20 February 1924

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

[20 February 1924] Baghdad Feb 20 Darling Father. Your letter of Feb 5-7 reached me on Feb 16 - nine days. A remarkable institution, the post, isn't it. Mother's enchanting letter of even date got in a day later. It was all about the preparations for your birthday party; I revelled in it. I hope I shall have copies of the poems and songs. Oh, that reminds me of such a comic complaint from the Persian Govt to H.M.G. - copy to us. It was that the English soldiers at Bushire [Bushehr] disturbed the populace by the continuous singing of English songs and hymns and the Persian Govt begged that they might be withdrawn. They have been, but more, I think, on the score of reduction of armaments than because of their hymn-singing.

Yours was a delightful letter too. Happy to see that you're taking advantage of Charles being in office to push your museum schemes - wangle, would be the right, if common, word wouldn't it. Parky's opinions about you give me great pleasure. You know I love Lady Jinny Lindsay and I used to love Lord Rayleigh Selig. I don't think I've met the present one. Lady Jinny was always with Lady Wantage.

I'm disturbed about the dock strike - what trials the Labour Cabinet is having, and all of you. And I'm a good deal disturbed about the doings of the Turks on our northern frontier. They're concentrating troops again and their generals are making speeches to the tribes saying that they intend to be in Mosul [Mawsil, Al] in March. Of course it's tosh and our tribes don't listen, or listen and gnash their teeth. My most detailed information comes from 'Ajil al Yawar who is with his camel corps in the desert W. of Mosul. At the end of his letter he observes placidly: "It's certain that the Turks will never keep quiet about Mosul." Bless the man! you have his photograph, the smiling giant. The really disturbing thing is that the French are in such a precarious position on our west flank. They don't themselves know quite how precarious, though they are anxious; but I know because I've just seen Major Ditchburn (he was at Nasiriyah [Nasiriyah, An], you remember in 1920 and is now at Ramadi [Ramadi, Ar]) who has come straight down from a conference with the French at Dair al Zor [Dayr az Zawr]. He is a very earnest little man, quite without imagination or sense of humour, which make his tales at once more striking and funnier; but what he doesn't know about the tribes of his area, their habits and customs, isn't worth knowing and his Arabic needs no improving. Now listen; I must tell you these things - they're of such high importance to the study of national psychology. The French know no Arabic and it's one of their principles that the higher officials never have direct intercourse with the big shaikhs, but deal with them through subordinates. Inconceivably idiotic as that is, I suppose it doesn't so much matter since high or low, all are innocent of Arabic. Their chief shaikh on the river namens Mishrif al Dandal[?], a rogue of the first magnitude who has till recently had the French in his pocket by reason of the interpreter they used being in his pay - well, as I say, Mishrif al Dandal has lately been writing to the 'Iraq officials asking to be allowed to settle in 'Iraq. He even came over the border and proceeded to settle. The nearest Qaimmaqam turned him out. Major D. took these original letters with him and showed them to Col. Andrea - it was my suggestion that he should, I'm glad to think. The result surpassed all expectations. Col. A. admitted that he had always suspected us and the 'Iraq Govt of wanting to extend the 'Iraq frontier right up to Raqqah [Ar Raqqah], N. of Dair al Zor, and therefore of trying to attract his shaikhs into the 'Iraq. At last he saw that we were honest people. The talk having become so chatty, Major D. observed that he understood Mishrif's grievance to be that the French always told him that they regarded him as paramount shaikh of the tribe, the 'Aqaidat, and at the same time said the same thing to his rival, Ibn Hifl. Col. A. admitted, rather shamefacedly that this was so, and added, more brightly, that it was the French diplomatic method with shaikhs. Oh Lord, oh Lord, help me to regard with patience such infernal stupidity! The one advantage you have over tribesmen is your moral rectitude. They have all the other advantages.

Now, observe, Father. We know, even the French know, that Mishrif is in touch with the Turks. I know (I don't suppose they know) I know because I've personally known all these people since 1907 and I've watched their every gesture with lynx eyes since Feb. 1916, that the next man to the N.E., Muslat Pasha of the Jabar, is a strong pro-Turk. He sits astride the Turkish line of advance from Nisibin [Nusaybin (Nisibis)]. To the N. of him, along the Baghdad rly are the Milli Kurds who formed the Turkish point d'appui in N. Mesopotamia before the war and fought for {them} the Turks all through it. Next neighbours to them are the Chichen of Ras al 'Ain [R'as al 'Ayn], Circassian refugees from the Caucasus [Bol'shoy Kavkaz] - all Circassians are devotedly pro-Turk. W. of the Euphrates comes Hachim al Muhaid of the Fad'an 'Anizah - everyone knows that he is in close correspondence with the Turks. So there you are: Mishrif al Dandal strikes the match on our frontier and the flame runs north to Nisibin and west to Aleppo [Halab]. Out go the French - the Turks needn't send troops, irregular bands will do, all the tribes being up, and they'll be able to be blankly innocent of any military movement. Out go the French - who minds? they've deserved it. But the Turks fill the vacuum all along our frontier - that's the rub and it's much worse than a rub. I'm alarmed. At first Sir Henry refused to listen; then I backed 'Ajil's letter with a memo. about the French area so stiff with local knowledge that he couldn't disregard it. I've won over Bernard and I think Sir Henry's wobbling - I hope he'll wobble into a telegram to H.M.G., followed, I trust, by a despatch drafted by me.

Now I'll tell you some more about the French. Major D. went up to arrange for a Court of Arbitration to settle quarrels between tribes on either side of the frontier. (I may add, in a whisper that this too was at my instigation.) The important case was one touching Fahad Beg's honour - his hashm, the great tribal word. Hashm? no one knew what hashm was. Our Qaimmaqam of 'Anah - a good man, I love him - explained laboriously in Arabic and Major D. translated. As illustration of such matters, Major D. added that their settlement was generally accompanied by the presentation of a virgin to the aggrieved party. "What!" exclaimed the Mutasarrif of Dair, an Arab of Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)] who till now has never been within hail of a tribeman, "to be killed?" "No" said Major D. mildly (I told you he had no sense of humour) "to be married"!!!

Scarcely less remarkable was Col Andrea's absolute refusal to take a guarantee, a sanad, from the disputing tribes that when the Court of Arbitration had pronounced its judgement the conflicting parties would abide by it. Col. Andrea stated clearly that he thought such a proceeding would be immoral. "Immoral?" said Major D., a good deal perturbed and stammering, I should think, more than he usually does; "we - we..we... do it every d..d..day - many times a d...d..day. It's t-t-tribal custom."

So I reconstruct the scene.

There! now I've said what I've got to say about the French, for the moment, and may all fools go where they deserve to be - as long as they don't leave our west flank exposed.

Now I'll tell you about the shooting party. It was delightful. Ken and I started off by motor at 2.30 on Thursday and got to a marsh near Daltawah, a mile or two north of Ba'quba [Ba'qubah], at 4.30. There we found H.M.'s servants pitching tents in a grassy place and were joined by the policeman, Major Wilkins, and the Advisor to Justice, Mr Prichard, always known as the Qadhi. H.M. and H.H (Zaid) were already shooting with an A.D.C. So we walked out along a ridge through the middle of the marsh, a little canal bank, posted ourselves down it and shot duck till dark and long after dark - you could see them black against the rosy western sky. Then we all strolled back and changed. I had a tiny tent, the King a bigger one and all the others a very large tent where we also dined. The King and I changed quickest so I sat with him in his tent, side by side on his bed, till the rest were ready. H.M. was in wild spirits and we had a very merry dinner. Then he went to bed and we played Vingt et Un for an hour. It was very cold in the night, I'm bound to say, being so near a damp marsh. One slept, but one wakened from time to time to shiver. And I had a cold, too.

On Friday we got up at 5 - or I did - and breakfasted at 5.30. By the time we had finished it was 6 o'clock and dawn - the sun rises now at 6.45. Off we went to our marshes and shot four drives from the first canal bank. The sun came out and we basked in it - my cold went away. I sat most of the time with the King (who is no duck shooter) and between drives he chatted most pleasantly on all subjects, including his fearful row with H.E. over the Bahai house, about which I think I told you in my last letter. I offered some good advice!

Then we tramped off through the grass and water, shooting as we went, to another marsh, but unfortunately it had dried up in the last fortnight, and there wasn't much to be got - a few snipe and black partridge. By this time it was one o'clock and like magic, we found ourselves by a high grassy bank with an excellent lunch spread out in the sun. We lunched and the King, having by that time had enough of it, found a horse, all saddled, in the field (another magic) and rode back on it to the tents. We decided that as the second marsh had played us false we would return to Baghdad that night, but we had another two hours' shoot at the first marsh before we left. Our whole bag was 170 odd - five or six kinds of duck, snipe, partridge and quail. Nice, wasn't it. We got back to the camping place wet through as to boots and legs, found that the tents and baggage were gone but dry shoes and stocking remained, changed, had tea on cakes and ale (literally) left at 4 and got in at 6.

Yes, it was very nice. Little daisies and buttercups and dandylions [sic] and water-buttercups were flowering in the marsh and on the banks, a joy to the eyes in this wild-flowerless land.

On Sat. I had a hard day in the office - 8.30 to 6 as hard as I could go. But you know, Father, I really am glad I'm not one of the unemployed. I can hold up my head and tell dockers and people that I do an 8 -9 hours' day. That's what I have been doing these days - there has been a fearful amount of work.

Unfortunately, as soon as I got out of the sun, the cold came back. I stayed in all Sunday and did a lot of work. Some perfectly charming people, called Moffat, came to lunch, brought by Mr Cooke, and Lionel Smith came too. Group Capt Moffat is an oldish man in the Air Ministry (so I understood) but he's also in the Presbyterian Ministry which seems odd. Perhaps he says the prayers at the Air Ministry night and morning. Anyhow, at present he is on leave and taking a holiday here with his wife. They're both delightful.

Sabih Beg came to tea and Ken, Iltyd Clayton and Dr Sinderson to dinner and Bridge - a very cheerful evening only I felt rather ill.

However, Monday was the day for writing the report to the Sec. of State, so I had to be early and late in the office. It took the devil of a time. I cried off a dinner party with the Tainshes (Rlys). I was sorry, but it was prudent.

Yesterday again there was a terrific rush at the office but I came in at 5 to have an hour and a half's talk with Major Ditchburn, with the results reported above - or rather, the information. Then I had a large Arab dinner party - Haji Muhsin Shalash (Minister of Finance) Manahim Daniel, an old Jew magnate related to Sasun, Saiyid Daud (the Naqib's son in law) Mahmud Chalabi Shahbander (you remember you saw his son who spoke some English - Mahmud is a, the, leading {merchant} man of business in Baghdad and I like him particularly) and an Egyptian lawyer, Ibrahim Shahin, just arrived from C'ple [Istanbul (Constantinople)]; I've known him a long time. The only Englishman was Mr Thomas, Director of Agriculture and much beloved. He talks the most extraordinary Arabic and an extraordinary lot of it. You go tumbling breathlessly after him, picking up his broken fragments of words and trying to make sense of them - you have to make them into sense because what he says is so interesting. About the cotton worm and allied subjects.

It was a remarkably successful evening, what with the cotton worm and Shahin Beg's tales of C'ple. And after most of them had gone, Muhsin Shalash stayed on for Û of an hour and addressed Shahin Beg and me on the subject of the 'Iraq. His theme was the amazing way in which the country had settled down since the King came, and how it was all due to H.M. - Sir Percy Cox had of course counted "and you too, Khatun, have done a great deal"; but still it was really the King and the whole future prosperity of 'Iraq depended on the strength and influence of the throne. I wonder if he really thinks that? and if not why he bothered to say it to us? Shahin Beg looked politely surprised, I murmured at intervals "True! oh true!" and there it was.

But Haji Muhsin must be a most agreeble Minister if he often talks to his royal master in that key.

Today I felt really ill - I'm better this evening so don't be anxious. I spent the morning at the office writing eloquent memos and came home after lunch to write to you. Now I've got to draft before dinner H.E.'s despatch to General Weygand about the Court of Arbitration.

Goodbye dearest; I lead a life almost as full as yours and I can't say better than that. Your very loving daughter Gertrude.

I haven't time to write to Mother this week, so she must accept this assurance that I loved her letter.

I must tell you - but you mustn't reveal - that the really humourous part about the nickname for Ramsay MacDonald, that which mades us hold our sides while we laugh, is that Haji Ramzi was, with an exception (the present Minister of Education) the very worst minister whom the 'Iraq ever produced. He was put in to Interior because H.M. and H.E. couldn't agree on a candidate and selected him as completely obscure and dim. He at once developed the most pernicious activity and was turned out (he was actually made to resign) with a sigh of relief on the part of all concerned. His last act was to send a wholely [sic] subversive order to all local administrative officials: Ken just succeeded in stopping it after his resignation. Since then he has retired into the oblivion which he had previously maintained for 65 years.

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