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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
Cox, Percy
Saud, Abdulaziz ibn
Cornwallis, Ken
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Haldane, Aylmer
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper
Iraq ยป Baghdad

33.315241, 44.3660671

Baghdad July 31 Dearest Father. I sent you a word this week by air in answer to your letter of June 28; I must now give you an account of our doings. Overshadowing all else was the display at Ramadi [Ramadi, Ar]. Fakhri Jamil Zadah and I left at 4 am but Faisal was a little in front of us. We caught him up at Naqtab, halfway to the Euphrates and asked leave to go ahead so that I might photograph his arrival at Fallujah [Fallujah, Al]. Outside that village a couple of big tents were pitched in the desert and for several miles crowds of tribal horsemen gathered in and stood along the track as he passed. We sat in the tents - first in one, then in the other so as to honour both the shaikhlings of the Dulaim who had pitched them - drinking coffee and iced sharbats [sic]. Then we drove through Fallujah which was all decorated and packed with people. The tribesmen lined the road to the ferry - some 6 miles - and rode round, after and beside the cars (I was immediately behind Faisal) amid incredible clouds of dust. At the ferry we found a big Dulaim tent and Mahrut of the 'Anizah, Fahad Beg's son. Here Faisal held a majlis after which we had a small meal, sitting round dishes set on the floor, rice and chicken and curds. It was 8.30 by this time and I was hungry. Faisal and I and one or two others crossed in a small boat while the motors came over the flying bridge. On the other side Fahad Beg was waiting for him - it was a great moment {because} for Fahad has been bitterly opposed to an Arab Govt and to Faisal because he represented the hated thing which was not British. As good luck would have it he had received a day or two before a threatening letter from Ibn Sa'ud telling him that his 'Anizah were Ibn Sa'ud's subjects {and that} (which they are not) and bidding him beware of consequences if he served any "miserable little fool of an Arab" who happened to be set up in Mesopotamia. Fahad might serve us because we were Ibn Sa'ud's friends, but no one else. This letter Fahad hastened to confide to Faisal in whom he found a sympathetic audience! (This is not to be repeated - Sir Percy will square Ibn Sa'ud who has got a bit above himself.)
Under the steep edge of the Syrian desert were drawn up the fighting men of the 'Anizah, horsemen and camel riders, bearing the huge standard of the tribe. We stopped to salute it as we passed. 'Ali Sulaiman the chief of the Dulaim and one of the most remarkable men in 'Iraq came out of Ramadi to meet us. He has been strongly and consistently pro-British and takes Faisal on our recommendation only. The town was gaily decorated and we walked through applauding people to our lodgings, Faisal to Major Yett's house, Fakhri and I to the Mutasarrif, old Rashid Beg al 'Umari - he was among the crowd you saw at Mosul [Mawsil, Al], terrifically well born, but otherwise no good. I washed and changed - we were grey with dust - and drove down to the Euphrates bank where Ali Sulaiman had pitched a huge tent of ten poles - ie about 200 ft long - with a dais at the upper end {covered} roofed with tent cloth and walled with fresh green boughs. Outside were drawn up the camel riders of the Dulaim, their horsemen and their standard carried by a negro mounted on a gigantic white camel; inside the tribesmen lined the tent 5 or 6 deep from the dais to the very end. Faisal sat on the high diwan with Fahad on his right while Major Yetts and I brought up people to sit on his left - those we thought he ought to speak to. He was supremely happy - a great tribesman amongst famous tribes and, as I couldn't help feeling, a great Sunni among Sunnis. The truth is I'm becoming a Sunni myself; you know where you are with them, they are staunch and they are guided, according to their lights, by reason; whereas with the Shi'ahs, however well intentioned they may be, at any moment some ignorant fanatic of an 'alim may tell them that by the order of God and himself they are to think differently.

There it was - Faisal was in his own country with the people he knew. I never saw him look so splendid. He wore his usual white robes with a fine black abba over them, flowing white headdress and silver bound 'aqal. Then he began to speak, leaning forward over the small table in front of him, sitting with his hand raised and bringing it down onto the table to emphasize his sentences. The people at the end of the tent were too far off to hear; he called them all up and they sat on the ground Bellow the dais, rows and rows of them, 400 or 500 men. He spoke in the great tongue of the desert, which I had never heard him use before, sonorous, magnificent - no language like it. He spoke as a tribal chief to his fundatories. "For four years" he said "I've not found myself in a place like this or in such company" - you could see how he was loving it. Then he told them how Iraq was to rise on their endeavours with himself at their head. "Oh Arabs, are you at peace with one another?" They shouted: "Yes, yes, we are at peace." "From this day - what is the date? - and what is the hour?" - someone answered him. "From this day the 25th of July (only he gave the Mohammadan date) and the hour of the morning 11 (it was 11 o'clock) any tribesman who lifts his hand against a tribesman is responsible to me. I will judge between you, calling your shaikhs in counsel. I have my rights over you as your Lord -" A grey bearded man interrupted: "And our rights?" "And you have your rights as subjects which it is my business to guard."

So it went on, the tribesmen interrupting him with shouts of "Yes, yes" "We agree" "Yes, by God." It was like the descriptions of great tribal gatherings in the Days of Ignorance, before the Prophet, when the poets recited verse which has come down to this day and the people shouted at the end of each phrase: "The truth, by God the truth!"

When it was over Fahad and Ali Sulaiman stood up on either side of him and said "We swear allegiance to you because you are acceptable to the British Government." Faisal was a little surprised. He looked quickly round to me, smiling, and then he said "No one can doubt what my relations are to the British, but we must settle our affairs between ourselves." He looked at me again and I held out my two hands clasped together as a symbol of the union of the Arab and British Governments.

It was a tremendous moment, those two really big men who have played their part in the history of their time, and Faisal between them, the finest living representative of his race - and the link ourselves.

One after another 'Ali Sulaiman brought up his shaikhs, some 40 or 50 of them. They laid their hands in Faisal's and swore allegiance. After that we relapsed into chat accompanied by coffee and I told Faisal how splendid I had thought his speech, while 'Ali superintended the bringing of the largest meal you ever witnessed. Eight men staggered under each rice dish, each of which was crowned by a sheep roasted whole. We eat first, Faisal and his suite and we British officers, Fahad and a few more. Then we sat on the dais watching the others eat. 'Ali, as host, superintending the sitting down and rising up of the feasting tribesmen. And then it being long past noon and pretty hot, we went back to our houses. I had a bath and went to sleep till 5.

The afternoon's ceremony was the swearing of allegiance on the part of the towns. From Fallujah to Qaim [Qa'im, Al], the northern frontier, all the Mayors, Qadhis and notables had come in. The place was a palm garden. There was a high dais built up against a blank house wall which was hung with carpets. On this Faisal and the rest of us sat while the elders and notables, sitting in rows under the trees, got up, stepped onto the dais and laid their hands in his - at the end he made a little speech, very simple and suitable, saying that he called on God to help him and them in their task of regeneration. "And I have great hope of success" - he turned to Major Yetts and me - "because of the benevolent race which gives us its support." The beauty of the setting, the variety of dress and colour, the grave faces of the village elders, white turbaned or draped in the red Arab kerchief, and the fine dignity with which Faisal accepted the homage offered to him made the scene almost as striking as that of the morning.

When that was over we all walked in procession through the town, Faisal first. Then we went to Major Yett's house where Faisal had private interviews with Shaikhs, while I had some delightful talks with all my friends from far and near many of whom I hadn't seen for some time. Till sunset we sat in the courtyard and then went up onto the roof which was carpeted and set with diwans and chairs. We all chatted very informally till dinner, Faisal very eager to know about ancient monuments - Fahad and I told him about Ukhaidhir [Ukhaydir] which is in Fahad's desert pasturages. The leading citizen of the town was meantime engaged in having dinner brought for us. It was laid on the floor and we eat, about 30 of us. There is a great deal to be said for an Arab dinner party. All the viands are before you, you eat what you want and when you've done you get up and go back to your coffee and cigarettes. Faisal, accustomed to this, is very impatient at European dinners - he always wants to leave the table the moment he has finished. After a little more talk I took my leave and went to bed on the Mutasarrif's roof. It was all hung with Hijaz flags and as I lay down in my bed I fell to thinking how pleasant it was to be sleeping as peacefully and naturally under the Sharifian flag as under the British.

We motored back to Baghdad next day, starting before dawn and getting in at 9.

Since when we've had alarums and excursions in Baghdad. The group of extremists made a desperate effort - and succeeded - to substitute for the official formula of allegiance one which implied the complete rejection of the British. They called a packed meeting, more than half Shi'ahs, and the evening before the referendum papers were to be issued, amid a wild confusion of talk about Fatwahs (i.e. of the Shi'ah 'alims) added their clauses to the papers. In this form they were signed in every city quarter next day to the disgust and indignation of the Sunni notables who had kept us informed of the whole business. Fortunately when read carefully they proved to be complete nonsense and all the young and illuminated scoffed at them, while I sent to two of my newspaper men and got articles in that sense into their papers. Ridicule is the deadliest arm. Faisal sent for Muhammad Sadr, who was at the bottom of it, and gave him fair warning that now that he was practically king he didn't intend to stand any nonsense and anyone who disturbed the public mind should be suitably dealt with. He topped this by a very judicious speech yesterday morning at an allegiance ceremony held for him by the Christian communities. He said "We have suffered under 800 years of tyranny; give me a year for every hundred, a year for every two hundred, and with the preservation of peace you shall see what we can do." And then he went on to point out that no nation stands alone - it forms part of the community of peoples. The Arabs above all were in want of help "and where shall we turn for help but to the nation nearest to us, economically and geographically, the British? I ask them for help as a free man to a free people, as a friend to a friend."

I went to tea with him in the evening; Mr Cornwallis dropped in presently and we had a long and very amusing talk. I took him the photographs I had done at Ramadi with which he was much delighted, and then we freely cursed all the people we didn't like and discussed what he should do to them. On the way back I met Sir Aylmer who had been trying to call on me, so I carried him back with me. He stayed till dinner time while I related the events of the past few days, to his deep interest. He is playing up like a man, immensely eager to make the thing go, loves Faisal and does all he can to help on the Arab army.

There! I really can't write any more. Would you very kindly send a copy of the Ramadi part to Milly - exclusive of what I said about Ibn Sa'ud and Fahad. I owe her answers to many delightfully interesting letters from Canada. I must spend the rest of this Sunday morning on my Fortnightly report for the Sec. of State. (Domnul may see the whole letter and all my letters).

I'm immensely happy about this thing - the referendum has gone through unanimously but for the sole exception of Kirkuk where the population, half Turkish and half Kurdish, has been difficult to handle. I think we may just squeeze it through there also. We are now waiting for the Mosul and Hillah [Hillah, Al] papers to come in to declare Faisal king. He may possibly be crowned next week. Isn't that very remarkable! 5 weeks work. Your devoted daughter Gertrude

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