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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
Suwaidi, Yusuf al-
Suwaydi, Naji al-
Cox, Percy
Cornwallis, Ken
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Philby, Harry St John
Saud, Abdulaziz ibn
Haldane, Aylmer
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

Baghdad Thursday July 7 Dearest Father. I must begin my weekly letter today, otherwise I shall have far too much to say all at once. On Monday morning a decisive thing happened. Mr Philby, who had been sick of a fever at Hillah [Hillah, Al], came back on Sunday night and interviewed Sir Percy the following morning. Sir Percy told him to hand over to Mr Thomson. It's a real tragedy, his dismissal, but he has no one but himself to thank. Sir Percy has given him a very long rope. He sent him down to Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)] to meet Faisal in the hope that the two would come to terms. Mr Philby did nothing but insist on the merits of Ibn Sa'ud and on his own conviction that a republic was what the 'Iraq wanted. He told the Advisor at Hillah, Major Dickson, to carry on with a projected tour, so that Major Dickson was not at Hillah when Faisal passed through. Major Dickson has been here since and has made his peace with Faisal. It is difficult to tell what spirit of evil has taken hold of Mr Philby but the net result is that he has been thoroughly disloyal to his Chief and disobedient to the orders of his Government. Sir Percy, who never hesitates in what he thinks to be his duty, has cut the knot in the only possible way. I am, nevertheless, very very sorry. On Tuesday I went to see them in order to tell them so and had a most painful interview. She burst into tears, accused me of having been the cause of her husband's dismissal and went out of the room. I then reminded him of our long friendship and asked him to believe that I had done all I could to persuade him that no government servant can profit by running counter to orders. He talked very wildly, indeed the utmost tosh. He said "You've won this time, but we shall still meet at Philippi." I assured him he was mistaken as regards Philippi because I should make a point of not being there, and as for winning, the policy of H.M.G. had won as it always would. After that it wasn't any good continuing the conversation, so I went away. I don't know what they are going to do. They talk of going to Kermanshah [Bakhtaran] for the summer. I wish them well, but I know he will never make a success of anything. He is too obstinately convinced that there is no point of view but his own. How he could embrace the cause of that rogue Talib passes all belief but he had identified himself with him and since his removal he has been spinning a bad cotton. Faisal and Talib are the light and darkness, and only one who is blind can fail to detect the difference.
Meantime on that same Monday morning I was having a crucial interview. The leading Christian here, 'Abdul Jabbar Pasha, came in with the Mutasarrif and Naji Suwaidi to urge that once Faisal had come we couldn't afford to wait for elections and must resort to a Referendum to place him on the throne. Abdul Jabbar is a member of the Council. We were all fully aware of this, indeed Faisal had talked of it when I saw him on Saturday, but he added that the one thing he feared was a coup d'état and we must continue to make the proceedings as constitutional as we could. The only show of Arab Govt is the Naqib in Council, though they are merely an apparition created by Sir Percy. Still the next move must come through them. Accordingly Sir Percy saw the Naqib and it has been arranged that the Council shall ask him how soon the elections can take place, since there is obviously urgent need to come to a settlement. Sir Percy has ascertained that we can't get the registration of electors through under 2 months, which is longer than we can afford. He will therefore reply in that sense to the Council, but add that if the Council approves we can resort to a {Referendum} speedier process. It will then, to put it quite baldly, be up to us to rig the Council which no doubt we can. I would rather have had elections but 2 months is too long to wait and I hope that in our present extremely favourable position we can get the country to accept anything we approve. The local press has already begun to talk about a referendum, without any inspiration. I really do believe - I hope without exaggeration - that I have it in the hollow of my hand. I read the 4 local papers every morning and if there's anything I think unsuitable, I intimate the fact to the editors, either directly or indirectly and they come to heel at once! Today I had to do it directly. One enthusiast had published a violent attack on the French in Syria. I sent for him and proved to his satisfaction that we had better leave the Syrians to take care of themselves - we don't want to embark on international complications while we are setting up an Arab state here. He had also announced in his paper that he intended to publish a book of biographies of all the leaders in last year's revolt. I convinced him that that also would not be advisable but I think I shall have to give him some solid compensation for the financial loss which his grave[?] refaits[?] will cost him. You need not mention any of these particulars - it's part of the game, but one isn't usually so much behind the scenes.

What helps everything is that Faisal's personality goes three quarters of the way. He has been roping in adherents, they most of them come round to me to be patted on the back, a task at which I'm getting to be an adept. It's a little more delicate if they come when they are trembling on the brink but I then bring in the overwhelming argument that Sir Percy and Faisal are walking hand in hand - it's really remarkable how completely satisfied they are if they know that Sir Percy approves. He has an extraordinary hold on the country.

Most of the towns - I think I told you - have sent deputations to greet Faisal. With these I exchange visits. The Basrah deputation isn't very good, because the leading people there want to be separated from the rest of the Iraq as I told you in my last letter; nevertheless Mr Cornwallis and I went to tea with them yesterday. And in the evening we went to an immense dinner party given by Fakhri Jamil to all the deputations. I should think there were 100 people there. The big courtyard was carpeted and furnished and we dined at two long tables in the open air. The dinner was very long but the party broke up pretty soon afterwards. It's rather a complication in all these festivities that the temperature is 120° - at least that's what it goes up to by day.

One by one all the leaders of the reBellion are coming in to pay their respects. Yusuf Suwaidi came on Tuesday and got a fine dressing down first from me and then from Sir Percy. However he took it in good part and went away saying that he was delighted with Sir Percy! All the shaikhs and saiyids who fought against us are turning up also. I need not say that Sir Percy's handling of them is perfect. They all repeat that if he had been here there would have been no rising, which is perfectly true. This morning an opportunity presented itself - in which I could both do the right thing and the thing that pleased me - a rare combination. There came in one of the leaders of the revolt, a horrid worthless man, who had a bubble reputation last year which has now burst and disappeared, and I was more icily rude to him than I've ever been to anyone. He had evidently hoped to climb back into some sort of esteem by being allowed to see Sir Percy; I gave him pretty clearly to understand that Sir Percy could not receive him and he retired in disorder. It was a great satisfaction.

Friday July 8. [8 July 1921] Last night the Naqib gave a dinner to Faisal in his house opposite his own mosque. The English guests were Sir Percy and his staff (i.e. Mr Garbett and me) and the GOC in C and 2 of his staff. All the rest were the ministers and notables of Baghdad. Sir Percy took me. The streets were crowded with people as we drove up; the Naqib's family received us at the door and we climbed up two flights of stairs onto a roof overlooking the mosque, a sort of wide balcony. It was carpeted and lighted; the mosque door opposite was hung with lamps and the minarets ringed with them. The Naqib was sitting with the ministers; he got up and tottered forward to meet Sir Percy, a touching and dignified figure. The rest of the guests, some 100 I should think, sat Bellow us on the open gallery which runs round two sides of the courtyard on the first storey of the house. A burning wind blew on us while we drank coffee and talked till the clapping of hands in the street announced the arrival of Faisal. The Naqib got up and helped by his personal physician, walked across the whole of the carpeted space and reached the head of the stairs just as Faisal's white robed figure appeared. They embraced formally on both cheeks and walked back hand in hand to the end of the balcony where we were all standing up. Faisal sat down between the Naqib and Sir Percy and after a few minutes dinner was announced. Faisal Sir Percy the C in C and I went down; then the Naqib with a servant on each side of him to help him. The long dinner table stood on the open gallery. Faisal sat in the place of honour opposite the Naqib with the C. in C. on one side of him and I on the other. Sir Percy was on the Naqib's right, opposite me and I had on the other side Izzat Pasha, a Turk of Kirkuk whose attitude towards Arab government is very doubtful. We put him onto the Council and he has perpetually told me in private that he thinks nothing of it, nor of any Arab institutions which aren't carried on our shoulders. I was very glad to be sitting by Faisal and to have the opportunity for a good talk but after two or three courses (there were 15 or 17 altogether) I handed him over to Sir Aylmer (Faisal talks a very little French, no English) and made conversation to Izzat who is rather a friend of mine. In the middle he turned his cynical old eyes on me and said: "Why did you bring that man?" It was a moment for straight speaking. I said "Do you want an answer? it's because he is the best Arab of his day. Is that enough?" "Yes" said Izzat "that's enough." After that we all talked across the table with the Naqib and Sir Percy, which was easier. But I hear Izzat had a long private conversation with Faisal this morning and Faisal thinks he has got him. If he has, he has got Kirkuk.
Towards the end of dinner one of our best orators made a short and excellent speech followed by a shorter and better poem the gist of which was that the conjunction of the Naqib and the Amir assured the future of the Iraq. Each couplet ended with a very charming phrase about standing in the house of the Naqib and before the face of the Amir. The Naqib sat doubled up, looking centuries old and murmured from time to time "Good words." I believe he intended to say something himself but Faisal is very impatient of sitting after dinner and after masses of fruit had been handed round, he got up and what the Naqib might have said has unfortunately been lost forever - a great pity. But it was a wonderful sight that dinner party. The robes and the uniforms and the crowds of servants; all brought up in the Naqib's household - the ordered dignity of it and the real solid magnificence and the tension of spirit which one felt all round one as one felt the burning heat of the night. For after all to the best of our ability we were making history.

But you may rely upon one thing - I'll never engage in creating kings again; it's too great a strain.

Well then we went back to our high balcony and arranged ourselves on the seats, Faisal by the Naqib, and I brought up another old thing of almost equal sanctity to sit on the other side of him and sat down by the second old thing myself so as to help the conversation to flow. But we didn't have very long of it. Faisal went away amidst clappings of the crowd and we all took our leave. Sir Percy and I as we drove home, felt we had jumped another hedge, but we agreed that we were in a very stiff country.

Again today the same sort of morning in the office - it's a morning which lasts from 7 till 1.30! Faisal was there interviewing Sir Percy even before I got there. Then came the heads of the Mosul [Mawsil, Al] deputation to ask me to arrange their journey back, and incidentally confided to me that they didn't think we ought to wait for elections to proclaim Faisal king, which was good hearing. Then shaikhs to interview Sir Percy and me and ask if they ought to go and pay their respects on Faisal. And more people and more, and finally my best editor to whom I dropped a hint that he might freely write articles in favour of a referendum. After lunch Sir Percy, Mr Garbett and I drafted the crucial letter to the Council, and soon after 3 I came home to wash and change (it isn't the coolest part of the day) and got to Faisal's house at 4 o'clock, with all the tribal maps to give him a lesson in tribal geography. Mr Cornwallis turned up too. There at least it was cool for we sat in a big vaulted room, half underground and for an hour we studied tribes and drank iced lemonade, after which we spent another hour discussing the formation of Faisal's first Cabinet and his very excellent idea of creating a sort of Privy Council of shaikhs and notables. On the way home I called on Sasun Eff. and told him about the letter to the Council and how it was intended to provoke a request for a referendum. And now if I don't go to bed I really shan't be able to begin again tomorrow morning.

Sunday 10th. [10 July 1921] We're all right I think. Yesterday I had in 'Abdul Majid Shawi and told hm delicately what was expected of the Council, of which he's a member. He agreed with enthusiasm, as he would to anything we suggest the old trump, and went off to secure several other members. Before he left came Izzat Pasha with a request for an interview with Sir Percy which I got him at once. Sir Percy said "Do you think he wants to ask me why we brought that man?" I said if it was that, it was now Sir Percy's turn to answer. But it wasn't. Izzat came in to me after the interview and related the conversation. He had come to tell Sir Percy that he had seen Faisal and could bring in to him the Kurdish chiefs any time Sir Percy wished. Also that he intended to speak up for a referendum in the Council. "Khatun" said he "I've seen Walis and Sultans and Generals but I've never yet seen anyone like Sir Percy and as long as he is guiding us I am satisfied." It's true that Sir Percy may easily be considered better than the average Wali but Izzat's conviction that he was better than anyone was unmistakable. Isn't it an extraordinary position for any man to hold? The whole country waits for his word. What should we have done without him? the answer to that question is however obvious - we couldn't have done anything at all. It is Mr Philby who has made it an uphill game. Yesterday, for instance, the Mutasarrif of Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An] came up. He had been urging his shaikhs and townsmen to send in petitions for a republic. And why? because his Advisor (Major Ditchburn, you remember) had told him that that was how the country was going, and Major Ditchburn got it from Mr Philby. For it isn't only Sir Percy, it's all the British officers who at this moment can mould public opinion. The people in the provinces who don't see Sir Percy take the word from their local man. I don't think this immense desire to do what we want will continue. Last year they were all out against us, this year they are all with us - what will they be next year? But what we've got now is a great asset for we can use it to guide the country at this critical moment. In the same way I can't believe that our honeymoon with the extremist press will endure, but it's enough for me that at present we're having a sort of love feast. When it ends we'll find some other expedient.
In the evening old 'Abdul Jabbar Pasha came to see me at my house, delighted that the Council should have an opportunity for recommending a referendum, which was his idea from the first. I confess I went to bed satisfied.

The Shamiyah shaikhs are now sending up deputations to Faisal. They were very timid about it - that was because Major Dickson hadn't been at Hillah [Hillah, Al] to receive him! A boy whose father I know - a small shaikhling on the Hindiyah - came in two days ago to find out how the land lay. Very shamefacedly he confided to me that they had had letters from one of Faisal's supporters bidding them come to Baghdad what ought they to do? I told him the obvious thing was to come - everyone was coming. Was the Hindiyah going to be the only part of Mesopotamia which didn't send a deputation? So I confidently expect that the Hindiyah tribes will roll up this week. That's what it's all like. They won't take a step till they've asked the advice of one of us whom they know.

I've still in the back of my mind got a doubt about the Shi'ah 'alims and mujtahids, confound them. We can do very very little with them. Faisal thinks he has got them and I hope he is right. But there are more splits and jealousies among them than he knows of, and I fear he may have got only a bit of them. That however, is on the knees of the gods - or the devils.

I've been riding with Mr Tod this morning and I'm going to swim tonight, and now there are heaps of letters to write.

Goodbye dearest. I've got your letter of June 9 with very interesting enclosures including your correspondence with the Bp of Winchester. Good letter of yours to him. Your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

IIIF Manifest