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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
Sa'id, Nuri al-
Cox, Percy
Cooke, R.S.
Wilson, J.M.
Cornwallis, Ken
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Churchill, Winston
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper
Iraq ยป Baghdad

33.315241, 44.3660671

Baghdad July 30 Darling Father. I left off in the beginning of a heat wave which I trust is now nearly over. The day after I wrote to you, the 21st, I got so tired of being hot that I thought I would try and mend it by being hotter so I went out riding about 6. I didn't go very far but before I got home I felt more like having a heat stroke than I've ever felt in my life and when I looked in the looking glass my face was scarlet all over like Miss Thomson's used to be. I put my head quickly into iced water and recovered at once. I had a party in my garden that night - it was far too hot and I'm having no more till it gets cooler. It was an interesting party, however, very mixed. Nuri came and played Bridge and in the garden sat all sorts of odd people, officers of the Arab General Staff, trained in C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)], a young delicate looking Kurd, Qadir Beg, who if necessary would cut your throat without a moment's thought, respectable young Saiyids of the Naqib's family, equally respectable, not to say stuffy citizens of Baghdad and last - and biggest 'Ajil al Yawar. 'Ajil (I've told you about him before but you've probably forgotten) is the leading man of the northern Shammar, up Mosul [Mawsil, Al] way. He lives in a tent and his upbringing is that of the tents. Added to which (you could only find the combination in an Arab) he is a perfect man of the world, a good soldier - he's in command of the northern Camel Corps - and a competent statesman. To complete the picture he is 6 ft 6 in tall, extremely beautiful, exquisite hands and an enchanting voice. That's 'Ajil. Soon after 11 some of the stuffier and more ferocious members of the party went away and the rest of us sat on for another hour listening to 'Ajil while he expounded in masterly fashion how the true demarcation of our frontier against the Turks and French should be determined. I had him in to my office next day and made a memorandum with a map for Sir Percy. I haven't the slightest doubt that 'Ajil is right, nor any greater doubt that the French won't agree. However, we'll just have to muddle on till the French abondon the Syrian adventure.
To finish with 'Ajil: his great ambition was to return to Mosul by air and Col. Borton, having by chance a plane which was going up, very kindly agreed to take him. My qawas took him to the aerodrome yesterday at dawn and after lunch I had an enthusiastic telegram from him saying that he had arrived. I am left wondering how he managed his long white robes in the plane.

Now I'll tell you about Qadir Beg. Qadir Beg is a Kurd of Sulaimani [Sulaymaniyah, As]. He belongs to the most holy and wickedest family in the province. His brother, Shaikh Mahmud, the oldest and most violent of the family, led a reBellion in 1919 which was put down by General MacMunn. Shaikh Mahmud was banished to India and has recently been allowed to return as far as Kuwait [Al Kuwayt]. Qadir Beg was in India too for a bit, if I remember right, but for the last year he has been permitted to live in Baghdad with another, as far as outward appearance goes, equally gentle and well-mannered relative, Shaikh Ghasib. The Shaikhan, as the family are locally called, have kept out of the recent troubles in Sulaimani, but they are all pressing for the return of Sh. Mahmud and as a sort of sop the P.O. recommended that Qadir and Ghasib should be sent back. Sir Percy agreed - I didn't; but however, having a tender feeling for the two little cut throats I was personally very glad to be entrusted with the duty of telling them they might go home and of making arrangements for their journey. And then paff! as soon as it became known that they were coming, there was such a ruffling among the Shaikhan that the O.C. Levies said he wouldn't be responsible for what would happen, and I had to send for my poor little two again and tell them - it was really a heart breaking job - that they couldn't go back yet. I wrapped it up and said I hoped the delay wouldn't be long and they took it most meekly.

Otherwise Kurdish affairs look rather more promising. They've turned down the King's schemes, at any rate for the present - I'm sorry for that - and also they've completely lost, so careless!, Karim Fattah Beg whom they've been hunting with Levies and aeroplanes ever since he murdered the two officers. On the other hand we've made secret advances to the brigand across the frontier whom I mentioned before - Saiyid Taha is his name - with a view to getting him to stand as Hakamdar[?] (Governor) of Sulaimani and Rawanduz [Rawandiz]. Saiyid Taha isn't very important in himself but he is the henchman of a very important man, one Simko, who has been fighting the Persians for the last 4 years and poses as the head of the Kurdish National Movement. The point about Saiyid Taha is that if he accepts he will have Simko behind him to stop Turkish efforts to upset him and us, for he will accept only as our man. Well then yesterday we had a very illuminating and encouraging light on Simko's attitude. He sent a delegation to a group of hostile Aghas of the Pizhder tribe, on the frontier, {with} whom the Kamalists have been urging to attack us, and told them that if they didn't at once cease from pursuing {hostilities} activities against us he would know the reason why. Sir Percy brought down this news; he flew up to Sulaimani for the night and came back yesterday morning burnt a bright brick red. He said it was fearfully hot flying even at 9000 ft.

Simko is the gentleman to whom the Persian Governor of Urumiyah [Orumiyeh (Urmia)] sent a bomb done up in a paper parcel. He described the incident to us in a letter and added "I had just time to throw it at my brother when it went off." I think I've told you that story.

It has been far too hot to do anything but bathe and I've been out several weekdays to Mu'adhdham [Azamiyah, Al] and bathed from Sabih Beg's house. Mr Cooke, Mr Cornwallis and Major Wilson came too. Last Sunday 23rd we went the usual party (Davidsons, Capt Clayton, Mr Cornwallis and I) to our favourite place on the bank under the fig gardens. The King came too, with Rastam Haidar, the head of his Diwan, and an ADC. He did not bathe but we had the most delightful dinner afterwards, the King in the best of moods, and he was so much pleased that he has bought a bathing costume and tonight he is coming with us again and providing the dinner!

That day I had an interesting luncheon party - Saiyid Husain Afnan, Capt Clayton and one Dr Asfar who is a Syrian Christian of a very well known family, a bit of a capitalist with backing in England, and a company promotor [sic] - very like you. Another point of resemblance is that he talks perfect French. He is out for a concession, on behalf of his English group, for a Co. to run motor transport across the desert from Baghdad to 'Amman. I don't myself think it would pay, but that's their business. It would be hightly convenient for us. The real interest of the talk was, however, Asfar's exposition of the Syrian situation. Syria, says he, is economically dead. Syria was the door through which passed the trade of the Hinterland, all part of the Turkish empire. Now the country is hemmed in all round by customs barriers. The Turks have completely stopped the passage of goods into Asia Minor - as a way of protecting home industries, you understand. There are heavy duties on goods passing in and out between Syria and Mesopotamia or Syria and Palestine. All trade has stopped. I asked whether trade with France had not increased. On the contrary, he replied; France is a competitor and a successful competitor. All the things that Syria produces France produces and with skilful adjustments can sell cheaper in Syria than the Syrians can sell at home themselves. The only commodity which France needs from her is silk. Add to this that Australian wheat sells cheaper in Aleppo [Halab] than the wheat grown in the Hauran owing to the mechanical contrivances used in Australia to save labour and cheaper production. The net result is that Beyrut [Beyrouth (Beirut)] port is almost disused and the volume of trade even with France is far less than it was before the French took over. Asfar's view is that ineluctible economic considerations will ultimately determine the question of the mandate. You can't cut off Syria from her natural commercial basin and then request her to go on living.

He also told us an amazing tale about Syrian banking - let me see if I can get it right. The French have set up a bank called the National Bank of Syria of which Asfar says that the name is the only national thing about it. It's capital is 2 million sterling guaranteed by a French bank but never actually paid up - ie it has no real existence. On this illusive capital the National Bank of Syria has issued paper money to the tune of 45 million sterling and with this paper all Govt business is transacted, salaries paid etc. It fluctuates with the value of the franc and you can't pay a debt in England, for instance, with a cheque on the National Syrian Bank. You have to pay it into the bank in Paris (I think it's the Ottoman Bank) and then pay it out to your English creditor by a cheque on the Paris bank. What do you think of that for finance?

The treaty is in status quo ante. We still wait the discovery of a magic formula acceptable to everyone which will embody the desire of the King and his party to induce the League of Nations to do away with the mandate at the earliest possible date and be content with the treaty. Sir Percy has sent an admirable telegram home strongly advising Mr Churchill to give way and (since Sir Percy's formula was not accepted) to frame one himself. If Mr C. refuses it will be the devil.

I'm free to admit that the King has been very tiresome this week. The anti-mandate propaganda carried on by the Arab officials, with the tacit approval of H.M., in the Hillah [Hillah, Al] division has as near as possible brought the Middle Euphrates about our ears. Yet when Mr Cornwallis and the Interior took steps to arrest a murderer who had shot dead a pro-British shaikh for reasons purely political, the King accused him in the presence of the High Commissioner of invariably siding with his enemies! Sir Percy observed that since Faisal was a Constitutional monarch he wondered why he interfered in details of administration like the arrest of murderers; this completely took the wind out of the royal sails and H.M. replied huffily that he would leave the Diwan and go to his house. But he didn't. He sat in the Diwan and continued to receive all rogues and mischief makers, a line of conduct which resulted, by reflex action, in filling my office with all the pro-mandate shaikhs, 'Ali Sulaiman and others, swearing that the King was busy working for their downfall. He was also interfering in police appointments up to a point which nearly brought about the resignation of the senior officers, British and Arab - these also joined the party in my office. Nuri Pasha seemed to have been at the bottom of this last affair so I had him to dinner on Thursday and demanded an explanation. As to the particular point he did succeed in clearing himself and I went on to tell him how extremely difficult the King was making the whole situation and how certain I felt that unless he made up his mind to play a single-eyed game no British officers would serve under him. Nuri offered to leave the 'Iraq tomorrow if I thought that would do good. He knew that only with our help could the 'Iraq become a nation; if he himself was not worthy, his son or his son's son would see the accomplished work. In that hope he would rest content. [Half a line deleted]

Of all the people here, from the King downwards, there is no one I really love as I love Nuri. The son of a Baghdad attorney, how did he acquire such amazing human insight? With half a word he understands. He has caught our point of view, our feelings about truth and honour, and he holds them before him as a goal, perhaps impossible of achievement in the East, and yet the ultimate ideal. Though one knows him to fall immensely short of our standard, one yet feels ashamed to find how far we fall short of what he Bellieves our standard to be. His implicit trust in our ultimate uprightness and wisdom is a thing which puts me perpetually to the blush.

I need not say that when he left me at midnight we parted better friends than we had ever been before.

Next night I had the Inspector General of Police to dinner, Isma'il Haqqi Saffar. With Mr Cooke (an excellent lubricant) and the admirable Minister of Justice, 'Abdul Muhsin Sa'dun, to meet him. Isma'il is as straight as he can be, but he is a bundle of nerves and feels very acutely that everyone is trying to blacken him in the eyes of the King. 'Abdul Muhsin was excellent with him ('Abdul Muhsin is a real man) and we all soothed him down and told him we would stand by him and see that no one harmed him. After he left, Mr Cooke and I and 'Abdul Muhsin sat talking till late into the night of party organization and how we should get the right people elected to the National Assembly. I dined with Mr Cornwallis next evening and we talked it all out together and this morning, Sunday, I had 'Abdul Muhsin in at an early hour, with Naji Suwaidi, and told them the line I thought they should take. Naji is a slippery fish if ever there was one, but he is very clever and he is going to play a big part here. Heaven send we may be able to keep him straight. On their heels came Fakhri Jamil and an hour's talk on the same lines, and then Capt Clayton and Saiyid Husain Afnan to lunch with much helpful comparing of notes. By the time they left I felt extenuated, what with heat and politics - the truth is that these conversations, into which you've got to put every atom of power you've got, are very exhausting, at any rate in this temperature.

However I felt better after an hour's sleep and at 5.30 the Davidsons and I started off in a launch up river, picking up Mr Cornwallis and Capt Clayton. At our bathing place the King, with Safwat Pasha and the tiny boy Ahmad, Rustam Haidar and an ADC joined us, and we had the most delicious swim. The King bathed too - immensely pleased with himself. He's not much of a swimmer. My dressing room is under the fig trees where I can eat ripe figs while I dry my hair. The King gave us a gorgeous dinner - a royal picnic is most entertaining. The palace servants had brought up some 8 or 10 huge fish which they roasted before a bonfire of palm fronds, a delectable food which formed the principal course. But besides that there was a multitude of excellent Syrian dishes. You get to hate food in this weather and the Sunday picnic after swimming is the only meal in the week which I enjoy. We lay on carpets and cushions, like ancient Greeks, and eat by the light of a little moon, after which we remained for a long time under the tamarisk bushes. I don't know what the others talked about, but the King told me all his family history, what his mother and his grandmother and his wife and his daughters were like and we discussed whom his daughters should marry and how we would educate his son. It didn't seem at all fantastic in that setting of crescent moon and quiet river and sheltering tamarisk boughs, but when I come to think of it, it is curious to be settling the family affairs of a descendant of the Prophet who is also King of 'Iraq. I hope he'll go on being as devoted to me as he is now, for it does make things easier to deal with. Mr Cornwallis also - it's we two who ultimately guide him, and with him the destinies of the Arab world, if I'm not mistaken.

The next episode in Arab history is going to be the fury raised by the confirmation of the Palestine mandate by the League of Nations, and there I'm wholly in sympathy with them. "By God and your head -" says the King, and my head does nothing but abase itself. I abandon the League of Nations - it's nothing but a fraud. It has stultified itself once and forever by confirming the Syrian and Palestinian mandates contrary to every mandatory principle which was laid down by the League itself - but there! I won't go on writing about it because I don't want to fly into a passion just before going to bed. It's bad for the nerves. I may however mention that I've received, under the seal of secrecy, a masterly memorandum from Ernest in which he shows clearly that the Zionist immigrants are working for a purely Communistic organization - a thing every Palestinian and every Moslem abhores. And we pretend to be setting up a Govt in accordance with the wishes of the people, liars and knaves that we are! There, there! I'll go to bed.

But upon my honour the Arabs have got the soul of truth in them and we haven't.

Aug 2. [2 August 1922] Your letter of July 11 and Mother's of the 12th reached me in 14 and 13 days respectively - not bad. I'm so sorry about Mrs Hanagan; I enclose a letter for Hanagan which will you please forward? Dearest, what a dreadful affair about your falling into S..... - I deeply sympathise for I as nearly as anything fell into the Tigris when I was getting into a launch yesterday. But please don't do it again. The climate of Yorkshire isn't suited for unexpected bathes. I love the story about the eloping Scots in the aeroplane. The pruning tool for Haji Naji has arrived and I am going to send it down to him. The pictures of you have not yet come.
Tomorrow is the Feast of Sacrifice, the end of the Hajj. As it is also mail day Sir Percy has decided to pay no visits in the morning, which means that his staff can't either. This has necessitated arrangements with the King and the Naqib for private audiences, and when I shall get to see the other bigwigs I don't know.

The temp. has suddenly and blessedly fallen and I'm beginning to feel rather more than half alive.

Darling I'm so sorry that business is worrying. That I should ever look to Lord Cowdray as a morning star is amazing, but I hope he will prove to be one! Ever your very loving daughter Gertrude.

Aug 3. [3 August 1922] I paid my 'Id visit to the Naqib on the way to the office. He asked if I were writing to you today and sent you many messages.
Would you please give the enclosed to Cant.

IIIF Manifest