The Woman Who Made Iraq

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

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.

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.