29 April 2014


My clever brother introduced me to the extraordinary Gertrude Bell (1868-1926). I met her too late to see her as any kind of role model, but my admiration for this woman is boundless. We have few real-life similarities except certain landscape yearnings. We do (did) share red hair which is important only to red-headed people.

Among her first accomplishments were her extensive camel treks in Arabia, acquiring knowledge of the desert tribes and fluency in their languages. Odd as it may seem, this lone traveling woman (with a loyal paid servant) was, for the most part, accepted by local desert leaders (unlike some of her own society) for her unorthodox interests and her unquestioned love of the ancient Mesopotamian lands. It was a natural fit for British Intelligence to recruit her as a political officer for the region during the First World War. During that time, she had as much influence on the success of the Arab Revolt as her colleague and friend, T.E. Lawrence.

 From Christopher Hitchens’ book review of Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations:[1]
Reading about Bell, one is struck not just by her ability to master the Arabic language and to revere and appreciate the history and culture of the Arabs, but by her political acuity. Where others saw only squabbles between nomads, she was able to discern the emergence of two great rival forces—the Wahabbis of Ibn Saud and the Hashemites of Faisal—and she stored away the knowledge for future reference.

Before the war ended, she was appointed Oriental Secretary to the High Commissioner in Baghdad, a position of power unequalled by a woman of her time. She hoped and planned fiercely for post-war reorganization, a stable future for the Middle East. The ultimate profound effect was the creation of Jordan as the Hashemite dynasty and the modern state of Iraq.

A life devoted to peacemaking and politics had its downside with bureaucratic infighting and financial challenges. But her personal life was not devoid of fleeting pleasures. Gertrude loved to dress as fashionably as she could and hold court among international figures visiting Iraq, preferring the company of men to what she considered the trivial interests of Foreign Office wives. Sadly, two blossoming love affairs ended with the premature death of each man. Depression was difficult to cope with later in life; some say her overdose of sleeping pills was deliberate.

D.R. Hogarth said of her:[2]
No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.
Mesopotamia Exhibit, 2013, Royal Ontario Museum

Bell left thousands of rare photographs of Middle East antiquities, as an expert on archaeology and architecture. Her enduring love for the region led her to found the famed Baghdad Archaeological Museum, now known as the National Museum of Iraq — the institution notoriously looted during the Iraq invasion of 2003 (although many pieces have been recovered). Her photos can be seen at the site of the GertrudeBell Project. Numerous editions of her letters and diaries have been published.[3] One of her own classic writings is Syria: The Desert and the Sown (London: William Heinneman, 1907).

More than one book has been written about her life.[4] The lower photograph for this book cover was taken at the Cairo Conference in 1921; Bell is between Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence.
New York Times, 2006

Bell is buried in Baghdad.

[1] Christopher Hitchens, "The Woman Who Made Iraq," 1 June 2007, The Atlantic (www.theatlantic.com/doc/2007/06/the-woman-who-made-iraq/305893 : accessed 25 April 2014).
[2] David R. Hogarth, "Obituary: Gertrude Lowthian Bell," The Geographical Journal, Vol.68, No.4 (1926), pp 363-368; as cited and quoted in "Gertrude Bell," Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Bell : accessed 23 April 2014).
[3] Bell, Florence, ed. The Letters of Gertrude Bell. London: Ernest Benn, 1927.
Burgoyne, Elizabeth. Gertrude Bell from her Personal Papers. London: Ernest Benn, 1958-61.
O'Brien, Rosemary, ed. Gertrude Bell: the Arabian diaries, 1913-1914. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
Richmond, Elsa, ed. The earlier letters of Gertrude Bell. London: Ernest Benn, 1937.
[4] Bodley, R. and Hearst, L. Gertrude Bell. New York: Macmillan, 1940.
Goodman, Susan. Gertrude Bell. Leamington Spa: Berg, 1985.
Howell, Georgina. Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
Kamm, J. Daughter of the desert : the story of Gertrude Bell. London: Bodley Head, 1956.
Lukitz, Liora. A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006.
Ridley, M.R. Gertrude Bell. London: Blackie and Son, 1941.
Wallach, Janet. Desert Queen : the Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.
Winstone, H.V.F. Gertrude Bell. London: Constable, 1978.

No comments: