Letters

28 August 1921

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

[28 August 1921] Baghdad Aug 28. Darling Father. After a fortnight without letters, this week brought 2 mails - July 19 and 27 with the deeply interesting accounts of the Heart of Yorkshire. I'm writing to Mother. My letters seem to behave in just the same curious way. Well, we've had a terrific week, but we've got our king crowned and Sir Percy and I agree that we are now half seas over. The remaining half is the Congress and the Organic Law. By the way (secret) I told you the impossible problem which HMG had presented to us at the last moment and the rejoinder of Faisal and Sir Percy. H.M.G. climbed down at once, I may say grovelled. It was all a mistake and far from their intentions to interfere and God bless us all. Thereat we went gaily forward.

On Monday night I dined en famille with Ja'far and Nuri and their wives, and Ja'far's young brother Tahsin, inspector of police at Samarra, a very good and capable young man. It was a happy evening. Ja'far and Nuri were brimming over with joy and I not less. The enthronement took place at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, admirably managed. A dais about 2 ft 6 high was set up in the middle of the big Sarai courtyard; behind it are the Quarters Faisal is occupying, the big Government reception rooms; in front we were seated in blocks, English, Arab officials, townsmen, ministries, local deputations, to the number of 1500. We came in by ticket through the Sarai gateway and after the function had begun the Arab police let no one in, whereby a good many magnates who strolled along late were, to their pained surprise, excluded. It was all Arab organization and it was quite right. Just before I left my house Haji Naji rolled up on his way to the ceremony, so I put him into my motor and we drove down together. Lady Cox, the Garbetts, Mrs Slater and I and one or two GHQ men were in the front English row. Exactly at 6 we saw Faisal in uniform, Sir Percy in white diplomatic uniform with all his ribbons and stars, Sir Aylmer, Mr Cornwallis and a following of ADCs descend the Sarai steps from Faisal's lodging and come pacing down the long path of carpets, past the guard of honour (the Dorsets, they looked magnificent) and so to the dais. With them was Saiyid Mahmud, the eldest son of the Naqib and Saiyid Husain Afnan, secretary to the Council of Ministers. We all stood up while they came in and sat when they had taken their place on the dais. Faisal looked very dignified but much strung up - it was an agitating moment. He looked along the front row and caught my eye and I gave him a tiny salute. Then Saiyid Husain stood up and read Sir Percy's proclamation in which he announced that Faisal had been elected king by 96% of the people in Mesopotamia, long live the King! with that we stood up and saluted him, the national flag was broken on the flagstaff by his side and the band played God Save the King - they have no national anthem yet. There followed a salute of 21 guns, during which, Saiyid Mahmud, very inappropriately, read a prayer of thanksgiving to God and ended by doing homage to Faisal on behalf of the Council. Major Ditchburn from the wild Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An] country told me that when the guns began, one of the hawk-like Sa'dun chiefs who was sitting by him, said "Hadha al hachi! - that's the talk!" Well I suppose it is the ultimate talk everywhere. King Faisal I then addressed his people. We have telegraphed the text of the speech home so you will have read it. It hadn't the free Çlan of his impromptu speeches - it was so important a pronouncement that he had written it down and read it out, turning to Sir Percy when he came to the part about Great Britain. It was however very fine and simple and heartfelt. With that they walked away as they had come and we remained seated for a bit till Sir Percy and the General passed out in their cars whereat we all began to go away talking and exchanging greetings and compliments and congratulations. It was an amazing thing to see all 'Iraq, from north to south gathered together. It is the first time it has happened, in history. So I went back to the office, breakfasted with the Coxes and received masses of people who came in for a little excited gossip. One of them was 'Ali Sulaiman of the Dulaim. "By God!" he said "Sir Percy Cox looked like the moon among them (the moon is masculine in Arabic) and his face was like the heavens." I heard from others that the great excitement among shaikhs from remote places who hadn't met Sir Percy before, was to see him. It's a good thing that he is such a figure when you do see him; with his gaunt height and eagle's beak he was very striking. He looks so benevolent as well as so strong.

I had a dinner party of 8. Major Ditchburn and his mutasarrif who is Ibrahim Beg Sa'dun - his position as Governor is a little difficult because he can't read or write; none of the Sa'dun can; 'Abdullah Beg Sa'dun whom I described to you last week, 'Abdul Majid Shawi, Mustafa Chalabi Sabunji, one of the magnates of Mosul [Mawsil, Al] - I wish I remembered who the two other bigwigs were but I've completely forgotten. The Sa'dun were in Beduin clothes, the Chalabi in robes and a turban, Abdul Majid in a European suit and a fez. It went very well. Ahmad Pasha Sana' of Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)], who doesn't dine, you remember, had been to tea with me and we had had a long talk over the Basrah situation during which he explained that though Basrah wanted to be part of the 'Iraq, its desire was to preserve a closer link with us than other parts of the 'Iraq seemed to wish for. I said that was all right as long as they would form an integral part of the 'Iraq and send members to the elective assembly.

Next morning Sir Percy and his staff were the first to attend Faisal's levy. It began at 7.30. Sir Percy went in first, then Mr Garbett, then I. Faisal stood before his throne, Sir Percy on his right, Mr Garbett on his left and I, after making my curtsey to Faisal, on Sir Percy's left, while all the British staff of the office filed past, like a Court. (I wore my CBE star and my 3 war ribbons - for the first time at the coronation) We 3 with Faisal and Mr Cornwallis then sat down in a corner of the room and had coffee till the C in C came in to say his party was ready. Then we left. Late in the afternoon the Coxes gave a tiny party in their garden - Faisal had said he would like to come and thank Sir Percy. The C in C and his staff were there, Mr Cornwallis, Col. Joyce and we of Sir Percy's staff, the Garbetts and I. It was extremely pretty, on a grass lawn under the palm trees. Faisal brought half a dozen of his staff and we all sat and talked for an hour and eat ices. I then had another dinner party of 8, 'Abdul Latif Pasha Mandil and Haji Mahmud Na'mah of Basrah, Capt Cook, adviser to Auqaf and 4 Mosulis, the Minister of Auqaf, the Mayor, the Naqib and the Qadhi. That was a very interesting party. The Qadhi of Mosul is perhaps the most darling old man in the whole of 'Iraq, white, in his white robes, looking very wise and very gentle. The Minister of Auqaf is a sprightly old boy, full of vivacity and good sense. The Naqib is a man a little over 30, green turbanned [sic] and dark. He is not worth much, one way or the other, but he is a direct descendant of the Prophet - as indeed are the two others - and his family hold the firman of Naqibship given to them by Timur Leng. It is written in Jagatai Turkish which they can't read - a document of respectable age. The Mosul saiyids are a very important section of the town. They are all descended from a common ancestor who came to Mosul some 800 years ago. In the midst of this company of divines 'Abdul Latif Mandil struck a divergent note. He is a Najdi, with the sharp fine features of the Arab of inner Arabia - his father settled in Basrah - and he is possibly the most forceful personality in the country now that Talib has gone. It is he who started and organized the Basrah petition asking to remain with us - and why? he's a great merchant and he wants to fish in the quietest waters he can find - quieter than those that flow through Arab kingdoms. He gave pretty forceful expression to his views at dinner. The we began to talk of Kirkuk and the Minister of Auqaf called God to witness that for his part he should only be too thankful if Kirkuk separated from 'Iraq, for their waqf didn't pay its own way and they did nothing but quarrel among themselves over it. Whereat the company laughed. But the Qadhi looked up and spoke at some length on the Kurdish Question, very wisely.

I've remembered the other two guests at my first party: the Mutasarrif of 'Amarah ['Amarah, Al], Salih Basha'yan, as clever as a bagful of monkeys he is, and I like him, with his nephew 'Abdul Qadir Basha'yan who gave that big tea-party to Ja'far in Cairo.

Sir Percy had been very unwell, but on the day of the Coronation he began to recover and is now quite fit again. So I, who had kept all people off him for a week, quickly arranged for the deputations to pay their respects to him. We had two days of it, Friday and Saturday morning. It would be difficult to tell you how many people there were in the office at one and the same time. It was immensely interesting seeing them - there were people I had never seen before and a great great many who had never seen Baghdad before. Basrah and 'Amarah came on Friday, Hillah [Hillah, Al] and Mosul on Saturday; they were the big deputations. Of these Mosul was the most wonderful. I divided it into 3 sections: first the Mosul town magnates, my guests and their colleagues; next the Christian archbishops and bishops - Mosul abounds in them - and the Jewish Grand Rabbi. One of the Christians was little Mar Shim'un, archbishop and ruler of the Nestorians. The post goes in the family, from uncle to nephew, for they are celebate [sic], and he was elected last year on the death of his uncle. He is 10, poor little soul, and there he is in full canonicals and a great gold cross and chain, doomed to be an archbishop all his days. The third group was more exciting than all the others: it was the Kurdish chiefs of the frontier who have elected to come into the 'Iraq state until they see whether an independent Kurdistan develops which will be still better to their liking. I knew only one of them before, Sa'id Beg the religious head of the Devil Worshippers whom I had seen as a child of 7 or 8 when I stayed with his father in 1909. We fell on one another's neck; he remembered quite well coming to sit in my tent, which he did all the time I was there. Some of the others were tremendous people. Shaikh Nuri of Briefka, white haired, white turbaned and robed, holds the population of a large section of the frontier in his hand for this world and the next, for he is a spiritual as well as a mundane dictator. Qadir Agha of Shush deals with no world but this, but he deals with it pretty thoroughly - in Kurdish, he has no other tongue. He is a huge man and gigantically fat. He wears acres of baggy striped trousers gathered round his waist on a string, the jauntiest of fancy waistcoats and the largest of Kurdish Kolehs on his head with a whole shawl wrapped round it. He's worth seeing - I may say it's a privilege to see him.

After they had had their quarter of an hour with Sir Percy, all in turn came down to me. The Kurds came last and stayed longest. The Mayor of Zakho opened the talk. He said they hadn't had opportunity to discuss with Sir Percy the future of Kurdistan, what did I think about it? I said that my opinion was that the districts they came from were economically dependent on Mosul and always would be however many Kurdistans were created. They agreed but, said Shaikh Nuri, they must have Kurdish officials. I said I saw no difficulty there. And the children must be taught in Kurdish in the schools. I pointed out that there would be some difficulty about that as there wasn't a single school book - nor any other - written in Kurdish. This gave them pause and after consideration they said they thought the teaching might as well be in Arabic, but what about local administrative autonomy? I said "Have you talked it over with Saiyidna Faisal - our Lord Faisal?" "No" they said. "Well, you had better go and do it at once" I suggested. "Shall I make an appointment for you?" "Yes" they said. So I telephoned to Rustam Haidar and made an appointment for yesterday afternoon - I'm longing to hear from Faisal what came of it. Fun, isn't it.

I had spent two hours with Faisal the day before. He asked me to tea; I brought him photographs of our picnics (one of which I send to you) and a map of Syria taken from the Times showing the way the French have cut up Syria into separate provinces. He loved the photographs and swore over the map. "By God, it's forbidden" he said and we proceeded to talk shocking heresy about Syria. Soon after Ja'far, Nuri and Rustam (he's a Syrian) dropped in. I told them that except for Rustam I thought I knew Syria better than any of them and loved it more - village by village, mountain by mountain, river by river. And I believed there was only one hope for Syria, that we should sit quiet here, say no word, and do our own job. When we had made Mesopotamia a model Arab state, not an Arab of Syria and Palestine that wouldn't want to be part of it, and before I died I looked to see Faisal ruling from the Persian frontier to the Mediterranean. But if we stirred here in the matter, lifted a finger or raised a voice, it would be ruin to Syria and 'Iraq alike. This was partly because Manlud[?] Pasha who is what Ja'far calls "donkey first class" has been going about Mosul saying that whatever Faisal orders he intends to reconquer Syria. It was he who led the attack against us on the Euphrates last ear, disobeying Faisal's repeated commands. It would be a little comic if after conquering Dair [Dayr az Zawr] from the north and driving out the British administration in 1920, he took Dair from the south and drove out the French administration in 1921! but of course we shall not let him.

We then spent a happy hour discussing (a) our desert frontier to south and west and (b) the national flag and Faisal's personal flag. For the latter we arranged provisionally this [sketch] i.e. the Hijaz flag with a gold crown on the red triangle. The red I must tell you is the colour of his house so he bears his own nom on it. Father, do for Heaven's sake tell me whether the Hijaz flag is heraldically right. You might telegraph. It's a very good flag and we could differentiate it for the Iraq by putting a gold star on the black stripe or the on the red triangle. The Congress will settle it directly it meets - do let me know in time. Also whether you have a better suggestion for Faisal's standard.

By the time we had finished it was after sunset. Faisal jumped up, put on his cap and said "I must go and pray." Off he went and I with Ja'far through the throne room meaning to go away but Ja'far said "Khatun, do stay a minute" and took me out onto the balcony over the Tigris. What he wanted to ask me about was the new Cabinet. It was amazing, the red light over the river, the hot night and Ja'far's anxious talk.

Nothing else is being talked of, naturally. One of the local papers has offered a prize to anyone who rightly estimates the number of candidates for office. That very afternoon Naji Suwaidi had been to me and said he didn't want the Interior (which is the most important ministry) because he would be besieged by people wanting jobs. I said I had heard him mentioned for Justice and he replied that he would take that. This was a valuable admission for neither Sir Percy nor the Naqib, who has been asked to be P.M., would like Naji. They think he is able enough but not stable enough for this very crucial time. I think myself he would probably do all right and Faisal would specially like him but knows that Sir Percy wouldn't feel happy about it. He (Faisal) therefore, looking round for a loyal man, rather wildly proposed Ja'far. Ja'far is loyal to the backbone but he couldn't tackle the Interior and moreover he must not[?] have Defence, in the middle of creating an Arab army. Ja'far began by saying that. He then suggested Naji and I told him what Naji had just told me - a very useful card. Ja'far then mentioned Hamdi Pachahji, who wouldn't do at all: he's an idle, conceited, clever creature. I think I persuaded Ja'far on that head. "What about Nuri?" he said. I replied that I loved Nuri but he was too young and had no administrative experience. Ja'far looked more and more fatly perplexed. Now I must tell you that the man Sir Percy wants for this interim, during which we summon and guide the Congress while it makes the Organic Law, is Ahmad Pasha Sana'. Ja'far and Nuri have also thought of him, we know privately from Ahmad Pasha. So I said I had heard that they had discussed the possibility of appointing him. Ja'far said yes, but he feared there would be an outcry by the extremists. I pointed out that all the influential people would look on him as a guarantee of stability and moreover that if you put a Basrah man into the most important ministry, it would be very difficult for Basrah to insist on administrative separation from 'Iraq. By this time, Faisal, who had finsihed his prayers, came back and Mr Cornwallis arrived to talk business with him. So I took my leave a second time and as I went down the steps with Ja'far, I rubbed the last argument well into him. He was taken by it - I hope I'm right about it, but it's Sir Percy's wish and he is not often wrong. I told him the whole conversation next day and he approved.

There's no doubt that this is the most absorbing job that I've ever taken a hand in. The weather is a little cooler. One day last week the temp. only rose to a maximum of 105. Will you please forward this letter to Clementine - about her baby poor dear. Your very affectionate daughter Gertrude

Previous page