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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-
Eskell, Sassoon
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Cox, Percy
Cox, Louisa Belle
Cooke, R.S.
Cornwallis, Ken
Churchill, Winston
Saud, Abdulaziz ibn
Bourdillon, Bernard Henry
Drower, Edwin
Drower, E.S.
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper
Iraq ยป Baghdad

33.315241, 44.3660671

Sep. 24. Belloved Father. Where did I leave off? Somewhere about the departure of Iris Davidson and the King's acceptance of all that Sir Percy had done? Our next excitement was the arrival of the Amir Zaid, HM's youngest brother to whom he is devoted. He had been trying to get King Husain to let him come for the last 6 months, but the intolerable old man wouldn't allow him to leave Mecca [Makkah]. Not that he wanted him for any purpose - he just kept him sitting idle, poor Zaid! who was eating his heart out to go to England and learn a little before he was too old. He's about 25. He arrived last Sunday, 17th. There was a great reception for him at the station to which we all went - notables and Advisors and Arab Army and everyone you can think of. He was taken to a special tent where he held a levee, we bigwigs standing by while the lesser bigwigs filed past. Then, after inspecting the Arab guard of honour, he drove off to the palace where the King was eagerly awaiting him. I had been to tea with H.M. the day before and found him enchanted at the prospect of having Zaid and blessing his illness which had induced King Husain to send him. We had a long talk about the political situation, the King in the most exemplary frame of mind. He is dreadfully alarmed lest the Kamalists should turn on Mesopotamia.
After Zaid's reception, Mr Cornwallis and I motored out to Fahamah where we dined and came back by launch. It was delightful to get out into those exquisite palm gardens away from the dust and smells of Baghdad.

Next night I had a dinner party for Amin Raihani, the {Arab} Syrian educated in the USA about whom I told you in my last letter. It was really for him to meet Mr Cornwallis and I invited also my friend Saiyid Muhi al Din, second son of the Naqib, Yasin Pasha, Saiyid Husain Afnan, and Amin Kasbani, a very nice Syrian in the King's household. We talked a great deal about Turkey - rather piquant, for Muhi al Din has never yet resigned his position of member of the Turkish Senate! Yasin was very moody and silent but twice he roused himself into vigourous speech. The first time in answer to a question of mine to say that he did not think the Turks would move down here in force, but we might count on their trying to rouse the frontier tribes into continuous guerilla warfare and if we didn't take the offensive in something like the same manner, we should lose Mosul [Mawsil, Al]. What I could not answer was that we are not allowed to do so by H.M.G. unless we are in very great straights when it would probably be too late. I understand the anxiety not to be involved in dangerous complications but it makes our positon very difficult. For Yasin is, I think, right. The second time he spoke he burst out with: "The Turks held my country for 600 years. They found it wealthy and fertile, a seat of learning and cultivation. They left it the desert it is now. That's what I know of them." Saiyid Muhi al Din looked rather embarrassed, but I don't think he now wants them back, nor does he show any sign of wishing to return to C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)].

Yasin has occupied a great part of our thoughts this week. I must tell you I have seen a good deal of him and there's no doubt he's a very striking personality. He had also voluntarily associated pretty continuously with us, not only with me but with Major Bourdillon and others, and to me he had spoken very strongly about the need of British support. I was sitting by him at a big dinner party at the Anglo-Arab Club (they have a ladies' night on Fridays) on the 15th. He was in tremendously good spirits but in the middle of the dinner he anxiously asked me what line the King was going to take and hoped that he was prepared to mend his ways. That has been his attitude so far as he has given himself away.

{I must tell you} The Club dinner was very amusing. Our host was Rauf Chadirji and the guests included most of the ex-ministers, the Drowers, Mr Cooke and Amin Raihani. After dinner Mrs Drower and I played bridge with Sasun and Yasin.

Well, to return to Yasin. The King had decided, if Yasin was prepared to back the treaty, to offer him the portfolio of Interior in the new Cabinet. It is by far the most critical appointment and essential to have in it a man who knows his own mind and is not afraid to express it. The question was what Yasin's mind {was} is. Sir Percy, who had been favourably impressed by him agreed with the King that he was the best choice if he accepted the terms - treaty, mandate and the rest. (The mandate has been much softened down since Mr Churchill has agreed to announce that the moment 'Iraq enters the League of Nations it becomes a dead letter. Now one of the clauses of the treaty is an undertaking on our part to get 'Iraq admitted as quickly as possible.) Accordingly the King sent for Yasin, gave him the treaty - which he already knew a great deal about; he had told us it was in his opinion extremely generous - and bade him think it over.

At that very moment a painfully dramatic incident occurred. A man called Rashid Abu Timman handed over to the Arab Inspector General of Public Security, Isma'il Beg, a letter written to himself six weeks ago by Yasin when he was in Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An]. Now this Rashid is an uncle of Ja'far Abu Timman, the implacable extremist whom Sir Percy deported when the King fell ill, but he is not on good terms with his nephew, nor does he share his political views. The letter had to do with appointments in Nasiriyah and it ended with a postscript to this effect: "Present my compliments to Ja'far Chalabi and tell him I await his orders. Please God we shall succeed in driving out the oppressors" i.e. us. Ismail Beg took the letter at once to Mr Cornwallis who instantly came across to show it to Sir Percy. Mr C. and I went back to lunch together and discussed it, you may imagine with what disappointment and discouragement. That night I dined with the King and the Amir en famille. It was very delicious to see them together but our style at dinner was rather cramped by the presence of two Turkish doctors whom King Husain had sent out to make sure the operation had been properly performed! pure Turks! and we constantly found ourselves heading into talk about the Kamalists and had to back out. After dinner the King took me upstairs to show me the really gorgeous presents he is going to give his English doctors and nurses - he is generous beyond words - and then kept me to tell me of his interview with Yasin which he had had that afternoon, and his great hope that Yasin was going to prove a tower of strength to him. And I, knowing about the letter, said nothing.

Next morning Mr Cornwallis showed it to him and to the Naqib. Both agreed that unless Yasin could give a satisfactory explanation he was ruled out. The crucial interview took place that night, the 21st, between Mr C., the King and Yasin, before dinner. The King conducted it very skilfully. He asked Yasin whether since his return from Syria he had been in touch with political parties. Yasin swore that he had kept out of all politics, that he was determined to study the situation himself and not be led by anyone. The King then asked him whether he knew Rashid Abu Timman. He said he did, slightly. The King continued: "Have you written to him?" Yasin said he had, on an unimportant matter. The King then turned to Mr Cornwallis and said: "Have you got that letter, Cornwallis?" Mr C. produced it and Yasin said it was his but added that it was merely complimentary - he didn't mean to take orders from Ja'far Abu Timman or anyone else. The King accepted this (I'll tell you later what he said to me about it) and went on to ask Yasin his views on the treaty. Yasin replied that the treaty was all right so far as it went but it could not possibly be signed till all the subsidiary agreements were drafted and accepted, otherwise the British Govt would still be able to throttle the Arab Govt. I must tell you the subsidiary arguments are in fact very important; they deal with matters such as the number and status of British advisors, details of financial control, etc, but it has always been agreed that the thing to do was to get the treaty through in principle, subject to ratification by the British Parliament and the Arab Constituent Assembly. Before it was laid before those bodies, the subsidiary agreements would be ready and might if the worst came to the worst, form the subject for rejecting the treaty, or more hopefully might themselves be amended without touching the principles laid down in the treaty.

The King then took an extremely firm line. He said if this were Yasin's attitude he could not give him high office, there was no possible way of approaching the treaty except by assuming that the Governments had confidence in one another and desired an arrangement which would be advantageous to both. If Yasin held H.M.G. in such suspicion he was not the man to put the treaty through.

With that they went to dinner - it must have been a sticky meal. After which the King had a private talk with Mr C. and told him that the appointment of Yasin must be definitely abandoned. Mr C. left him calling up Yasin.

We know what took place between them. H.M. gave Yasin his quietus and Yasin replied "Oh yes I know, I couldn't take office now; they have lost their trust in me."

A tragedy isn't it - and yet do you know, I Bellieve in the end the man will come to the top and my feelings about the letter are very much those that the King gave me on his side after an immense dinner party to which he invited us all last night in honour of Zaid. You must get the right orientation if you want to sit in judgment on the East. There are not six men in this continent who would not condone the letter, as Yasin condoned it, as the King condones it - merely complimentary. I objected, because I had to object, that it was to us inconceivable. We don't mind when a man comes and says to us "You are oppressors and scoundrels"; on the contrary we should probably reply, "By Jove! so we are!" (What I said was "Wallahi! Allah A'lam: By God! God knows best!) But to say to us "You are the only possible salvation of my country" which was what Yasin had gone out of his way to declare to me, and to write to another "Please God, we'll get the oppressors out" - that was what we couldn't pardon. Not that [it] is a question of pardon but of the possibility of reposing confidence in him in the future.

The King's reply was on these lines: "I know that's the way you think, but it isn't the way we think. Remember we have been slaves for 600 years. The slave must protect himself - by cunning. He is obliged to keep a foot in both camps - hattu ana: even I do it. We have not had centuries of liberty to train us to be free men."

It's an appeal ad misericordium but it's true and I recognized that it was being very finely and simply stated by my Lord the King. But he returned to his contention that he could not employ Yasin, much as he regretted it, because of his expressed opinion on Arab relations with ourselves. "I thought he would be of great use to me" he said sadly "but I can't use him now." By that time I had got myself so well oriented that I replied with an assurance that some day H.M. would be able to use him. And I feel certain of it; Yasin is a man, but he is a man born in Asia not in Europe.

I have found out quite casually from Sabih Beg, who is his great friend, that he did try to go back to Turkish service last year. He was living in Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)], out of work and badly off, and Faisal, who did not trust him, had refused to let him come back to Baghdad for some time to come. His brother Taha, also a soldier and now employed in Mosul, being at his beam ends, went to C'ple and with the help of Sabih Beg, who introduced him to the C.G.S., Riza Pasha, got a job on the General Staff. When Yasin heard of this he wrote to Taha and asked whether he could not be taken back also - he has a very distinguished military record; he commanded an Army Corps on the Galician front and beat us in Palestine in the beginning of 1918. Negotiations were in progress when an order was issued from the Angora [Ankara (Ancyra)] GHQ that no officers who had remained more than a year after the armistice out of the Turkish Army were to be reemployed in it; Riza Pasha in C'ple at once toed the Angora line and Yasin's application was rejected. But after all, what of that? All our high officials were Turkish employees.

I wonder what will be the next move with Yasin. Sir Percy thinks very strongly that he ought to be made to resign his present appointment of Mutasarrif of Nasiriyah, otherwise we must publish the letter. I feel sure the publication of the letter would do no good but I hope Yasin will resign. Meantime, will he come and see me? or shall I presently send for him? and if so what shall I say? If he came of his own accord, it would go a long way to bridging the gulf, or equally if he went to Mr Cornwallis. But for two days we have seen nothing of him. I've told you this story at great length, but it is interesting, isn't it?

The other salient figure in our landscape has been Shaikh Mahmud of Sulaimani [Sulaymaniyah, As]. He arrived in Baghdad from Kuwait [Al Kuwayt] on the 13th. It was, of course, heaven sent that Major Noel who as his advisor during our brief honeymoon with him in the winter of 1918-19, should have been here - Sh. Mahmud fell on his neck. In conversation with Sir Percy he showed a very reasonable spirit. He does not appear to bear us any grudge for 3 years' imprisonment - they never do - on the contrary what chiefly impressed him was our remarkable clemency in letting him out! As to taking over Sulaimani he expressed great diffidence, but no doubt that was partly because he wanted to secure from us as much help in money and arms as he could. On the 'Iraq Govt his opinion was very pronounced - we might 'ave [sic] it; however Sir Percy persuaded him that he must in any case be on good terms with his neighbour and he ought to take this opportunity to come to a sound understanding with Faisal. Accordingly he went to see him two days after, on the 16th, and came straight from the interview to call on me in the office. He was guarded as to what had passed but evidently gratified. The King sent for me in the afternoon and related the conversation. He had clearly been very tactful, H.M. had. He told Sh. M. that the interests of the 'Iraq and Kurdistan were one. He regarded Sulaimani as a fortress against the Turk and anything he could do to help him he would do. Kurdish officers and men in the 'Iraq Army would be lent to him if he wished and might ultimately take service with him if they wished. After that until Sh. M. left on the 20th he came to call on me daily, indeed I consider him my latest scalp - not a very reputable scalp. On the evening of the 20th he went to Kifri which is, you remember, near the railhead in Kirkuk Division, taking with him Major Noel, five Kurdish officers from the 'Iraq Army and a selection of adventurers and scalliwags. On arrival there he sent me a long and flowery telegram! The position is what we describe in official reports as obscure. There is a strong pro-Turkish party in the province and every agha who isn't a relative of Shaikh Mahmud's is a rival or an enemy. Whether the prestige which our backing lends him will be enough to hold him up, I don't know. Meantime neither Major Noel, for whom Sh. M. has begged, nor any other British officer may set foot in Sulaimani until Karim Fattah Beg who murdered Captains Bond and Makant is caught or driven out. The last we heard of him was that Shaikh Qadir, Sh. Mahmud's brother, has appointed him Mudir of the Zab Nahiyah! Whatever happens, the Sulaimani Division is bound to relapse into the chaos from which we rescued it and we shall not attempt to stop it. Nevertheless on the arrival of Sh. Mahmud at Kifri the Kurdish tribes of Kirkuk Division unanimously signed a petition to be released from obedience to the temporary Arab Govt and allowed to form part of Kurdistan under Sh. Mahmud. Who so pleased as they? they see a glorious prospect of no-govt; it's the peasant and the merchant who suffer. These, if they see no prospect of help from us will ultimately turn pro-Turk, on the principle that any Govt is better than none. No, I don't take a cheerful view of Sulaimani politics. But as rogues go, Sh. Mahmud is a nice rogue; I'm not so very sure that after all the scalp isn't his. At any rate I've collected another very singular episode for my Life and Times.

I'll tell you whom I do like and that's Zaid. I sat by him last night at a dinner of 17 courses - H.M.'s dinners are far too long, but otherwise pleasant. It was a full dress dinner, Generals and High Commissioners and orders[?] - I do bless my miniatures in this connection. I never could keep my evening gowns from sagging down to somewhere near the line of the waist till I had them. The Amir is enchanted at having escaped from the prison house of the Hijaz and determined to go to England for a couple of years to study. I cheered him on. It will make a man of him - the materials are there. So you may presently find a small Royal Highness presenting letters of introduction at your door. He speaks a little English and he is busily learning more.

Sasun Eff. and Naji Suwaidi lunched with me today and we discussed amongst other things the new Cabinet which is now, with terrific birth throes, coming into being. At 4 o'clock I went with Mr Davidson to a party given by the Salam Library, of which I'm President, to Amin Raihani. It was very successful. We had invited all the leading people of Baghdad and they all came. I made a short speech and Amin R. spoke both in English and Arabic. Yasin Pasha was there, among the rest; we exchanged friendly greetings on the pre-letter terms.

Now Mr Davidson and Mr Cornwallis are coming to dinner. We always dine together on Sunday.

King Husain's antics are likely to cause reactions which I hope will affect mainly himself. In reply to an extremely polite letter which Ibn Sa'ud sent him by the hand of the Najd [(Nejd)] pilgrims, the King demanded of the Sultan that he should return Hail to the Rashids and other equally impossible requests. Also, according to Ibn Sa'ud (you know he is the Sultan of Najd?) the King assembled the Najd pilgrims and told them he was ready to resign the throne of Hijaz in the Sultan's favour if the latter would cooperate with him in driving out the foreigner (i.e. us) from Arabia. A nice friendly sentiment, isn't it. In the batch of letters from Ibn Sa'ud was one for me, of which I enclose a copy for your amusement. He is, however, among Arab rulers, the only man we've struck.

I need hardly tell you with what eagerness we follow the news from Turkey. The response from the Colonies filled me with pride and joy. On the other hand aren't the French, as I said before, intolerable beasts? Mark my words they're getting ready to hand back Syria to the Turks and they'll do it gladly because, owing to our detestable Zionist policy, Palestine will probably go too.

Well, the interest doesn't diminish with the passage of time!

Sep 28. [28 September 1922] A new planet has risen in the shape of Sir John Salmond, Air Marshal, who takes over command of all British forces on Oct 1. He arrived on Sat. and on Monday Col. Borton, Group Commander, very kindly asked me and the Bourdillons to dinner to meet him. He is rather like his brother Sir Geoffrey in face (you met the latter at Cairo) but twice the size, and twice the man. I don't know when I've been so suddenly impressed by anyone. He is alert, forcible, amazingly quick in the uptake, eager to learn and from the questions he asks I should say an adept at study. For the first time we have in the highest military command a man who means to understand the 'Iraq and our dealings with its people. He dined with me last night to meet Mr Cornwallis - just we three for I wanted him to get into instant touch with the 'Iraq Govt to which Mr C. Bellongs. We had the most enchanting evening for Sir John is delightful to talk to on any subject. And when he left Mr Cornwallis and I were so immodest as to confide to one another that we thought it had been an evening most profitable to Sir John! He said so himself anyway.
I had lunched with Mr C. on Tuesday to talk over the latest Turkish news. They are preparing another attack, confound them, this time on 'Aqrah [(Akre)], just north of Arbil [(Hawler)]. The question is whether with Sir John in command we shall be able to circumvent them. They've no force but they shake their fists at the tribes and since up to now we've carefully kept our fists in our pockets the tribes think that the Turks are the only people who have got any. That's why we lost Sulaimani [Sulaymaniyah, As]. We took action finally but we took it at least 48 hours too late. Our strength is speed and hitherto we've been commanded by a man who hasn't been taught what speed means. Now we shall have a chance to put the great experiment to a fair test and find out whether swiftness, the lightning thrust, isn't the final word in tactics.

I dined on Tuesday night with the Bourdillons. I was tired but after dinner Mrs B. and I sat with Mr Drower very peacefully on the terrace over the river and talked while the others played Bridge. And tonight I've just come in from a state dinner with the Coxes to say goodbye to Sir Theodore - the King and Zaid were there. Sir Theodore is coming to see you in London; you mustn't forget him - when you see someone with a head completely covered with snow white hair you must recollect that it's Sir Theodore with whom you dined at Mosul [Mawsil, Al].

This afternoon the Naqib invited me to be present when he received the Iradah from the King commanding him to form a new Govt. Mr Cornwallis and I were the only two English people present. The Iradah came in state, brought by the head of the Diwan, a Chamberlain and two ADCs and enclosed in a red velvet envelope. The head of the Diwan, Rustam Haidar, read it out, the Naqib replied in suitable terms, Mr C. and I standing in a respectful attitude behind him; after that we sat down in silence and I was just wondering whether the moment had come to say what a fine day it was, when the Naqib embarked on an impressive little speech about the honour he felt it to serve his King and country. Sherbet and coffee were then served, the conversation assumed a brighter hue and after offering our congratulations to the Naqib, we all took our departure, leaving him in the bosom of his sons, brothers and grandsons.

The Cabinet is formed and it's not good. At the moment when our chief concern is to combat Turkish propaganda, no Nationalist elements have been introduced. We've shuffled the old members, that's all. The King's face is now turned due west; I would have given a great deal to have got a cabinet to his taste. But Yasin failed us and him and Naji Suwaidi, whom failing Yasin he wanted in Interior, was anathema to the Naqib. Heaven help us!

It's midnight, darling - good night!

Sep 29. [29 September 1922] Your letter of Sep 6 gave a very agreeable account of your Scotch travels. What you tell me of Haddad is very useful. I am enclosing a note to Baffy[?] whose address escapes me. You may read it if you like. Between ourselves, of all the empty old windbags I ever met, Haddad comes easily first. He is in London because the King was busy expiring from the boredom of having him here.
Mother's letter is also dated Sep 6. I don't think I've met Lady Archer but I like Sir Geoffrey very much. As for Mrs Knowles or Knollys I never heard of her and what she appears to have heard of me does not seem to have been worth her attention.

Dearest parents, goodbye. The post leaves today. Your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

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