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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
Hashimi, Yasin al-
Askari, Ja'far al-
Suwaydi, Naji al-
Cox, Percy
Cooke, R.S.
Cornwallis, Ken
Hussein, Feisal bin al-
Eskell, Sassoon
Sa'id, Nuri al-
Cox, Louisa Belle
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter, paper

33.315241, 44.3660671

Baghdad Thursday May 18. Darling. A fortnight since we had that heavenly afternoon at Ba'albek [Baalbek] and a week since we motored to 'Amman with Humphrey - can you believe it! It seems like a most enchanting dream. And hasn't it left a delightful memory. I keep thinking of all those nice places with you in them, remembering how you looked and what interesting things you said in your Belloved voice. Indeed I do miss you very much and any time in the world I would like to have that whole fortnight over again just as it was. But Inshallah we'll have another quite as nice - and longer.
The only thing I didn't like was hearing your voice for the last time on the telephone on Friday evening - it made me feel dreadfully homesick. However next morning I was more cheerful, what with setting off and everything. There was, perhaps you noticed, a great deal of wind but it was mostly behind us and sped us along - once we were off. For first of all the GAs needed some tinkering - Col. MacNeece and I put in the time strolling about and talking - and then we all packed in and sent off the wireless machine and behold it didn't wireless. So we all packed out again while it changed its apparatus and at last about 11 we were really off. We did the journey in 6 hours coming down at Ramadi [Ramadi, Ar] for a quarter of an hour to refill. It wasn't really quite as comfortable as the Vicar's Vimi [i.e. Vickers Vimy], though so much quicker, because you are much less sheltered in a GA and the wind being slightly in the north was very battering on the left side. Guided, however, by the gesticulations of my charming pilot, Mr Brunton, I succeeded in following the track (the motor track across the desert) and keeping count of the landing grounds, so that I knew exactly where we were all the time. We flew very high, 6000-7000 ft, and very fast, 100 to 110 miles an hour. Just before we reached Ramadi it rained a little and when we got in we found it quite cool. The whole journey was most agreeable and I fear I've become the confirmed aviator. By the way I got your telegram from Cairo but I didn't understand it all, not having a code. "As mascot" gave me the gist of it. I asked if they could wireless to you at Shepheard's - I wonder if you found a message when you arrived? Anyhow you heard of my arrival next day.

I went straight home and after tea walked round to the Davidsons to hear the news and telephone to Sir Percy - my telephone was out of order. Mr Davidson and I sat on the balcony over the river till dinner and he told me that the ultimatum had come from home: the 'Iraq Govt must accept the positon of our holding a mandate from the League of Nations and interpreting it by a treaty with the 'Iraq, otherwise we would clear out by Xmas. (All this is of course private.) Next morning immediately after breakfast and Capt Clayton came in to tell me the whole position. The treaty was before the Ministers who were jibbing at the responsability [sic] - Ja'far Pasha so much afraid of having to give a decision that he had bustled off to Mosul [Mawsil, Al], but the King quite convinced that there was no alternative but to accept and ready to take the responsibility on his own shoulders. We agreed that he ought to get the backing of his Cabinet so that together they could put an approved treaty before the Congress. In the afternoon came Naji Suwaidi, most reasonable about the whole matter, condemning the agitation against the mandate - which is after all only a mandate in the second degree - and feeling certain that the country would accept it. Then I had Saiyid Husain Afnan - very anxious to hear about his betrothed whom I told him we had both liked particularly - and then Sasun and Ja'far Abu Timman (the latter Minister of Commerce and a pronounced extremist - I was touched at his bustling in to see me) but there were other people there, English, and we didn't talk politics. On Monday I had an interesting morning in the office - a long talk with Sir Percy and lots of people to call - and at 4 I went to tea with the King. I took him your letter with which he was very much pleased, and told him all about 'Abdullah and Palestine and Syria. That led us to ourselves and he talked very delightfully about his feeling that as long as he had our confidence nothing mattered. I said that I had come back with the conviction that we were the only Arab province which was set in the right path and that if we failed here, which I {thought} hoped was unthinkable, it would be the end of Arab {hopes} aspirations. He was most affectionate and charming and oh dear I'm glad that it's he and not 'Abdullah! There may be difficulties in dealing with a creature so sensitive and highly strung but his fine and vital qualities and his wonderful breadth of outlook make up for everything. By the way, I oughtn't to have said tea. Being Ramadhan there wasn't any tea but he King pressed me so eagerly to smoke that I thought there must be a reason - there was; he wanted to smoke too! So we broke the fast in an unsubstantial manner.

Saiyid Husain came to dinner, and we talked of Syria and the Naqib's attitude as to the treaty and everything.

Fakhri came to call next day at the office with many tender enquiries about you. I told him you had loved the cigarette case (sic) and that your photograph was coming.

In the afternoon I had the Minister of Interior and Col. Vincent and the Mutasarrif of Hillah [Hillah, Al] who has been doing all the things he shouldn't do, chiefly in the direction of stirring up the tribes against the mandate. He had just had a wigging from Mr Cornwallis and came to me very full of specious excuses. I like the man and I believe we'll get him to run straight. He brought his wife (he and I had a heart to heart talk in the office in the morning and he had asked if he might bring her to my house in the afternoon). She is a delightfully attractive little Aleppine with whom I made great friends. Mr Cornwallis, and Capt Clayton dined with me and stayed till 11.30 - a real departmental dinner! I must say I have lovable colleagaues, and they are also wise and tactful and everything they should be. It's on the whole a very remarkable political atmosphere in my service. By the time they left I felt I had picked up most of the threads of the last fortnight and got hold of them by the right end, having had them thus presented to me.

Nuri Sa'id had been to call the day I was with the King so I sent him a message to come yesterday - Wed. He turned up at 4 with Yasin Pasha and his brother Taha, both arrived since I left. Yasin is a man who is bound to take a part here and a big part. I met him in Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)] in 1919 where he was a very violent Nationalist. He became much more violent later and was the moving spirit in the agitation against us in 1920 - the moving spirit from the Syrian end. We refused to let him come back last year and Faisal wasn't anxious to have him either but finally this spring it was decided that he should be allowed to come. He is a distinguished soldier and covets, it's generally understood, Ja'far's position as Minister of Defence. He is very markedly a person, but which way he will jump no one knows - I doubt if he knows yet himself; he is taking stock. He began by being very silent and distant; then as the talk developed between Nuri and me he took more and more part and presently he was discussing the treaty and the mandate with what seemed to me to be very good sense. After an hour and a half I was obliged to break off because I had an appointment with the Naqib, so they took me round to his house in their motor and we parted on cordial terms - at least I think so. I know I had received a favourable impression.

The Naqib was very bobbish. Full of talk of you and most anxious to hear all about Palestine and Syria. He was delighted with your letter and intends to write to you. Towards sunset Saiyid Husain came in - while we were still chatting we heard the gun which ends the day's fast. The Naqib isn't fasting but he observes Ramadhan in so far that he dines immediately after the gun fires. He invited me to dine too so we went into the next room where there was an immense round tray on wooden legs with all sorts of tiny dishes of preserves and pickles laid round it. We sat down on low chairs, the Naqib and I, Saiyid Husain and Saiyid 'Abdullah, one of the Naqib's younger sons, and were served with an immense and excellent meal. I really felt much honoured at taking part in it. After dinner Saiyid Husain and I sat and gossiped with the old thing till past 8 and then I left, for I knew that he had all the ministers coming at 9 to discuss the treaty. Incidentally I may say that these discussions don't get them much further, for they are all waiting for the Naqib to give them a lead and he absolutely refuses to do so!

May 19. [19 May 1922] Mr Smallwood has arrived, the new {legal} financial advisor to the High Commissioner. I've been lunching tà te Ö tà te with him today, for the Coxes were both out. He seems able and shrewd, rather rigid, glad to be out of Zionism. I rode out yesterday afternoon to see the English manager of the King's farm. He has been getting rather onto the rocks, poor dear, because all the ADCs will interfere with the management. However there's a new Syrian arrived on purpose to run the farm with Captain Lloyd and the latter likes him and thinks things will go better. I'm going to see him shortly and urge him to keep the ADCs out and with all their cousins, nephews and more distant relations. Kings do seem to have a fatal attraction for rogues. I called on Nuri and Ja'far's families on the way home and was received with open arms. And then on Sasun who gave me a lively description of the debates on the treaty. I think Sir Percy will have to give them a poke - I wonder if he'll agree.

Meantime if I'm not mistaken public opinion is crystallizing hard in our favour and I believe if HMG would put the issue openly and clearly the large majority would declare for keeping us on any terms. One never knows for certain but that's my impression. Naji Suwaidi and others are hard at work at pro-British propaganda and the news of the Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)] troubles, as it comes through, is doing us a lot of good. We compare so favourably with the French!

Oh Father, you remember the story about the girl? well, it hasn't gone well at all. No sooner was my back turned after taking her home to her father than she nipped out of the house and ran back to the lodging. Then, when he came to take away the furniture, the young man found her and there she remained. Today I went again, taking with me the head of the department, Major - I won't give names. The girl was out but we had a spare key, I went in, collected all her Bellongings and took them to her father's house while Major - packed all the furniture (which Bellongs to Capt -) into a van. When I came back the girl was sitting veiled in the almost empty house and came quietly away with me in the motor. I took her to her Father, but a fresh difficulty arose, for he said it was now impossible to have her, as all the neighbours would turn on them. I said they must move to another quarter of Baghdad and that I would see that they were given the money for the move. The girl, who is very handsome begged me to let her come to me as a servant, but I absolutely declined - naturally. With that I left, telling the old father to set about at once looking for the new house. But I feel anxious as to how it will all end and I devoutly wish I wasn't an actor in the tale. But what could I have done?

Sunday May 21. [21 May 1922] (Oh darling doesn't it seem almost impossible to believe that 3 weeks ago we were having that enchanting morning at 'Amman! But it's good to think of. I wish I were with you in Paris; all the same I know I ought to be here, so that's that.) The matter of the girl has taken a turn for the better! The old Father came in yesterday morning and said he had found a house for Rs 1000 a year. His sister would not keep him any longer in her house where he was living free of charge. So I went to Sir Percy and said I thought the Rs 1000 should be given and that Capt - might think he had got off easily. Sir Percy backed me and that is how it has been arranged - all very diplomatically; the money given as if from me so that Capt - is out of it. And I'm so much relieved.
Yesterday there was a fearful duststorm in the evening and after it rain which keeps the world cool. Indeed it hasn't yet been hot at all and I'm sitting this morning quite comfortably without a punkah. Major Yetts, up from Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An] where he is now advisor, dined with me last night. He has been having a very thin time with a quite impossible Mutasarrif put in by the King who is very much attached to him. He is a violent and ignorant young extremist with no notion of administration, and he has got all the tribesmen by the ears. They are saying that if this is Arab Govt they don't want it. However as I told M. de Caix mistakes get righted. The King has already agreed to his withdrawal and I hope H.M. is having a heart to heart talk with Major Yetts this morning. People like Major Yetts understand the tribesmen a thousand times better than the young and ardent Nationalist does; they therefore cling to their British officers and the advanced groups look on them with suspicion and are all out to weaken the shaikhs. Sooner or later tribal authority must disappear; the shaikhs will become landed gentry and the tribes village communities. But you can't hurry the pace for at the moment the Arab Govt hasn't power enough to control the tribes except through the shaikhs; it therefore must use them and try to turn them into unofficial adjuncts of Government. Otherwise there is chaos.

The Ministers are getting no forrader [sic] with their debates on the treaty. I conceived the luminous idea that Sir Percy should be asked to come to one of the meetings, answer questions and generally, if possible, give a line. Husain Afnan jumped at it. I then approached Sir Percy who raised no objection, so I've told Saiyid Husain to egg the Naqib on to invite him; I hope it will prove a good move. (It hasn't! the Naqib has done nothing) There's another thing I'm busy bodying about. (I've said some of this already) The King took over the Military Dairy Farm. He put it in charge of the very capable man who had run it for the Military, Capt Lloyd, and I quickly made his acquaintance and told him to come to me if I could help him in any way. It's essential that the King should make a profit because he can't afford to lose - he must at least cover his expenses - which include a lakh of rupees and over for the military plant. When I came back I heard rumours that exactly what I had anticipated was happening. The ADCs were interfering and preventing Capt Lloyd from running the place on a business footing. I rode down to see him and found him on the verge of despair, with one ray of hope directed up an Arab officer called Subhi Beg Khadra whom Haddad Pasha had selected to co-operate with Capt Lloyd. Subhi Beg arrived about 3 weeks ago, promptly broke his arm and has only just recovered. He came to see me yesterday, a charming sensible creature. He's a Palestinian. I feel sure that he and Capt Lloyd will work well together. We had a very frank talk about ADCs and other matters and he is going to let me know how things prosper and if they don't prosper I shall go to the King about it. But I hope Subhi will manage things for himself.

We have the most interesting accounts from our Consul in Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)] of the troubles there which were far more serious than anything we were told in Syria. The French were incredibly foolish. They made the whole thing by giving it inordinate importance at the beginning and then had the world out against them. The most illuminating item was the exact account of 'Abdul Rahman Shabandar's exposition to Mr Crane of the Nationalist position. He scouted the idea of complete Syrian independence as at present impossible and asked for a Mandatory (not specified) who would both be capable of affording the assistance needed and also firmly bound by the Mandate to the League of Nations in order to prevent any infringement of native rights. For this the French gave him 20 years' imprisonment - we here would have recommended him for the Garter.

I breakfasted with Haji Naji this morning - at least he gave me breakfast, for he was fasting. He inquired eagerly after you and was as darling an old solid lump of widsom as ever. It's when I think of people like him that I'm content to wear through another summer. One can't leave them in the lurch.

Thursday May 25. [25 May 1922] I went to tea with General Fraser on Sunday - he's not an inspiring companion but I have a good deal of affection for him. He is also one of your admirers and very sympathetically listened while I told him how delightful it had been to be with you and how much I missed you. On Monday after my usual Committee of the Library I went to see Capt Wilkinson in hospital. He was turned over in a motor which rolled down hill and rolled onto him, breaking his left arm and dislocating his right elbow. I found him a very poor thing and didn't stay long. Col MacNeece was also visiting the sick and motored in to Capt Clayton's house. For I must tell you that in the morning Capt Clayton appeared in the office with a message from Ja'far asking us to put our heads together and draft something for him to present to the Council in favour of accepting the treaty with the underlying mandate. This the King required of him. So we quickly drafted a very passable exposition of the matter which Ja'far accepted though I don't believe he has done anything with it! I had Major Yetts {to dinner} afterwards. He is now Advisor at Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An] and has been having a very difficult time with a Mutasarrif who is a personal friend of the King and was appointed by him - the most ignorant and intolerable young extemist imaginable. After rather difficult interviews with the King in which Major Yetts spoke his mind, it has been agreed that the Mutasarrif should be removed and I hope the King won't bear any grudge. It's another example of what I told M. de Caix - mistakes are frequent but they get corrected. As long as that continues I don't fear the mistakes, only they cost rather dear, and one can't afford to have very many of them. Major Yetts is the best provincial officer we have. He has an unfailing knowledge of the ways of thought of the tribesman, infinitely greater than that of any young whippersnapper of an Arab officer, but to acknowledge that an Englishman knows their own people better than they do themselves is rather a bitter pill to the King and ardent nationalists. On Tuesday morning I inspected a girls' school recently opened in my own quarter of the town. Already they have 90 pupils including four or five little girls of the Naqib's family. We could open half a dozen more schools and fill them in a month if only we had (a) the money and (b) competent teachers. In the absence of these important items it's a slow and uphill job educating the children of Baghdad. I dined en famille with the Davidsons and had a most agreeable evening. He is a very wise and liberal minded man. Yesterday there appeared in the papers a letter from Shaikh Mahdi al Khalisi who is the most violent and intractable of the Shi'ah 'ulama, declaring that in the name of the Moslems of 'Iraq he rejects anything but complete independence. What will be its effect I don't yet know but Naji Suwaidi, who is an ardent Nationalist came in to see me this evening to urge the importance of getting pro-British propaganda started. He says he is going to set to work immediately after the end of Ramadhan and get a regular system of political agitation going. He feels certain that if the question is fairly put, 90% of the people of the country will support the treaty and pay no attention to the implied mandate. I've promised him all the help I can give him. The local press is being quite outrageous. It has no real importance as representing public opinion but as it is the only public expression it carries a certain weight. My own Bellief - which is shared by many - is that it is largely inspired by the King's entourage and that if he could be persuaded of this and silence his ADCs etc it would make a great difference.
I had a very pleasant dinner party last night, the Minister of Justice, 'Abdul Muhsin Sa'dun, a moderate and sensible native of Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)], Daud Haidan, a Baghdad lawyer and Rauf Chardirji, also a lawyer, well-educated, much travelled and entirely of our view of thinking in politics. Mr Cooke came too. You get a group of men of this kind, intelligent, capable and unprejudiced and feel in their company that the ravings and rantings of the nationalist press must be a bad dream. I'm encouraged after an evening of this kind to believe that with so many sensible people in the country unreason can't carry the day.

Well, it has been an interesting fortnight and it has confirmed me in the Bellief that after all we have the fundamental confidence and friendship of men of many shades of political opinion, and that is what matters.

Your little clock ticks cheerfully on my mantle piece - I hope you don't feel the lack of it. I can't tell you what a difference the fortnight's ideal holiday has made. I feel so much rested and get through the office work with half the trouble. There isn't really very much work now that I've finished the report for the S of S and I don't mean to take on any big job if I can help it but to leave myself pretty free to see people and hear their talk. I doubt whether there is anything more useful at this moment.

As we suspected there was a letter from Mother in my aeroplane - it was a great pleasure to have it delivered next day. I was much interested in what she told me of Mary Talbot's daughter - isn't it sad that Mary isn't there to rejoice over her.

I'm longing to hear of your doings in Cairo - I haven't heard of the arrival of the air mail today {(it's due)} - oh no, I'm wrong, it's due tomorrow.

The King has a levy on the 'Id but no one knows whether the 'Id (end of Ramadhan) is Saturday, Sunday or Monday! it depends on the inconstant moon. Meantime I'm having all my decorations made up in miniature because they are so heavy and inconvenient on one's thin summer clothes.

Darling I've written too much, but I can scarcely bear to stop because writing carries on the delicious habit of talking to you. My love to Mother and all my dear family. Your devoted daughter Gertrude.

We had rain again two days ago and it's still cool. I never knew such a May. At any rate we've escaped one month of what is usually hot weather.

[Note on back of envelope] Would you please send me a miniature CBE ribbon and medal. I can't get one here and the big star is so heavy to wear.]

IIIF Manifest