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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-
Cox, Percy
Cornwallis, Ken
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Sa'id, Nuri al-
Cox, Louisa Belle
Joyce, P.C.
Haldane, Aylmer
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

Aug 21 Baghdad Darling Father. I've no letter of yours to answer because there's no post in this week. I'm not only without letters but also without papers and books. However, thank God, I've got plenty to say. Wherein, as you'll note I differ from my Chief. I had a delightful saying about him the other day quoted from the lips of one of the leading notables of Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)]. "Wallahi!" he observed "Sir Percy Cox  has forty ears and only one tongue." I must tell you another nice tale about the Coxes. You know he is a great naturalist. He is making a collection of all Mesopotamian birds - sometimes they arrive dead and sometimes alive. The last one was alive. It's a huge eagle, not yet in its grown up plumage but for all that the largest fowl you've set eyes on. It lives on a perch on the shady side of the house and it eats bats, mainly. These bats are netted for it in the dusk when they obligingly fly across the river and over Sir Percy's garden wall. But the eagle likes to eat them in the morning, so the long-suffering Lady Cox keeps them in a tin in the ice chest, and if ever you've heard before of an eagle that lives on iced bat you'll please inform me.
And since I'm telling you stories I must tell you one about the Naqib. It hangs on to what I was relating to you last week on the subject of al Damakratiyah. It was the Naqib to his huge delight - he's by every instinct an aristocrat and an autocrat if ever there was one - who gave currency to the word by announcing in the Council that Faisal should be king of a constitutional democratic state. He did this with his tongue in his cheek, you understand, in order to catch the public. The other day a Shammar shaikh up from Hail drops in to call. "Are you a Damakrati?" says the Naqib. "Wallahi, no!" says the Shammari, slightly offended. "I'm not a Magrati. What is it?" "Well" says the Naqib, enjoying himself thoroughly "I'm shaikh of the Damakratiyah, the Democrats." "I take refuge in God!" replied the shaikh, feeling he had gone wrong somewhere. "If you're the shaikh of the Magratiyah, then I must be one of them, for I'm altogether in your service. But what is it?" "Damakratiyah" says the Naqib "is equality. There's no big man and no little - all are alike and equal." With that the bewildered Shammari plumped onto solid ground. "God is my witness!" said he, seeing his tribal authority slipping from him "if that's it, I'm not a Magrati."

Well now to the History of the 'Iraq.

Last Monday was the first day of the 'Id al Fitr, the Feast of Sacrifice, which is the great occasion of the Moslem year. It lasts four mortal days. At 7 a.m. on Monday, Mr Cornwallis and I set out on a round of calls. We went first to the Naqib and found him in the highest spirits, surrounded, by the way, by Shammar shaikhs from up Mosul [Mawsil, Al] direction. We had a very hilarious quarter of an hour with him. Then we called on five ministers, two of whom were providentially out; then on Faisal, but we stayed only two minutes since there were thousands of people waiting to come in who were being kept out while we sat with him. Then on 'Abdul Majid Shawi who was out, and then on old Yusuf Suwaidi whom I had never called on before. It's nice, isn't it, to make a sensation when you come into a room. We did. And I don't wonder they were pleased to see us for the rest of the roomful were the most shoddy little people, only three of whom I had ever seen before - and two of those were 'Aqail, the desert merchants whom I know because it's my business to know them for the news they bring, but no one can say they are hoffähig. The company was the clearest indication of where Yusuf Suwaidi now stands. He's a spent bullet, or rather he's a broken drum, for he never was more than an empty drum, poor old thing.

Then we went to the Persian consul, and then to another minister who was out, and at last to the office at 9.45. It's rather fun. But it wasn't over, for I had to go to tea that evening with the wife of the Persian Consul who had heard of my morning visit and wanted me to come and 'Id with her too. Mrs Garbett and I went together, and I 'm sorry to say I was rather short with an Austrian woman who was there - not because she was Austrian but because she was tiresome. But one shouldn't be short with anyone, especially when they're married to one of our medical officers. Perhaps it was partly because I had paid so many calls.

That afternoon Faisal called on the Naqib and asked him to form his first cabinet - a very, very wise move. Who so pleased as the Naqib! he's embarking on a promising political career at the age of 77. Good, isn't it.

On Tuesday we had a terrific tea in the house of Saiyid Ja'far 'Ataifah, Mayor of Kadhimain [(Al Kazimiyah)] - you remember we went to tea in his garden. It happened this way: old Saiyid Ja'far has stood by us like a man, trembling in his shoes and all the braver for that. Consequently the scalliwags of mujtahids have cold shouldered him and though Faisal has been twice to Kadhimain, he has not been allowed to come within sight of Saiyid Ja'far's house. He came to me and said that his honour was broken. I said "Tosh - you trot round to Sidi Faisal and ask him to tea and I'll ask the High Commissioner and the G.O.C. in C." Faisal played up; Sir Aylmer took me, the Coxes brought one another and Faisal brought his A.D.C.s. Saiyid Ja'far played up too. I have not yet been privileged to see so many cakes and fruits on one table, and after tea he presented Faisal with a gold watch, a diamond ring, a fur coat and some Persian shawls and rugs. That's what you do, it seems, when you entertain kings.

On Wed. I gave a dinner party: Rustam Haidar, whom I love - he is Faisal's secretary - Saiyid Husain Afnan, a young barrister, Muzahim Pachahji by name (the one who made the speech in English at our tea party at Basrah) and another barrister whom you don't know, Rauf Beg Chadirji, a pal of mine. Mr Thomson, the most darling of all my colleagues, came to help. Of the Arabs there wasn't one who couldn't speak 3 languages well and two spoke five. But we talked Arabic which was nicest, because they talked best in it. And they did talk well! From beginning to end there wasn't a moment without quite excellent, sometimes almost brilliant conversation. And so light in hand, so intimate with us - I must say I went to bed happy. If you can preserve that atmosphere, what can't you do? There was an amusing episode when we talked about Kirkuk - I told you Kirkuk has rejected Faisal and Arab Government. The Arabs are very angry. I hold the Kirkuklis to be asses, at the same time there's no one who has so little sympathy for the Nationalism of the man next Bellow him as the ardent Nationalist. "Have they the right?" said Muzahim. "Oh yes" said I "Istiqlal al tamm, complete independence" - it's the catch word of the extremists here. And Saiyid Husain, fully realizing the humour of the situation, backed me by quoting the idiot phrase which the extremists of Baghdad - and no one else - added to the Referendum papers: Cut off from the control of anyone. On that we agreed to leave the handling of Kirkuk to Sir Percy whom the party unanimously declared to be the father of wiles. It was then they told the story about his forty ears.

Next day I had a very interesting morning in the office. Faisal's presence has brought to Baghdad people I've always heard of and never seen before - they all come to me for an appointment with Sir Percy. One of these was 'Abdullah Beg ibn Falih Pasha Sa'dun. He is the head of one of the two branches of the Sa'dun house down Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An] way. He was with the Turks when I was in Basrah and he has not been up here since the Occupation. I never saw such a type of high breeding. He is a little over 6 ft, very slender, but that is rectified by his Arab robes, not really handsome, but with a face drawn with amazing fineness and precision. I shouldn't think he is worth much - he's almost over-bred; but he's a beautiful creature to look at. And still more splendid was one of the shaikhs of the northern Shammar, 'Ajil al Yawar. I had seen him in 1917 when he came in to us. Then he quarrelled with one of his uncles, whom he rightly thought we overestimated, and drifted off to the Turks. He came in again when we took Mosul, and drifted off again, we never quite knew why, but Mr Nalder had always regretted it, and so had I, for from the first moment I saw him I reckoned him foremost of the Shammar shaikhs in character and influence. Faisal, with our concurrence, sent for him, and he came at once. He is 6 ft 4 in. odd, a powerful, magnificent creature; not an ounce of spare flesh on him; hands you would like to model, not too small but exquisitely shaped. Under his red kerchief four thick plats [sic] of black hair fall down to his breast. Black beard, trimmed short; white and gold abba, white cotton shirt buttoned to the neck and wrists - that's the picture. He has been several times to see me. Last visit we talked for about an hour of one thing and another - mostly of his experiences with the Turks and of the divisions of his tribe - and at the end when we had become rather intimate, I told him we had always regretted his going off the second time in 1918 and asked him why he did it. Generally as he talks he sits loosely in his chair, his huge figure relaxed and eyelids a little drooped. He sat up then and turned the flash of his eyes on me. He said "I'll tell you. It was Leachman. When I came in at his bidding to Mosul (he was Political Officer there) I tried to speak and he bade me be silent, he told me I was like a woman and that he would give me no recognition in my tribe. Khatun, I'm a shaikh of the Arabs; I went back to my tribe - what else could I do?" (I must tell you I Bellieve the tale; it's so exactly like Col. Leachman.) I said "I don't think you're very like a woman" and the other man who was there, Shaikh Hasan Sukhail of the Bani Tamin (our friend of 'Aqar Quf) laughed and added "Not so very like."

Then I said "'Ajil, I can't force you to do anything but I can give you advice - may I?" "Yes, wallah!" he said. "When you go north, go and see Mr Nalder and make friends with him; especially settle that little matter of loot which he reckons up against your tribe. Will you?" "Yes" he said "if you'll give me a word to Nalder to say I've talked to you."

- There! I don't know how much it will come to, but it's an atmosphere, isn't it. That's why I've told you the whole tale, and I've told it to Mr Nalder, briefly. He will understand.

'Ajil came in to Faisal himself, but most of the down-river shaikhs come in to us. They come to me, rather anxious, and say "Ought we to go and see the Amir?" And I say "Not only you ought, but you must - hurry off at once; and take this letter to Rustam Beg Haidar in which I've told him what fine fellows you are and what good service you've done." They go.

That won't last and I don't want it to last. I shall be glad when they go straight to Faisal and Sir Percy and I drop out - that's the thing we're aiming at. Meantime, this is the way it's done. The doing of it is uncommonly absorbing, I find.

That evening I had got so tired of sitting in the office that in spite of the heat I went out riding, and coming home along the river bank for coolness, I passed Faisal's new house, up stream - a house they have rented for him which is being done up. I saw his motor at the door so I left my pony with one of his slaves and went up onto the roof where I found him sitting with his ADCs. It was wonderful, the sun just set, the softly luminous curves of the river Bellow us, the Bellt of palm trees, and then the desert, with Aqar Quf standing up against the fading red of the sky. We all sat and talked. Faisal uses no honorifics: "Enti, thou[?]" he says to me - it's so refreshing after the endless "honours" and "excellencies" - "Enti 'Iraqiyah, enti badawiyah - you're a Mesopotamian, a Beduin."

I dressed like lightning for an enormous dinner party given by Mr Barrington Ward K.C. at the Club - 40 of us and a burning wind in addition. I was happy because I sat by Mr Thomson and there were plenty of people to talk to who didn't dance. I went away at 11.30, after which, I understand, the fun began but the hour of their fun is so closely connected with the time I go into office that I don't often share in it.

Next evening Lady Cox, the Slaters and I and one or two more went out to swim and dine - the place we swim is exactly opposite Faisal's new house and as we landed, there was Faisal trailing over the sand in his long robes with his ADC's and Ja'far looking incredibly huge in Arab dress. There wasn't room for me to dress in the launch so I went up to a familiar dressing room in the willows above the sand, and coming back barefoot was hailed to Faisal's dinner, spread on the sand, where as they had all taken off their kerchiefs and abbas I wasn't out of place with bare feet and wet hair. We sat and talked of 'Ajil, the Shammar shaikh, till the moon rose and it was time to go back to my own dinner. And yesterday I had another Arab dinner in my house, mostly official people up for the coronation and very nice except that the night was too hot. It continued to be that - too hot for sleep - but there wasn't so much of it for I got up at 4.30 and at 5.30 started on a picnic. My party of guests were Faisal and his ADCs, the GOC in C, Colonel Joyce, Ja'far and Nuri Sa'id the C.G.S. of the Arab army. Mr Slater started with us, with Mr Barrington Ward, but they broke down en route owing to my having missed the road and therefore taking them for a mile or two over thorn-covered desert till we found it again. Faisal and the C in C, in whose motor I was, bore the bumping with complete composure. We went to 'Aqar Quf - you remember I once led you also astray going there; it seems to be a habit. However we got there at 6.30, saw Aqar Quf - it has the great merit as a ruin of there not being too much to see! You can't be wearied by it. And the desert was heavenly in the early morning. By the time we were ready, Zaya had cleverly spread breakfast in the shade of the brick tower and we had a very cheerful meal, much enlivened by the fact that the C in C is the worst man at disposing himself on the ground I ever saw. All the Arabs, including Faisal, who sit cross-legged by nature, were exhilarated to see how entirely his legs refused to double up, and he laughed too. We struck the right road going home and got in before 9.

Meantime - this is secret - there's a breeze on. The Col. Office has sent us a most red-tapy cable saying that Faisal in his coronation speech must announce that the ultimate authority in the land is the High Commissioner. Faisal refuses and he is quite right. We are going, as you know, to drop the mandate and enter into treaty relations with Mesopotamia. Faisal says that from the first we must recognize that he is an independent sovereign in treaty with us, otherwise he can't hold his extremists. Sir Percy, bless him, wobbled a little, but my view was that as it came to the same either way, in the end, there was no point in claiming an authority we could not enforce. We are not going to reconquer Mesopotamia. Suppose Faisal is the final authority and he refuses to accept the High Commissioner's advice, what can the H.C. do? He can either persuade him, or as a last resort he can say that he will resign - "Yes" said Sir Percy, bettering it "and the British advisors and troops all retire to Basrah which will be delighted to have us, leaving Baghdad and Mosul to their fate." That's what the H.C. can say and it's all he can say if he, not Faisal, is the ultimate authority. We hold the trump cards and don't need to cheat. Faisal drafted an admirable statement which was telegraphed home, and Sir Percy a still better which accompanied Faisal's. H.M.G. had said that, if Faisal didn't accept their view, the coronation must be delayed. It is fixed for Tuesday, the day after tomorrow, and the whole universe has assembled or is assembling here for it. Sir Percy telegraphed firmly that in his opinion it could not be delayed and it is going on. We have got H.M.G. in a cleft stick. If Faisal were to resign, after our pressing him upon the country, where should we be? Sir Percy would have to resign too, for he could not possibly form another government and then where would H.M.G. be? If the worst comes to the worst (but I don't think it will) Faisal and Sir Percy will go to London after the coronation to conclude the treaty.

They don't understand, perhaps it can't be expected, that we are not building here with lifeless stones; we're encouraging the living thing to grow and we feel it pulsing in our hands. We can direct it, to a great extent, but we can't prevent its growing upwards, that is, indeed, what we have invited it to do.

Darling, goodbye. This is rather an interesting letter I think. But upon my soul it is interesting being at this job.

If I write too much about all the things I'm doing, you understand that's only because I'm writing to you, and don't bother to put things indefinitely, as you must to casual enquirers. Ever your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

I'm now going for our usual Sunday swim and subsequent dinner on Mr Tod's steamer. About 14 of us go every Sunday evening. Could you send me an india rubber filler for my pen? Mine has burst and I ink my fingers dreadfully filling my stylographic pen.

IIIF Manifest