By Georgina HowellFSG
On the cover of this book is an arresting photograph taken in front of the Sphinx in March 1921, on the last day of the Cairo conference on the Middle East. It shows Gertrude Bell astride a camel, flanked by Winston Churchill and T. E. Lawrence. She wears a look of some assurance and satisfaction, perhaps because—apart from having spent far more time on camelback than either man—she has just assisted at the birth of a new country, which is to be called Iraq.
The picture is especially apt because Bell spent a good part of her life sandwiched between Churchill and Lawrence. If Churchill had not committed the Allies to the hideous expedition to Gallipoli, she would probably have married a young man—imperishably named Dick Doughty-Wylie—who lost his life on that arid and thorny peninsula. And if the Turks had not triumphed at Gallipoli, the British would not have had to resort to raising an Arab revolt against them and staffing it with idealistic Arabists of uncertain temperament. Finally, if Churchill as a postwar colonial secretary had not been forced to make economies and to find Arab leaders to whom Britain could surrender responsibility, there would have been no Iraq.
As Georgina Howell puts it in this excitingly informative book, those idealistic Arabists of Britain’s hastily formed “Arab Bureau” were objectively committed to living a lie. They knew that the promises given to the Arab tribes—self-determination at war’s end if you join us against the Turks—were made in order to be broken. The dishonesty was famously too much for Lawrence, who became morose and inward and changed his name to Shaw. But it was not too much for Gertrude Bell, who was determined that some part of the promise be kept, and who helped change Mesopotamia’s name to Iraq.
Once more we are confronted with the old question: What is it that turns certain specimens of the most insular people into natural internationalists? Bell was born into a family of ironmasters in the north of England, liberal and free-trade in their politics, and though the family firm had its vicissitudes, she never had to be concerned about money. Her life pre-1914 (the war is the only watershed that matters in considering her generation) was spent partly in doing things young girls don’t normally do, such as Alpine mountaineering and desert archaeology, and partly in adopting causes one might not expect, such as that of the Anti-Suffrage League. As it happened, the First World War involved so many women on the “home front” that it made the post-1918 extension of the franchise almost automatic. The war also forced Bell to realize that she would probably never lose her virginity, which she simultaneously wanted, and dreaded, to be rid of. Her beau ideal lay in a shallow grave on the Dardanelles: She had missed her opportunity and wouldn’t settle for a lesser lover. It’s usually men who volunteer to go off on a desert mission at this point, but by late 1915 Gertrude was in Cairo as the first woman officer (known as “Major Miss Bell”) ever to be employed by British military intelligence.
She was given this distinction be-cause her extraordinary prewar travels and researches in Arabia Deserta had suddenly acquired strategic importance. In the film version of The English Patient, some British soldiers are scrutinizing a map when one asks, “But can we get through those mountains?” Another replies, “The Bell maps show a way,” to which the response comes, “Let’s hope he was right.” This is a pardonable mistake, perhaps, because even now it is extraordinary to read of the solitary woman who explored and charted a great swath of Arabia, from remotest Syria to the waters of the Persian Gulf, just when Wilhelmine Germany was planning a Berlin-to-Baghdad railway. John Buchan and Erskine Childers both wrote important fiction about the impending clash of civilizations, but if anyone’s work should have been titled The Riddle of the Sands, it is Gertrude Bell’s.
Reading about Bell, one is struck not just by her ability to master the Arabic language and to revere and appreciate the history and culture of the Arabs, but by her political acuity. Where others saw only squabbles between nomads, she was able to discern the emergence of two great rival forces—the Wahabbis of Ibn Saud and the Hashemites of Faisal—and she stored away the knowledge for future reference. Georgina Howell occasionally overdoes the speculative and the fanciful, writing “she must have” when she lacks precise information, but she also considers questions other narratives tend to skip, such as, what does an Englishwoman in the desert, surrounded by inquisitive and hostile Turks, do when it is imperative that she relieve herself? (The answer: Take care to have a stout Arab servant who will interpose his body, then reward and nurture him for the rest of his life.) The title of the book may seem exorbitant in its flattery—and depressing in its echo of poor, mad Lady Hester Stanhope—but Bell’s bearing was such that many of the desert dwellers truly believed a queen had come to visit them.