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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
Dobbs, Henry
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Cornwallis, Ken
Churchill, Winston
Sa'id, Nuri al-
Joyce, P.C.
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper
Iraq ยป Baghdad

33.315241, 44.3660671

Baghdad Aug [sic] 8. Dearest Father. We continue to battle with very difficult seas. So far we are weathering them but one can never feel sure that the next wave won't swamp us. No sooner had the brilliant success of Sir Percy's coup given us internal stability than the external menace assumed new and possibly formidable shapes. First of all, as you've heard, the tribal attack engineered by the Kamalists - mostly among scalliwag Kurds over the Persian border - forced us to relinquish the Rania [Ranya] corner of the Sulaimani [Sulaymaniyah, As] Division; it's no great loss, a wild and turbulent district which at the best of times doesn't pay its own expenses, but retreat before insurgent tribes is always a dangerous venture for you can never tell where it will end. Also we have abandoned to his fate - and don't yet know what it will be - a stalwart ally, Babakr Agha of the Pizhder, who from first to last has stood by us without faltering. This is the kind of thing which one feels as a personal dishonour. Next came the withdrawal of all our personnel from Sulaimani. It was impossible to tell how far the tribal rot would go and inexcusable to risk lives which we had no means of protecting. So we handed over the Kurdish elective Council, which was extablished a year ago, placing in charge a certain Shaikh Qadir, a member of the leading local family and evacuated some 60 persons, British officers, Persian clerks and Assyrian Levies, by air. It was done without a hitch, a truly remarkable achievement on the part of the R.A.F., and we put a brave face on it, but whether we shall ever go back is doubtful while it's certain that we shall never go back under the same condidtions. For years of excellent and devoted work, a province rescued from chaos and set fairly in the path of peaceful development all thrown away as a result of insensate Kamalist propaganda acting on savage mountaineers over the frontier. And why? the answer is clear. Because ever since the armistice we have so desperately mishandled the Turkish question. Every one of us who knew Turkey knew that the Treaty of Sevres was wicked and impossible nonsense, and not one of us could get a hearing. Finally Kamalist guns, adequately provided with ammunition by the French, have hacked their way through where knowledge and reason could find no loophole. I do not propose to mention my opinion of the French, beyond stating that they appear to me to be a nation wholly composed of scoundrels and madmen in undetermined proportions. Meantime the position on our eastern frontier is so far unexpectedly stable. The rot hasn't gone any further. Major Noel, the Political Officer in the southernmost Sulaimani district of Halabja, has insisted on remaining at his post, on the ground that he thinks he can keep the local tribe straight - they are the Jaf - and anyway can always ride away on a horse whenever he likes. He is an extraordinary person - it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that he might set up a Sulaimani republic under himself! But the present scheme is to bring back the head of Shaikh Qadir's family, his eldest brother Shaikh Mahmud, who revolted against us in 1919 and has since been interned in India and Kuwait [Al Kuwayt]. It's true that he has no reason to love us but his hatred of the Turk dates back far longer than three years and it's conceivable that he might be ready to co-operate in keeping the Turks out. Sulaimani in itself doesn't matter much one way or the other. It was always a difficulty because it had steadfastly refused to become part of the 'Iraq - Kurds hate Arabs. The problem is the adjacent province of Kirkuk, which is half Turk by race, half Kurd, and has always refused to swear allegiance to Faisal. It is economically an integral part of the 'Iraq and if the Turkish thrust were to dive in from Sulaimani to Kirkuk it would be a very serious business. What the King fears is that the Kamalists, with their army freed from Greek preoccupations, may turn against 'Iraq and wrest the whole of Mosul [Mawsil, Al] wilayat from him and us. Unless we can bring diplomatic pressure to bear there would be no way of preventing them from accomplishing this easy feat if they wished and I note that (a) our diplomacy has hitherto been singularly futile, and (b) that the Greek collapse has placed us in the worst of positions for excercising [sic] it. My conclusion is that as regards Mosul and Kirkuk we are practically at the mercy of the Kamalists and it remains to be seen what they decide to do. A bad business. To return to the King: a week ago Mr Cornwallis telephoned to me that H.M. couldn't think why I didn't go and see him, and he added that he had been given this message two days earlier and had forgotten to tell me. I went to him the same afternoon and found him very weak and most touchingly delighted to see me. He had not been told and had not inquired what had happened since his operation. Sir Percy had strictly bidden me not to mention politics and I found this easy, for the King asked no questions. He lay, quite still, holding my hand, while I talked of anything irrelevant that came into my mind. At first the room was filled to overflowing with ADCs, Arab doctors and other supernumerary persons, but presently Safwat Pasha cleared them out, leaving only the charming little English nurse who didn't understand Arabic which made it much easier for me to conduct the conversation on the affectionately intimate lines that the King enjoys. I stayed till 6 o'clock when his doctors pay their official visit. Their appearance was straight out of comic opera. First his English physician and English surgeon, Dr Sinderson and Capt Braham - both salt of the earth; it's due to them that he is alive - then two completely incompetent Arab Army doctors, and behind them a cloud of witnesses whose presence remains unexplained. They were all there at the operation - every doctor in Baghdad seems to have been invited. Since then I've been with him for an hour and a half every afternoon. The third day - he was still in bed - he had been told in the morning by Mr Cornwallis of the High Commissioner's action. He talked to me about it in a spirit of complete acceptance. The fourth day I found him lying on a sofa in the reception room, completely surrounded by generals - Ja'far, Nuri and Yasin - but I stayed on for a long time after they had gone. The fifth day, Sir Percy had bidden me tell him all about the Turkish situation in Anatolia in the light of the latest, secret telegrams we had had from Mr Churchill. He was deeply perturbed. He rightly regards the Kamalists as his most dangerous enemies and, rightly again, doubts whether we can prevent their advance on Mosul. He is still so weak that one must not let him bother himself about things, so I drew a very reassuring picture (God forgive me!) and proceeded to show him the last enchanting photographs of you. He looked at your darling face for a long time and said "He is certainly a Belloved, a Belloved." The King is rather a Belloved himself. Weak as water, he is full of the finest instincts. He reacts at once to everything that is noble and generous; he is naturally fine and discriminating; but he has the fatal defects of the Oriental - lack of moral courage and lack of intellectual poise, the latter, I suppose, a necessary corollary of ignorance. I know, because I know the 'Iraq very well, that we can't succeed without him in giving the Arab race its opportunity for self-development, which is what we are doing here. But I realize because I know Faisal very well that his indecision and cowardice may after all defeat us in the amazingly difficult task which lies ahead. Yesterday I left him toiling down the long stair to his launch - the first time he had been out; and today I didn't go and see him. I spent the afternoon with the Davidsons. She is going home next week, to my great sorrow. I shall miss her dreadfully. She is going to have a baby, the first after seven years of marriage, and she wants to have it under the best conditions. I do hope Aurelia Tod will be back this winter - it's nice to have a female friend. At the beginning of Sep. we had an unusual drop in the temperature, a month earlier than normal. I promptly caught cold - but I've also rather promptly got rid of it. You can't think how difficult it is to tackle the first oncoming of cold. You would think it absurd to speak of it as cold. The thermometre [sic] often goes up to 110 in the afterday, but it drops to 70 before dawn. You're just too hot without a punkah when the temp. of your room is 90 and just too cold with it. Aug [sic] 10. [10 september 1922] This Sunday morning while I'm writing to you, Sir Percy and Mr Cornwallis are having a momentous interview with the King, at which Sir Percy is asking him to endorse all he has done and to give certain undertakings for the future. I feel convinced that it won't be entirely satisfactory; the only thing to hope is that it will be satisfactory enough. I dined with Mr Cornwallis last night and we discussed prospects till near midnight, without coming to a conclusion. Mr Edmonds lunched with me yesterday - he is the political officer who was at Rania [Ranya], a very delightful and capable person. He marched back with the column, under heavy fire from the tribes until aeroplanes came and silenced them. The RAF has been wonderful but it can't stop invaders in mountainous country. It does so little damage where there are innumerable opportunities of taking cover. Mr Edmonds thinks, and I Bellieve he is right, that the proper course is to send Shaikh Mahmud back, as is proposed; if he asks for our aegis to let him have a single British political officer with him, to act as a liason officer with Baghdad, but not to try to administer at all. Shaikh Mahmud is just the ordinary type of Kurdish robber baron, only a little more so. He has no idea of administration. He will job all his friends and relations into office and oppress, not to say murder, his enemies. We can't stop him, nor yet could any Englishman assume responsibility for what he'll do. But if we keep on good terms with him and uphold as far as we can the independence of that bit of Kurdistan which is under him, it will make a Kurdish wad between the 'Iraq and the Turks, a wad which won't be interested in letting the Turks in. You may wonder why Shaikh Mahmud should have any hold on the country, being the rogue he is, but in the first place a Kurdish Agha has an amazing hold on his tribes and in the second Shaikh Mahmud is technically a Holy Man - all his family have been for generations. The first of them has a shrine at Sulaimani [Sulaymaniyah, As]. Life can rarely be dull for a Kurd; it's so full of surprises. Take for example little Shaikh Qadir, Shaikh Mahmud's brother. Only a month ago he was interned at Baghdad, at the tail end of two years' imprisonment, and was negotiating with me as to the date of his return home. (I was negotiating on behalf of Sir Percy). As gentle a little man, and as grateful, as ever cut your throat. He hadn't been back a fortnight before he found himself in charge of the administration of the whole province as agent of His Majesty's Govt. That's why I say he can't ever feel dull. Major Goldsmith is also here - you remember I stayed with him at Sulaimani last year; he is the Political Officer of the province. He intends to go back with Shaikh Mahmud, or shortly after him, but I don't doubt that the right person to send in the capacity of liason officer would be Major Noel. It would be almost impossible for Major Goldsmith to see all the structure he has built up going to pieces, and you want some daredevil like Major Noel, who is almost a Kurd himself, to play the part. However that's Sir Percy's business. I must tell you in secret that Sir Henry Dobbs is finally appointed as Sir Percy's second in command and ultimate successor. I'm very glad. He is Sir Percy's own choice, he was here for a year and a half at the beginning of the war, he's a brilliant creature and a delightful man. I Bellieve his wife is delightful too. She is his cousin and they are both cousins of Sir Alfred Lyall. I hope he will be coming out soon so as to have a good chunk of time under Sir Percy. Rather an interesting man has arrived, namens Amin Rihani [see also Raihani]. He is Lebanese by birth but went to America at the age of 10 and has lived there practically all his life with the exception of 6 years when he went back to Syria "to learn Arabic" as he says. He has written a great deal both in Arabic and English and is looked on by the Arabs as one of their leading men of letters. He is now studying the whole Arab Question in order to write a book for the edification of the Americans. The French would not let him enter Syria, so I don't suppose he will have much good to say of them. He has been staying for the last few months in the Hijaz, Asia, Yemen and Aden [('Adan)], urging Arab potentates to live in harmony, which they rarely consent to do. Now he has come here. It will be very interesting to see what an Arab of his western upbringing makes of the King and us and the 'Iraq. He paid me a long call yesterday and I told him I was an Arab nationalist and that I thought the only place for Arab nationalism to spring up from was the 'Iraq, if we could get it going. He put his finger at once on one of the problems by saying "Do you think there are enough first class men in this country to fill administrative and other government posts?" Well of course there aren't, but then are there in any country? Still the shortage is undoubtedly rather acute here. Your last letter was dated Aug 20 and gave the delightful account of your jaunt with your grandchildren. I hope the Scotch visits were a success. I'm so glad about Venetia - I'm going to write to her. Sep. 14. [14 September 1922] The Davidsons and Mr Cornwallis dined with me on the Sunday evening I left off at. We always dine or picnic together on Sunday and we're going to keep up the habit after she goes. Capt Clayton and are of the party when they're here and we all compare notes about the 'Iraq without stopping. On Monday we all dined with the Joyces and on Tuesday with Mr Cornwallis, farewell dinners to the Davidsons, and yesterday night she left, to the great sorrow of all of us. She and I went up on Tuesday to the King's tennis party - he wasn't playing of course - so that she might say goodbye to him. And oh dear! I'm sorry she has gone. Now I must tell you that the King's momentous conversation with Sir Percy passed off very satisfactorily. He accepted and endorsed all that Sir Percy had done, and promised that he would ask the Naqib to form a new Cabinet. But he was terribly nettled at being told that he must not interfere in the details of administration, particularly as regards appointments, and he refused point blank to agree that the head of his Diwan and his chief Chamberlain should be government appointments made by the Cabinet in being. Sir Percy left it at that because we feel pretty certain that ultimately, if we ever get a Cabinet based on a majority in an elective assembly, they will insist and the King will be obliged to give way. Meantime he has promised to clear out a great many of the minor rogues in his palace. An oriental sovereign, you see, lives by patronage. That's his idea of sovereignty. He surrounds himself with his friends and supporters, quite irrespective of their fitness for the jobs he allots to them, or quite irrespective of his capacity, he puts in a man whom he wants to gain over to his side. I've no doubt that that secular conception of statecraft is at the bottom of Faisal's extreme reluctance to relinquish the right to take a leading part in nominating people to high office. But even oriental sovereigns are now in the 20th century. The Shah of Persia has had to abandon the privileges excercised [sic] by his forefathers and Faisal will have to abandon them also. Well now I'll tell you about Sulaimani [Sulaymaniyah, As]. The result of putting in Shaikh Qadir has been that all the tribes who joined the Kamalists have declared that as they have now got Kurdish home rule they won't have anything more to do with the Turks! Shaikh Qadir himself sends in anxious messages to the effect that his only wish is to obey the orders of the High Commissioner. The insurgent Agha who was responsible for the murder of Captain Bond and Capt Makant went into Sulaimani town the moment we left and demanded arms. Shaikh Qadir refused to give {them} him arms and they had words. There are now two parties in the town, Shaikh Qadir on the one hand backed by the Levies and Police and all respectable citizens, strongly pro-British, and 'Abdul Karim Fattah (the murderer in question) equally strongly pro-Turk. But the Turks have all gone away from Rania [Ranya] and retired to Rawanduz [Rawandiz]. Meantime Shaikh Mahmud has arrived at Baghdad and Major Noel who has seen him says that he is bewildered and perplexed, not a bit eager to take up the Sulaimani burden and on the whole anxious to return to the quiet life he was leading in internment at Kuwait [Al Kuwayt]! Far from showing any resentment for his 3 years' imprisonment, he is full of gratitude for the way he has been treated. He was to see Sir Percy this evening and tomorrow I shall hear what passed between them. If we are left to ourselves, I've no doubt we could manage 'Iraq and Kurdistan, difficult as they are to tackle, but shall we be left to ourselves? If the Kamalists turn against us the armies that will be released from the Greek front, neither we nor all the Nationalists put together can resist them. That's the position and we live from hand to mouth, not knowing what tomorrow will spring upon us. There are increasingly clear indications that the French mean to hand back Syria to the Turks, minus the Lebanon, if they can manage to keep it by setting up a native Govt and entering into treaty relations with it as we propose to do here. I should think the Palestinians would a great deal rather have the Turks than us plus Zionism, just as the Syrians would rather have the Turks than the French. There would seem to be the materials for astonishing developments and perhaps after all Arab nationalism may have to go through a period of re-occupation by the Turks before it finally emerges triumphant, as in the end it will. I went to see the Naqib on Monday. He sent you many messages, but the interesting part of his conversation was his ardent repudiation of the possibility of the return of the Turks. "If they come back" he said "they will treat Baghdad as they treated the Armenians." Darling, would you ask the Army and Navy stores to send me a loose-leaf album of the largest size in which they keep them? I want to stick into it all the photographs I have at various times made of the King at different functions. He keeps them all jumbled up in a cupboard and hailed with enthusiasm the idea that they should be put into a book. His youngest brother Zaid is arriving from the Hijaz this week; King Husain sent him when he heard of Faisal's illness. Faisal has been trying to get him here for the last six months and his idea is to send him to England to be educated. Whether Zaid will go I don't know; when I saw him in Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)] in 1919 he was dying to go to Oxford. He will probably bring a collection of scallywags from the Hijaz with him and I very much doubt whether he will make matters easier. He was a nice boy when I saw him, with plenty of undeveloped wits, but I fear that 3 years of enforced idleness in the Hijaz can have done him no good. He is 15 years younger than Faisal who loves him like a son. Dearest, I'm your very affectionate daughter Gertrude.

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