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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
Hashimi, Yasin al-
Suwaydi, Naji al-
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Cox, Percy
Wilson, J.M.
Cooke, R.S.
Cornwallis, Ken
Saud, Abdulaziz ibn
Askari, Ja'far al-
Sa'id, Nuri al-
Joyce, P.C.
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

Aug 27. Darling Father. We have passed through the most troubled and dangerous 10 days and have come out of them, thanks entirely to Sir Percy, onto what looks uncommonly like firm ground. I am going to relate the story to you as it happened:
I left off with the holding up of the air mail on account of the Akhwan raid on Trans Jordania. It left next day, the raiders having been driven out, and Sir Percy has written to Ibn Sa'ud warning him that international frontiers cannot be fixed by incursions of robber bands. We all feel that most of the grievance is on his side but he must air it differently. I went to tea at the King's tennis party where I found an immense gathering and our host looking very well pleased. I doubt however whether he was as well pleased as he looked for I afterwards heard that he had just had a heart to heart talk with Nuri who had told him that he had lost the confidence of the English and was heading straight to destruction. Subsequently Sabih Beg, ex-Minister of Public Works, {had} stayed on to dine with him and told him the same thing. Sabih Beg came to tea with me next day and related the tale. Meantime H.M. pursued his headlong course. The whole Cabinet having resigned except the Naqib, he told the latter to send in his resignation and further informed him that he intended to ask him to form the new Cabinet if he would first make clear to H.M. what would be his policy on such points as (1) the 100 lakhs deficit in the budget, (2) the numerical insufficiency of the Arab Army (3) the conduct of the forthcoming elections. The Naqib, very properly, gave a general answer and {replied} added that as regards details he must be permitted to consult his colleagues when he had selected them. The King who, in his heart longs to see the Naqib out, said that would not do; he must have a specific programme. As Sabih justly said: "When he gets it he'll object to this point or that and we shall be as far off the formation of a Cabinet as before." It ws quite clear that the King was playing the part of naughty little boy and no reasoning could restrain him, whether from us or his ex-responsible advisors. A miserable business. Meantime the extremists were all sitting up and taking notice - a great deal of notice. The Cabinet, for the fall of which they had asked, was out; the Moderate Party, recently formed under the presidency of the Naqib's eldest son, could scarcely survive the fall of the father - to the devil with the mandate and the treaty and the English! So ran coffee shop talk, carefully reported to H.M. who, the more he heard it, the more he became convinced that he couldn't run counter to it.

On Sunday evening, Aug 20, we escaped from politics for a happy hour or two. The King came out bathing and picnicking with us {in the evening}. I asked Nuri and we had the usual party, Mr Cornwallis, Capt Clayton, Safwat Pasha and an ADC or two - the Davidsons could not come. It was my picnic and I did it beautifully. We roasted great fishes on spits over a fire of palm fronds - the most delcious food in the world - I brought carpets and cushions and hung old Baghdad lanterns in the tamarisk bushes where we kept simple state in the rosy stillness of the sunset. "This is peace!" said the King, "This is happiness!" We lay on our cushions for a couple of hours after dinner while he and Nuri and Mr Cornwallis told stories of the Syrian campaign - I have seldom passed a more enchanting evening.

Next day we were back in the turmoil.

H.M. had written a remarkably silly letter to Sir Percy saying that he had never been given responsibility and must either have it or be definitely released from it. Sir Percy told me that he intended to sieze this occasion for a firm answer but that he would wait till after Wednesday - Wednesday was the anniversary of the accession, Aug 23. I rode with H.M. before breakfast on Tuesday morning to see his cotton farm. We picked up the English manager, Capt Lloyd, and had a delightful hour looking at the cotton fields - no word of politics. It's a tremendous cavalcade when the King goes out riding - ADCs behind us and four lancers of the body guard bringing up the rear. So we rode. But I knew a bombshell was awaiting him.

That evening Major Wilson, Capt Cooke and I went up to Mu'adhdham [Azamiyah, Al] and bathed from Sabih Beg's house. Poor Sabih Beg had grown gloomier and gloomier. He declared he would leave public life for ever and set up as a contractor, a career which I should think he will find very profitable, for he made a pot of money during the war when he was in charge of military transport for the Turks in the Anatolian railway. So it's said.

I had arranged a sentimental dinner party, like this: last year on the eve of the coronation, Ja'far and Nuri being nearly off their heads with happiness, said that I must dine with them and rejoice with them. I went and we sat and talked of how our hopes had been fulfilled, how a new era had begun and the rest of it. And then we made plans and plans. Therefore I invited them this year to come to me and added Capt Clayton to the party. But it wasn't happy. Last year's plans had gone wrong; the King had got us into a fearful mess and how we were to get out of it heaven alone knew. The two Arabs said the mess was largely of our making and we debated hotly until I said to Ja'far that here were we two, old friends, in entire sympathy as to the end in view and yet unable to agree as to the means. I feared that meant that our great ideal of cooperation between the two races would not prove possible. Anyway the King had been King for a year and that was twice as long as his kingship in Syria. With that we stopped talking and played Bridge.

So we came to Aug 23. We were due at the levee at 8.45 but before it began, at 7, H.M. was to present colours to two of the new regiments in the courtyard of the palace and Col. Joyce had invited me to come and see. I also photographed. It was a wonderfully pretty and touching ceremony. The big court was full of troops - it's the place where he was enthroned last year. Mrs Joyce and I took up a commanding position with our cameras and presently the King came down the wide stair with Saiyid Mahmud, white robed, by his side and all the General Staff, Arab and British, following. After he had presented the colours - the sort of thing he does admirably - he stood on a dais while all the troops marched past, and a very creditable army it was, after a year's making. Col Joyce went in to the levee - the soldiers were first on the list - while Mrs Joyce and I waited for him. As we left the court had emptied of troops but the ministers - ex-ministers! - and notables were beginning to assemble, all the usual crowd of respectabilities who come to levees. I went back with the Joyces to breakfast and we sat on their balcony talking. Col. Joyce said that he could always train soldiers - that wasn't the difficulty. His trouble lay in the administrative side, where not only had his Arab colleagues no conception of how things should be done, but they went wildly wrong in making appointments. Anyone was put in, on the "good old so and so" principle if not for less worthy reasons; no matter whether he were perfectly incapable or disgracefully corrupt; and when he had hopelessly entangled his department the only thing that ever happened to him was that he was transferred to another.

It's precisely the same thing in civil administration. From the King downwards, not one of them seems to have the shadow of an idea of selection.

With that I went across to the Residency by boat - you realize, all in lace clothes and miniature orders, the first time I had worn the miniatures; they are the greatest comfort - and we started off in a procession of two motors for the levee, the High Commissioner and his staff. When we got to the palace the courtyard was packed with people, three or four hundred under the King's stair, and a number of white robed persons on the balcony, apparently addressing them. The police had to clear a way for the High Commissioner's car. As he walked up the stair, a very striking figure in his white uniform and orders, a voice in the crowd called out something which he did not hear and I did not catch, upon which came a storm of clapping. It was almost as though they were clapping his appearance and much perplexed we went into the audience room. The King seemed rather nervous but the conversation quickly got into easy channels - the morning's review and so forth - and after a quarter of an hour we came away. The court was empty.

As soon as we were back in the office the High Commissioner told me to get on to it at once and find out what had happened. I did, and within an hour I had the information we wanted. It was a demonstration on the part of the two extremist political parties, no doubt arranged to take place at the hour of Sir Percy's audience, and the sentence which had provoked applause was "Down with the mandate!"

It was now Sir Percy's turn to get busy. He waited until the anniversary was over and on the following morning (24th) sent the letter and received the answer which you will read in the enclosed cutting. At noon on the 24th we heard that the King was down with appendicitis, in the evening his temperature was up, at 6 am next day, five doctors, two English and three Arabs, were debating whether an immediate operation were necessary, at 8 they decided it was and at 11 it ws successfully over. Before it was done Sir Percy and Mr Cornwallis spent an hour with him (this is deadly secret but it's part of the history), represented to him that the political position had grown so grave that repressive measures were essential to save the country and begged him with all the arguments they could command to give them permission to carry them out. He refused. He said he would never be a party to measures which he was confident would plunge the country into a rebellion that could not be suppressed. Until H.M.G. consented to adopt the methods for the publication of the treaty suggested by himself and Sir Percy, he could take no step. Sir Percy replied that that could not be for a fortnight because it was a matter which had to be laid before the Cabinet and the Cabinet would not meet till the first week of Sep. - I forgot to tell you that this was the answer we recieved - and that we could not hold out for a fortnight if we allowed the extremists to go on stirring up trouble. But it was in vain and Sir Percy came back extremely sad that he hadn't secured his co-operation - but resolved to go on without it. Exactly what he was going to do I did not know until I got to the office next day when he observed that the police were busy arresting seven of the principal agitators in Baghdad, that the two extremist newspapers had been closed down and the two extremist parties abruptly ended.

We spent the morning in some anxiety. The police captured three, fortunately the most dangerous three, of the seven; the others escaped, I fancy to Kadhimain [(Al Kazimiyah)], disguised as women. As I left at one o'clock there were rumours that Ja'far Abu Timman's friends were preparing to make a demonstration - he the most dangerous of all, had been arrested. We had troops and armoured cars waiting outside the town gates, but they were not needed. That which we had always predicted to the King happened. The extremists collapsed. In the eveing an admirable communiquÇ in English and Arabic was published. I enclose a copy - it is Sir Percy at his very best and you can't beat him. It's effect was instantaneous - we already knew it would be for Mr Cornwallis had summoned some 30 of the notables in the afternoon and read it to them. They expressed themselves in no measured terms as delighted with the action that had been taken, and not least delighted were Nuri and Ja'far, those ardent Nationalists. In point of fact Sir Percy has saved the situation and he has given the King a loophole through which he can walk when he is able to walk - he is going on very well. If he doesn't, there will be nothing before him but to leave the country. But I think he will. By that time - his convalescence if necessary can be prolonged - we shall have got a clear line from home, take it or leave it. Moreover the moderates are lifting their heads sky high; Saiyid Mahmud's party is swelling visibly and as soon as what has happened in Baghdad becomes known in the provinces, the extremists will have to build an ark if they want to escape from the political flood.

There's another promising feature. Yesterday morning while I was waiting for news of the arrests, Naji Suwaidi came in. He is probably the ablest man in the country but he is rather a slippery one. Up to now he has stood aside from the formation of parties while declaring in private that the only hope for the 'Iraq is to accept the treaty. He came to tell me that he considered we were in a grave way. I agreed, wondering in my heart how many of the sources of disquietude the police had succeeded in removing. Yes, and he and his father (old Yusuf was one of the prime leaders of the rebellion of 1920) had decided that it was the time to act. Their plan was to publish a manifesto in the papers - my mind wandered off to the thought that there would only be one paper left - signed by about 100 of the notables of Baghdad, quite irrespective of party. It should say merely that the support of Great Britain was essential to the Arab State, that it could be secured only by immediate acceptance of the treaty and that as for the mandate it concerned Great Britain and the League of Nations only, and 'Iraq need not trouble herself with it. This they would circulate about the country collecting signatures and he felt sure they would get everyone to sign. It's an excellent scheme and the collapse of the extremists should ensure its success. And so when the King comes back to politics he ought to find that the formidable issue has been decided in his absence.

We are not quite out of the wood yet. We don't know whether the tribal agitators down Najaf [Najaf, An] way (chief among them 'Abdul Wahid in whose house on the river you had lunch and where you parted with your whistle) won't try to raise rebellion, nor do we know what the 'ulama will say. I don't think myself that there's much to be feared. The pro-mandate tribesmen are in a large majority and they are pledged to Sir Percy not to begin hostilities. There might be a casual murder or two - I hope 'Abdul Wahid will be one of the victims. The 'ulama have stood out from the agitation, all except one in Kadhimain and your friend Saiyid Muhammad Sadr - he was present when you went to see his old father you remember, in the latter's library. These two have had special copies of Sir Percy's communiquÇ forwarded to them, together with an intimation that they might find foreign travel beneficial. It's possible that, as things are, they may go. (They've gone to Persia!)

For once, Providence has behaved like a gentleman. Since the King couldn't summon up courage to come out into the open, his illness was beyond words fortunate. But Providence deserves comparatively little of the credit. Sir Percy has never made a mistake, either in resolution or in formulating his resolution. If ever the Arab states get themselves moulded into a country, it's he above all others whom they will have to thank. Not Faisal.

It makes me laugh to think of how you will read about the King's illness in the paper and not realize how much it meant.

Aug 31. [31 August 1922] I left off on Sunday 27. That evening we did not go up to our usual enchanting bathing place. Mr Davidson thought that if anyone wanted to have a shot at Mr Cornwallis on account of recent happenings, he would have an excellent opportunity on that lonely beach, and though it was a remote contingency, we gave way. So we bathed from a little sandy island Bellow Baghdad and went back to dine on the Davidson's terrace so as to make it as much as possible like a picnic. Major Yetts was there, up from Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An] (he had dined with me the night before and we had had a tremendous talk about administration as applied to tribes and townsmen) and also Major Longrigg up from Kut [Kut, Al (Kut al Imara)] (you remember our host at Kirkuk) who is just going to take over the difficult Hillah [Hillah, Al] division.
I hadn't been long in my office on Monday morning when Yasin Pasha was announced. He had come up from Nasiriyah, where he has been Mutasarrif for the last 6 weeks, on the previous day. I had heard from Major Yetts about all his struggles there, his slow appreciation of the tribal question and the incompatibility of its right settlement with the views of the King and of Baghdad politicians. I was very much gratified at his coming straight in to see me and I said "Have you learnt a lesson?" He replied: "I've learnt as much as one can learn in 40 days." My heart lept [sic] at the answer for there are few Arabs who don't think they know all there is to know without the teaching of experience. After we had talked a little about Muntafiq, Yasin said that he was deeply anxious about the fate of his country. He had read a version of the Treaty which has been circulated in Baghdad and in his opinion no 'Iraqi could possibly have expected conditions so liberal - Why had not the King accepted them? "It's your fault" he said "why have you not got hold of him? Why have you allowed him to be guided by people who are leading him and us to ruin?" Thus challenged I came straight out into the open. I told him that Mr Cornwallis, Capt Clayton and I had laid our service and our personal devotion at the King's feet, that we had cajoled him, reasoned with him, quarrelled with him, all to no end, that our hearts were broken and our forces exhausted by this vain contest. I asked him what was to be done when on questions of vital importance, after he and Sir Percy and Mr Cornwallis had come to agreement as to the course he was to pursue, the moment they had left his presence he did something completely different. Yasin said "Yes, I know. Someone comes to him, a man out of the bazaar comes to him, and at a word changes his purpose." And he added significantly "He is the King - but the 'Iraq comes first." I answered "I have never failed to tell him so. We stand at the parting of the ways. As soon as he can take part in public affairs he must either ratify what Sir Percy has done during his illness, or refuse to ratify it. I need not point out to you what would be the situation if he took the latter course." Yasin answered: "No, that's obvious," and it therefore wasn't necessary to say that either Faisal or Sir Percy must go.

With that I took him up to Sir Percy who told him that it was his duty, in cooperation with those who shared his views, to bring the King to a realization of the gravity of the decision.

I Bellieve Yasin to be the Man of Destiny. He has greater intelligence and vigour than any Arab I know - not, perhaps, more strength of character than 'Ali Sulaiman, but wider knowledge of affairs. The King knows his power and fears it, but in his immense vanity, he Bellieves that he can yoke Yasin to himself and use him, and that he will then acquire the strongest weapon on which he can lay his hand. I think Yasin will climb into the King's favour by apparent submission to his ends, and when once his position is assured, he will sieze the King by the neck and force him to submit to his policy. The King will wriggle like a snake, prevaricate and lie and intrigue and the future of the 'Iraq will probably depend on whether Yasin prevails. If he does, Mesopotamian history will repeat itself; Yasin will be the Maire de Palais who governs, and the King drop into a figurehead. And alas! I'm forced to the conviction that that's all he is fit to be. Vain and feeble and timid, his fine ideals can never come to maturity. I dined with Yasin and Mr Cornwallis that evening and we sat on the terrace over the river while the Pasha talked. It was very good talk about the necessity of our keeping out of party politics and devoting ourselves to teaching the Arabs how to handle administration, and Mr Cornwallis replied with admirable sympathy.

You mayn't think that it's very important what Mr Cornwallis and Yasin and I say to one another after dinner on a terrace over the Tigris, but upon my soul I think we're helping to settle universal problems - no less than the relations of east and west on which to a great extent the prosperity of the world depends.

Meantime the King has made a rapid - all too rapid - convalescence. On Sunday he was allowed to see a selected body of notables. This was thought advisable because a rumour had been spread that he was dead. On Monday the officers of the 'Iraq army offered him their congratulations on his recovery. Today Mr Cornwallis saw him - in the presence of notables and ADC's; there was no mention of politics. He is still supposed not to know of the arrests and of all that Sir Percy has done. We suspect, however, that he has been told and is gladly standing aside and leaving the responsibility to "the English."

Telegrams and reports come in from the provinces all saying that Sir Percy's action is universally approved. Sharp action has been taken in Diwaniyah [Diwaniyah, Ad] and Shamiyah [Shamiyah, Ash] to establish law and order, and after bombing raids by air all the extremist tribal leaders have made submission - except 'Abdul Wahid who has no tribal following and will probably give way in the the next day or two. In fact it has been decisively proved that we were right and the King wrong when we said that firm action with the extremists would bring them instantly to heel. Sir Percy's greatest triumph has been with the two dangerous 'alims of Kadhimain [(Al Kazimiyah)], Saiyid Muhammad Sadr and Shaikh Muhammad Mahdi al Khalisi. He sent them word that he was ever careful to safeguard the honour of religious dignitaries and that to save him from the painful duty of exiling them by force, he advised them to travel to Persia (they are Persian subjects.) They left on the night of the 29th.

We have had exceedingly funny moments over the arrests. The agitators were so confident that they had the King's support that they put on a bold front. On the morning of the 26th (which was the day the arrests were to take place) Ja'far Abu Timman and Hamdi Pachahji, who stood first on the list, presented themselves at the C.I.D. office to protest against the interception of letters. They were placed immediately in a motor car with two British policemen and despatched to Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)]. Next day another of the wanted seven came to the Residency to protest against these proceedings. He was received with enthusiasm and - handed over to the police! The passage in the High Commissioner's announcement which stated that four others were wanted struck terror into the breasts of some forty malefactors who all went to ground like rabbits. They have been emerging gradually amidst the hoots of their compatriots who taunt them with having had the audacity to think that they had caught the eye of the High Commissioner.

Among those who were wanted was a certain Shaikh Ahmad Daud who was one of the leaders of the revolt of 1920, an empty drum of a man. He escaped the vigilance of the police - I Bellieve he took refuge in the palace - and his whole family disappeared for 48 hours. His son Salman is one of the members of my library committee - imagine my amazement when at the weekly committee meeting on Monday 28th I found Salman sitting peacefully at the baize-covered table! I didn't turn a hair. We debated in all amity the affairs of the library and I never asked him after the whereabouts of his father, who, I Bellieve, is hiding in Kadhimain.

But we have a terrible problem before us. It's vain to conceal the fact that the King by his insane subservience to the extremists has lost the confidence of the best elements of the country. On the other hand the extreme right is just as subversive of the policy of HMG as the extreme left. The one is opposed to the King and Arab Government, the other opposed to British assistance. How are we to combine the two sharply conflicting schools of thought? I myself Bellieve that if the King refuses to accept Sir Percy's action the majority of the 'Iraq will request him to abdicate, but I'm equally convinced that ultimately the minority will force us to evacuate.

And while we debate these questions our soldiers are defending the Sulaimani [Sulaymaniyah, As] frontiers against the Kamalists who are coming down in force onto Rania [Ranya]. Hourly we await the news that our officers and Levies and faithful tribesmen have been annihilated.

Darling, you'll understand that immediate preoccupations block out the firmament. If I don't specifically answer your letters it's not because I don't love having them. They are like an escape to another world. But waking and sleeping I'm absorbed by what lies to my hand and the countless interviews which I conduct daily with turbanned [sic] gentlemen and tribesmen and what you please seem to me to matter more than anything in the world.

The Amir Zaid, Faisal's youngest brother, has been sent for by the King, and I Bellieve he is coming. He might not impossibly be helpful. Ever your devoted daughter Gertrude.

IIIF Manifest