Photo: Iraqi gravekeeper Ali Mansur points to the tomb of Gertrude Bell in Iraq April 30, 2006. Bell, an "oriental secretary" to British governments, was credited with drawing the boundaries of modern Iraq out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One. Bell, also a British traveller, writer and linguist, was one of the most powerful women of the 1920s, an adviser to empire builders and confidante to kings. She died in Baghdad in 1926 and rests in a forgotten cemetery in the capital. Picture taken April 30, 2006. REUTERS/Ali Jasim
In the wake of a newly stirred interest in the “woman who made Iraq”, we reflect on Gertrude Bell’s accomplishments and troubled legacy.
In July 1926, the funeral of an Englishwoman was held in Baghdad. Attendees included Faisal I, the king of Iraq, who was said to have observed the carriage of her coffin from his private balcony, to the cemetery that now lies unkempt and overgrown in a city scarred by a century of conflict.
Variously described as Queen of the Desert, Kingmaker, Nation Builder, and by one drastically misinformed man as “a little wisp of a human being, said to be a woman” (a remark made circa 1916 by General Sir George MacMunn, the inspector general of communications in Mesopotamia) Gertrude Bell is most regularly associated with the establishment of the nation of Iraq, known previously as Mesopotamia.
She was at the centre of the British imperialist campaign to re-draw the borders of the modern Middle East, and the impact of her exploits in the region – both celebrated and controversial – continues to be felt today.
A documentary released in October last year, Letters From Baghdad, sheds fresh light on Bell’s neglected legacy. Directed by Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum, the film borrows actor Tilda Swinton’s voice to narrate Bell’s life and achievements through her own extensive personal letters and writings.
Photo of British author and archaeologist Gertrude Bell, in modern-day Iraq. Picture taken in 1909, picture copied from the Gertrude Bell Archive
Born in 1868 to wealthy industrialists in the north-east of England, Bell graduated from Oxford University at nineteen with first class honours, made several world tours, and developed fluency in Arabic, Persian, French and German, as well as speaking Italian and Turkish.
By her early thirties, she was a highly esteemed mountaineer, having traced at least ten new paths or first ascents in the Swiss Alps, including Gertrudspitze, a peak in the Bernese Oberland that took her namesake.
Several of her archaeological publications remain standard texts, and her travel writings, though somewhat suffused with an orientalist voyeurism, interpreted the Middle East region through an admiring, inquisitive and wondrous lens, which would have challenged the pervading ignorance of the contemporary British public.
By all summations a pioneer in the defiance of traditional expectations for women, Bell was nevertheless indifferent at best to the nascent feminist movement in Britain. A founding member of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League in 1908 in her local region, the contradictions in her views on self-determination were revealed in her domestic as in her international political attitudes.
Archive photo taken at the Cairo Conference- 1921. Seated: from right: Winston Churchill, Herbert Samuel. Standing first row: from left: Gertrude Bell, Sir Sassoon Eskell, Field Marshal Edmund Allenby, Jafar Pasha al-Askari. Beaugosses at the English language Wikipedia or CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
COMPARISONS WITH ‘LAWRENCE OF ARABIA’
Bell’s light seems to have dimmed in the shadow of her male counterpart T.E. Lawrence, whose legacy as a potent, ambitious leader who could, in Bell’s words, “light a fire in a cold room,” continues to ignite public imagination.
Bell was the older, more experienced Arabist and archaeologist, and Lawrence was both impressed and influenced by her approach, although later even he became sceptical of her actions in Iraq, saying: “… even if it only lasts a few more years, as I often fear and sometimes hope, it seems such a very doubtful benefit—government—to give a people who have long done without.”
Yet Lawrence’s fame utterly eclipses that of Bell – David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia cemented his reputation as a roguish adventurer, whilst Hollywood’s treatment of Bell only recently gave a saccharine sheen to Bell’s life in the film Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman and Robert Pattinson.
Directed by Werner Herzog, the picture makes a meal of Bell’s love life in favour of her adventures, rather disappointingly fulfilling the trope that a woman’s life may only be viewed as interesting when defined through her relationships with the men around her. The protagonists are untroubled by the complex political conflicts that drive the drama - the Brits are the civilised heroes and bringers of peace; the Arabs are the grateful and noble barbarians.
Colonialists both, Lawrence and Bell steadily served the British imperialist project, to maintain political control over a region that was already recognised for its potential to supply oil for developing technologies.
Winston Churchill’s calamitous defeat to the Ottomans at Gallipoli in 1916 left the Brits floundering to establish favourable Arab proxy governments, often oblivious to tribal allegiances.
The hastily formed Arab Bureau during the first world war, of which Bell was a key member, sought to gain loyalty from emerging Arab states in return for the promise of self-determination after the end of the war. The dishonesty of such promises frustrated Bell, who, upon entering Basra in 1916, wrote: “Can you persuade people to take your side when you’re not sure in the end you’ll be there to take theirs? We rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme.
“We treated [Iraq] as if it were an isolated unit, instead of which it is part of Arabia, its politics indissolubly connected with the great and far reaching Arab question … the battle against the ignorance and indifference of the people at home is waging.”
The pressures of managing blame from a British population confused by and critical of such opaque machinations overseas clearly became a source of exasperation: “Muddle through!” she wrote in April 1916, “Why yes, so we do – wading through blood and tears that need never have been shed.”
Her loyalty to the British endeavour began to waver as Arab scepticism of British motivations intensified in the wake of leaked documents like the 1916 secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, writing that she regarded this and the 1917 Balfour Declaration with “the deepest mistrust” and wrote that “It is like a nightmare in which you foresee all the horrible things which are going to happen and can’t stretch out your hand to prevent them.”
Bell’s roots in the progressive industrialist outlook of her family were perhaps an influence at this stage – she advocated for the education of Muslim women and girls, and helped to establish one of the more progressive educational systems of the region.
Perhaps her greatest contributions were to the field of archaeology. It is almost a century since she established the Museum of Iraq, and fourteen years since it was looted mercilessly, as the chaos of the 2003 invasion was co-opted by opportunists.
Over 15,000 objects were stolen from the collections, and just under half remain missing today, including a bust of Bell herself, with the attending plaque reading (in English): “Gertrude Bell, whose memory the Arabs will ever hold in affection.”
Appointed Honorary Director of Antiquities in Iraq by King Faisal I, Bell herself was passionately defensive of the principle that Mesopotamian antiquities should be retained and exhibited in their homeland, and in fact her 1925 Law on Antiquities protected many antiquities from being removed from Iraq in the early twentieth century by avaricious European museum curators and archaeologists.
And yet, Bell oversaw the installation of policies that would later be employed to strengthen Saddam Hussein’s neo-Ba’athist state: to hold at all costs the Kurdish mountains that act as a strategic buffer to neighbouring Turkey and Russia, and to promote the Sunni ruling class over the Shia majority.
“Mesopotamia is not a civilised state,” Bell wrote to her father on December 18, 1920.
The superiority of this attitude to the governing of newly sovereign states, and the attempt to manipulate conflicting factions within Iraq and the wider Middle East were based on vain and mistaken assumptions about her own popularity and the extent of her influence. The enduring consequences of such assumptions, felt perhaps most keenly by the Kurdish population in Iraq, have been as tragic as they have been unrelenting.
Is it possible to square Gertrude Bell’s achievements with the instrumental role she played in the chaotic, irresponsible and self-serving actions of a dying colonialist project, scrambling for control over a vast and diverse region?
Bell’s deep and sincere fascination with the Arab world, its history and culture, is indisputable. She meticulously photographed and mapped huge sections of unchartered desert, made solo voyages across dangerous territories and translated volumes of Persian and Arabic poetry.
Her understanding of tribal dialects, customs and rivalries was almost unparalleled amongst her colleagues, and her ability to gain access to the wives and consorts of her diplomatic rivals gave her an extra edge in diplomacy.
Undoubtedly one of the most influential women in history, she fought for self-determination, but could not see beyond the prism of the British Empire. The London-based Iraqi archaeologist Dr Lamia Al Gailani Werr told The Telegraph newspaper in 2014 that Bell “was a colonialist, yes, but she seemed completely devoted to [Iraq].”
It is not quite known why Gertrude Bell died. On July 12, 1926, she took an overdose of sleeping pills, asked her attendant to wake her in the morning, and expired overnight. Speculation persists about whether the overdose was intentional or accidental – her health, wealth and relationships were greatly diminished by this point, and her political influence waning.
Now, a century after the death of the British Empire, is the time to reflect on the decisions and decision-makers that drew borders, created kings, and set in motion a century of consequences that only seem to magnify as time goes on.
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