Request a high resolution copy

Letter from Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

There is currently no summary available for this item.
Reference code
Bell, Sir Thomas Hugh Lowthian
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Person(s) mentioned
Naji, Haji
Sa'id, Nuri al-
Askari, Ja'far al-
Cox, Percy
Wilson, A.T.
Cooke, R.S.
Cornwallis, Ken
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Eskell, Sassoon
Bourdillon, Bernard Henry
Cox, Louisa Belle
Joyce, P.C.
Drower, Edwin
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper
Iraq ยป Baghdad

33.315241, 44.3660671

Baghdad Feb 26 Darling Father. I shall begin my fortnightly letter. The airmail is a week overdue but I believe it is in tomorrow. The outgoing mail also was delayed - we have had a good deal of wind, bad for travel by air. On the whole however it's wonderful that the service has been well maintained all through the winter. We have a motor party crossing the desert also, partly to remark the aerodromes and partly to collect data for a possible railway. For the latter purpose AT [Wilson] went with them. I haven't any belief in that desert railway as a business proposition, but if the APOC choose to take it up the 'Iraq wouldn't say them nay. The Co. is not in very good odour because of the immense charges they are making for kerosine in Baghdad. AT had an interview with the King on the subject - the first time he has seen him. I went up to photograph the King next day but he didn't seem to have been favourably impressed by AT. "Oh my sister!" said he "A perfect thief!" This was because he had offered to buy kerosine in Muhammarah and transport it himself (AT having objected that the high price was because of the cost of carriage.) AT said that couldn't be managed - I expect they have a private contract with Mesperse[?] for the transport of oil. Meantime rage and anger are gathering round them for the price of agricultural produce has fallen to pre-war rates and the petroleum being 30 times the pre-war cost the cultivators can't afford to work their pumps. The APOC is making gigantic profits, I believe, but I don't think it will pay them, if they want further concessions in 'Iraq to maintain a stiff attitude with regard to prices. Already there's a good deal of murmuring that the mineral wealth of the country should be worked in the interests of the country.
Mr Thomson has gone as political officer with the motor party and is then going on leave. I miss him very much. He was such a comfortable person when you wanted a companion out riding or for an expedition.

AT is extremely affable to me and publishes laudatory appreciations of the Arab Govt in the papers, but in private I hear he says that he gives it 18 months' life. As far as I can see he is wrong in his calculations. The thing is settling down wonderfully, the right sort of people are being given office, Faisal's personal position improves daily and unless we have to quell a Kamalist attack I see no reason why any serious obstacle should be feared. What I like best to note is the way those who had no enthusiasm for or belief in Arab Govt are now taking it for granted and accepting the offices to which I'm glad to say the King as [sic] appointing them. The extremists talk a good deal but they don't make any actual progress.

As for extremists, I had a luncheon party for Yusuf Suwaidi last Tuesday - the King had asked me to be kind to him. Pace the King I continue to think him an empty old windbag. At the top of his voice he regaled us with platitudes - Mr Cornwallis, Mr Drower (Ministry of Justice, 'Abdul Majid Shawi and others were the other guests. 'Abdul Majid's pointed little occasional little remarks revealed a good humouredly cynical wisdom which was most refreshing.

The King gave an immense dinner party that night to which I was asked - Coxes, Bourdillons, etc. They are not very folichon as a rule but I had an amusing dinner sitting between him and Sasun Eff who were delightful together.

Two days later I took the King to see the apricot blossom in Karradah. I hadn't warned Haji Naji beforehand and he unfortunately wasn't there but the King and all his court were much impressed by the beautiful way the gardens were kept and very envious of the seedling fruit trees. One of Haji Naji's sons was there and said he would send him anything he wanted. On the way back Rustam Haidar and I motoring together met Haji Naji and told him about it. The net result is that the good old thing has delightedly presented the King with 300 or more little trees and I hope it will establish cordial relations between him and the palace. He came in to breakfast today, Sunday, and I gave him a letter to Rustam Haidar and told him to trot off and pay a call on the King. In his way he is one of the wisest people I know and a great gentleman, honourable and generous. He is also a loyal and devoted subject of Faisal's.

The King's need for fruit trees is that he has bought a large bit of the Dairy Farm which he intends to make into a park. Fakhri Jamil is helping him but I think Haji Naji could give him as good advice as anyone. Incidentally I don't know where he has found the money for the purchase which Haddad Pasha arranged for him. He hasn't a penny of his own to the best of my knowledge. But even if he has borrowed it, I'm very glad. First of all because it's evidence of his taking root and secondly because it gives him something to do out of doors and brings him up against different sorts of people.

On Friday morning Sir Percy and I went to a very sad ceremony, the funeral of Captain Fitzgibbon who was killed a month ago in the attack of the Persian Kurds on Halabja. It was a lovely sunny day and the military cemetary [sic], usually so barren and arid, is covered this year of rains with grass and the white and yellow flowers of the wild turnip - I could almost have made active expression of dissent when I was asked in the burial service to rejoice over the removal of that ardent, live creature from a world so full of hope and allurement.

I just had time to get back to the office and gobble a hard boiled egg (vide Constantine) when Mr Cooke came to fetch me to take me to the opening of the Suq 'Ukadh. The Suq 'Ukadh, I must tell you, was a famous fair held in the Days of Ignorance before Islam where all the poets of Arabia used to gather and compete in verse, some of which is still preserved. The young bloods of Baghdad propose to revive it as an annual function here, combining it with the exhibition of arts and crafts. It was held in a stretch of open ground among the palm gardens near the Hillah [Hillah, Al] railway station. There was an immense crowd of people - all the extreme Nationalist lot, but Mr Cooke and I were received with the utmost courtesy and conducted to seats in the front row opposite the red awning prepared for the King. He opened the function and sat for two hours with the admirably dignified bearing which he exhibits at public ceremonies while the prize odes and speeches were recited. Lord! they were long. I gained the approval of my neighbours by suggesting that odes at the Suq 'Ukadh should in future be limited to 250 verses. The set subject for the oration was why I love my country - a topic on which I defy anyone but the greatest genius not to be a tedious bore. Our young friends embraced with fervour the opportunities thus given them, they were not only prize bores but so longwinded that finally the King gave private directions that the last of them should be cut short in the middle of his eloquence. I was amused because I knew everyone and was interested to see how the wild Nationalist oratory was taken - it fell rather flat and there has been a good deal of criticism since that the Suq 'Ukadh is not a fitting place for the development of violent political themes. I love to see them bore themselves stiff with their own tosh! When at last we were set free to look at the exhibition there was a wild scuffle to follow the King, but Nuri Pasha with his usual thoughtfulness and good manners, piloted me through the crowd and we succeeded in seeing everything. It wasn't very much of a show - we had a much better one organized by the Military authorities in 1918. The best exhibit was that of the French nuns with the little orphan girls sitting on the ground and making lace. There was a tent full of pictures by local artists, quite incredibly bad. The subjects chosen were mostly allegoric representing the spirit of the 'Iraq, in various forms of dislocation, rising from ashes where, if she looks like that, it would be more discreet of her to remain. I judge that it will be some time before we produce our Michael Angelo.

I ended the day with a dinner party in my own house to which came Mr Cooke, Saiyid Muhi al Din (the second, and far the cleverest, son of the Naqib) the Governor of Baghdad (Taufiq Khalidi) Hikmat Sulaiman, an able cynical man - his brother was a famous War Minister under the Turks - and 'Abdul Latif Nuri, a member of the 'Iraq Army General Staff. Muhi al Din, Taufiq and Hikmat are all men of singular breadth of mind. People who think that the East has a wholly different mentality from the West should hear men of this kind when they are talking freely together as I think they do in my house. The real difference is in character; they are very reluctant to give themselves away in public - the weight of popular ignorance and superstition bears too heavily upon them. These three were discussing that night an episode which may possibly give the 'Iraq Govt some trouble. There's a house in Baghdad which Bellonged to Baha Ullah, the Persian founder of a reformed sect of Islam. The Bahais regard it with great reverence because Baha Ullah lived there for a time after he was exiled from Persia, some 60 years ago. The Shi'ahs, always the most fanatical and conservative element, treat the Bahais as schismatics, and are protesting against their retention of this house on the ground that it is a nest of heretics. The King and the Naqib are equally indignant at the agitation. The Naqib loathes the superstition of the Shi'ahs and to hear the King, in his more expansive moments, on the Shi'ah divines - well, it's a privilege. My Sunni guests, all of them really free-thinkers, were equally outspoken, and I can't help hoping that in this matter of the Bahai house the mujtahids - damnation to all of them - may find that they have embarked on a pretty tough proposition.

After the Arabs had gone, Mr Cooke and I sat long talking over the fire and we agreed that there couldn't be anything in the world more absorbing than to be in the very heart of intellectual Asia - to be watching and encouraging the effort to overmaster secular prejudices. Heaven knows their wits are acute enough; it's moral courage that's lacking to throw off the long domination of the theocratic ordinance in human affairs, which from a valuable restraint has become a cord of strangulation. After all it has taken us Europeans centuries to win through. I can frankly say, thanks to the struggles of the last two generations, that I'm not a Christian and no one excommunicates me, but Moslems have the battle still before them and it's complicated by the fact that the only obvious way to rouse the ignorant masses of Asia against foreign overlordship is an appeal to their religious beliefs. The men who make the appeal are themselves long past the tenets they preach - they use them merely as a weapon in political controversy, but until the battle is won they dare not abandon them.

Yesterday I had a European luncheon party; Mr Nalder down from Mosul [Mawsil, Al] and now off on leave, Capt Beale who had flown from Sulaimani [Sulaymaniyah, As], and the Joyces. And we talked. Capt Beale had been in the action in which Capt Fitzgibbon was killed; Mr Nalder has been holding the fort against the Turkish menace from the north. When we meet together we all of us know how hazardous is the gamble and they take it just as part of the day's job; while I am proud to be their colleague and only wish I could share with them the risk and the responsibility which they carry so gallantly. At least H.M.G. has determined not to withdraw the last of our troops from Mosul - that's a result, I expect, of Col. Borton's telegram of which I told you in my last letter - and I hear that the Air Council has declared that if the War Office won't defend Mosul, they will be forced to take steps to do so. (This is very secret.) A show of resolution on our part will arrest the danger, for the Kamalists are reduced to the most desperate straits. If the French had known how totally devoid of resources they are, they would never have concluded the Angora [Ankara (Ancyra)] agreement. In their desire to steal a march on us they've made a bad bargain.

After lunch I went out riding and called on Ja'far Pasha's family on my way home. I found them all in a house into which Nuri Pasha is just moving - Nuri is Ja'far's brother in law. Ja'far was there too and proudly introduced all his old aunts and aunts in law, and Nuri's aunts and I don't know what more. Anyway I felt like one of the family which is what gratifies me most.

Today I meant to go for a long ride but there was an abominable dust storm all day - you know what they are like - which tonight has turned into streaming rain. It's a rain which will ensure our magnificent harvest, so I can't regret it. In the afternoon we had a meeting of subscribers to the Baghdad library, of which I'm President, to elect a new committee. It was an enjoyable opportunity of meeting lots of people on a non-political and non-official basis and it will be most interesting to see the results of the elections. All the existing committee, which includes me and Mr Cooke and Sasun Eff may be superceded. I shan't mind, but on the other hand if they re-elect me I shall take it as a pleasant proof of confidence.

I went back to tea with dear Sasun and his brother and sister in law, the nicest of people, and Sasun took me home and stayed for a heart to heart talk about the King and the treaty with H.M.G. and all the things which preoccupy us. I do love him and value his friendship.

To turn to matters of minor importance, I'm living largely on delicious truffles. One usually gets them in from the desert at this time of year but I've never known them in such abundance as in this extraordinarily bountiful spring. Daffodils, marigolds and wallflowers are blooming in my garden and the rose trees are coming into bud.

March 1. [1 March 1922] The airmail has at last arrived bringing your letter of Feb 7 and Mother's of the 8th. I shall telegraph to you tomorrow suggesting that you leave by the boat of the {19th} 21st, meeting me in Jerusalem [(El Quds esh Sherif, Yerushalayim)] about the 29th. I can't go into details of my journey because it's impossible to know till nearer the time. At present motors go to Aleppo [Halab] from Mosul [Mawsil, Al] about once a fortnight but I don't know exact dates and by the last week in April they may be going oftener. It's from 3 to 4 motoring days to Aleppo from Mosul. Again it might be possible to go by air if Sir Percy would like me to stay here as long as I can. May will be very pleasant in Syria but I don't think you ought to arrive later than the end of April. We'll go across to 'Amman and see 'Abdullah!
You may take it that I'll manage to be in Jerusalem by Ap. 29. You'll telegraph to me the name of your ship and date of arrival at Port Said so that I may telegraph to you there my exact whereabouts. I think the probability is that I may be in Jerusalem a day or two before you, unless I came by air, in which case I should reach 'Amman on May 1 or 2 - but you, in that case, would come out and meet me in Amman and we would have a day or two there and then go back to Jerusalem. We might even run down the Hajj railway a bit by train - anyhow we'll see when we get there. I shall send Marie round by sea and if possible make her drop a box of clothes for me at Port Said as I can take so very little by motor. We might either come back from Egypt or go up the Levant by boat to C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)], but I think that would be rather expensive so we had better go home the cheapest way.

It was such a glorious day today. I went out riding in the afternoon through the green desert. The King has taken over the Dairy Farm and is busy planting trees down all the roads.

Oh and I must tell you (in private) that the Naqib has dug in his toes about the treaty and won't be responsible for it unless the mandate is specifically dropped. And what's more (but this is deeply secret) Sir Percy has advised that it should be and at his request I added a sentence or two to his otherwise admirable telegram pointing out (for this made his case so much stronger) that if we persist in claiming a mandate we shall unite against us in uneasy harness the extremists who will follow and outvie Faisal and the moderates who would find it almost impossible to go against the expressed opinion of the Naqib. So that we should arrive at a deadlock with the people who are most anxious for our continued presence here unable to advocate it on our silly terms. Which Heaven forbid! but all honour to Sir Percy for having boldly faced the problem.

I have 3 most darling rock partridges that live in my garden. They were given to me in a present. They are round[?] and tame and placid, addicted to dust baths and very fond of one another - a feeling to which they give expression by soothing little cluckings and gurglings.

March 2. [2 March 1922] I've telegraphed to you today and this letter goes by tomorrow's airmail. Ever your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

IIIF Manifest