Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Meeting the Sadr family

With the influence of the Shia Sadr family firmly in the news in Iraq, some letters by Gertrude Bell have caught my eye. In a first she complains that

"It's a problem here how to get into touch with the Shiahs, not the tribal people in the country; we're on intimate terms with all of them; but the grimly devout citizens of the holy towns and more especially the leaders of religious opinion, the mujtahids, who can loose and bind with a word by authority which rests on an intimate acquaintance with accumulated knowledge entirely irrelevent to human affairs and worthless in any branch of human activity. There they sit in an atmosphere which reeks of antiquity and is so thick with the dust of ages that you can't see through it - nor can they."

And so, when an opportunity arose to meet the Sadrs, Bell accepted rapidly. She described them as "bitterly pan-Islamic, anti-British et tout le bataclan [the whole caboodle]".There follows an atmospheric description of her first meeting with the family, in the town of Al Kazimiyah, near Baghdad, in March 1920.

"The upshot was that I went yesterday ...We walked through the narrow crooked streets of Kadhimain [Al Kazimiyah] and stopped before a small dark archway. He led the way along 50 yards of pitch-dark vaulted passage - what was over our heads I can't think - which landed us in the courtyard of the saiyid's house. It was old, at least a hundred years old, with beautiful old lattice work of wood closing the diwan on the upper floor. The rooms all opened onto the court - no windows onto the outer world - and the court was a pool of silence separated from the street by the 50 yards of mysterious masonry under which we had passed.

Saiyid Hasan's son, Saiyid Muhammad, stood on the balcony to welcome us, black robed, black bearded and on his head the huge dark blue turban of the Mujtahid class. Saiyid Hasan sat inside, an imposing, even a formidable figure, with a white beard reaching half way down his chest and a turban a size larger than Saiyid Muhammad's. I sat down beside him on the carpet and after formal greetings he began to talk in the rolling periods of the learned man, the book-language which you never hear on the lips of others. Mujtahids usually have plenty to say - talking is their job; it saves the visitor trouble. We talked of the Sadr family in all its branches, Persian, Syrian and Mesopotamian; and then of books and of the collections of Arabic books in Cairo, London, Paris and Rome - he had all the library catalogues, and then of the climate of Samarra which he explained to me was much better than that of Baghdad because Samarra lies in the third climatic zone of the geographers - I need not say that's pure tosh.

He talked with such vigour that his turban kept slipping foreward onto his eyebrows and he had to push it back impatiently onto the top of his head. And I said to myself "If only that great blue turban of yours would fall off and leave you sitting there with a bald head I should think you just like everyone else." But it didn't and I was acutely conscious of the fact that no woman before me had ever been invited to drink coffee with a mujtahid and listen to his discourse, and really anxious lest I shouldn't make a good impression." [14 March 1920]

Within a few months her perception of the family changed. An uprising erupted in Iraq that severely tested British control. As Bell afterwards admitted, the Sadrs had played a crucial role in the violence.

"The villain of the piece is Saiyid Muhammad Sadr, the son of old Saiyid Hasan Sadr ... a tall black bearded 'alim with a sinister expression. [When Bell first visited in March 1920] Saiyid Muhammad was little more than the son of Saiyid Hasan, but a month later he leapt into an evil prominence as the chief agitator in the distrubances. In those insane days he was treated like a divinity. Shi'ahs kissed the robe of men who had touched his hand. We tried to arrest him early in August and failed. He escaped from Baghdad and moved about the country like a flame of war, rousing the tribes. It was he who called up the Diyalah tribesmen and caused all those tragedies .... His next achievement was on the upper Tigris. In obedience to his preaching the tribes attacked Samarra but were beaten off. He then moved down to Karbala and was the soul of the insurgence on the middle Euphrates. Finally, when the game was up, he fled with other saiyids and tribal shaikhs across the desert to Mecca..." [20 July 1921]

Muhammad Sadr returned to Iraq after the British declared an amnesty as a prelude to parachuting (the Sunni) Feisal in as king. According to Bell, Muhammad Sadr "intended to be second to Faisal, if indeed Faisal were not second to him, but Faisal can't bear him and he finds himself relegated to a position of comparative obscurity, with us, whom he hates, and our friends, whom he hates equally occupying the front of the stage. He has still a certain amount of influence and it's a hand to hand conflict between us and him."

And so began the struggle which persists today.

No comments: