Tag Archives: charles belgrave

Iran in the Archives

Iran – known as Persia until the middle of the 20th century – is the second largest country in the Middle East, after Saudi Arabia, and is also home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations, possessing an unbroken history that stretches back over six thousands year. In addition to the ancient ruins of Persepolis – one of nineteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country – it is home to the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, the Sheikh Safi mausoleum in Ardabil, the architectural wonders of Isfahan and the Golestan Palace, as well as the natural beauties of Mount Tamarvand – the highest peak in the Middle East – the forest and waterfalls of Gilan, and the magnificent rolling green plains of Torkaman Sahra. Much of the country comprises mountains and desert, which has hindered both invasion from the outside and expansion from within.

Detail from a 16th century Persian manuscript, from illustrations compiled by Major William Nassau Weech for his ‘History of Persia’ (EUL MS 233)

Iran is bordered by the Caspian Sea to the north, with the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the south; Turkey and Iraq lie to to the west, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia bound its north, while its neighbours to the east are Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran’s strategic location, as well as its oil resources, have long attracted the interest of both eastern and western powers, and understanding the country’s history is crucial to anyone seeking to grapple with the complexities of Gulf politics, relations between the Middle East, Asia and Europe, and the continuing role played by Islam in the cultural and political development of the region. With tensions between Iran and the USA escalating sharply over the last few days, this is an opportune moment to delve into the materials held in our Middle East archives and Special Collections to see what insights they can offer.

Although there are some offprints and journals within the papers of John Craven Wilkinson (EUL MS 119) relating to the early archaeological and ancient history of the country, most of the archival material held in Exeter University’s Middle East collections dates from the last two centuries – so it is perhaps worth having a quick recap of the modern history of Persia. The Safavid and Zand dynasties that had ruled over Persia since the beginning of the 16th century ended in civil war after the death of Karim Khan in 1779, to be followed by the Qajar dynasty that lasted until 1925.  This period was characterised by growing rivalry in the region between Britain in the south – due to Persia’s boundaries with British India (modern Afghanistan and Pakistan)  – and Russia in the north. The Tsar’s attempts to expand into the Caucasus region resulted in mass migration of many Muslims into Turkey and Persia, as well as  two wars between with Russia and Persia in the early 19th century. These events are vividly described in Laurence Kelly’s excellent book, Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran: Alexander Griboyedov and Imperial Russia’s Mission to the Shah of Persia (Tauris, 2002). In the archive, a great deal of interesting material relating to this period can be found among the research papers of Peter Morris (EUL MS 285), a lecturer at Exeter University who had a special interest in Persian history.

A small selection of material from the Iranian research papers of Peter Morris (EUL MS 285)

Although much of the material is secondary, it includes copies of records from Russian archives and policy documents from the India Office, handwritten and typed notes on ethnic traditions, Persian culture, social attitudes and customs, copies of 18th century correspondence and 19th century typed descriptions of personalities in Persia, financial and agricultural statistics, information relating to the army, trade and administration, postcards of Persian paintings, presscuttings from the 19th and 20th century, as well as guidebooks, maps and personal notebooks. These papers would make an excellent starting point for anyone wishing to undertake research into the history of Iran.

The Twentieth Century: reform and revolution

Iran was ruled at the beginning of the twentieth century by Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar, who had succeeded his father in 1896 and would reign until his death in 1907. He was ill-suited for office, however, and one of his most poorly-judged decisions was to sign away his country’s oil rights in 1901 to William Knox D’Arcy, who subsequently became director of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) – later British Petroleum (BP) –  and would make a fortune from Iran’s precious natural resources: a cause for resentment by Iranians for most of the century. The Shah’s power was curtailed by the creation of a majles (parliamentary assembly) and democratic constitution, and he died 40 days after this was signed. Concerned over the possible instability of these liberal changes, Russia and Britain signed the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, or Convention between the United Kingdom and Russia relating to Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet, recognising their respective spheres of influence in the north and south of Persia and promising not to interfere either with each other or with Persian sovereignty. This would of course fall apart after the Bolshevik Revolution, and there are various papers on this topic in EUL MS 285/2.

Published works in our rare book collection provide evidence of Britain’s long history of involvement in Iran – in military, missionary, political and mercantile spheres – not only in their printed narratives but also in the material history of the books themselves

Material relating to the oil industry in Iran can be found among the papers of John Wilkinson (EUL MS 119/2/3/13) as well as Charles Belgrave (EUL MS 148/1/17 and elsewhere). The Shah’s son and successor tried to oppose the constitution and was forced into exile in 1909, to be succeeded by his young son Ahmad Shah, who proved weak and ineffective in dealing with civil unrest and the intrusions of Britain and Russia. He lost his throne in a coup d’etat in 1921, to be replaced by Reza Pahlavi, Commander of the Persian Cossack Brigade, who held the posts of Minister of War (1921-25) and Prime Minister (1923-25) before taking the imperial oath as the first shah of the Pahlavi dynasty. It was Reza Shah who insisted in 1935 that foreign countries used the name ‘Iran’ rather ‘Persia’, although his son would later allow the two to be used interchangeably.

Folder containing a typescript and illustrations for a history of Persia by Major William Nassau Weech (1878-1961), written in 1936 and published as part of his ‘History of the World’ (1944) EUL MS 233

Although Iran underwent far-reaching programme of modernisation under Reza Shah, he was unpopular with many Iranians due to his authoritarian rule and reliance on the military to crush dissent. Inspired by Kemal Ataturk’s reforms in Turkey, he ordered the wearing of modern dress, banned the hijab and established a highly centralised secular administration that broke the hold of Islamic clergy on the educational and legal system. This led to growing opposition from traditional Islamists, clergy, tribal groups, marginalised ethnic minorities such as the Kurds, as well as the younger generation of middle-class intelligentsia who resented his crushing of free speech as well as his association with British imperialism. During the 1930s, however, the Shah developed close relations with Germany, who provided technical and engineering support for the construction of railways, industrial plants and other infrastructure projects. Although Iran remained neutral at the outbreak of WWII, the Allies regarded the Shah with suspicion due to his pro-German policies and refusal to expel the large number of Germans – many of whom were Nazi supporters – living in Iran. An Anglo-Soviet invasion in 1941 brought about the forced abdication of the Shah and his replacement by his son, Crown Prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In keeping with past convention, the Russians occupied the north of the country and the British and Americans the south.

The Kurds in Iran

The weakening of the Shah’s power during the period of Allied occupation meant an end to the restrictions on political opposition, including the activities of Iranian Kurds who had long engaged in struggles against the centralised authorities in Tehran. In September 1942, in the town of Mahabad in northwest Iran, Kurdish nationalists formed the Komala-ye Žīān-e Kordestān  (Committee of the Life of Kurdistan), whose influence gradually spread throughout the town and surrounding villages, severing all administrative links with the Iranian government in Tehran. They were joined in 1944 by a well-respected local judge Qazi Mohammad, who soon took control of the group. Their aims included autonomy for Iranian and the right to use the Kurdish language in education and administration – and to this end they set up the first Kurdish theatre in Iran, as well as publishing newspapers and periodicals in Kurdish. On 22 January 1946 an independent Kurdish Republic was declared in Mahabad, with its own manifesto, army, girl’s school and a territory that included the nearby Kurdish-speaking towns of  Bukan, Piranshahr, Sardasht, Naqadeh and Oshnoviyeh. We have some interesting material relating to Mahabad in the Omar Sheikhmous collection (EUL MS 403), including copies of the periodicals Gir wa Gali Mindalani (Vols.1, Nos. 1-3) and Niştiman (Vol.1, Nos.7-9) and five issues of the newspaper Kurdistan from 1946, which was published by Qazi Mohammad’s Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (Hîzbî Dêmukratî Kurdistanî Êran). The latter two titles are in Sorani Kurdish. The Republic received the promise of military and financial backing from Soviet forces, as well as armed support from Iraqi Kurdish leader  Mostafa Barzani (1903-79), who brought with him several thousands Kurdish fighters and their families from over the border.

Some of the large number of documents – in Persian, Kurdish, English, Swedish, German and French – in the Omar Sheikhmous archive (EUL MS 403) documenting the history and political struggles of the Kurds of Iran

Mohammad had, unfortunately, overestimated the support of the Russians as much as he had underestimated the wiliness of the Iranian prime minister Ahmad Qavam, who played the various parties off against one another, and offered the Soviet authorities generous oil concessions in exchange for the withdrawal of their forces from Iran. In December 1946 the Iranian army entered Mahabad, ending the short-lived Kurdish republic. Despite the peaceful reconquest of the town, the leaders were shown no mercy: on 23 March 1947, Qazi Mohammad, his brother Sadr Qazi and cousin Sayf Qadr were hanged in the town centre. An undated French leaflet among the Sheikhmous papers is illustrated with a photograph of their execution.

The Latter Years of the Shah’s Reign

One of the most significant crises in Iran during the Cold War occurred in 1952 when Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq – a senior figure in the Communist Tudeh party – sought to nationalize the British-owned oil industry and return its revenues to Iran. This resulted in an economic blockade, an attempted coup, the temporary exile of the Shah, and a complex power struggle between Mosaddeq, the Shah, the military, Islamic clergy and crowds of rival demonstrators who were paid by the American government to instigate trouble on the streets. Mosaddeq was eventually removed in a CIA and MI6 backed coup in 1953, the Iranian oil industry was restored to British ownership, and from then on the Shah pursued a liberal, pro-western policy – branded the ‘White Revolution’ in 1963 – that was nonetheless autocratic, authoritarian and deeply corrupt, relying on rigged referendums and the brutal methods of the SAVAK security forces. It was, however, the Shah’s hostility to Islam that particularly drew the criticism of an outspoken Muslim cleric, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who was based in the holy city of Qom. Born in 1902, the charismatic and scholarly Khomeini was widely revered, and rather than risk a backlash by having him executed, the Shah had the 62-year old cleric arrested and deported in 1964. He would spend the next fifteen years in exile in Turkey, Iraq and France.

The Shah’s unpopularity continued to grow during the 1970s, partly due to the way in which the oil boom of that decade seemed to the Iranian people to made the Pahlavi family and their friends immensely rich while leaving much of the country in poverty. British interests in the Gulf region underwent a major change with the withdrawal of British forces from the Gulf in 1971, and Sir William Luce met the Shah several times during the period of his shuttle diplomacy between 1970 and 1971.  (Records of their conversations can be found amongst Luce’s papers, e.g. EUL MS 146/1/3/1, 1/3/7 and 1/3/8.) The Shah also met with Glencairn Balfour-Paul, who was based in Bahrain during the late 1960s as deputy political resident of the Persian Gulf, followed by another post as British ambassador to Iraq (1969-72) – there is an informal photograph of the Shah and his wife amongst Balfour-Paul’s papers (EUL MS 370/6/34.)

On the domestic front, however, the Shah proved unable to control the waves of protest that shook the country during the late 1970s, and eventually fled Iran in January 1979. The papers of Sir John and Lady Richmond contain a file of presscuttings  covering these events (EUL MS 115/19/13). The British, seeing the direction in which events were heading, had already dropped their support for the Shah and took the further step of refusing him asylum. He died in Egypt the following year.

Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran to a tumultuous welcome on 1 February 1979. One of the Shah’s final acts had been to appoint Shapour Bakhtiar as Prime Minister. Khomeini refused to recognise his authority, and after ten days of chaos and fighting Bakhtiar’s weak and isolated administration collapsed, to be replaced by Khomeini’s Islamic Republic of Iran. Over the next ten years – until his death on 3 June 1989 – Khomeini served as Supreme Leader of Iran, a decade that saw the revolution consolidated into an Islamic theocracy as well as a long and bloody war with Iraq.

Detail of a mural in Tehran showing the Ayatollah Khomeini during the war with Iraq. From the papers of Jonathan Crusoe (EUL MS 143)

This was chronicled in detail by Jonathan Crusoe, and among his papers are several folders on the ‘First Gulf War’ (1980-88) between Iran and Iraq as well as other files relating to relations between the two countries (EUL MS 43/10/2/1-6). Iran’s seizure of the Tunb Islands in the Straits of Hormuz is discussed in several articles in the Baghdad Observer, which would make an interesting comparison with Sir William Luce’s accounts of the same event amongst his papers.

Some of the presscuttings and other documents assembled by Jonathan Crusoe on the subject of the First Gulf War between Iran and Iraq (1980-88), many of which offer insights into how Iran’s history, culture and political intentions were perceived by Iraqi

Various scholarly assessments of Khomeini’s rule and the Islamic revolution in Iraq can be found among the academic papers of Nazih Ayubi (e.g. EUL MS 129/1/1/9, 129/1/2/5, 129/2/1, 3 and 30.) It should also be noted that there is an audio recording of a conference on Iran held in the El-Awaisi collection (EUL MS 284). Following Khomeini’s death in 1989, Ali Khamenei was appointed the next Supreme Leader and – thirty years on – remains in post. Although the Supreme Leader possesses ultimate religious and political authority in Iran and is responsible for appointing the Prime Minister and all other military and judicial leaders, it has been claimed that he functions as more of a figurehead for other powerful forces within the conservative establishment. There is no denying the significant differences between Khamanei and his predecessor in terms of religious education, cultural tastes and popular standing, and he remains a divisive figure for many in Iran, which has seen widespread anti-government demonstrations over the last two or three years.

The relationship between the Supreme Leader and the government is however, a complex one, as would be expected in a theocratic state. The power structure in Iran includes an array of different elements that includes the Supreme Leader, the President, Parliament and Judiciary, the Council of Guardians – who monitor parliamentary decisions for compatibility with Islamic law, the Assembly of Experts – who elect the Supreme Leader – the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was founded by Khomeini in 1979 to safeguard the principles of the revolution, and is fiercely independent from the regular army.

Those who wish to understand Iran today will need to spend a substantial amount of time working out the dynamics between these different centres of power, studying the personalities and abilities of the key figures, and learning how they operate both within Iran and as part of the wider political, religious and cultural context of the Gulf region – including its involvement in the affairs of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere. Perhaps more than most other countries in the Middle East, commentary on Iran has suffered badly from a vast chasm between how outsiders view the country and how it is seen from within. Anyone seeking to bridge this chasm must begin by acquiring a solid grasp not only of Persia’s long history but also of the diverse and conflicting movements that are currently helping to shape contemporary Iran. The archival materials held in Special Collections provide unique insights into this subject, and can of course be complemented by drawing on the rich resources held alongside in AWDU (the Arabic World Documentation Unit), which include a wealth of ephemera, economic reports, statistical records, leaflets and presscuttings, Iran in the Persian Gulf 1820-1966 (Slough: Archive Editions, 2000) – a six-volume collection of facsimile government papers  – plus official material relating to the oil industry, trade and banking.

For any questions, please contact the Middle East Archivist.

A few of the titles in the rare book section of Special Collections relating to the history of Iran and its neighbours. Many of these are illustrated with photographs and engravings, as well as maps, from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

Bahrain’s Silver Screens: the development of the cinema in Bahrain, as viewed through the diaries of Charles Belgrave

Charles Belgrave was adviser to the Sheikh of Bahrain from 1926 to 1957, and during those thirty years he was an exceptionally busy man. In addition to his duties advising the royal family and steering British policy in the region, he set up the police force, sat in judgement in the law courts, oversaw improvements in the health and education systems on the island and played a key role in supporting the establishment of the petroleum industry in Bahrain after oil was discovered in the early 1930s. He took a hands-on approach to all these activities, taking part in midnight raids on illicit arak stills, interrogating prisoners in the police cells, interviewing applicants for various posts on the island and generally involving himself in the minutiae of everyday life in Bahrain. His personal influence in the region was so extensive that he was referred to not only as المستشار (‘the Adviser’) but also as رئيس الخليج (‘Chief of the Gulf.’)

Despite this he was able to make time for leisure activities, including playing bridge, reading novels and listening to gramophone records. At times it is clear that the constant round of social engagements – integral to his job – could be intensely tedious, and there are countless references to dull dinners with ‘awful’ people and ‘sticky’ conversation. One form of entertainment that does begin to appear more and more regularly in his diary is the cinema. Although his references to picture-going are generally brief, Belgrave’s comments provide an insight not only into his taste in movies, but also into the changing nature of early cinema, different routines and patterns of cinema attendance that developed over these three decades.

The first attempt to set up a cinema in Bahrain was in 1922 when local businessman Mahmood Al Saati began running an impromptu movie house in a cottage on the north coast of Manama using a small imported projector. (Al Saati’s grandson is the filmmaker Bassam Mohammed Al-Thawadi – born 1960 – who directed Bahrain’s first feature film, The Barrier, in 1990.) However, when Belgrave arrived on the island in 1926 there is no reference in his diaries to any cinema being in operation, although he did go and see some films while in India trying to recruit policemen for Bahrain. In Karachi on 8 November 1926 he went to see Dante’s Inferno which he described as ‘rather depressing… dreary performance’. It is likely that this was not the 1911 Italian version but the more recent American adaptation directed by Henry Otto. Eight days later, still in India, he sat through ‘a very bad show called Helen of Troy – most disconnected and badly done.’ It is unclear whether Belgrave was frustrated by the film itself or the manner of its screening; problems with mutilated prints and faulty projectors would be a recurring feature of Bahrain picture-going in its early years.

On 2 August 1939 Belgrave went to see ‘Robin Hood’ and wrote in his diary afterward: ‘coloured, rather like a pantomime, very elaborate and some beautiful scenes, but all very juvenile’.

The Yatim cinema venture

On 21 September 1927 Belgrave ‘signed the monopoly of a cinema for three years to Ali Yatim’, adding in his diary ‘Hope he will get a move on with it.’ Belgrave had encountered Ali Yatim before, describing him as a ‘one-eyed English-speaking protégé’ of the American Mission, where he had been educated. He had a brother, Mohamed Katim, who lived away but had a bad reputation for his moral behaviour and lack of adherence to Muslim laws on food and drink. Ali died before the end of the year, however, and according to local custom, Mohamed returned to Bahrain to marry his brother’s widow. Ali’s son Hussein was sent to England to be educated at a school in Brighton (Diary, 1 January 1928). Plans for the cinema continued to be discussed, with Ghaus, the Indian contractor who had accompanied Belgrave to the cinema in Karachi calling about the matter on 14 January 1928; Sheik Hamed, the ruler of Bahrain, agreed to lower the cost of the ground to be used. The following day Ghaus returned for a lengthy talk about the question of censorship, as already strong opposition was being voiced to the proposal on religious grounds: at the council meeting on 31 January there were forceful speeches against the idea of a cinema, while the local Kadis ‘sent letters of protest.’ A wealthy pearl merchant, Ali bin Seggar, came to Belgrave to express his concern that children would be tempted to go to the cinema, ‘spend money on it, and if their parent didn’t give them money, they might steal it’ (Diary, 5 February) and he returned on 11 April to make further protests about the evils of the cinema. It is clear, however, that at least some of this resistance was due to the fierce business rivalry between the Katim family and another influential merchant Yusuf Kanoo, who was leading opposition to the cinema. The dispute seems to have succeeded in stalling any progress with the Yatim cinema. Mohamed Yatim pursued other lines of business, working as an interpreter and assistant for oil contractor Major Frank Holmes, and Belgrave noted in his diary (16 May 1932) that ‘Mohamed Yatim now sells film that fits my camera.’ The following summer, young Hussein Yatim – now returned from school – ‘came to see me to ask if the Govt. would allow a cinema here.’ Belgrave discussed the matter with him but commented privately ‘it is rather a doubtful project financially.’ (Diary, 31 July 1933).

‘After quite a good dinner we went out to Awali to see a film, Col. Blimp, a very good picture, extremely English & Well acted, a long picture.’ (Diary, 17 July 1945)

Other Venues

In the meantime, the number of places where films could be screened was growing. Belgrave recorded seeing a film – ‘a talkie, which I enjoyed enormously’ – on board the naval cruiser HMS Hawkins (9 November 1933), and then another film at the Agency building (18 December 1933). The Political Agent and his staff occupied a two-storey building on the shoreline at the northern tip of Manama town, with a tennis court and pool, although it is not clear precisely when the projector was installed. Belgrave’s diary records occasions when the machine failed to work.

Oil had been discovered on Bahrain in 1932, beginning with a test well at Jebel Dukhan; a settlement of Nissan huts was built here to house the workers of BAPCO (the Bahrain Petroleum Company) which included catering and recreation facilities. Belgrave records a meeting with Percy Loch, the Political Agent, ‘to discuss a cinema at oil camp’ (Diary, 10 January 1935) and a small cinema seems to have begun operating at the Jebel camp soon after. As the oil industry developed with the construction of Sitra refinery, a new town was built on the dry plains of Awali – about twelve miles south of Manama – on a much larger scale. A cinema was also established here in 1937. Running of this cinema was taken over by a formal Club committee two years later, and Belgrave was a regular attendee of screenings here. Following the destruction of this cinema in a fire on Christmas Eve 1943, an open air screen was set up which lasted until a new auditorium was built in 1952.

There are potential problems with having screens out in the open, and after watching Bambi here, Belgrave recorded ‘an attractive picture but the moon on the screen took much of the colour from it’ (Diary, 6 March 1944). A third cinema screen was also available at the British naval base at Juffair, on the southern edge of Manama, which was established in April 1935.

Belgrave’s diary entries during the late 1930s show that he went to watch films at Awali, Jefel and Juffair, as well as the Agency, although much of the time he just wrote ‘to cinema’ without recording the location. Many of these occasions were dictated by social engagements, with an invitation to dinner at the Agency or with oil managers followed by a film screening.

Not all these films were commercial products. The above-mentioned Percy Gordon Loch – Political Agent on Bahrain from 1932 to 1937 – was himself an amateur film-maker, as was his wife Eleanor, and screenings of their home-movies were a regular event on Bahrain’s social calendar, as is evident from Belgrave’s diary entries, for example, on 27 May, 6 November and 25 December 1933, and 8, 17 and 22 February 1934. Some three dozen of these films have been preserved in the Dalyell Collection – see here for more details.

Commercial Cinema in Bahrain

The Agency, BAPCO and naval cinemas were all of course private ventures, accessible only to employees of these particular institutions and their guests. In his Annual Report for Year 1356 (March 1937 to February 1938) Belgrave recorded that ‘Permission was granted by the Government to The Bahrain Theatre Company to open a cinema in Bahrain and a piece of ground on the south side of Manama town was leased to the company on a long lease. The company consists of several of the younger Shaikhs of the Ruling Family as well as two local Arab merchants. Building was begun during the year.’ [The Bahrain Government Annual Reports, 1924-1956. Vol.II: 1937-42. (Gerrards Cross: Archive Editions, 1986) p.24] One of these merchants was almost certainly Hussein Ali Yatim, the other being Abdulla Al Zayed (1894-1945), something of a media entrepreneur: he installed Bahrain’s first modern printing press in 1935 and four years later launched its first newspaper – Al Bahrain  – which was published between 1939 and 1944.

The Manama cinema had no air-conditioning, and during the winter season screenings were held outside with the films projected onto the wall. The following year’s Annual Report noted that the cinema, which opened in the summer of 1937, showed a different picture every week, with ‘Indian, Egyptian and American films exhibited in rotation. Films are subject to Government censorship but so far only one has been prohibited as being likely to offend local taste. It is understood that the venture is proving a financial success. [The Bahrain Government Annual Reports, 1924-1956. Vol.II: 1937-42. (Gerrards Cross: Archive Editions, 1986) Year 1357, p.31] The following year saw another innovation, as the cinema began adopting the BAPCO practice of showing newsreels before the main feature, which proved so popular that many local Arabs began flocking to the cinema to see the newsreels and then leaving before the start of the movie. [The Bahrain Government Annual Reports, 1924-1956. Vol.II: 1937-42. (Gerrards Cross: Archive Editions, 1986) Year 1358, p.43]

‘James and I went to the local cinema and saw a very good film Blue Lamp about the Metropolitan police, much enjoyed it. It was quite full, a lot of 14 year old Arabs in the 3/- seats – it is amazing how they have so much money to spend. Rather hot in the cinema.’ (Diary, 18 August 1952.) James was his son, born in 1929.

Belgrave’s tastes were not widely shared among these Bahraini cinemagoers, who much preferred to go and see the latest films from Egypt. Westerners perhaps fail to appreciate that during its ‘golden age’ prior to nationalisation in the 1960s, the Egyptian film industry was the third largest in the world, with around fifty new films being produced every year – a figure that increased after the 1952 revolution led by Nasser that overthrew the monarchy. To a slightly lesser extent, Indian films were also popular, which can be linked both to the presence of a large Indian community on Bahrain and the quality of Indian film-making during the 1940s and 1950s.  Egyptian films were the staple at the Pearl Cinema on Government Road, the opening of which was attended by Belgrave (Diary, 22 July 1948), and the Ahali Cinema in Manama, a commercial venture by former pearl merchant Ibrahim Muhammed Al-Zayyani that also opened in 1948. Such entrepreneurship was characteristic of the period of rapid expansion and consumerism that followed the Second World War, with the Pearl Cinema forming just part of a large business empire run by Andulaziz bin Hasan Al Gosaibi and his family, who had links to Saudi Arabia. Cinema going was now increasingly part of a new leisure culture enjoyed by a younger and more affluent Arab population, and no longer the preserve of the small Anglo-American elite as it had been in the 1930s. Belgrave’s diaries provide information not only about the growth of Bahrain’s cinema industry, but also about the cultural development of film screening practices and the changing habits of cinema-goers.

Finally, Belgrave’s diaries also reveal what he thought about dozens of well-known movie classics…

The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940) ‘Disappointing, some good items but it didn’t hang together – bits of slapdash comedy and rather heavy straight stuff which didn’t mix and a long dull propaganda speech to finish. A most disappointing show.’ (29 November 1941)

Jane Eyre (Stevenson, 1943) starring Joan Fontaine: ‘fairly good but too much darkness – the modern tendency in films seems to have them almost black out. I suppose it saves sets.’ (14 July 1945)

The Keys of the Kingdom (Stahl, 1944) starring Gregory Peck: ‘very well acted & close to the story but on the whole somewhat depressing, a good many people sniffed.’ (19 February 1947)

Caesar and Cleopatra (Pascal, 1945) starring Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh: ‘I was disappointed in the film, some good colour shots – but I don’t care for history brought up to date with modern slang & a very flighty Cleopatra.   (23 January 1948)

 Dark Mirror (Siodmak, 1946) starring Olivia de Havilland: ‘rotten, about two tiresome twins, one of whom did a murder… bored stiff’ (14 August 1948)

Belgrave’s Books

What sort of books might be read by a young British administrator posted to the Middle East? To celebrate World Book Day, it seemed like an interesting exercise to have a skim through the diaries of Charles Belgrave (1894-1969), who was adviser to the rulers of Bahrain from 1926 to 1957. He wrote in his diary almost every day, and in addition to keeping a record of the day’s events, personal meetings, administrative affairs and official matters, he frequently noted details about books that he had read, or films he had seen at the local cinema (which will probably be the subject of a future blogpost.)

Given the extent of Belgrave’s responsibilities on Bahrain, it is remarkable that he found any time for reading at all. In addition to advising Sheikh Hamed Bin Isa Al Khalifa and his successors on financial and legal matters, he was in charge of the police and the law courts, involved in the setting up of schools and hospitals, overseeing improvements in the island’s infrastructure – such as roads, electrical installations, bridge building and harbour construction – as well as dealing with the nascent oil industry, RAF and naval visits, plus the endless round of social calls with Bahraini merchants, pearl fishers, local dignitaries, British officials, American missionaries and visiting clergy.

In spite of this workload – or perhaps because of it – he devoted time to reading a number of novels, both classic and contemporary. Writing in his diary late at night there was neither time nor space for extensive comments, but often he recorded his impressions in a brief sentence or two. The first book to be mentioned was Major Dane’s Garden (London: Hutchinsons, 1926) by Margery Perham, a romantic novel about a District Officer in Somaliland who tries to use his gardening experiments to improve agricultural practices for the locals. Belgrave had arrived on Bahrain on 31 March 1926 and three months later, on 17 June 1926, he wrote ‘Reading a very interesting book called “Major Danes Garden” about Somaliland, really extremely good, the best novel I’ve read for along while.’ Perhaps he saw something in the idealism of Major Dane that he hoped to emulate in his own work on Bahrain?

Next up was The Constant Nymph (London: Heinemann, 1924), by Margaret Kennedy. Set in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1920s, the novel follows the affairs of various members of an extended ‘Bohemian’ family, particularly young Teresa, or Tessa – the ‘nymph’ of the title – and her romantic fixation on composer Lewis Dodd, who shows more interest in Tessa’s cousin Florence. He probably started reading this straight after Major Dane’s Garden as on Saturday 24 July 1926, he noted: ‘Finished reading “The Constant Nymph” a very unusual book, I liked it.’

Unlike many of his contemporaries in diplomatic circles, Belgrave’s tastes at this time seemed to incline towards some of the more unusual and progressive authors on the literary scene. On 26 June 1927 he recorded that he had just read Crazy Pavements (London: Jonathan Cape, 1927) by Beverley Nichols – the ‘original Bright Young Thing’ according to Obsert Sitwell. This darkly satirical swipe at London socialites of the 1920s predated Waugh’s similar Vile Bodies by three years. Belgrave recorded ‘I liked it, though decidedly “modern”.’

Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (London: Chatto & Windus, 1928) was another novel that mocked the elite social circles of the ‘Twenties, but in contrast to the gossipy tone of Crazy Pavements it was a much more a novel of ideas, in which Huxley used thinly-veiled portraits of figures such as Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence and John Middleton Murry to explore the complex interaction of various intellectual theories and philosophical questions. Heavy on ideas and thin on plot, it nonetheless intrigued Belgrave: ‘5 June 1929 Just finished reading Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley, one of the Tauchnitz books, quite one of the queerest, most improper and most amusing, in parts, book that I have read for a long time. I should like to read more of his.’ Tauchnitz were a German publisher who specialised in continental reprints of English literary works, Point Counter Point was published as Vols.4872 and 4873 in their library of British and American Authors: due to its length it required two volumes.

A slightly simpler read was Richard Hughes’s novel A High Wind in Jamaica (London: Chatto & Windus, 1929), which Belgrave finished on 14 June 1930 and ‘liked very much.’ Two months later, on 17 August 1930, his diary records: ‘Am reading Jane Austen again and very much liking it; I find several novels I had not read before.’ He seems to have developed an interest in Austen, and on 18 December 1931 he recounted how his wife Marjorie wore a dress that they had copied from a picture in one of Austen’s novels, along with a large bonnet, fan and hair locket as accessories.

Although the Regency world of Jane Austen was far removed from life in Bahrain, some of Belgrave’s reading clearly resonated with his current experience. Regarding Joseph Ackerley’s account of his appointment as personal secretary to the eccentric Maharajah of Chhatrapur –  Hindoo Holiday. An Indian Journal (London: Chatto & Windus, 1932) – he wrote in his diary for 23 September 1932: ‘rather improper but very amusing and in many ways not unlike this place.’ Similarly, with regard to Maurice Collis’s biography Siamese White (London: Faber & Faber, 1936) about Samuel White, a 17th century merchant trader from Bath who ended up as a mandarin of Siam. ‘A most interesting book,’ wrote Belgrave on 25 July 1942, ‘the sort I should like to write myself.’

Other novels that he read were clearly just for escapism and relaxation, although it is evident that he kept up to date with what was being published. On 15 April 1946 he wrote: ‘Read after lunch, an historical novel Forever Amber – very long & rather good. Some are scandalised by it but I can’t see why.’ Kathleen Winsor’s novel about a mistress of Charles II had been published in 1944 and she was then in the process of adapting it into a screenplay for the 1947 movie of the same name, which caused even more of a scandal than her book, earning the ire of Hollywood’s Hays Office.   Around the same time he was also working his way through some of Trollope’s ‘Barchester Chronicles’ including The Small House at Allinton (‘excellent reading’) and Framley Parsonage, before returning to more contemporary fiction such as Waugh’s Decline and Fall (20 February 1947). There was light relief in the form of Robert Hichens’ satire about decadent London during the ‘Naughty Nineties’ The Londoners, which he found  ‘a very funny book – one forgets that he ever wrote comic stories’ (2 June 1955).

Not all Belgrave’s personal reading was fiction, and his diary entries also records him enjoying works such as William Gaunt’s The Aesthetic Adventure  ‘an extremely amusing book…about the arty people of the 90s’ and Anthony Glyn’s biography of his grandmother, the novelist and screenwriter Elinor Glyn.

If anyone is seeking inspiration for reading choices for World Book Day, Belgrave’s diary could provide some ideas!

Oil, Pearls and Politics: cataloguing the papers of Charles Dalrymple Belgrave (1894-1969)

Belgrave’s diary for 1917 along with articles on Bahrain written for ‘The Times’ EUL MS 148/2/1/2 and 10

One reason why the papers of Charles Dalrymple Belgrave provide such a fascinating resource is the distinctive nature of his career in the Gulf. Most of the diplomats whose papers are preserved in the Middle East Collections served in specific roles – such as ambassador or political resident – under the British government, and tended to move from place to place every few years. Belgrave was appointed as ‘Adviser’ to the Sheikh of Bahrain in 1926 and held this post until 1957. This thirty-year period saw Bahrain transformed by the discovery of oil and a series of modernising administrative reforms led by Belgrave, who oversaw improvements in the legal system, infrastructure, police service and public health. As he was an employee of the Sheikh rather than the British government, Belgrave occupied a unique and somewhat ambiguous position, balancing the interests of the Al Khalifa rulers and the Bahraini people with Foreign Office policy and British strategic aims for the Gulf region. The papers in our collection shed light not only on the achievements, challenges and controversies of Belgrave’s life and work in Bahrain, but also reveal the means by which the society and economy of this small island altered dramatically during this time, and the role played by British and American interests – both political and commercial.

Pages from Belgrave’s diary for 13 August 1926, recording events in the wake of a fatal shooting at The Fort, the police headquarters. The Political Agent, Major Clive Daly, was badly wounded in the incident – hence the arrival of the cruiser referred to above, which Belgrave clearly regarded as an over-reaction. EUL MS 148/2/2/6/4

Prior to his appointment as Adviser in 1926, Belgrave had obtained experience of the Middle East through military service with the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade during the First World War in Egypt, Sudan and Palestine. He then held administrative posts in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt – recorded in his book Siwa: The oasis of Jupiter Ammon (London: Bodley Head, 1923) and Tanganyika (formerly German East Africa, now part of Tanzania). It was while on leave from East Africa that he saw a job vacancy in the ‘Personal’ adverts of The Times (10 August 1925) – a life-changing moment that gave its name to his autobiography Personal Column (London: Hutchinson, 1960) and also featured in one of Belgrave’s watercolour paintings, a photograph of which is in our collection (EUL MS 148/2/2/4/1).

Having secured the job after interviews with British government officials, Belgrave undertook a three-month Arabic course at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and tried to find out what he could about Bahrain – only to discover that very little information was available. After marrying his fiancée Marjorie Lepel Barrett-Lennard on 27 February 1926, the Belgraves sailed for Bahrain, arriving on 31 March which is when his diary starts.

It should be noted at this point that – with the exception of a few small sections – the diaries we have here are copies and transcripts, rather than the original books (which remain with his family.) The papers in the collection were assembled by Charles’ cousin Robert Belgrave while working on a biography of ‘The Adviser’ that sadly remained unfinished when Robert died in 1991. In addition to the printed versions of the diaries which Robert had transcribed and typed, the collection includes original letters and documents, artwork by Charles Belgrave, printed material on Bahrain, copies of numerous official documents and presscuttings, as well as Robert Belgrave’s early drafts and working papers for the biography.

Copies from a large album of presscuttings chronicling the visit of Sheikh Hamed Bin Isa Al Khalifa, to the UK in June 1936. EUL MS 148/2/2/5

During the cataloguing process I read through Belgrave’s diaries from his arrival in 1926 to the final months of 1956 when his departure was imminent, and was struck by the extent of the changes that took place both in Bahrain and in Belgrave himself. In addition to his duties advising the royal family and steering British policy in the region, he set up the police force, sat in judgement in the law courts, oversaw improvements in the health and education systems on the island and played a key role in supporting the establishment of the petroleum industry in Bahrain after oil was discovered in the early 1930s. He took a hands-on approach to all these activities, taking part in midnight raids on illicit arak stills, interrogating prisoners in the police cells, interviewing applicants for various posts on the island and generally involving himself in the minutiae of everyday life in Bahrain. His personal influence in the region was so extensive that he was referred to not only as المستشار (‘the Adviser’) but also as رئيس الخليج   (‘Chief of the Gulf’).

                   An original page from Belgrave’s diary for 7-8 April 1928 EUL MS 148/2/2/6/4

Despite Belgrave’s heavy workload he was able to make time for leisure activities including playing bridge, reading novels and listening to gramophone records. At times the references to dull dinners, ‘awful people’ and ‘ghastly’ cocktail parties suggest that the constant round of social engagements – integral to his job – could grow tedious. One form of entertainment that does begin to appear more and more regularly in his diary as the years progress is the cinema, which is referred to at the foot of the above letter. Belgrave was able to watch films at a number of different venues, including home movies at the Residency, onboard visiting naval ships and a small theatre in the oil workers’ camp as well as the commercial cinemas that were later established in Manama. Belgrave’s records of how these cinema venues developed provides a fascinating reflection of the changing society in Bahrain, and may be the subject of another blogpost.

Bahrain’s transformation from a small island economy dependent upon pearl fishing into a modern society owes much to Belgrave, who not only managed the island’s administration and controlled its budget, but also took a personal interest in raising standards of education and health, training the police force, establishing hospitals, improving roads and drainage. However, by holding so much power in his own hands and closely aligning Bahrain’s ruling family with British political interests, he made himself a target for the growing nationalist ferment which manifested itself in a series of demonstrations, several of which turned violent and involved the burning of cars and buildings.

These events, and Belgrave’s response to them, are recorded in detail in his diaries, alongside his concerns about intrigue involving Persia and Egypt, and his personal frustration not only with the Foreign Office but also the attitudes of some of the Political Residents – over a dozen of whom came and went during his time there. It is instructive to compare his analysis of political events in Bahrain with the (often critical) confidential reports (EUL MS 148/2/1/3 and MS 148/2/1/5) written by British and American officials – a picture that could be further fleshed out by consulting the views of his opponents, as published in local newspapers and tracts, and the openly hostile opinions of his role found in the Egyptian and Iranian media. Another perspective on the rise of nationalism and the decline of British influence in the Middle East can be traced through the papers of Sir William Luce, who arrived in Bahrain as Political Resident in 1961, four years after Belgrave’s departure, and was instrumental in Bahrain becoming an independent state in 1971. In his diaries for 1956, Belgrave notes the appointment of a new Governor in Aden (Luce) and comments on the troubles there, which in many ways echoed the unrest in Bahrain at the time.

Documents and presscuttings relating to the trial of Abdul-Rahman Al-Bakir, Abdul-Aziz Al-Shamlan and others. EUL MS 148/2/1/7 and 8.

The nationalist movement in Bahrain was led by a small group of individuals who called themselves the Higher Executive Committee, (later the National Union Committee), and made Belgrave’s life increasingly difficult in later years. In November 1956 he had the leaders arrested following a number of deaths and injuries during riots that he claimed had been instigated by the Committee. The trial and conviction that followed caused controversy both in Bahrain and the UK – these events are documented at length in various materials that can be studied in the collection.

Although Bahrain never formed part of the British Empire, during the nineteenth century the ruling Al Khalifa family entered into a series of legal treaties that offered Britain a degree of control over defence and foreign relations in exchange for military and naval protection from pirates and hostile neighbours. As a British Protectorate, Bahrain was nominally independent but effectively supervised by British government officials. Control was exercised by means both subtle and unsubtle, and when the erratic behaviour of the ruler Sheikh Isa ibn Ali Al Khalifa threatened the island’s stability, the British had him deposed in 1923 and replaced with his son Hamed, Belgrave’s employer. After Hamed’s death in 1942 he was succeeded by his son Sheikh Salman, for whom Belgrave continued to advise and govern. Modern readers may find it hard to justify the moral compromises involved in balancing Britain’s vested interests in oil revenues and foreign influence with the authoritarian and feudal nature of Bahrain’s sheikhdom, but the papers in Belgrave’s collection reveal how those engaged in this policy understood their role and perceived the value of their actions.

Demands for ‘The Adviser’ to leave had been circulating for years and were steadfastly resisted by Belgrave, but his position became more and more untenable as the political turmoil in the Middle East during the 1950s was worsened by the disastrous impact of the Suez crisis. There is evidence that the Political Resident, Bernard Burrows, along with the Political Agent Charles Gault and various individuals in the Foreign Office were manoeuvring in the background to have him removed. When Belgrave eventually left Bahrain it was arguably too late, as his refusal to go had only hardened resentment against him as a symbol of British imperialism. In consequence, Bahraini historians – if not exactly airbrushing Belgrave out – tended to minimize the extent of his contribution. While his diaries provide ample evidence of just how much he did for Bahrain, these personal writings also reveal the prejudices and attitudes that were typical of colonial administrators at this period. Those seeking to understand the history of modern Bahrain, the influence of British strategy in the Gulf region, the relationship between Middle Eastern politics and the petroleum industry, or how nationalist movements flourished on regional, national and international levels, would find much of interest by reading Belgrave’s diaries in conjunction with other documents among his papers, as well as other materials in our Middle Eastern collections and the rich resources held next door in AWDU. The catalogue for the papers can be found online here, but please note there are special access requirements for the Belgrave collection.