Books June 2007

The Woman Who Made Iraq

Gertrude Bell scaled the Alps, mapped Arabia, and midwifed the modern Middle East.

Bell’s own more pragmatic search was for a credible king. Mesopotamia—or the former Ottoman vilayets of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul—had rid itself of the Turks by 1918, more as a consequence of the arrival of British and Indian troops than as a result of local efforts. The new colonial authorities borrowed a term—Al Iraq, or “the Iraq,” from the verb meaning “to be deeply rooted”—that Arabs had formerly used to describe the southern portion of the territory. Much else about their rule was provisional and improvised. Bell saw the truth of a Baghdad newspaper’s observation that London had promised an Arab government with British advisers, but had imposed a British government with Arab advisers. Her immediate superior, A. T. Wilson, believed in strict British imperial control. The colonial leadership in India, which tended to think of Delhi as the capital through which relations with the Gulf states were maintained, was also staunchly opposed to any sentimental talk of Arab independence. As if to further fragment the jigsaw of difficulties, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration into this milieu, awarding a national home in Palestine to the Zionist movement, and the new Bolshevik regime in Russia had the brilliant idea of publishing the terms of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which had fallen into its hands. The disclosure of this covert wartime pact between czarist Russia and the British and French empires to carve up the region had the effect of hugely increasing Arab suspicion of British intentions. It also had the effect of spurring President Wilson to issue his 14 Points, which proposed a grant of self-determination to all colonial subjects. But at the subsequent Paris peace talks, the Arabs and the Kurds, along with the Armenians, were to be the orphans of this process. Even the imperialist A. T. Wilson found himself sympathizing with Bell at that dismal conclave:

The very existence of a Shi’ah majority in Iraq was blandly denied as a figment of my imagination by one “expert” with an international reputation, and Miss Bell and I found it impossible to convince either the Military or the Foreign Office Delegations that Kurds in the Mosul vilayet were numerous and likely to be troublesome, [or] that Ibn Saud was a power seriously to be reckoned with.

These are not the only echoes that come resounding down the years. Official British policy hoped to please all parties and square all circles, with just a hint of traditional divide-and-rule. Bell believed that a state could be created on the foundation of mutual respect, and she was rather partial to the Kurds and the Shia. She was also very critical of the Zionist idea, which she thought could only increase Arab antipathy and endanger the large Jewish community in Baghdad. As to the prejudices of Sir Mark Sykes, co-author of the secret deal with France and Russia, she had acquired an early warning. They had met in Haifa as early as 1905, where he had appalled her with his talk of Arabs as “animals” who were “cowardly,” “diseased,” and “idle.” She had also been several steps ahead of him on an expedition to the Druze fastnesses of Lebanon and Syria, and he always attributed her head start to foul play. As he complained fairly comprehensively in a letter to his wife: “Confound the silly chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass!” There seems to have been a hint of fascination in the midst of this disgust. If so, it would have fit with the general predilections of the British, who were fixated on androgyny in the most alarming way. (Their slang word for Arabs was Frocks, a means of feminizing the colonial subject that was not quite congruent with the manly skills they were otherwise demanding from the desert warriors.)

Determined to disprove and outlast the Sykeses of the world, Bell made Baghdad her permanent home, helped to organize elections and write a constitution, drew some rather wobbly borders with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, founded the Iraq National Museum, and wrote a study, A Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia,” that compares well with the best of the Victorian “Blue Books.” She also nurtured and cajoled King Faisal, who founded a constitutional monarchy that lasted from 1921 until 1958—impressive by regional standards. (Faisal was of course a Sunni Arab; the Kurds and the Shia had both proved too turbulent to be trusted with stewardship.) So, was all her effort at nation building a romantic waste? T. E. Lawrence, who was perhaps envious, partly thought so. After learning of her death, he wrote:

That Irak [sic] state is a fine monument; even if it only lasts a few more years, as I often fear and sometimes hope. It seems such a very doubtful benefit—government—to give a people who have long done without.

That might stand as a cynical judgment for the ages, but one can still think of Gertrude Bell in the same company as Wilfred Blunt, R. B. Cunninghame Graham, Edward Thompson, and indeed Lawrence himself—English people who thought other peoples, too, deserved their place in the sun.

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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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