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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
Suwaydi, Naji al-
Suwaidi, Yusuf al-
Dobbs, Henry
Cox, Percy
Eskell, Sassoon
Grey, Edward
Cooke, R.S.
Cornwallis, Ken
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Balfour, Arthur
Bourdillon, Bernard Henry
Cox, Louisa Belle
Shuckburgh, John Evelyn
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper
Iraq ยป Baghdad

33.315241, 44.3660671

Baghdad Feb 16 Darling Father. I wish I hadn't left a whole fortnight to be written about at one go, specially as I always seem to have so much to say! I remember the day after I last wrote to you I went out with Mr Thomson to see the Yusufiyah Canal. We had a delightful day. We motored to Mahmudiyah [Mahmudiyah, Al], half way to Hillah [Hillah, Al] where we found our horses. Then with a local shaikh and a few outriders we rode up the canal. It was an enchanting ride for this wonderful spring has covered the world with verdure and we cantered for an hour over short thick grass starred with tiny purple geranium and golden marigold. We got within about 12 miles of the Euphrates where the Mahmudiyah canal takes off from the Yusufiyah where we crossed the latter by a bridge and came back along the other bank. I must tell you the Yusufiyah is one of the oldest canals in the world. It was the Babylonian Nahr Malke, Julian sailed down it to Ctesiphon and the Abbasids redug it. Consequently there are great early Babylonian mounds all along it. Where we crossed by the bridge we were 4 miles from Tall Abu Habbah, which was Sippar, and as we came back we rode up onto a wonderful mound called Tall Dair. It was completely covered with potsherds and bits of brick and I picked up a half brick with an inscription in early Babylonian characters - which was rather interesting because so far as I know nothing earlier than Nebuchadnezzar has yet been noted there. It has never been dug, except for such grubbings as the Arabs have done. It has played a part in very recent history, for during the tribal rising of 1920 it was a stronghold of the insurgents who were finally driven out by repeated bombing by aeroplane. It is a most curious mound, roughly triangular with a high wall on two sides; on the third side the city mounds are indistinguishable from the wall. We rode back to a ruined khan by the roadside where we found our motor and our lunch - Khan 'Azzad, after which we motored down the Yusufiyah nearly to Ctesiphon - I hope for Julian's sake it wasn't so windy when he sailed there. So we came home, well pleased with all we had seen. And indeed it is the most wonderful sight of all to see the land going back into cultivation after an interval of so many hundred years.
Faisal sent for me that day, but as I was out I telephoned a day or two later to ask if I might come to tea. We had a tremendous talk. He is the most delightful creature and certainly one of the most amazing. I caught myself up in the middle of an absolutely frank discussion of his position here, of the strength of nationalist feeling and of the balefulness of Muhammadan religious influence and said to him that it was almost impossible to believe that while he had been born in Mecca [Makkah] and educated at Constantinople [Istanbul] and I in England and educated at Oxford there was no difference whatever in our points of view. His intelligence swings clear of prejudice but he lives inevitably in an atmosphere rather overheated by adulation - he has a little group of toadies round him who for ends of their own try to persuade him that he only has to come out into the open as an independent Islamic king for all the country to rally round him, Kurds as well as Arabs. I would be glad to think that was true but I know it isn't. The country will rally round him, but not because of a sudden and miraculous change of heart. What is needed is several years of stability and decent govt, not a miracle but a reward well earned by steady work. Our greatest drawback is that we have to do things in such a hurry. We are clearing out too fast, we're forcing him to take the responsibility too soon and at the same time we're refusing to recognize that the responsibility really is his. He is to my mind perfectly right when he says that if we would guarantee him immunity from attack for 20 years, he would be content to leave direction far more in our hands. But we can't; we juggle with words (there's a fine formula, invented at home[?], by which he is pronounced to have primary while we have ultimate responsibility and I leave you to attach a meaning to it) while the only part of primary or ultimate importance is that the Kamalists are concentrating on the northern frontier and that if they attack we retire "according to plan". Now to retire from Mosul [Mawsil, Al], Arbil [(Hawler)] and Kirkuk (for we couldn't put a man up to offer resistance north of Samarra and the Diyala [(Sirwan)]) means in plain words, bereft of formulae, the evacuation of the country. Faisal's argument is therefore as simple as it is unanswerable and it runs thus:

"You have not made peace with Turkey as you promised to do. I am in consequence faced with a danger from which you obviously don't intend to defend me.

Therefore you must give me a free hand to meet it my own way as best I can. As long as you talk about mandates I can't stand up before my people as a free Islamic sovereign and call upon them to support me in the name of independence.

It's of course possible that I might not succeed but at any rate I've a good sporting chance, especially as I could then open negotiations with the Kamalists myself in my own fashion, and the balance of probability is that they would be willing to meet me halfway."

To all this we reply with subterfuges which are as stupid as they are dishonest and if the Turks attack (as they might do any day) we shall earn the contempt and derision which we should well deserve.

Incidentally I may add that if the Turks do attack I shall not go on leave so will you please cancel all plans as soon as you read that they are advancing on Mosul.

Please show this to Domnul but otherwise it's private, except for Herbert. But I'll reduce my reasoning to still simpler form:

If we have a mandate we are bound to protect the mandated country from attack from without.

If we can't do that, we can't excercise [sic] a mandate.

Well to continue about the King: On Sunday we were all invited to a big luncheon party in the Naqib's garden down river. We went there with Miss Howell you remember. The King, the Coxes, the Davidsons, the C in C, Fakhri Jamil and I. The C in C took me down. There were also General Bulfin, whom I rather love (he sends you many messages) and Mr Weld Blundell, an archaeologist. It was the first time that the King had been in an entertainment in an Arab house. The Naqib's two eldest sons were hosts. The garden was looking lovely with the oranges hanging on the trees like jewels and before lunch Saiyid Muhi al Din and I took the King all round it. Lunch was a terrific function, about 15 courses. The effort to find a common denominator of language is unspeakably exhausting and I usually end by relapsing relentlessly into Arabic. The King and the C in C talk what you might call the worst French in the world if you hadn't heard that of Lady Cox, while neither she nor the C in C have a word of Arabic which was the sole language of our hosts. However, I think everyone was more or less pleased.

I've been entertaining a good deal myself. Last week I had Major Bourdillon to dinner (she was ill and couldn't come) with one of the King's secretaries (Amin Eff.) Rauf Chadirji Captain Cheesman and his sister, who is out here painting. The language was English and the evening went very well. But still better was a dinner party this week, Sata' Beg and his wife (she is a very charming Turk talking excellent English) the Davidsons, Mr Cook and Major Wilkinson. Then I had a really pleasant luncheon party for the Longriggs - Major Longrigg has just married a very nice, intelligent girl. General Bulfin came, Sasun Eff and Saiyid Husain Afnan while Naji Beg Suwaidi, who was prevented from coming to lunch, dropped in afterwards as he had known Sir Edward in Syria. Sir Edward and Sasun Eff got on splendidly and the General, who is very quick and clever in his appreciation of people, at once recognized Sasun's great qualities. Yesterday the King had a little teaparty - the Bourdillons, the Cheesmans and me, and we've arranged for Miss Cheesman to make a drawing of him tomorrow - I'm going up in the course of the afternoon to take some photographs of him for her and generally lend a hand. I dined with the C in C last night to meet the French consul and his wife, pleasant, very middle class people - he's only a temporary appointment. But there was also a Russian refugee girl there who is going to marry one of the officers at GHQ and is a quite magnificent musician. She played on the C in C's tinkly old piano till you felt the world swinging round - Chopin, gloriously well, and Russian dances and Grieg at my request. It's years since I've heard such music. You realize one's mental chords are stretched pretty taut just at the moment when it's all touch and go, and if someone touches them with so sure a hand - well, they vibrate.

If those politicians would give us a fair field (I've been lunching with Mr Cornwallis and Sir Edward Bulfin, hence my phraseology!) we should have such a fine chance. Already the country is finding its feet. The stable people, the big shaikhs and nobles, relying on our support of Faisal, are rallying round him and us combined. They are going to stand no nonsense from extremists and tub-thumpers. And the King is gaining confidence. He is putting in moderate men and gently discarding the revolutionists of 1920. My own special friends are playing up. Haji Naji, for instance, is now Mayor of Karradah, greatly to his disgust, but I told him he had to put his back into the job. He comforted himself by refusing to take any pay! 'Abdul Majid Shawi, having been supplanted as Mayor of Baghdad by Taufiq Khalidi (quite rightly supplanted, Taufiq is the more capable man) has consented to serve as a simple member of the municipal council because Taufiq told him he would be a great support to him. Saiyid Ja'far, at Kadhimain [(Al Kazimiyah)], has come out triumphantly head of the poll in spite of all the efforts of the extremists to discredit him as pro-British. Similarly the Mayor of Kirkuk, staunchly pro-British and through us more and more pro-Faisal, has been re-elected by an overwhelming majority. Yes, if they'll give us a chance, we and Faisal together will sweep the country at the general elections and set up a good solid state.

There! before I've done with Arabs I'll tell you a delicious story. There has been a good deal of chat about the position of advisors. Some of the ministers are merely stop gaps and notoriously incompetent and people not unreasonably complain that the British advisor is the seat of authority. The feeling is embodied in the following coffee shop anecdote. A. loq (over his narghilah) Men say that a certain Mulla has prophesized the immediate coming of the Mahdi. B. (grumpily) What good will that be? Christ will come too and he'll be the Advisor.

And the whole town is laughing over it, we and they, in perfect appreciation of the excellence of the joke.

Last airmail came in up to time on Feb 4 and brought me Mother's letter of Jan 22 and yours of Jan 24 with the account of Hugo's departure. You poor darlings! it must have been horrid. I was deeply interested in your City meetings with you in the chair - you were the first weren't you. As regards your plans later in April would suit me better than earlier but possibly if you can't manage that I can save time by going by air. Sir Percy would arrange it for me on the ground that I must have time to draft the report. Oderwise [sic] they don't take women - but I'm an officer and sexless. I shall love seeing you scarcely more than I shall hate going away from here.

I've a most entertaining account from Herbert of a Zionist meeting. Please let him see this letter and also tell him that I am in complete agreement with all his observations. General Bulfin remarked that he had thought the object of Balfour's declaration was to gather all Jews together in Palestine so that the Arabs might have the opportunity of massacring the lot. Ever darling your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

[Enclosure] Darling, I want to tell you, just you, who know and understand everything, that I'm acutely conscious of how much life has after all given me. I've gone back now, after many years, to the old feeling of joy in existence, and I'm happy in feeling that I've got the love and confidence of a whole nation. It mayn't be the intimate happiness which I've missed, but it's a very wonderful and absorbing thing - almost too absorbing perhaps. You must forgive me if it seems to preoccupy me too much - it doesn't really divide me from you, for one of the greatest pleasures is to tell you all about it, in the certainty that you will sympathise. I don't for a moment suppose that I can make much difference to our ultimate relations with the Arabs, and with Asia, but for the time I'm one of the factors in the game. I can't think why all these people here turn to me for comfort and encouragement; if I weren't here they would find someone else, of course, but being accustomed to come to me, they come. And in their comfort I find my own. I remember your saying to me once that the older one grows the more one lives in other people's lives. Well, I've got plenty of lives to live in, haven't I. And perhaps, after all, it has been best this way. At any rate, as it had to be this way, I don't now regret it.

IIIF Manifest