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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
Askari, Ja'far al-
Naqib, Talib al-
Cox, Percy
Wilson, A.T.
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Eskell, Sassoon
Saud, Abdulaziz ibn
Allenby, Edmund
Cox, Louisa Belle
Haldane, Aylmer
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

Baghdad Feb 13 Darling Father. I'm answering your letter of Jan 12 and wish to remark that I would like to have been present at your lecture at the Lit. and Phil. bless you. I'm sure it was very interesting and I see from the card that it was wonderfully comprehensive. I write you such long letters because it's the only form of diary I keep. I don't want copies of them, thank you, but I'm glad you keep them, for some day or other I might want them, who knows? This Sunday morning, after going for a walk in the palm gardens, to see the barley springing up and the vegetables all in lines along the irrigation canals, I've come back to sit in the sun in my verandah and write to you. Capt. Thomas - you remember he went to Ctesiphon with us - has just been in for a talk. He sends you his respectful regards. He has come up from Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An] whither he went to help Major Ditchburn on the Gharraf canal [Gharraf, Shatt al] when the troubles began. He has done uncommonly well and has now brought up to see Sir Percy the leading man on the Gharraf, Khayyun al 'Ubaid, whom Capt. Thomas with the greatest skill kept in play during the whole of the disturbances, and that was the reason that the Gharraf didn't go out. If it had, no doubt the troubles would have spread to the Tigris and we here should have been cut off from the outer world. It has been an interesting week marked first by the return of some 20 or more of the deportees whom AT [Wilson] sent to Henjam [Henqam] including one of the ringleaders who from Baghdad stirred up the country, Saiyid Ahmad Daud, an entirely worthless old meglomaniac. And the very next day Saiyid Ahmad's son, Sulaiman, was arested with a batch of other agitators who owned, wrote or inspired the Istiqlal - of which I sent you extracts last week. The suppression of the paper had been for some time under discussion, but Sir Percy said rightly that it was for the Ministry of the Interior to take action and finally S. Talib screwed up his courage and did it. It was a gallant act on his part and it seems to have been entirely successful. I hear nothing but expressions of relief on all sides. Especially significant was the satisfaction of a couple of old 'alims from Najaf [Najaf, An] and some shaikhs and saiyids from Diwaniyah [Diwaniyah, Ad], recently in reBellion against us and now here to beg Sir Percy for the continuance of British administration! What they said was that they had been deceived by Baghdad once before and it was they who had eaten punishment and now they called God to witness, here was Baghdad trying to play the same game again! There was a delicious tacit admission that they would quite easily be deceived a second time. The present Govt has got no hold in the provinces but I think it is gaining ground here, a circumstance for which, oddly enough, we have probably Saiyid Talib to thank. His prospects are certainly better. He is playing the game and doing it very well. He knows he'll be nowhere if he hasn't us to fall back on and his relations with us are of the most exemplary kind. What they would be like when he felt himself safe in the saddle I can't say but if he can make good I don't mind. I still, however, feel pretty certain he can't. In pursuing my inquiries as to what people think about the future I've been surprised to find what a strong anti-Turkish feeling I sometimes hit on in the most unexpected places. I got Sir Percy to invite Hikmat Beg and Sasun Eff to lunch. Afterwards Sir P., Hikmat and I had a heart to heart talk in the garden while Lady Cox was showing Sasun her chickens. Hikmat, who is Turkish by education and service, and a Committee man, declared stoutly against a son of the Sultan as ruler and said he had done with the Turks forever. "They can't rule themselves, why should I want one of them to rule us?" He plumped for the Naqib. On the other hand 'Izzat Pasha, with whom I have struck up a warm friendship over the affairs of Daud Beg's sisters, came in the other day to discuss what steps we should take in that matter and presently opened out like a flower and observed that the Naqib wasn't any good because he would shortly be dead ("in 5 days" is the Arabic idiom - it's true, he's very failing) and went on to say that if we were looking for a pole to the tent, any pole would do so long as we English grasped it tightly. He thought nothing of the Turks (he's a Kirkukli Turk himself, so he ought to be in a position to form an opinion) but if we thought a Turkish prince best, he didn't mind so long as it was we who grasped the pole. One and all to whom I've talked dismiss a son of the Sharif as a back number. I'm personally sorry, but if it's so, it's so and I can't alter it. I doubt whether even the Istiqlal group, though they made such open Turkish propaganda, are really pro-Turk. Ja'far asked them why they wrote such silly tosh and they replied that they did it to annoy the English! The net result is that there's no candidate who could really command a majority but I think if we supported a son of the Sultan he would be the best choice. Unlesss the almost impossible happens and S. Talib catches hold. Izzat Pasha wisely said that we had better wait for a few months and see how things develop. He and all others of his kind - mind he hasn't got at all the reputation of being pro-British - declare that we can't hold a general election till the mandate is published, their object being to make it clear that the mandate is not one of the questions which the Constituent Assembly is called upon to decide. I don't know what hanky panky the Allies are up to about the mandates, but I'm all on the side of the League of Nations in protesting that they must be made public. That's the essence of them, publicity. I don't wonder they should hesitate to publish the mandate for Palestine, of which I've seen the draft, and I shrewdly suspect the mandate for Syria may be equally difficult to defend. Our own seems to me to be very reasonable. But I doubt if we shall have time to follow 'Izzat Pasha's advice and let things take their course for a few months. The Paris Conference may make an offer of the Mesopotamian amirate to Turkey and even if it doesn't, at the meeting between Sir Percy, Winston, Allenby and Samuel early in March, Sir Percy is pretty sure to be pressed for a decision. By the way, Sir Percy wants to take me with him. I've told him I'll do whatever he likes. It would be very interesting to be in at the death, so to speak - absit omen! - on the other hand I should feel so anxious at leaving the country to itself during his absence that on the whole I think it would be better for me to stay here, for as far as anyone can do anything to shape public opinion, I believe I'm one of the people who can. Though it's quite possible I may be wrong. I'm certainly one of those who can more or less keep in touch with it and thereby keep him in touch while he is away. He wants also to take Sasun with him and that I think is a stroke of genius. It will help him to give the Conference a feeling of the reality of the Arab Govt - for it is real if only in the sense that in a world of shadows the weakest human institution is a live thing - and it will help the Arab Govt to feel themselves to be a solid fact. After all, it's their fate which is to be decided so why shouldn't they take a hand? I'm often wrong in prophecy but I believe if we were to refuse the mandate we should have a clamour through the country begging us to accept it. The French are, I suspect, up to their usual dirty tricks. 'Izzat Pasha tell me - I told you he opened out like a flower - that he knows for certain that they are stirring up the Kurds not to come in with the 'Iraq but to ask for a French mandate! There's an old Kurd in Paris, Sharif Pasha, through whom 'Izzat says they are working. One of the signs of solidifying public opinion in this country is the appearance of clichés by which to express it and the new cliché is "If you go nas yakul nas - we shall all eat each other." It's without doubt correct. Meantime the Shi'ah question is a very burning one. Everyone from the Euphrates provinces says the people there won't accept Sunni officials and the Council goes on blandly appointing them. It's chiefly the Naqib's fault. He turns down one Shi'ah after another and the Council won't oppose him. A Shi'ah of Karbala has at last accepted the Ministry of Education which the Naqib was induced to offer him. But I want Sir Percy to divide up this ministry, which now comprises Public Health as well as education, and give the former to the Shi'ah and the latter to Hikmat. I think he is going to try to get this done. It would greatly strengthen the Cabinet, I think, to have Hikmat in. Another burning question is that of general amnesty. I feel sure the time has come, or is very near, when we must proceed to this. It will be bitterly opposed by the military authorities - Sir Aylmer has already protested against the return of the deportees aforesaid. I don't believe Sir A. has any opinion himself - he never has - but some of his staff have put him up to it. They don't understand that no Arab Govt will consent to enforce punishments for reBellion against British military administration. Now I want to have the kudos of taking the step ourselves and not to look like one who gives way - for we must give way - to pressure from the Arabs. We never do things in time. Sir Percy is very stiffly determined to do what he thinks right, no matter how many soldiers protest, more power to him! For as he rightly says it's he who is responsible. Therefore if I can make my case I think he'll accept it. Ja'far Pasha and Capt Clayton are dining with me tonight and I'm going to talk the matter over with them. Anyway Sir Percy is standing out finely about the Shi'ah appointments. Talib is quite reasonable on the subject; so are the others. It's only the Naqib. Yesterday that old noodle, Saiyid Ahmad Daud, came by appointment to pay his respects to Sir Percy and me and quite by chance found me in intimate talk with 'Izzat. If I had tried to stage manage my first meeting with Saiyid Ahmad after his return, I couldn't have done it better. For 'Izzat has a great name in the country as an honest, patriotic man and Ahmad Daud (who considers himself the champion of Mesopotamia, if not the prospective Amir) was so visibly taken aback to see 'Izzat hobnobbing with me that I could see him deflating before my eyes. 'Izzat and I had a good laugh over it when he had gone. It was a minor triumph. But doesn't that show you better than I otherwise could explain, the relative importance of ourselves and the leaders of the rising in the eyes of men of 'Izzat's type. That's why I maintain that if we've time we shall succeed. The other event of the week, besides the suppressing of the Istiqlal, is the arrival of an emissary from Ibn Sa'ud. Ahmad Thanayan is a relation of the Imam and was with his son Faisal in England in 1919. He was brought up in Constantinople [Istanbul] and even knows a little French. A very delicate, ailing man of about 30 - he looks much older - with the fine-drawn Najd [(Nejd)] face, full of intelligence and drawn yet finer by ill health. He has with him Ibn Sa'ud's doctor, Abdullah ibn Sa'id, a Mosuli by origin, educated in Constantinople. Not a very proficient doctor, I should think, but a very pleasant good-looking man. They have come up to discuss the interminable question of Ibn Sa'ud's quarrels with the Sharif - for which I think there's no solution; we can only hold it in suspense. Also recent and not so formidable dissensions with the Shaikh of Kuwait [Al Kuwayt]. Talib gave a big dinner party for them on Friday - we all went including T.Es - and I had them to dinner last night. It was the most interesting and curious dinner party I ever gave. Besides the two Najdis I had the good Major Eadie, Saiyid Muhi ud Din (you remember the Naqib's son with whom we went to tea - in his garden) and Shukri Eff. al Alusi. The last is one of the finest figures in Baghdad. An old scholar who comprises in himself all knowledge, as such is understood by Islam - he teaches Mechanics, using the Hadith (traditions of the Prophet) as text book and other sciences by like methods - a true Wahhabi, he neither drinks nor smokes, and he is the only known Mohammadan who has never married. So far as I know he has never dined in a European house before, but we have always been friends and the bait I held out to him - the Najdis - was irresistible. He was sent to Ibn Sa'ud by the Turks in the winter of /14-/15 to bring in Ibn Sa'ud on their side. He can't be said to have accomplished his mission, which was not surprising, for he told Ibn Sa'ud privately what he thought of the Turks - he hates them worse than the devil. But he found in Wahhabi Central Arabia the land of his dreams and looks upon it as the true source of all inspiration and learning. When he came in he fell on Ahmad Thanayan's neck - while the latter fished among his beautiful embroidered Cashmiri robes and produced from them a letter from Ibn Sa'ud to Shukri. And to crown the cordiality of the gathering, Muhi ud Din discovered in the doctor a former Constantinople acquaintance and the embracing began afresh on their part. So we sat down to table - as queer a gathering as you could well see: Shukri the unworldly old scholar hanging on Ahmad Thanayan's words while the latter described the immense progress of the extreme Wahhabi sect, the Akhwan (brotherhood) in Najd; Muhi ud Din, the smooth politician and divine, about as unlike Shukri as the easy frequenter of St James' St clubs is unlike a Latter Day Saint, and Ahmad with his bony sunken face lighted up by the purest spirit of fanatical Islam. "The Imam, God preserve him, under God has guided the tribes in the right way" - "Praise be to God!" ejaculated Shukri - "They are learning wisdom and religion under the rules of the Brotherhood" - Shukri Eff: "God is great!" - "Not that they show violence" - Shukri Eff "God forbid!" - "No such things happen among us as happened in Europe with the Inquisition and with Calvin" - (I must tell you incidentally that the Akhwan when they do battle kill all wounded and then put the women and children of their enemies who are also infidels else they wouldn't fight the Akhwan, to death: this is why Ahmad was so intent in impressing on us the humanitarian character of their principles!) He went on to describe the iniquitous character of the Sharif's administration, how the whole country suffered want because the Sharif cornered food stuffs, and so on. It's not far from the truth though Ahmad can't be called an impartial witness. He was in Mecca [Makkah] last year on a peace mission (sic). They got some agreements signed to which neither party subsequently paid the slightest attention, nor, judging by the spirit which animated Ahmad's talk, are any agreements likely to prove satisfactory. In the long run they will probably fight it out, in which case I back Ibn Sa'ud; though whether it will be to the public good to have the Brotherhood overrunning Arabia is open to question. Shukri Eff. listened beaming, the while he tucked into the Persian nougat and sugared walnuts which I had provided plentifully - but not too plentifully - for desert. His ascetism doesn't, bless him, embrace sugared walnuts. After dinner my four Arab guests carried on a brisk conversation among themselves. They discussed medicine and the properties of herbs, the doctor, incidentally, stating that incense was a capital disinfectant; they discussed the climate and customs of Najd and other matters of importance. Major Eadie and I sat by listening and I felt as if we were disembodied spirits playing audience to an Oriental symposium, so entirely did our presence fail to impede the flow of talk which the learned men of the East are accustomed to hold with one another. Muhi ud Din played the game with the perfection of courtesy, but when they all went away, he last, I whispered in his ear: "For all that I shall not join the Brotherhood!" "Nor I!" he whispered back fervently. It's an interesting world I'm living in, isn't it. Monday morning. Well, we had Ja'far to dinner and a long talk with him. He plumped for a son of the Sharif and said he thought nothing else possible. We told him to set about getting people to take that view if he could. "It's not against the wishes of the British Govt?" said he - and I don't wonder, after his Syrian experience that he should be mistrustful. Lord no! said we, we only want some consensus of opinion. But whether we shall ever get it I gravely doubt. Meantime Talib openly declares that by autumn he'll be King of the 'Iraq! Ever your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

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