haji 'Ali, who had invited us to dinner. We sat on cushions against the wall, a brazier of charcoal heated the room, and the dinner was brought in on a great tray which was set on a wooden stool before us. The Qadhi came in and joined the party, an astute, turbanned [sic] gentleman. I tried to find out what his views were about the future but he was extremely non committal, little more coming to the surface than a deep mistrust of Baghdad politics and politicians.

North of Hit is no man's land. Since we withdrew the tribes rob and loot all passers by and each man's hand is against his neighbour. Emissaries of Mustafa Kamal drift down through this chaos and Hit has the whole unrest of Asia at its doors. Honestly I don't think the people of Hit like it. Since we occupied the place in 1918, they've had 2 years of security such as they've never known and you can see the results in acres of newly planted palm gardens. Three miles out in the desert, where the ruins of a big medieval town lie by a sulphur spring, they are sowing barley and planting date palms - the place probably fell into ruin a couple of hundred years ago when the Shammar Beduin swept up from Arabia with the 'Anazah at their heels, and since that time up to today I don't suppose that anyone has ventured to plant a palm tree at Ma'murah. How should they, when the tribes, like locusts, eat everything that grew? Major Yetts and I rode out there next morning (Capt Clayton having returned to Baghdad) to examine a very singular place which I found in 1909 - Maqlubah, you'll see a picture of it in Amurath. There are huge monoliths set up for no apparent reason in the hollows of a rocky mound. We took out some men with picks and spades and dug round the biggest stone - the one in my picture - but found no trace of construction and very little pottery, what there was was of the roughest wheel-made type and gave no indication of date. Oddly enough one piece we did find, a few inches below the surface of the desert. It was a perfect little double handled pot about 6 in high, covered with a coarse blue glaze. It certainly wasn't modern but it also wasn't ancient - it may have been two or three hundred years old. Who left it there, why it remained perfect under the inch or two of sand I can't guess. When the diggers found it they were much exited [sic] and began to sing an extemporized song as they dug deeper: "The Khatun will give a big bakhshish if we find anticas - the Khatun will give a big bakhshish" - but we didn't find any more. Maqlubah remains a mystery but we think it is probably a graveyard, the burial place of a town which stood two or three thousand years ago by the Ma'murah spring hard by.

The Qadhi entertained us to dinner that night, and next morning he came to see us while we were breakfasting and questioned me closely as to the coming elections for the National Congress - the only sign he gave of any interest in present politics.

We got back to Ramadi in time for lunch and in the afternoon I called on 'Ali Sulaiman and paid a visit on his wife, a very handsome woman who is an old friend of mine. I pitched my camp in the palm garden by the house in 1914. It rained heavily at night and Major Yetts and I had the devil's own time getting into Baghdad on the following day. Our trouble began after we had left the Euphrates at Fallujah [Fallujah, Al] and got back into the true Mesopotamian silt. The motors fell into morasses above the axels and twice we had to summon fatigue parties of Indian soldiers from the blockhouses along the railway to pull us out. At one moment in the afternoon I thought we should certainly spend the night in the desert - or at best behind the sandbags of a blockhouse. However we got in, after dusk, and I was so sleepy that I solved the problem of how to spend New Year's Eve in solitude by falling sound asleep at 9 o'clock.

Upon my soul I'm glad I don't know what this year is going to bring. I don't think I ever woke on a first of January with such feelings of apprehension. You can struggle through misfortune and failure when they approach you slowly - you see them coming from far off and gradually make up your mind to the inevitable. But if the future opened suddenly and you knew when you woke on the first of January all that lay before you it would be overwhelming. For the truth is there's little that promises well.

I feel convinced (this is all private) that if our military people would drop their extravagant war standard of expenditure we could keep the necessary troops here at far smaller cost. Think of it - we are still keeping up military labour corps for road mending and street watering which is all paid for by the British tax-payer when it ought to be done, if they can afford to do it, by Mesopotamian municipalities - if they can't afford it, they can't have it. Our electricity, even our milk and butter are provided by the British army, I've no doubt at a loss. They ought to be provided by private enterprize - at a profit. The whole organization of G.H.Q. is on a war basis - what need have they now, for instance, of an Intelligence Branch of 4 or 5 highly paid officers? It's a war need, not a peace need. And in point of fact they are doing work which need not be done at all and which they're doing - so far as I can judge - very ill. There dÇbouchÇd in my office the other day an innocent called, if I remember rightly, Frewen, a Major, recently added to I. Branch. He stated that he had been entrusted with the task of compiling a Gazetteer of Mesopotamia and as he had only been 3 months in the country he had come to me for information. Thereupon he produced and read out a series of questions which no one in this universe could have answered. They were either pure tosh or they were things that you can't know. What, said he, was Baghdad like in the time of Harun al Rashid? I don't know - nobody does. People have spent lifetimes of research in trying to form a vague picture of it but they haven't arrived at any real conclusion. Did I, he proceeded solemnly, think that the Turks were a Semitic race? That I could answer off hand, but imagine the state of mind of the man who asked the question! Then he tied himself up into the most inextricable knots over the ancient Chaldaeans (he hadn't a notion who they were) and the modern Chaldaean church which is merely the Roman Catholic branch of the Nestorians - it's the fancy name of a sect born of missionary enterprize. Finally I'm sorry to say I lost patience, said I was very busy and suggested that before he came to me he should read a few articles in the Encyclopaedia Britanica - and with that I bowed him out rather abruptly. But what I wish to point out is that you're paying for his researches. And for many like him, you may feel assured.

And the only scheme the W.O. can think of in order to cut short the expensive luxury of Frewens is wholey [sic] to abandon a country where we've destroyed the government - such as it was, but it was a government - which formerly existed and as yet set up nothing in its place, though we've solemnly vowed that we'll see them onto their feet and compromised every man in the country who honestly believed us - Thank heaven we have Sir Percy, with his authority and his amazing skill to uphold not only our national honour but our whole future relations with Asia (it's nothing less than that) but I don't know that even he can decapitate all the Frewens who stand across his path, not to speak of innumerable other impediments born of the general insanity of our Near Eastern policy -

I perceive that I'm not your daughter for nothing, for the only fitting end to this tirade is a "God bless my soul - how any sane" etc!

Today has been, and tomorrow will be days of wrath for we're moving the secretariat offices to the other side of the river. No one at this moment can find anything - not even a chair to sit on. They're all in midstream.

Dearest I'm at any rate your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

I do write long letters don't I! But Father, Ö propos of what I've just been saying, aren't fools damnable? It makes me quite furious to think of Major Frewen.

IIIF Manifest