Letters

5 September 1920

From/To: Gertrude Bell to her stepmother, Dame Florence Bell

[5 September 1920] Baghdad Sep 5 Dearest Mother. The truth is I'm very tired of being so hot. One always feels in September as if one couldn't bear it any longer. We had some bad days this week with a blazing wind, but really it's beginning to cool off a little. One doesn't need a fan till about 10 a.m., but fan or not my office nears 100¯ every afternoon. I'm writing to you in answer to your letter of July 28 (Father's too of the same date) because you talk about my note on Sulaiman Faidhi. He is the sort of man that makes things so difficult to understand. He is one of the ex-deputies and sits on Saiyid Talib's committee. You would think he would lend a hand at finding some reasonable solution. Not a bit of it. He skipped off to Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)] shortly after that conversation and tried his level best to rouse the Basrah notables to active reBellion, telling them they ought to be ashamed of not joining in with Baghdad. I Bellieve he might have got a party together there if Ahmad Pasha Sana' (with whom Father dined) hadn't sat on him so heavily. One of his lines of argument was that Sir Edgar and I were heartily opposed to the ex-Deputy Committee and to everything that was being done. When he came back to Baghdad with his tail between his legs, thanks to Ahmad Pasha, I sent for him and told him I had heard of his doings. I also mentioned what I thought of them. Whereupon with the easiest mendacity, he denied everything - and he continues to do his utmost to breed dissension. What are you to do with that kind of man? there isn't a grain of honesty or courage in him, yet occasionally he may speak the truth and give one a useful hint, as he did that time to me. I had an interesting talk with the Naqib the other day - did I tell you about it? He said: "What good would it have done you if I had got up into the pulpit in Ramadhan and told them that their mauluds and religious meetings for political ends were contrary to Islam? I have a great deal of influence on the Indian frontier. The story would have been put about that I was an infidel, bought by the English. Would that have helped me or you? You know I'm in complete sympathy with you, but if I'm accounted an infidel do you think I shall be of much assistance to you in Islam?" It's unanswerable - until you've changed the mentality of Mohammadans and that will take some little time.

The war drags on and it's a supremely difficult task to do anything striking. I hope we shall be in possession of the Persian railway this week. We have lost another officer, A.P.O. Kifri - I didn't know him. He was imprisoned by the tribes and murdered in prison, so I Bellieve. A shocking story. But when savages go to war they do savage things, and no one has ever tried to make the tribes anything but savages in all these milleniums. I'm all in favour of some resounding executions, if we can catch the men - and then of letting the rank and file off pretty lightly. That's AT [Wilson]'s view also I Bellieve.

On the whole I'm inclined to think we compare favourably with Ireland.

The problem is the future. The tribes don't want to form part of a unified state; the towns can't do without it. How are we going to support and protect the elements of stability and at the same time conform to the just demand for economy from home? For you can't have a central government if no one will pay taxes and the bulk of the population won't pay taxes unless they are constrained to do so. Nor will they preserve a sufficient amount of order to permit of trade. The thing isn't made any easier by the tosh that T.E. Lawrence is writing in the papers. To talk of raising an Arab army of 2 divisions is pure nonsense. Except for officers we haven't got the materials, and an army composed exclusively of officers isn't a very useful weapon. Intermittently during the war we raised labour corps, with a considerable amount of pressure, up to 20,000 odd. [Note in margin:] No, I revise my views here. The labour corps figures were 60,000 odd and I'm told we could get 20,000 men without conscriptions in a couple of years or so. But you can't make them into an army under 5 years. [end] Everybody admits that the drain on the agricultural population was more than it could stand, even though at times of the year when agriculture made most demands - palm fertilizing, rice and barley harvest and so forth the men were let off. Where are your 2 divisions to come from? You can get 2 Brigades. Even now we have enrolled some 3000 or more Levies - they are doing extremely well in Hillah [Hillah, Al]. But I'm pretty sure that it will be a long time before the country will provide enough men to keep order. The Turks had Turks - and they didn't succeed in keeping order; they also had conscription. I doubt if an Arab Govt can enforce conscription. The Syrians made a pretty bad hand at it. I can't think why the India Office lets the rot that's being written pass uncontradicted. T.E.L. again: when he says we have forced the English language on the country it's not only a lie but he also knows it is. Every jot and titch of official work is done in Arabic; in schools, law courts, hospitals, no other language is used. It's the first time that that has happened since the fall of the Abbasids.

We all dined with Saiyid Talib last night, Sir Aylmer, Gen. Hambro, A.T., Capt. Clayton, Sir Edgar and Mr Bullard. It wasn't an easy party to carry off, but I think Saiyid Talib was pleased. A.T. looks fearfully ill. I continue to be on the most cordial terms with him - the whole relationship is one I completely fail to understand. And I wonder what in his heart he thinks about Mesopotamia. It's true that we are largely suffering from circumstances over which we couldn't have had any control. The wild drive of discontented nationalism from Syria and of discontented Islam from Turkey might have proved too much for us however far-seeing we had been; but that doesn't excuse us for having been blind. (I should delete the above passage from public circulation!)

It's very comic to see the wÃ…rdig air of the Basrah people. A good many have come up as co-opted members to the committee of deputies. Haji Mahmud Na'mah (with whom Father and I and Saiyid Talib went to tea) came in to see me this morning. It's a Sunday and I was in my house. Said he: "I always thought Baghdad was full of wise people, but there are scarcely any." All Basrah goes about with a You-shee-I-don't-bwoke-that [sic] air.

At the same time it's very significant that there should be so few "wise" people in Baghdad - i.e. people who want a British mandate. No one knows exactly what they do want, least of all themselves, except that they don't want us. Now will Sir Percy be able to get behind that feeling? that's what I don't know. There's a possibility that the financial loss and extreme discomfort which has been brought about by the tribal rising (we have scarcely any fruit or vegetables and food prices have trebled) may bring a number to the conclusion that it isn't a convenient form of protest. On the other hand they get round it by saying that if we hadn't been here the tribes wouldn't have risen, and that's true, more particularly as there wouldn't have been anything to rise against - there wouldn't have been any government at all. There wasn't in Syria. "They're all sitting in their houses" said one of my 'Aqail a few months ago on his return from Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)] "because they daren't come out. It's not the government that keeps them quiet - there isn't a government. But ana tajir - I'm a merchant - and there's no one in the bazaar."

I thought I had seldom heard a political situation more suggestively outlined.

I think I've often mentioned a friend of mine called Rauf Chadirji. He talks 3 European languages fluently and he is one of those orientals who are in despair about the East. When he came back here in May - he had been in C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)] and Europe during the war - he threw himself into our society, being much more congenial to him than his own. I know all his family and like them. They're medieval - I don't mind their being medieval, on the contrary; but then I haven't got to live with them. All the men-folk were deep in nationalist activities though I Bellieve they're far more pro-Turkish than pro-Arab. Anyhow they are not pro-English. (Personally I'm on intimate terms of friendship with them, you understand, but that's different.) Rauf's father and uncle were both on the ex-deputy committee but they were also in close touch with the people who are preaching Jihad among the tribes, and his cousin (a young ass) openly threatened Saiyid Talib with murder if he continued to be friends with the British Govt. So they've all been asked to go to C'ple till the troubles are over, and I think it's a reasonable request - it was put in a way which couldn't be refused! Rauf is going with him - I think I Branch thinks he is in with the intrigues, but I'm convinced he isn't. He said to me one day when we were talking about Turkish politics: "When the revolution of 1908 began we all hoped that the Committee would be able to produce men who could govern the country. But now we know they hadn't any. When I go into the Ministry of Finance in C'ple I find hopeless confusion everywhere. There's no one who can answer the easiest question. But if I go into the Public Debt, which is run by natives with an Englishman at their head, everything is in order." He told me he had had an extraordinarily difficult time here with his family and that he hoped they would stay in C'ple and let him come back alone to manage the estates - they're very well off, the Chadirjis. I asked him if he would write me down, as a confidential document, all that he had heard against us, no matter whether he thought it sense or nonsense. He promised that he would and if he does it well it should be very instructive. I like him, but like all of them he hasn't got a real grip of the situation, but he knows he hasn't. He wants that to be supplied by us, if we can - on the Public Debt principle. Personally I think that's impossible. We can't put in a director; all we can do is to help them through themselves, if you understand me. And there again I'm up against T.E. Lawrence. He says the Arab has character and needs intelligence. It's the exact contrary. He has plenty of intelligence, what he lacks is character. And that, if people only knew, is what a mandatory power is called on to supply. Can it be done?

I've gone rambling on till it's lunch time - and then the Sunday afternoon sleep, and then the Sunday evening swim.

- I've just come in from swimming - delicious as usual. I was talking to Mr Tod on the way home and he pointed out, quite rightly, that the situation grows more and more difficult. We are now in the middle of a full-blown Jihad, that is to say we have against us the fiercest prejudices of a people in a primeval state of civilization. Which means that it's no longer a question of reason. And it has on its side the tendency to anarchy which is all over the world, I think, the salient result of the war. When one considers it, it's very comprehensible that the thinking people should revolt at an organization of the universe which could produce anything so destructive to civilization as the war. The unthinking people, who form the great mass of the world, and in this part of the world practically all mankind, follow suit in a blind revolt against the accepted order. They don't know how to substitute anything better, but it's clear that few things can be worse. We're near to a complete collapse of society - the end of the Roman empire is a very close historical parallel. We've practically come to the collapse of society here and there's little on which you can depend for it's reconstitution. The credit of European civilization is gone. Over and over again people have said to me that it has been a shock and a surprise to them to see Europe relapse into barbarism. I had no reply - what else can you call the war? How can we, who have managed our own affairs so badly, claim to teach others to manage theirs better? It may be that the world has now to sink back into dark ages of chaos, out of which it will evolve something, perhaps no better that what it had.



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