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Letter from Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

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Bell, Sir Thomas Hugh Lowthian
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Person(s) mentioned
Askari, Ja'far al-
Cox, Percy
Cooke, R.S.
Clayton, Iltyd
Sa'id, Nuri al-
Cornwallis, Ken
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Philby, Harry St John
Cox, Louisa Belle
Joyce, P.C.
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

Oct 8 Baghdad. Dearest Father. As usual, a great many things seem to have happened but for the most part we have had our eyes fixed on Chanak, whence they've shifted only as far as Mudaina. It's inconceivable that that should go wrong, for as Domnul says we absolutely can't go to war, yet with us everything is conceivable. We seem, however, to have found a man in General Harrington.
I wrote to you on the 29th, the 30th was the first of their autumn races. We began the day, the Joyces and I, by taking the Amir Zaid to Ctesiphon. We foregathered at the Diyala [(Sirwan)] bridge where I go [sic] into his motor and drove with him - I also drove back with him. He is an extremely nice boy, charming manners and so eager to find out and learn about everything - as quick and appreciative as the King. I took out breakfast which we eat under the shadow of the great walls while I told Zaid of all the battles that had been fought there, 637-1914. In the afternoon we went to the races as H.M. was going. There were very few people. I went to Sir Percy's box and he put me next the King. After we had talked a little, Sir John Salmond strolled over from his box, so I took him into H.M.'s box and we 3 had an hour's talk, I interpreting. The King went straight to the heart of things, asking the A.V.M. what he could do to protect us from attack, how much he could do, if at the worst we could ask for more help and so on. The Air Vice Marshal answered with as much directness and produced, as he does, a great feeling of confidence. Then we talked of Turkish propaganda here and how to check it till the races (which had been going on all the time) came to an end. It was a very satisfactory interview.

On Sunday 1st I rode far in the desert before breakfast. The early mornings are now too delicious - so delicately fresh. Captain Clayton dropped in after lunch - he had been away for a fortnight up the Euphrates with a column of the 'Iraq Army which was sent up to 'Anah to carry out some work there and has done very well. So we fell on each others neck and talked for a couple of hours without stopping and in the evening he and I and Mr Davidson all dined with Mr Cornwallis - our usual Sunday party. It was very nice to be together again, all of us. We're all great friends and we enjoy these meetings of what Mr Cornwallis arrogantly calls "the best brains in the 'Iraq!"

That was the day that the A.V.M. took over and next day there was a most important conference at the office at which he and Sir Percy and all concerned discussed the position. I wasn't at the Conference but I spent the first 3 hours of the morning preparing for Sir Percy an appreciation of the tribal situation along the frontier. After it was over Mr Cornwallis motored me home and told me how satisfactory it had been and how helpful the A.V.M. had shown himself.

He flew up to Mosul [Mawsil, Al] next day and has spent the week making a comprehensive tour of the frontier from which he returned yesterday, but I haven't seen him yet. And we, on that Tuesday, had a terrific day. Fakhri Jamil had invited the King to spend the day in his garden near Ba'quba [Ba'qubah] and H.M. had ordered Mr Cornwallis and me to come too. So we started at 5.45 a.m. and rendezvoused with Saiyid Mahmud, the Naqib's eldest son and the King ten minutes outside Baghdad. The King called me into his motor and we drove together to the outskirts of Ba'quba, spending the time in very delightful and profitable talk. Meantime Mr Cornwallis and Zaid sloped off to see it they could not get a little shooting and after waiting for them a little, we decided to go on without them. The Mutasarrif had come out to meet H.M. and I very tactfully put him into the King's motor (to the King's disgust!) and seated myself with Saiyid Mahmud. So we drove round Ba'quba past mounted police at the salute and came to Fakhri's garden, where also there were police at the salute at every turn. Faisal whispered to me, poor darling, "I thought I was going to have a day off!" The garden is beautiful beyond words, with its incredible vineyards, groves of date, pomegranate and orange, all laden with fruit. And the feeble[?] autumn stream of the Diyala running between high banks at its foot. Fakhri had pitched a fine tent for us to sit under and we sat - that's their idea of entertainment. There were lots of people, all the King's household, Amin Raihani, and Saiyid Husain Afnan. Presently breakfast was served at a long table under the trees and while we eat it, Zaid and Mr Cornwallis turned up. Afterwards Mr C and I went off together to watch the peasants gathering pomegranates and lie on the Diyala bank looking at the blue-green poplar leaves against the sky - I hadn't been a day out of Baghdad since I came back from Palestine and as far as I was concerned Fakhri's garden might well have been the gardens of paradise. We spent the rest of the morning sitting with the king et compagnie; Major Berry, the Divisional Adviser, turned up and was a tower of strength, being possessed of an endless flow of small talk. We arranged groups for Amin Raihani to photograph and we talked and talked. I may frankly say that without us Fakhri's party would have languished. And then lunch - it lasted an hour and a half by the clock. There were at least 19 courses, most excellent food, but who can eat so much at any time? I gave up the struggle after the third course and with Major Berry's powerful support set myself to amuse H.M. which we more or less succeeded in doing. But I wasn't sorry when (though we were still only in the middle of the sweets) he declared that he couldn't eat any more and broke up the lunch. Mr C. and I then considered that we might be off duty for a bit, so we left H.M. to a siesta in the tent and ourselves found a delicious place under the orange trees where we lay and said nothing except when we felt inclined which was extremely restful. But the most entertaining part of the day was the return for Mr C. and I, motoring together, broke off from the procession and went straight across the desert where we put up immense coveys of sandgrouse, chased them in the car and shot them (Mr C. shot them) in the midst of our course. We had all the triumph of superior tactics for the horrid little things, if you're on your feet, always get up just out of range and settle a quarter of a mile further, to get up again as you come near. But there we were going faster that they could fly. So, having punctured twice, we got back to Baghdad just after sunset, drunk with sun and air.

Major Noel lunched with me yesterday and returned to Sulaimani [Sulaymaniyah, As] last night. He described a situation in which he is hourly risking his life as "a very interesting experience." He is what would be called at Eton mad - an enchanting adventurer, without much balance, an immense understanding of the Kurd and flawless courage. He walked up and down in my room, describing unBellievable scenes - the whole population turning out in a burst of nationalist enthusiasm to meet the ignorant brigand of a Shaikh Mahmud, national flags flying, national anthems filling the air - "And have you seen this? it's the Kurdish badge" said Major Noel, pulling out of his pocket a crescent disk of gold. "They make them in the bazaar and they gave me one for a protection." He had motored within a hundred yards of the chieftain who killed our two captains and is bitterly hostile to Shaikh Mahmud. I don't think the gold disk would have helped him if Karim Fattah Beg had happened to be on the alert. But it was midnight.

Yes; they want a Kurdish state under British protection, but not a mandate - "What is a mandate?" interposed 'Abdul Karim of Qadir Karam, one of Shaikh Mahmud's relations. Major Noel explained. "But that's excellent" exclaimed 'Abdul Karim. "That's exactly what we need." "The word mandate" objected another "has not a sweet sound." "No, it doesn't sound well" agreed the company. Can you picture such a jumble of Fourteen Points and savagery, the League of Nations as applied to the remote corners of the world?

Finally they sent Major Noel down with a petition to HE in which they requested that we should pay all the expenses and provide every possible protection, while they dissipated the money and used Imperial Forces at their pleasure. He has gone back with a copy of the draft treaty with 'Iraq - this is the kind of thing we can give you, take it or leave it.

I'm afraid they will be disappointed.

Major Noel is the kind of person who has native servants of the most devoted faithfulness. These bring in to him all the gossip of the bazaars and through them he gives out what he wants to be Bellieved. For instance he learnt that Sulaimani was congratulating itself on the presence of an Englishman, because if things went wrong and we thought of bombing the place he could be held to ransom. So he let it be known that he had before leaving made a bargain with H.M.G. (sic) that if anything happened untoward he was not to be considered but in case of his death a sum of ú10,000 should be paid to his relations. So now they've given up the idea of using him as a shield against aeroplanes.

It's all completely fantastic but can't you see the courage and ingenuity of the man shining through it?

Nuri, Capt Clayton and I have had great meetings - Nuri has also just come back from the Upper Euphrates. I was out riding on the 5th and coming home I overtook them, riding to my house, where after two hours talk we decided that we still had so much to say that they had better come to lunch next day. They came, and stayed another two hours in the course of which we conceived a really good scheme, namely that the 'Iraq should ask to be represented at the Peace Conference with Turkey, being just as much interested in the Turkish peace as Bulgaria or Russia. I do hope it will happen - it would so immediately place the 'Iraq in the community of nations, after the conclusion of the treaty with us, of which it would seem to be the direct outcome.

So we all went to the King's tennis and after he had finished playing, Nuri and I laid the scheme before him. He jumped at it and said he would go and see the High Commissioner next day if I would prepare H.E.'s mind beforehand. This I did, and found H.E. quite amenable; the end of it is that after seeing the King he sent the suggestion home with his warm backing.

The main thing now -

Oct 10. [10 October 1922] I was interrupted here and forget what I thought was the main thing - oh yes, I remember; it is the main thing. Namely to get the extremists and the moderates to work together. At present the one is always on the alert to break the head of the other - I use the Arab idiom. It's very much on the principle of ìte toi que je m'y mette and there's often nothing else behind it. The extremists can easily break the heads of the moderates but the only result would be to send them crying to the Turks. Unless we help them, they won't move a finger, and if we help them, as Sir Percy did the other day, and break the head of the extremists for them, it's just as likely that the latter will cry out that the Turks are better than these tyrants of English. There are, of course, a few exceptions on both sides, and it's those we work for. You may reasonably ask why? and I'll reasonably answer: because the return of the Turks here is not a permanent settlement of the question. Arab nationalism, feeble as it is, has gone too far not to go further. The moment the Turks were back, with their inefficiency and ineptitude and amazingly bad rule, it would grow and grow, and with more convulsions, more wars, greater waste of time and wealth and life, it would end after all in establishing an Arab state. I want to take the short cut, if we can.
The treaty ought to have been signed yesterday but the Naqib jibbed! He wasn't well, he wanted to consult the new Cabinet - which with one exception is just the same as the old and has already passed the treaty! There's a Cabinet meeting today - we think the Ministers will binge him up.

I took Sidi Zaid breakfasting at 'Aqar Quf today. Mrs Joyce and a nice Major Maclean (Arab Army) came too. I'm free to say that Zaid was by far the most intelligently interested of the party. And I dined with Mr Cornwallis last night to meet some Egyptians, friends of his and mine. But poor Mr C. had a bad attack of fever and since he wouldn't leave me to entertain them I was left longing for the moment when we might all go away and let him go to bed. I hear he has got a temp. of 05 today - I expect it's sandfly fever. Everyone falls ill at this time of year.

We had a delightful dinner two days ago with Ja'far Pasha, Mr Davidson, Mr Cooke, Capt. Clayton and I, with Nuri and Amin Raihani. Ja'far has attained the height of his ambition. He has taken the lease of some date gardens just outside the North Gate, built a little mud house on it where he intends to live with his wife and children, cultivating the soil and breeding chickens in the intervals of running the Ministry of Defence. This was a house warming. He has a heart of gold, Ja'far. He was so childishly delighted with his little mud house and our pleasure at being invited to it - it really is a nice place in a primitive way, and infinitely better than living in a narrow, dusty Baghdad street. It has taken exactly 6 weeks to build.

Oct. 12. [12 October 1922] After writing the above I went out to get something in the town, just before tea time and lo and behold! the High Commissioner motoring in the direction of the Naqib's house, all in full uniform. So I at once jumped to the conclusion that zero hour was 5. So it should have been, but when Sir Percy arrived, he found the Naqib with his head bound up (he has been having earache) no pens or ink or anything and for half an hour they talked of the rain and the fine times as though such a thing as a treaty had never been heard of. At last Sir Percy said "What about the treaty?" The Naqib looked perfectly blank. "Have you got it?" said Sir Percy, turning to Saiyid Husain Afnan. Saiyid Husain produced it in English and Arabic. "What!" cried the Naqib. "What is this? I can't sign this - I don't know what it's about." Sir Percy observed that this was the English and authoritative text of the treaty they had come to sign and that the Arabic was the exact translation. "Then Saiyid Husain must be responsible for it - I don't understand it" replied the Naqib. Sir Percy returned gently that his secretary could not be responsible whereupon Saiyid Husain proceeded to translate a few clauses from the English. The Naqib then resigned himself and signed both copies. He is still ill and today is said to have fever. If he died, poor old boy it would be a comfort in some ways but rather ill omened.
I've been getting at the moderate party (which is under the presidency of the Naqib's eldest son, Saiyid Mahmud) and telling them they are quite disgracefully inactive. They do nothing. The fact is that all these old lords of turbans wear them tightly bound round their feet so that they can't move. I had Fakhri to lunch one day, the next I had Saiyid Husain in and gave him a talking to, and today Taufiq Beg, Minister of Justice came in to see me I spoke to him in a manner which surprised him. I'm going to have Saiyid Mahmud and a lot of them to dinner tomorrow and see whether I can politely dig a goad into them. Capt Clayton has just been lunching with me and egging me on!

I hear the King is overjoyed at the signature of the treaty. I went up and wrote my name with respectful congratulations yesterday but I haven't yet seen him. Today I've been translating his really beautiful proclamation which will be published in English and Arabic tomorrow together with the treaty. I wish I had more time to do it properly; it demanded better work than could be put into the 25 minutes allowed me.

I dined with the Salih Begs and Shahin[?] Beg last night - the Egyptians I told you of. The Salih Begs are really Kurds. She is really a very remarkable woman, speaks English as well as I do and French better, and is quite free of the veil though a good Moslem. They had all been to the great Shi'ah shrine at Kadhimain [(Al Kazimiyah)] and were horrified at what they called the idolatry they had witnessed - the people kissing the floor and weeping at the shrines of the two Imams. There was a feast on, so the demonstrations were louder than usual. They said, the Salih Begs, that this was the kind of thing that disgraced Islam. Their contempt for the 'Iraqis is quite comic. Their pretensions to self government they consider ridiculous. They are not very popular with 'Iraqis in consequence though respected as Bellonging to such very distinguished families.

Thank you for the press cuttings and Domnul's note. I won't divulge that I've seen the latter but he hasn't, of course, got hold of the thing quite right. Haddad's letter wasn't bad. It's very interesting about your going to Frankfurt.

Mother's letter about the play was very interesting too. I did read most of Mr Philby's book in proof but I found it somehow difficult to get through - indeed I don't think I quite finished it. The style is so terribly arid and official and the human observation nil. Which is a pity when we had such wonderful material. Nevertheless it is for geography and that sort of thing authoritative and records a wonderfully fine travel, though not finely.

Do you remember my telling you about a man called Capt Wilkinson who was in the Wireless here - a nice kind creature who was always doing good turns to everyone, including me. He has now gone home and written to me that he wants to leave the army if he could get a civil job. He has a wife and two children and finds it very difficult to live on his pay. He asks for an introduction to you. This is it. I don't personally think you can do anything for him. He was originally 2nd engineer on one of the Govt of India's ships in the Gulf. The Coxes have known him a long time and like him. He was in charge of a big wireless station here. Thank you so much for George's history. Your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

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