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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
Naji, Haji
Naqib, Talib al-
Cox, Percy
Cornwallis, Ken
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Saud, Abdulaziz ibn
Askari, Ja'far al-
Haldane, Aylmer
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

Wed. July 20. Dearest Father. Ich fange an - really these days are so packed with incident that I must quickly record them before one impression overlays another. You must set them in an atmosphere which has been uninterruptedly at a maximum of over 120 for the last three weeks. We had a rather worse bout in 1917 but it only lasted a fortnight. I may mention that for the first time in my life I've got prickly heat - not very bad however. Well - on Monday the Jewish community gave a great reception to Faisal in the Grand Rabbi's official house. The Garbetts and I represented the Residency and Mr Cornwallis came with the Amir. The function took place at 7.30 a.m. in the big courtyard of the house - you know the kind of place, a square court round which the two storeyed house stands. It was filled with rows of seats, with rows of notables sitting in them, the Jewish Rabbis in their turbans of twisted shawls, the leading Christians, all the Arab ministers and practically all the leading Moslems, with a sprinkling of white robed, black cloaked 'ulama. The court was roofed over with an awning, the gallery hung with flags and streamers of the Arab colours. The Jewish school children filled it and the women looked out from the upper windows, and even from the roof they peered down from under the awning. They put me on the right hand of the chair prepared for Faisal - you know the absurd fuss they make about me, bless them. Faisal was clapped to the echo when we came and we all sat down to a programme of 13 speeches and songs interspersed with iced lemonade, coffee, tea and cakes and ices! It took 2 hours by the clock, in sweltering heat - one gets accustomed to it, but still it is so. The most interesting speeches were those of the Jews (Moslems spoke too). The Rabbi is too old, luckily, to say anything, but he is a wonderful figure, stepped straight out of a picture by Gentile Bellini. The speeches on these occasions are all set speeches - the orators read them off and they give you very litle sense of reality, being entirely detached from anything that is actually happening. Also, being composed in the study and written down, the speaker is never curtailed by forgetting what he intended to say, and he spares you nothing. But yet they were interesting, because one knew the tension which underlay them, the anxiety of the Jews lest an Arab Govt should mean chaos and their gradual reassurance, by reason of Faisal's obviously enlightened attitude and our obvious support of him. Presently they brought the Rolls of the Law in three gold cylinders which were kissed by the Grand Rabbi and then by Faisal, and they presented him with a small gold facsimile of the tables of the Law and a beautifully bound Talmud. I whispered to him that I hoped he would make a speech. He said he hadn't meant to say much, but he thought he must, and added: "You know I don't speak like they do - I just say what is in my thoughts." Towards the end he got up and spoke really beautifully; it was straight and good and eloquent. I enclose the translation I made from the report in the vernacular papers which was pretty accurate. He made an immense impression. The Jews were delighted at his insistence on their being of one race with the Arabs, and all our friends - the place was full of them - were equally delighted with his allusion to British support. But I hear that the more fanatical Moslems, especially the Shi'ahs, have been complaining a little that he takes Jews and Christians too much on an equality with Moslems and the wild extremists complain of any allusion to help from us. The vilain [sic] of the piece is Saiyid Muhammad Sadr, the son of old Saiyid Hasan Sadr whom I took you to see in Kadhimain [(Al Kazimiyah)]. Saiyid Muhummad was the man who first received us, a tall black bearded 'alim with a sinister expression. At the time you and I paid our call, Saiyid Muhammad was little more than the son of Saiyid Hasan, but a month later he leapt into an evil prominence as the chief agitator in the distrubances. In those insane days he was treated like a divinity. Shi'ahs kissed the robe of men who had touched his hand. We tried to arrest him early in August and failed. He escaped from Baghdad and moved about the country like a flame of war, rousing the tribes. It was he who called up the Diyalah [Diyala (Sirwan)] tribesmen and caused all those tragedies of which Mrs Buchanan's story is one. His next achievement was on the upper Tigris. In obedience to his preaching the tribes attacked Samarra but were beaten off. He then moved down to Karbala and was the soul of the insurgence on the middle Euphrates. Finally, when the game was up, he fled with other saiyids and tribal shaikhs across the desert to Mecca [Makkah] and came back, under the amnesty, with Faisal. He intended to be second to Faisal, if indeed Faisal were not second to him, but Faisal can't bear him and he finds himself relegated to a position of comparative obscurity, with us, whom he hates, and our friends, whom he hates equally occupying the front of the stage. He has still a certain amount of influence and it's a hand to hand conflict between us and him. We have won the first round. It was he who drafted the unofficial formula of allegiance of which I told you last week; Faisal has forbidden its circulation and we have issued an official formula through the Ministry of the Interior. Everyone is signing ours. He is in a black rage and I feel as if we were struggling against the powers of evil in the dark. You never know what Shi'ahs are up to. But we are winning. I've scored a minor triumph over him and I expect he knows it. The editor of one of the vernacular papers announced that he intended to publish an illustrated volume of biographies of the leaders of the Iraq revolt. I sent for the editor and pointed out to him that the moment was not propitious - the object of all should be to blot out the events of the year 1920 as though they had never been. Since he knew well that I could close down his paper tomorrow, the editor bowed to my arguments, and the projected book is still-born. Father, isn't it wonderfully interesting, to be watching over the fortunes of this new state! But it takes one all one's time. There are so many quicksands. Since his return, I hadn't seen Muhammad Sadr till today. This evening there was a great function to celebrate the opening of the Officers' School, our Sandhurst for the Arab Army. I arrived rather late and the first person I saw was Saiyid Muhammad sitting by Sir Percy in the seats reserved for great personages. He looked like Lucifer and scowled at me as I gave him the salute. I sat down two places away and after passing the time of day with my neighbour, a rather colourless 'alim, I asked tenderly after the health of his father, Saiyid Husain and said you frequently enquired about him! I expect that made Saiyid Muhammad furious - that anyone should think of Saiyid Hasan and not of himself; but since he was his father, he couldn't do anything but send you heaps of salams [sic]! Faisal then arrived and was installed between Sir Percy and Mr Cornwallis. There was an opening speech by the dear little Arab officer who is at the head of the school, Ahmad Haqqi, and then a couple of poems about the splendour of military service, followed by an excellent speech by Ja'far ending in enthusiastic gratitude to Sir Aylmer for the help he had given the Arab army. After which Sir Aylmer made a charming little speech - he is playing the game like a man - and Ja'far translated it into Arabic. No one paid the slightest attention to Muhammad Sadr who sat there scowling. He was left behind, bathed in scowls, and I saw him no more, when Faisal accompanied by the officers of the school, British and Arab, Sir Percy, Sir Aylmer and the rest of us walked round and inspected the premises, Faisal with his great charm and his evident pleasure in it all making the centre of the picture. I think we are going to beat Muhammad Sadr and all the other devils, but as I said before, it takes one all one's time. We had 30 Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An] shaikhs in yesteday and they have all gone back to sign the official declaration of allegiance presented to them by their local authorities. Many of them confided to me that they had refused to sign the unofficial one here, and I clapped them on the back, metaphorically. They were followed by 15 of the tribal shaikhs and saiyids who led the revolt. They all went up to see Sir Percy who gave them, I've no doubt, excellent advice for they all came back and fell on my neck. Saiyid Nur who is the most influential tribal saiyid on the middle Euphrates and an old friend of mine, stayed for half an hour explaining to me how it had all happened. It was rather a muddled explanation but I didn't appuyer much, partly because I was distractling[?] occupied with the irrelevant thought that Saiyid Nur is the walking image of Noah out of Noah's ark. It was towards the end of a long hot morning and I think I must have been getting rather light headed. Still, he is. This morning, before going into the office, I took Mr Cornwallis to see Shukri Alusi, the famous Sunni 'Alim of Baghdad, of whom I have often told you. He is a Wahhabi and has a romantic attachment to Ibn Sa'ud. He hadn't been to see Faisal and he is not naturally incined towards him, but he stands so deservedly high in public estimation that he had to be drawn in. After, if I may say so, a very skilful Û of an hour of conversation conducted by Mr C. and me - during which Mr C. fell a complete victim to my dear Shukri Effendi - the latter accepted with enthusiasm an invitation to go and have a talk with Faisal. One gets a great deal of pleasure out of little episodes of this kind. Sunday July 24. [24 July 1921] On Thursday morning we had rather a scare. News had been coming in that Saiyid Mhd Sadr had sworn over all the tribal Saiyids, Saiyid Nur and the rest, not to sign the official formula of allegiance. Most of the shaikhs, it ws said, had refused to swear to Mhd Sadr's scheme, but the tribal saiyids had been packed off to get a fatwah, an order, from the Shi'ah divines of Najaf [Najaf, An]. Sir Percy, Mr Garbett and I went into consultation over this and Mr G. went round to see Faisal. However Faisal was confident there was nothing in it and later news seems to show he was right. He sent for me that afternoon and we had a long talk. He is positive that Mhd Sadr is losing ground daily and that as long as we and he stand firmly together we shall easily win through. He had been somewhat ruffled by a stupid little incident. He had told the Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An] shaikhs, who came up in a deputation to see him, to swear personal fealty to him as all the other shaikhs had done. Their Mutasarrif had consulted Sir Percy who replied that that was between them and Faisal - it didn't concern him. This answer the Mutasarrif, who is not very bright, had taken to mean that Sir Percy didn't wish it, so he told the shaikhs that they must only sign the official declaration of allegiance and told Faisal that the shaikhs had scattered and he could not get hold of them. Faisal was hurt and angry and explained to me at great length that from the Moslem point of view only the personal oath, with your hands between the hands of your lord, counts for your personal fealty. "If they imagine they don't owe personal allegiance to me" he said "I shall never be able to rule this country." In fact he was a little jealous of Sir Percy's supposed wish having overruled his order. I told him that in fact the present position was that the people were taking him from us, knowing that he had Sir Percy's approval and support, but that our hope and expectation was that when he was established as king he would make his own place, independently of us, keeping us as his friends and helpers. I think he was comforted but we shall have to get the Nasiriyah shaikhs up again to swear to him. I asked him about his wife, who is his cousin, and his children - he has 3 - and said I thought she too ought to be encouraged to make a position and a court. He was rather shy about her - they always are embarrassed about their women, thinking that they are too ignorant to be presentable, but he agreed that we must make a beginning and I hope when she comes I shall be able to get her to play a little part - have the native ladies to see her and be treated like a queen. It will be interesting to see what can be done. Faisal looked very hot and tired; he had been talking to shaikhs and people all day; Mr Cornwallis is away in Mosul [Mawsil, Al] and he had had no one else to consort with. It's a terrible labour becoming a king! I went on to the Civil Hospital to see a shaikh of the 'Anizah whose romantic story is as follows: he was camped in the middle of the Syrian desert when suddenly his encampment was attacked by a famous old raider from the Syrian frontier, Audah Abu Tai. After a stiff fight they beat Audah off though he looted a great many camels. Shaikh Murdhi was carried back wounded to his tents. Thereupon appeared the British convoy of motors who were returning from Ramadi [Ramadi, Ar] to 'Amman whence they had come - the pioneer journey across the desert. With them was one of our Political Officers from Ramadi and he knew Murdhi well. He bound up his wound and told him he would send help. At the next stage the motors fell in with a covey of aeroplanes coming over from Amman and charged them to pick up Murdhi and bring him in to hospital at Baghdad. They wirelessed the news here, an ambulance was ready at the aerodrome, he went straight to hospital and is now up and about. Rather a wonderful advertisement for our aeroplanes, isn't it! but it will take them all their time if they intend to play the Good Samaritan to the whole desert. There is a very nice and interesting man here, Mr Barrington Ward, a barrister and Lionel Smith's brother in law. He has come out to defend a wealthy Jew called Sha'shu' who is being tried for murder. Mr B.W. can't defend him in the courts because he doesn't Bellong to the Iraq bar, but he posts Sha'shu's counsel. The murder has created a great stir. The victim was a Christian, husband of an extremely notorious woman who was living with Sha'shu' and had lived with a good many people before, including Saiyid Talib. There isn't a scrap of evidence to show that Sha'shu' had instigated it except the presumption that he wanted to get rid of the superfluous husband, and even that isn't correct for it was the lady he was trying to get rid of. The really interesting part is that Mr B.W. is convinced that the instigator was Saiyid Talib, but fears it can't be proved. Talib coveted, not Sha'shu's mistress, but his very beautiful house which he had already tried to get from him. Sha'shu' vows (and Mr B.W. Bellieves him) that directly after the murder Talib said he would get him off if he gave him a very large sum of money. I'm afraid it will rest at that, though it would mean a great deal to us if Talib could never come back to this country - and a great deal to the country. He is such a savage vilain [sic] that anything can be true of him. What company I took you into, didn't I! During this fearfully hot weather the only possible excercise [sic] has been swimming. Every night we're free 4 or 5 of the young men in the office and I take the office launch, go up above the town where there's a deep pool and willows on the bank among which I can undress. It's most heavenly; we get in refreshed and hungry towards 8 o'clock. And every Sunday a big party of us go down river in a steamer of Mr Tod's, bathe and dine on the steamer as we come back. Today the temp. has mercifully dropped, I should think 10 degrees. Mr Tod and I rode to Haji Naji before breakfast. I hope this adorable north wind will hold for tomorrow Fakhri Jamil and I are motoring to Ramadi, guests of the Mutasarrif, to see a great gathering of tribal standards and shaikhs, all the 'Anizah and Dulaim, in honour of Faisal. He's going too. It ought to be wonderful. I've got your letter of June 23. Oh I do sympathize about Mrs Rosita Forbes! Sir Percy and I are wondering what we shall do when she proposes to come out here. We saw her in Cairo, I must tell you. I haven't yet got the Palestine letter you promise me and I'm very anxiously awaiting it. I feel sure things are going badly there. They are on the wrong road. You are never to repeat - because officially I may not hold these opinions - that from the very beginning I've felt certain that if ever we succeed in setting up an orderly Arab independent Kingdom here we shall drive both the French and the Zionists into the Mediterranean. Of course they will all want to come in with us. And it will happen. Ever dearest your very affectionate daughter Gertrude.

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