Diary Entry: February 1oth.
“On Feb. 8 we fell among thieves-worse than the goats. An hour or two after we had struck camp we met some of the Howaitat who told us that Sayyah, Sheik of the Wadi Sulaman was camped a few hours to the east. Since it was pretty certain he would hear of our presence we thought it wiser to camp with him that night and take a rafiq from him, – otherwise, you understand, he would probably have sent after us in the night and robbed us. He received us with all courtesy, but it was only pretence. Presently the one-eyed ruffian came into our camp, examined all our possessions and asked for everything in turn. We thought at first to get off with the loss of a revolver, but it ended by my having to surrender my Zeiss glass also to my infinite annoyance. He swore that no Christian had ever visited this country and none should go, that he would send no rafiq with us so that he might be free to rob us, and finally he proposed to Said and Fattuh that they should aid him to kill us and share the spoil. He got no encouragement from them and I do not know that any of the threats were more than words. I clung to my glass as long as I could, but when at last Said, who knows the Arabs, advised me to yield lest things should take a worse turn. We got our rafiq, Sayyah`s cousin, and are therefore assured against `the accursed of both parents.`”
Not many women would have been considered highly enough to have shared a picnic with King Faisal, but Gertrude Bell was such a woman, because having probably spent more time on a camel than her colleague and friend, T.E. Lawrence, she had just assisted in the birth of a new country called Iraq.
Gertrude Bell was one of Britain`s most remarkable women: a writer, traveller, political officer, spy, administrator, archaeologist, friend of the great and good ( and not so good), including Winston Churchill and the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, she is as responsible as anyone for the rickety political edifice now known as the modern Middle East.
She wrote everything down in her letters which have come down to us as one of the finest, insightful and colourful collections we have because they are simply an irreplaceable window into an historical world in which everyone mentioned are no longer living. Perhaps one day an enterprising genius will develop a means for us to be able to step into an old photograph and come face to face with it`s living, breathing subjects. Until that day, all we have are the most precious memories of the likes of Gertrude Bell to guide us through the rich tapestry of her life and times.
She was one of those idealistic Arabists hastily formed by the British government and called the Arab Bureau, to take on the Turks in their own back yard during the First World War, all of whom were objectively committed to living a lie; knowing full well that the promises they so freely made to the Arab tribes – self determinism at the war`s end – were not worth the breath they were uttered with. In politics, promises are made to be broken, and in the case of T.E, Lawrence, living a lie became famously too much for him to handle. However, it wasn`t too much for the indefatigable Gertrude Bell who was determined that at least some small part of the promise was kept, and was instrumental in the formation of Iraq.
Born in 1868 to a family of liberal, free-trade ironmasters in the north of England, she grew up to do all of the things that bright young things of her generation would not be expected to indulge in, such as Alpine mountaineering and desert archaeology. She had missed the chance to lose her virginity when the object of her desire ended up laying in a shallow grave on the Dardenelles: so she channeled her energies into other areas and volunteered for a desert mission as the first woman officer ever to be employed by British military intelligence in Cairo.
The above picture shows her astride a camel flanked by Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence, and nothing shows better her position in the political pecking order of the day. By the time this picture was taken, the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the Middle East had been destroyed by Lawrence and his Bedouin army, and Lawrence was in the throws of a fearsome internal struggle against his conscience for having betrayed them. Churchill on the other hand, being a consummate politician, entirely lacked a conscience or qualms about the needful lies told to Britain`s Arab allies. It didn`t seem to bother Gertrude unduly either – but for different reasons: she was made of sterner psychological matter than Lawrence, and unlike Churchill, she did have a conscience, and decided to get moving and crack some heads together to at least give the Arabs something to reward them for their help.
How had she come to this position of influence? Her extraordinary prewar travels, researches in Arabia Deserta and her extensive knowledge of the region, it`s history and it`s people had acquired strategic importance. She had travelled and charted a great swathe of Arabia, from Syria to the Persian Gulf, meeting and rubbing shoulders with it`s inhabitants. Gertrude lived and breathed Arabia and knew it, and it`s tribes, inside out; by learning and appreciating the language, culture and history of it`s people. Everything she saw and heard was stored away for future reference.
Unfortunately, she wasn`t entirely listened to when it didn`t suit the British tendency to try and square the circle as much as possible: her belief that a Zionist State parachuted into the Arab heartlands was a recipe for disaster, and that to ignore the Shia majority in Iraq and the Kurds in the Mosel vilayet, and that Ibn Saud was a power to be seriously reckoned with, fell on deaf ears.
Whatever, Gertrude had gone native years ago, and disgusted and annoyed at the company of her fellow Brits, settled down permanently in Baghdad, and helped to organise elections and write a constitution, founded the Iraqi National Museum which was so unceremoniously looted of it`s treasures after Saddam`s fall, and mapped out the rather rickety borders between Iraq, Saudi and Kuwait.
Gertrude Bell was in the best English tradition of the cultural aesthete who so deeply cultivated a love of a subject that they basically went native. Like Sir Richard Burton before her, and her contemporary T.E. Lawrence, she saw no reason why other, noble and ancient peoples, should not too, enjoy their place in the sun.