By Janet Wallach, Anchor Books, July 12, 2005, 1400096197
Gertrude Bell was known as Iraq’s Uncrowned Queen or the Khatun to the Iraqis. Janet Wallach does a great job at telling us what drove Gertrude Bell to such an unlikely life, and what it was like for Bell when she was finally there.
Bell was a contemporary of T. E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, and many others. She made a lot of interesting things happen, such as putting King Faisal on the throne, and so much more. Her accomplishments were often acting as an unofficial diplomat of the British Empire. And, unfortunately, so much of her life was devoted to becoming a Person, as she liked call notables.
After Faisal was on the throne, and the King was operating independently, she became head of the Department of Antiquities of Iraq in Baghdad. This was not enough to keep her happy, after being the confidante of Kings and Emirs. Instead of retiring peacefully working in antiquities (which she loved), she took her life at 58.
What she was seeking all her life was probably not what she wanted. That is often the conundrum which drives people to greatness, and, unfortunately, tragedy.
One thing I learned about history was Iraq’s position along the route to India. Iraq was on the land route (Baghdad was a stop on the Orient Express), which was very important for Britain’s continuing control of India.
[p79] At tea in the garden on a lovely summer day, Frank Swettenham revealed one of the secrets of his remarkable career as a diplomat. “Whatever success I have had in life,” he told an attentive Gertrude, “I owe to having been willing to accept information from any source. It only meant a little trouble, being nice to people, and polite when they came to me with news, and rewarding them for it when it was worth having. The government offices won’t accept information except from official sources. I know hundreds of people in the Far East who could give them the most valuable information, but they won’t take it.”
Gertrude took cateful note of his words. She felt no hesitation in talking to anyone. Whether with shopkeepers, desert sheikhs or British dignitaries, she radiated confidence. Like a skilled diplomat, she could start a conversation with ease and establish her own credentials with lightning speed, ticking off the influential names, reeling out the right tidbits of knowledge, dishing up the latest gossip, sprinkling her setnences with whom she knew and where she had been, imparting generous pieces of information, but cleverly gathering in more than she gave. Her talene was invaluable, whether in formal drawing rooms or flapping desert tents.
[p187] “Politician, ruler and raider, Ibn Sa’ud illustrates a historic type,” Gertrude wrote in a communique for the Foreign Office and the Arab_Bulletin. “Such men as he are the exception in any community, but they are thrown up persistently by the Arab race in its own sphere, and in that sphere they meet its needs …. The ultimate source of power, here as in the whole course of Arab history, is the personality of the commander. Through him, whether he be an Abbasid Khalif or an Arnir of Nejd, the political entity holds, and with his disappearance it breaks.” The echo of her words would ring throughout the region for the rest of the century, in men like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein.
Her detailed account of Ibn Saud and British relations with Arabia was finished the first week of December 1916 and sent off to the highest officials in England, Egypt and India. As important as her reporting was regarded, however, she felt restrained; a month before, T. E. Lawrence had left for his first adventure with the Sharif s army in Arabia. But as a woman, Gertrude was confined primarily to her desk.
Interestingly, she was not a suffragette, and indeed hated the idea of women getting the right to vote. She was a tradionalist who felt a woman’s power was behind the scenes.
[p291] Coats of numbness had hardened her. Resilient before, she was impervious now, her passions buried in the war, in the tombs of her lovers and friends and family members, her sensitivity crushed by the vicious behavior of A. T. Wilson. She protected herself as she had learned to do as a child: pushing away the pain, consuming herself in her work. It had left her bitter and lonely. On Christmas Day 1920, alone in her sitting room, she scrawled to Hugh [Bell, her father]: “As you know I’m rather friendless. I don’t care enough about people to take trouble about them and naturally enough they don’t trouble about me– why should they? Also all their amusements bore me to tears and I don’t join in them; the result is that except for the people I’m working with I see no one.”