Writer, explorer, spinster, spy.
The very fact that Iraq exists today, says American biographer Janet Wallach, is due to the achievements of Miss Gertrude Bell. "She was responsible for everything from the creation of the flag to the selection of Faisal as the country's first king", says Wallach whose biography Bell of the Desert, will be published later this year. As Oriental Secretary to Baghdad's High Commissioner, Bell was among those who vociferously promoted the Hashemite Prince Faisal as the man to become ruler of Iraq. She also founded Baghdad's National Museum, devised a law, which is still in existence, to protect the country's antiquities and promoted the concept of education for women.
Bell, the daughter of a wealthy industrial family from Cumbria in the north of England, first travelled to Persia after studying Modern History at Oxford University in 1892. Her parents, concerned that at 24 years old their daughter was still unmarried, sent her on a tour with the intention of meeting a suitable husband. Their plan backfired when, while visiting Tehran where her uncle was British ambassador, Bell fell in love with `an impecunious diplomat', of whom her parents disapproved.
Tragically, her lover died shortly after she returned to England. "I think she returned to the desert in search of his soul", says Wallach, "and the further she travelled, the more she fell in love with the people." A love of the region paid dividends.
Bell's acute powers of observation of the various tribes, factions, feuds and friendships during the pre-war period became a valuable source for the British Foreign Office to which she made regular reports. In 1915, she joined the nascent Arab Bureau in Cairo, was involved in intelligence work in Basra two years later and stationed in the British Legation in Baghdad from 1917 until her death.
Bell was also an accomplished archaeologist who meticulously recorded her journeys and her finds in more than 6,000 photographs. To her surprise and great disappointment she narrowly missed the honour of claiming the discovery of Mesopotamia's Palace of Ukhaidhir when two French archaeologists managed to publish their findings first. This setback aside, Bell's accomplishments reached a far wider audience in her best selling books such as The Desert and the Sown and through regular reports in The Times.
But despite her intellectual brilliance, Bell's British contemporaries could not overlook the fact that she was a woman. One colleague at the Arab Bureau, the illustrious TE Lawrence himself, believed that she was neither a good judge of men nor of situations. "She was always the slave of some momentary power", he wrote of her. "She changed her direction like a weather cock because she had no great depth of mind. But depth and strength of emotion - Oh Lord, yes!" Even less flattering were the comments of Sir Mark Sykes of the Sykes-Picot agreement. "Confound the silly, chattering, windbag of conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass".
Yet it was to escape such condemnation of strong women that Bell had journeyed to the Middle East where, she hoped, her knowledge and achievements would carry more weight than her sex. "People who met Gertrude Bell as children," says Wallach, "still conjure up memories of a woman who spoke with such authority that despite the fact she was dressed in furs and frivolous hats, seemed almost like a man."
This comment was not made in reference to a voice deepened by years of heavy smoking, but to the clear, articulate accounts of developments in regional politics Bell was able to offer. Despite the petty jealousies of a number of her colleagues "the dignitaries she spoke with were interested in what she knew and could not have cared less that she was a woman. The fact remains that she knew as much or more than any European man they had come across", Wallach observes.
Despite the advantages Bell enjoyed however, she was opposed to the extension of universal suffrage in Britain, which would have given women, as well as men, the right to vote. Indeed, she became a founder member of the Anti-Suffrage League. Yet in Iraq, Bell gave her wholehearted support to the concept of education for women. She helped establish schools for girls where tea parties were used as a venue for radical discussion with the pupils and their mothers.
If these accomplishments were not enough, Bell was awarded the Royal Geographical Society's gold medal for her desert journeys. She was also a skilled mountaineer, with a peak named in her honour, a repected Arabic translator and a Commander of the Empire (CBE). But in 1926 when Bell had reached the height of her career with the Iraqi state founded and British influence in the country beginning to wane, she took an overdose of sleeping pills and died quietly in her Baghdad home.
While biographers disagree about her intentions, Janet Wallach believes it was a clear case of suicide. Bell had suffered many setbacks. That year her family had lost its fortune, her brother had died, a love affair had ended miserably and her health was failing. "She who had done so much for the world, finally felt beaten by it. She felt worn out, she was too tired to go on..."
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||archeologist Gertrude Bell|
|Publication:||The Middle East|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1996|
|Previous Article:||The Politics of Pan-Islam: Ideology and Organization.|
|Next Article:||Oman and Its Renaissance.|