Letters

18 December 1920

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

[18 December 1920] Baghdad Dec 18 Dearest Father. Another post came in this week bringing me your letter of Nov 10 and Mother's of Nov 6. Also her charming piece about Mary Ward and your most interesting article on prices and wages. The latter comes very much home to me with its clear exposition of our economic postion for this reason (NB very confidential): Last week Sir Percy was asked by Edwin to give him some data as to a possible decrease of our expenditure here. We assume that we can make the {military} civil govt self-supporting; the question of importance is military expenditure. The Council is aware, and Sir Percy has constantly impressed upon them, the vital need of getting down to the formation of a native army to relieve ours. Incidentally Ja'far Pasha doesn't think that without conscription in some form they can raise an army which won't be prohibitively expensive. If they have to compete in the labour market they must reckon on paying their men at least Rs 60 a month - so much for T.E. Lawrence's glib assurances as to the ease with which an Arab army could be levied. However that's a question which could only be settled by an elective assembly. Meantime Ja'far has a committee of experts from G.H.Q. (at his request) and they're considering what steps should be taken. Roughly speaking they think we might have a brigade by the autumn of 1921 and an Arab division by the autumn of 1922, which means that by that date we can reduce our force here to 1 Division, keeping it up to 2 Divisions till then. Edwin replies to this that he doubts if G. Britain will be prepared to pay and that the question of retiring to a Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An]-Qurnah [Qurnah, Al] line and at the same time excercising [sic] the mandate up to Mosul [Mawsil, Al] will be raised by the W.O. Sir Percy and I agree that this isn't a practicable proposition - you remember that my letter to Mr Asquith was precisely on this point. You can't withdraw troops to Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)] and carry out the mandate. No Govt in this country, whether ours or an Arab administration, can carry on without force behind it. The Arab Govt has no force till its army is organized, therefore it can't exist unless we lend it troops. I think myself (but I don't know professional opinions on the subject) that the Arab Govt could not afford, even if it wished, to pay for our troops. The Arab exchequer would not run to the expense of a British army of defence - much more costly, you must remember, than a native army when the latter is formed.

The bedrock on which this argument rests is that no administration can exist without force behind it. I think you have seen enough of the country to know that it's correct. Mesopotamia is not a civilized state. It is largely composed of wild tribes who do not wish to shoulder the burden and expense of citizenship. In setting up an Arab state we are acting in the interests of the urban and village population which expects, and rightly expects, that it will ultimately leven the mass. Till the levening has gone a good bit further than it has at present, this citizen population (if the phrase is permissible) must control the mass, constrain it. That is why it needs force for the maintenance of internal order.

As for external defence, it's enough to say that at this moment there's a Turkish rabble (financed by Bolshevist money, we know) on our northern frontier which calls itself the Army of the 'Iraq, and intends to reunite Mesopotamia with the Turkish empire. The Arab Nationalists don't wish to be reunited with Turkey, but if we retire to Basrah they are powerless to prevent it.

On all counts therefore it's preposterous to talk of fulfilling the mandate from a military base at Basrah. The British nation may insist on the immediate withdrawal of one of the two divisions needed to carry out our promise of setting up an Arab Govt, or it may insist on the withdrawal of both. I can't force my opinion on my countrymen, nor can I force them to find money which it appears to me they haven't got. But what we can and must say clearly is that in that case we must relinquish the mandate, and personally I think the only honest thing to do is to ask the Turks to return. The Arabs can't stand alone, we can't prevent the Turks returning (nor can the Arab Nationalists prevent them); why not face facts?

Another fact to face is that this means retiring from Basrah also - as I told Mr Asquith. It's inconceivable that a foreign power should be allowed to hold the only port which the country possesses; both Arabs and Turks would always be clamouring for it and fighting for it. Can you imagine Great Britain content to remain at Basrah in a perpetual state of war? Of course not.

Basrah would hate our going but it couldn't stand up against the intensive propaganda which would result from our staying. Therefore we should go at once.

Sir Percy will no doubt send a skilful answer, but I don't think he would differ from anything I have said except that he might wish to cling to Basrah - I haven't asked him what he thinks on this head. But whatever he thinks wouldn't alter my opinion that if we can't afford to keep the minimum of troops here for the next 2 years - 2 Divisions or possibly a trifle less - we ought to clear out entirely.

All this is extremely private - not to go beyond you and Mother and Maurice. I have written an outline of it to Elsa for Herbert but without mentioning the confidential telegrams - just as a possible situation and my views on it. It may never arise: if it does arise I can see no other course than what I've indicated here.

Meantime we've been busy with other matters. The early part of the week was devastated by the electoral law about which I wrote to you last week. It was presented to the Council on Monday and with 5 exceptions (not including the two tribal chiefs!) they were all dead against making any special arrangements for tribal representation and in favour of letting the tribes register and vote like the rest of the population. That would have meant that the tribes would have taken no part, for as Abdul Majid Shawi rightly pointed out, whereas the population of Iraq is mainly tribal and Shi'ah, in the course of 4 general elections held under the Turks no tribesman or Shi'ah had been returned. Next morning Sasun Effendi and Daud Yusufani (of Mosul) came hurrying into my office to talk the matter over. We were all agreed that it would be disastrous if the tribesmen were to swamp the townsmen but I pressed upon their consideration that whatever had happened in Turkish times, an Arab National Govt could not hope to succeed unless it ultimately contrived to associate the tribesmen with its endeavours. They raised good objections against providing for representatives from selected big tribes but we also agreed that that might be got over by providing for a fixed number of tribal representatives for each Division to be elected by all the tribes of that Division, i.e. by the shaikhs. The ordinary tribesman won't take part. It was clear that there was a good deal of misunderstanding as to what Sir Percy's views were and why he looked on adequate representation of the tribes as essential and I reported the whole conversation to him, with the result that he sent an admirable letter to the Council saying that in the elective assembly which was to decide on the future of the Iraq every section of the community must be represented and that he must be able to assure his Govt that this was the case. 'Abdul Majid Shawi (a strong supporter of tribal representation) tumbled in in the afternoon and finally Ja'far Pasha who propounded the possible alternative of securing representation by Divisions not by specified tribes. I said I thought that would meet the case excellently, at which Ja'far beamed, tapped his forehead and observed: "I clever!" Next morning he and Sasun returned with a revised scheme - 2 tribal representatives for each Division, but any tribesman who liked to register could vote in the ordinary way - a first rate proposal for while it secures a minimum of 20 tribal members in the assembly, it does not preclude tribesmen from taking part in elections like other registered electors - if they like. This was finally carried in the afternoon's sitting, no doubt Sir Percy's letter helping to the desired result. I think no one is dissatisfied though many, more particularly the Naqib, would have much preferred to give the tribes no special facilities and would indeed have preferred to keep them out as far as possible. They look on the tribes as savages whose hand is against every man of property and education, but they overlook the fact that the shaikhs have often reached an advanced stage of national consciousness and must be allowed to pull their weight. It's my personal observation that the advanced Nationalists (mostly landless and members of the learned and official classes) set great store on the tribes as "acht arabisch". Also no doubt the Shi'ah intelligenzia counts on them as "acht shi'ismus."

Anyhow that's now over - on Thursday I went to tea with Sasun's sister in law, Madame Sha'ul Haskail, and presently Sasun came bustling in from a third Council meeting, announcing that the whole of the electoral law was polished off.

Sha'ul joined us later - he is one of the leading men of business here - and gave a very gloomy picture of local trade. The uncertainty of Persian conditions (75% of Baghdad imports used to go to Persia) the fall of the rupee, the closing of the Syrian road by tribal lawlessness are the chief causes of the slump. Men like Sha'ul are seriously contemplating realizing their assets and going away to Europe for ever. They don't know what opportunities, or even what chance of peace and security an Arab Govt will offer. The loss of men of Sha'ul's type would be a very serious drawback to the country.

In the course of the week I had long visits from the two tribal chiefs on the Council, 'Ajil Pasha (he of the interview I sent you) and Muhammad Saihud of the Rabi'ah near Kut [Kut, Al (Kut al Imara)]. Both are satisfied with the turn the electoral law has taken though 'Ajil continues to be as sceptical as before on the subject of Arab institutions. Muhammad Saihud came with 'Abdul Majid Shawi, chiefly to declaim against Talib Pasha. I said the matter was entirely in their hands; we didn't care whom they put up as Amir or what kind of Govt they elected to have, provided we felt sure that the choice was freely and fairly made, without pressure or intimidation. Today, Sunday, Talib sent me a message at lunchtime saying he wanted to come and have a heart to heart talk. He came at 4 and stayed till 6 and I must confess that he made a very favourable impression on me. He told me frankly that he wished to be Amir of the 'Iraq. I repeated the observation I made to Mhd Saihud, and to everyone else who consults me on the subject. We discussed his position at length and I thought he showed wisdom and good sense. We then talked of several matters, including the suppression of the wildly Nationalist paper which has now gone completely Bolshevist and is probably subsidized. He thinks it should be suppressed and I believe he's right. I shall talk to Sir Percy about it tomorrow - we've already discussed it. He also urged the immediate need of depleting coffee shop talk by giving the talkers (mostly starving ex-officials, civil and military) jobs in the Govt in which I entirely agree with him. He is not quite happy with Mr Philby (his Adviser) who in spite of advanced liberal views appears to give Talib much too little opportunity of expressing his opinion and taking decisions. The best of Advisers will find it hard to learn that their business is to advise.

Talib and I, Rashid Beg al Khojah (Mutasarrif of Baghdad, newly appointed) and Saiyid Daud the Naqib's nephew, all dined with the Philby's this week and had a very pleasant evening. I haven't fathomed Rashid Beg yet; he has just come back from Syria. He has the reputation of being an honest and upright man but he doesn't give himself away and it will take time to get to know him.

I also went to see my old Persian princess, Banu Ozma, in the Civil Hospital where she and her most attractive parrot are comfortably installed. The Märe Madeleine complains that too much stress is laid on the comfort of the parrot: "Ce n'est pas pour donner le dejeuner aux perroquets que nous sommes ici!" Another member of the Persian royal family has been here, Sarim al Daulah, Governor of Kermanshah [Bakhtaran]. He is a cousin of the Shah. He talks almost perfect English and I met him lunching with Sir Percy.

General Ironside was at lunch one day - he had flown down from Kasvin [Qazvin] to interview GHQ. He says the object of the Bolshevist attack on Persia is to secure food - they're all starving - and that if our commercial treaty materializes the position may be a good deal modified. He is, I may mention, a very remarkable man, of singular force, courage and intelligence.

To sum up my impressions of the week, I feel more and more how anxious are the people here with whom we're dealing to work in with us and to follow our advice. On big matters, and on little matters they are always dropping in to my office to consult me as to Sir Percy's views. So and so is suggested as Mutasarif of Hillah [Hillah, Al] - will that be all right? Yes, I say firmly, that's all right. My interlocutor breathes a sigh of relief and goes off to vote for him. 'Abdul Majid Shawi comes in to ask whether he ought to accept an invitation from Talib (whom he hates) for dinner. Yes, say I, of course - you are both members of the government. And he accepts. So with the electoral law - from Sasun downwards they all want to know how they had best meet our views. I never lose an opportunity of saying that our opinion is guided only by a desire to do the best by them and the country - they know the country best, how do they think this end is to be attained? and on that basis we discuss the matter, whether it's a law or an invitation to dinner. And unless I'm very much mistaken we have got the confidence of the people we're working with. The man I do love is Sasun Eff. and he is by far the ablest man in the Council. A little rigid, he takes the point of view of the constitutional lawyer and doesn't make quite enough allowance for the primitive conditions of the 'Iraq, but he is genuine and disinterested to the core. He has not only real ablility but also wide experience and I feel touched and almost ashamed by the humility with which he seeks - and is guided by - my advice. It isn't my advice, really; I'm only echoing what Sir Percy thinks. But what I rejoice in and feel confident of is the solid friendship and esteem which exists between us. And in varying degrees I have the same feeling with them all. That's something, isn't it? that's a basis for carrying out the duties of a mandatory?

The Naqib sends you many messages - I paid a long call on him yesterday. He says he regards you as the most powerful intelligence of his acquaintance. He looks incredibly old and feeble except that his conversation is as lengthy and chirpy as ever. Heaven send he won't die on us before we get the elective assembly safely assembled, for what we should do without him I can't think. He really does run the Council very sensibly and his loyalty to Sir Percy is beyond all question.

Oh dear! I wonder what they'll decide on, and what we'll decide on, and all!

What an interminable letter this is - do you mind?

It was very cold today and sunless. I rode out in the morning to Karradah to see Haji Naji, but he was away somewhere so I sat and eat preserved apricots and talked to his wife and the farm hands about the frost and the crops. It looked lovely out there with the last brown leaves falling from the fruit trees and the green barley springing between the palms. Otherwise I've seen no one all day but Saiyid Talib, as described above, and I've spent the evening writing this letter to you. Your very affectionate daughter Gertrude.

Previous page