Letters

3 October 1920

From/To: Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

[3 October 1920] Oct. 3 Dearest Father. This morning being Sunday I rode out before breakfast to see Haji Naji. He had a party of guests sitting in his arbour and he was showing off the secateur you sent him. "The first" he said "that has been seen in the 'Iraq!" and he proudly snipped off the branches of an adjacent mulberry tree to show how well it worked. I wished you had been there to see. I've been very agricultural this week. I attended a demonstration at the cotton farm where experiments are being made in various kinds of cotton and various treatments. About a dozen Baghdad landowners were present and were deeply interested. So was I. On an average of 3 years a certain long-stapled American variety seems to be the most promising. There seems every reason to Bellieve that we shall produce as good cotton as is grown anywhere in the world, and the yield is very large. At this party I met a garden owner of Mu'adhdham [Azimiyah, Al], Saiyid Mustafa, who had long ago invited me to come and see his cabbages and cauliflowers. So I went next day and spent a delightful evening in the lovely Mu'adhdham palm gardens, ending up with tea and dates in my host's orange grove. And yesterday I visited a charming old party called Mustafa Beg, ex-Turkish Colonel, who has, so to speak, turned his helmet into a hive for bees and keeps a market garden on the road to the station. He is charged with the putting in order of the garden of the new Residency, a big house on the river, right bank, a little above the Maude Bridge. The house is having some alterations made and won't be ready for several months by which time Mustafa Beg hopes to have the garden blossoming like the rose. He is the most darling old thing, very tall and white haired. He regards the plants as his children and stands and beams over his pots of nasturtium and wallflower seedlings which are just coming up. Tell Hanagan the bulbs Kent and Bryden sent me by post are not a success. Having been packed in hermetically sealed tins they were cooked on the way by the heat and arrived in a state of corruption which I leave to your fancy. The mere opening of them in my garden left an odour which lasted 24 hours. The seeds I hope are all right. I sowed them last week. Mustafa Beg is coming to give me advice as to my garden and I look forward to an enduring friendship with him.

It has been rather an interesting week. The day Saiyid Talib left - he has gone down to Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)] to meet Sir Percy - 'Abdul Majid Beg dropped in while I was at breakfast and unbosomed himself on the future. I'll send you, very confidentially, the account I wrote of the conversation, together with my comments those of Capt. Clayton and Evelyn Howell. But mind it's really confidential. We telegraphed to Sir Percy the substance of what he had said about Talib, for I'm pretty well convinced that he is right and Sir P. mustn't be allowed to take S.T. at his own valuation - not that he would, I feel sure - but judge for himself how things stand here. The devolution scheme has long been in my mind and I was interested to see how 'Abdul Majid jumped at it. His proposal of an additional Euphrates province is I think very sound. The selection of a Wali will not be an easy matter for it is difficult to see how you can put in a Sunni over a personnel almost if not entirely Shi'ah, and yet there isn't, to my knowledge, a Shi'ah who would be acceptable to the whole province. I can't however Bellieve that the difficulty is insoluble whereas Evelyn Howell's solution of putting in an Englishman seems to me to be impossible.

The Shi'ah problem is probably the most formidable in this country. We were discussing it last night at an extremely interesting dinner party in my house. The guests were 'Abdul Majid Shawi, Daud Yusufani (Xian of Mosul [Mawsil, Al] where he is Col. Nalder's personal assistant - he is here now as an ex-deputy) and Sasun Eff. The last named you met at my tea party of notables, a tall white-haired Jew, talking excellent English. He has been a deputy since 1908 and was a year in the Turkish Cabinet. He is, I think, the ablest man here. The other guests were Capt. Clayton, Major Murray and Major Yetts. You don't know the last, he was on leave when you were here. He was the leader of the party who were held up by raiders in the desert when Capt. Miles was wounded - a delightful creature. Well to return to the Shi'ahs. 'Abdul Majid said "What are you going to do if the chief mujtahid, whose voice is the voice of God, issues a fatwah that no Shi'ah is to sit in the Legislative Assembly" - while the govt was under the British Mandate, he meant - "or when a law is being debated, suppose the mujtahid cuts in with a fatwah that it's against canon law and must be rejected, irrespective of other considerations?" Imagine the Pope excercising [sic] real temporal authority in Italy and obstructing the Govt at every turn, and you have the position. The remedy is, over time, that which has been found in Italy. Pope and mujtahid end by being regarded merely as silly old men; but we haven't reached that stage here yet. But if you're going to have anything like really representative institutions - always remember that the Turks hadn't; there wasn't a single Shi'ah deputy - you would have a majority of Shi'ahs. For that reason as 'Abdul Majid wisely said, you can never have 3 completely autonomous provinces. Sunni Mosul must be retained as a part of the Mesopotamian state in order to adjust the balance. But to my mind it's one of the main arguments for giving Mesopotamia responsible govt. We as outsiders can't differentiate between Sunni and Shi'ah, but leave it to them and they'll get over the difficulty by some kind of hanky panky, just as the Turks did, and for the present it's the only way of getting over it. I don't for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis, in spite of their numerical inferiority; otherwise you will have a mujtahid-run, theocratic state, which is the very devil. There are two favourable considerations: one is that the failure of the rising, which as far as the tribes are concerned, was all due directly to mujtahid incitement, may considerably discredit those worthies as temporal guides; and the second that the present premier mujtahid is tottering into his grave - we most regrettably prevented him from falling into it a year ago when he was saved by our medical officer at Najaf [Najaf, An] - and he may be succeeded by someone more enlightened. There are such, even among mujtahids.

If only we could manage to install a native head of the state. I agree with A.M. that Talib is out of the question and there's no possible alternative but a son of the Sharif. I hear that the Young Arabs of Baghdad are now running down 'Abdullah on the ground that he's a savage and Faisal seems to be barred by French susceptibilities, so that the prospect in that direction doesn't seem very hopeful. Damn the French.

Hasan Suhail dropped in one morning and urged that the big tribal shaikhs who have not gone out should have an opportunity of laying their views before Sir P. before he negotiates with the insurgents. "Otherwise" said Sh. Hasan "it will be those who have reBelled against you who will be laying down the programme - we want to have a hand in it and we think we have a right to ask that we, who want a British mandate, should be heard first." Again very sound. I've drawn up a memo for Sir Percy. A gathering such as Sh. Hasan suggests, would be imposing, for we can produce the paramount shaikhs of the nomad 'Anizah (my old friend Fahad Beg) the Dulaim on the upper Euphrates, the nomad Shammar of Mosul wilayet, and of all the big confederations down the Tigris. Not a bad beginning, for they would represent more than half the tribal population. When Sir Percy comes - that's what we all say - when Kokus comes, please God, good.

I'm conscious, since AT [Wilson]'s departure, of feeling as if I had stepped out of a nightmare. I didn't realize till he had left how horribly oppressive it had been. I haven't the least idea what Sir P. will do with me, whether he will want me to stay or not. As soon as he has time I shall ask him to let me have a good solid talk with him. But one thing is certain - I'll never never again work with AT, never. If he comes back here, I step out, that instant. It's my conviction that he should not again be allowed to touch Asiatic politics, and in private I feel equally convinced that I can't work with any man as unscrupulous as he. Now lack of confidence in the integrity of the people you work with is fatal. I'm not the first; Mr Dobbs had the same doubts and to compare a big person with a little one, for the same reason. For like Mr Dobbs I held independent views, which, though in my case, AT could disregard, he couldn't alter. In Mr Dobbs's case he couldn't disregard them, but he could and did make his position so uncomfortable as to be almost untenable. Well, this is for you only - it's to show you how much I'm saying uff!

There's one other party I didn't tell you about. Capt. Clayton and I went to tea with Sulaiman Dakhil who is one of the leading 'Aqail of Baghdad. The 'Aqail are nearly all central Arabians; they invariably speak of themselves as subjects of Ibn Sa'ud. They are the merchants and caravan leaders of the desert - I had an 'Aqaili with me when I went to Hail. They live in the right bank part of Baghdad - Karkh is its name - and they have a famous coffee shop of their own, Qahwat al 'Aqail. I'm in intimate relations with them for they are the people from whom I get news. I do them a good turn whenever I can and they respond by coming in to see me whenever they return from Syria or Arabia and telling me what they've heard and seen. Qahwat al 'Aqail is a truly remarkable place - we passed it on our way to Sulaiman's house. It was crowded with unmistakable Najdis, their lean, hawk-like faces of a type quite different from the Baghdadi. They're the pure Arab stock, Semitic but not Jewish; quite unlike the Jew. The tea party was delightful. The walls of Sulaiman's diwan are mellow with decades of tobacco smoke, the only furniture benches round the room and one table for us at the upper end. In order to do us honour he had provided a tinned plum pudding for our special benefit. We scooped it out of the tin and eat it cold - very good, but rather solid diet for a hot Sep. afternoon. I preferred the grapes and biscuits. A large and distinguished party of 'Aqail had been invited to meet us - all frequenters of my office - and we talked Arabian politics with great gusto for an hour and a half. During all that time Sulaiman remained standing, sometimes he went out onto the balcony to give directions about the tea - but mostly he just stood in front of us and talked. It was a miracle of grace and poise. It's not easy to stand up in the middle of an assembly for an hour and a half without showing the slightest embarrassment or wondering what you are to do with your hands, or anything. But he stood and talked, just as if he had been sitting and talking. Incidentally he has, like all Najdis, the most slender hands with long fingers and nails an American beauty might envy. Their hands are their most characteristic feature. They are seldom shaven but as a rule their beards are scanty - it's rare to see a full thick beard. Some are Wahhabis, i.e. they don't smoke, but most of these frequenters of cities abandon the stricter rules of the desert creed. I do like them so much. They are to me an endless romance. They come and go through the wilderness as if it were a high road, and they all, most politely, treat me as a colleague, because I too have been in Arcadia. It's also a great advantage to have been there because when they talk of tribes or shaikhs or watering places I don't need to ask who and where they are. I know; and as they talk I see again the wide Arabian horizon -



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