June 25, 2007

Getrude Bell

by Georginal Howell

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) is the woman who invented Iraq, the one person most responsible for seeing that the Ottoman vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra should make up a separate, united country. A wealthy and erudite Englishwoman of formidable learning and accomplishment, she took a First in Modern History from St. Margaret's Hall, scaled Alpine summits (in her underwear) that had seldom before been climbed (and never by a woman), spoke flawless Arabic, conducted competent excavations, taught T. E. Lawrence to make maps and greet sheiks, and brooked no nonsense.

One morning, as she was breakfasting with Haji Naji in his summer house, a dervish strode in with an iron staff and rudely demanded to be treated as a guest. Haji Naji told him to go. Looking threateningly at Gertrude, he said that he had as much right as she to be there. He then sat down in the entrance and declared, ‘I rely only on God,’ and began to read in a loud voice from the Koran. Neither Haji Naji, his son, nor his servants, could move him, so Gertrude told the dervish, ‘God’s a long way off and the police are very near,’ snatched up his iron staff, and struck him with it. He left.

If this wonderfully rich and readable biography has a flaw, it lies in passing too lightly over Bell's political thinking. She was, with Lawrence, a champion of the Arab cause, but we learn little of her thinking on imperialism or, for that matter, on insurrection. She was indefatigable in defense of Arabs but did not care at all for Zionism. She worked hard to play an important role in spheres hitherto closed to women, but opposed suffrage. Indeed, her opposition to suffrage seems to have contributed largely to the decline of her reputation, and it would be interesting to hear her out and to learn what she was thinking. Bell seems always to have viewed the creation of Iraq as a goal and a triumph, and it is not entirely clear from the biography exactly why she worked so hard to glue the Kurdish North to the Shiite South, or whether her dismissal of Shiite leadership was grounded in necessity or illusion.