American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis: A Look Back

February 2005

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"What’s past is prologue," wrote Shakespeare four centuries ago. One can hope that "remembrance of things past," in another of his memorable phrases, will lead to de Tocqueville’s observation in 1840 that "Democracy. . . shuts the past. . . and opens the future." —Ed.

Gertrude Bell and Iraq: Deja Vu All Over Again

Though she is remembered today mainly by Middle East scholars and travel writers, there has recently been a modest revival of interest in Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) because of the key role she played in the creation of modern Iraq in the early 1920s. She was involved not only in putting King Faisal, son of the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca, on the throne in Baghdad, but helped draw the new country’s borders and mobilized its tribes and religious groups to support the new nation-state.

Gertrude Bell traveled all over the Middle East and lived for years in Mesopotamia (as Iraq was then known), where she arguably knew more about what was happening on the ground among the local tribes than anyone else at that time. She was always in the thick of things, before and after the birth of Iraq in 1921, with innumerable contacts and confidants — both among local people and the British administrators, who feuded with each other and with London almost as much as the Iraqis themselves.

Above all, starting in her 20s and continuing until her death nearly 40 years later, she always found time to write — letters, diaries, travel accounts, intelligence reports, scholarly articles and books (when in England), as well as major policy papers for the British government. One of Bell's policy papers, for instance, pled the cause of Mesopotamia during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

Desert Queen; The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell: The Arabian Diaries, 1913-1914

For more on these books, click the cover picture.

A scholar, writer, linguist, Arabist, mountain climber, archaeologist, photographer, explorer and founder of the Iraqi National Museum, Bell was, to use the old cliche, larger than life. The recent paperback edition of a biography by Janet Wallach, Desert Queen (Anchor Books, 1999), which is being reissued in 2005, as well as the publication of Bell's Arabian Diaries, 1913-14 (Syracuse University Press, 2001) and a new edition of her The Desert and the Sown (Cooper Square Publishers, 2001), have generated renewed interest in this remarkable woman.

But by far the most fascinating window on her extraordinary life, because of the lively style and sense of déjà vu one gets, are Bell's own letters, edited and published after Bell's death in 1927 by her stepmother (The Letters of Gertrude Bell, selected and edited by Lady Bell, D.B.E., London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1927).

This Week's Headline
To read her copious letters from Baghdad during the 1920s is like scanning this week's headlines: many of the issues she confronted are the same ones the U.S. administrators and the new Iraqi government are dealing with today.

For example, in a 1922 letter to her father Bell describes Iraqi skirmishes with the Saudis on the southern border, and the difficulty of negotiating a border treaty after the Saudis had conquered a large swath of north-central Arabia. Faisal had sent a camel corps to defend the border, and the "Akwan" or Muslim Brotherhood, as the Wahabis called themselves, fired on them from an airplane. Bell goes on to say, "Ibn Saud may, of course, repudiate this action of his followers; that's the best that can happen, for otherwise we're practically at war with them." If one substitutes "al-Qaida" for "Akwan," we are in familiar territory: the House of Saud claims to repudiate terrorism among the extremists within its borders, but has been slow to do anything about it.

In tlie early 1920s, after the British-held plebiscite and a general agreement among the leaders of the various factions in what was then known as Mesopotamia to unite and become a nation, a friend of Bell's, a tribal sheik, said that all the pillars were standing for the formation of a new state and now what they needed was a roof. Shortly after that, Faisal, the protege of Bell and T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), was imported from Mecca to become the "roof." In early 2004, David Ignathis wrote in the Washington Post about the offer oft Prince Hassan of Jordan, the great nephew of Faisal, to mediate among Iraqi religions factions to bring them together and become a "provisional head of state."

Bell describes and photographs a grand gathering in 1921 at Falluja of Sunni tribal leaders on camels greeting Faisal, and Faisal's swearing allegiance to them, saying their enemies are his enemies and vowing solidarity. He is "a great Sunni among Sunnis," Bell wrote to her father. And now Falluja, as a center for Sunni insurgency, is in the headlines again.

In her letters Bell reports that the people of Kirkuk in the north are ready to give allegiance to Faisal, but those in Basra have come to her to plead with her government for a separate southern province within a confederation. Her response: I am your Friend, but I am also a servant of the British government, and London says no to anything less than a unitary government.

Bell's copious letters from Baghdad during the 1920s read like this week's headlines.

One can almost picture her wraith hovering over the Iraqi government today — slender, red-haired. chain-smoking, high-energy — muttering to herself something like "what goes around comes around" or "so what else is new?"

A Life of Paradoxes
Born in 1868 into a well-to-do Midlands iron manufacturing family, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was probably expected to lead a quiet life and eventually become a wife and mother, a traditional help-meet. But like other British women travelers such as Mary Kingsley, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and, later, Freya Stark, once she got a taste of freedom — to use Bell's phrase, "wild travel — there was no turning back.

Bell's life was full of paradoxes. She won a "first" in modern history at Oxford in 1890 after just two years' study, rather tlian the prescribed three. Even more remarkable, she accomplished this long before women could actually take degrees from Oxford. (Women could sit for the exams and get rated for them, but could not take a degree until early in the 20th century.) High-spirited and independent, she challenged one of her examiners, saying she did not agree with his theory. As Wallach puts it, she was a young woman with "attitude."

Having failed to land a husband who could match her intelligence and taste for adventure in the three years allotted a Victorian young lady after her debut in society, Gertrude turned to travel. In 1892, she went to Persia, a place she had always longed to see. She was accompanied by her aunt, Mary Lascelles, whose husband was the British envoy to Shah Nasiraddin. In Tehran, Bell fell in love with a British diplomat, Henry Cadogan. The sun, the horseback rides into the surrounding rugged landscape with the young Cadogan, reading the Persian poet Hafiz (also known as Hafez) to each other, the freedom, the romance were the beginnings of her passion for the East. In spite of her strong spirit, when her parents did not approve of the match, she gave him up. She remained single; and though in middle age she developed two strong romantic attachments to men — both of them married — she apparently remained chaste.

In her 20s she traveled around the world with family members and to archaeological sites in the Mediterranean. Finally, in late 1899, she was allowed to go on her own to Jerusalem, and began studying Arabic. From there she set off on horseback for a trek through hostile country to Petra — with a clandestine side trip into tlie hills of southwest Syria, the territory of the fierce Jabel Druze, against the wishes of the Turkish authorities. She wrote home, "Here I am a person" — a phrase that would he repeated time and again in her correspondence.Desert and the Sown: The Syrian Adventures of the Female Lawrence of Arabia

A couple of years later she made a months-long trek across Syria that resulted in her classic The Desert and the Sown, published in 1907 but still a standard guide for anyone visiting Syria and especially its desert ruins and the so-called "dead cities" in the northwestern part of the country. In that account, Bell records hiring the muleteers and a cook, purchasing provisions at various stops along the way, and setting up and breaking camp. She photographed and wrote down her impressions of local people, and surveyed, measured and photographed ancient ruins, later making some of them subjects for scholarly papers.

She describes the climb on a cold wet evening up the steep pass to Crac des Chevalier, the spectacular Crusader castle in western Syria with its view all the way to the Mediterranean, and then climbing still farther within the castle itself up the long, winding passage on horseback. The Turkish resident and his wives took her in, fed her and provided a room for the night — a large, stone-vaulted room that later became a very good tourist restaurant.

Between forays into the Middle East, she climbed the Alps and was described by a professional Swiss mountaineer as a woman without fear, who didn't lose her nerve even under the most perilous conditions. Despite her independence and fearlessness, her letters home to her adored and adoring father Hugh and stepmother Florence Bell show a strong and childlike need for their approval all her life.

A Small World
Perhaps most paradoxical — and ironic — of all, she, a woman, was a key political player in a male-dominated world, a lone female moving among powerful men and developing her own power. Even more remarkable, she achieved this stature in the Middle East.

Whereas almost all women there were (and most remain) truly oppressed, Bell manipulated, cajoled and badgered local sheiks and religions leaders for her own — and Britain's — ends. She was held in great esteem and referred to as the "khatun," a highly regarded and powerful woman. Wallach quotes David Hogarth, who worked in the office of intelligence in Cairo during the First World War, as saying that T. E. Lawrence's "revolt in the desert" would not have been possible without the intelligence provided by Bell.

Bell manipulated, cajoled and badgered local sheiks and religious leaders for her own - and Britain's - ends.
At the same time, a woman of privilege and very traditional, she was against women's suffrage. Most women didn’t have the required intelligence or experience to vote, she believed. In particular, she was the scourge of the Foreign Office wives, whom she perceived as empty-headed. Of the British wives in Baghdad, she lamented in another letter: "A collection of more tiresome women I never confronted. ... I know I'm regrettably inelastic, but I simply can't bear that sort. ... These idle women here have nothing to do all day long. ... |They| take no sort of interest in what's going on, know no Arabic and see no Arabs. They create an exclusive (though it's also a very second-rate) English society quite cut off from the life of the town. I now understand why British government has come to grief in India, where our women do just the same thing."

One becomes aware very quickly of the small world in whieh Bell moved. Through her family's connections she gained entry to the Foreign Office and the Indian Civil Service — to a large extent starting when her father passed on her letters from the field to influential people in London. The same names crop up constantlv. She first met T. E. Lawrence in I909 when she was crossing northern Syria on her first trek into Mesopotamia, and he was a 19-year-old Oxford student excavating the ruins at Carehimesh. Later in Iraq she would work witli St. John Philby, not always smoothly.

The Indian Civil Service was also responsible for Mesopotamia, and Bell first met Sir Percy Cox, who was to become High Commissioner for Mesopotamia after the First World War, on a visit to India in 1902. By the time Cox arrived in Baghdad after the Turkish defeat in 1917, she had been in and out of the region many times, and he soon realized how invaluable her experience and local connections would be in carrying out the British mandate that would result from the Paris Peace Treaty.

She was the scourge of the Foreign Office wives, whom she perceived as empty- headed.
She seemed to be everywhere — in the British intelligence office in Cairo before her four-month jour-ney by camel caravan into north-central Arabia in 1914; at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, where she met Prince Faisal of Mecca, the leader of the Arabian revolt against the Turks during the war. Faisal, with whom the British government (through Lawrence), had made a bargain, was promised a crown, though not the one he ultimately got. And in early 1921 she was at the Cairo Conference led by Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, where it was decided that Iraq was to be self-governing because it was too expensive to support as a protectorate. There, resplendent in furs and a big hat, she posed with Cox, Lawrence, the Churchills and other dignitaries while seated on camels lined up before the Sphinx at the pyramids.

The Ultimate in "Wild Travel"
For some of us, perhaps, most fascinating are her own descriptions of the "wild travel" that added zest to her life. Her Arabian Diaries, written in 1913-14 for Dick Doughty-Wylie (with whom she was hopelessly in love), contains some of her most lyrical descriptions of living in the desert. One morning she woke as the sun rose, and wrote that it was like being "inside an opal." And she describes in some detail the four months she traveled with her own camel caravan from Jerusalem south, and then east through Arabia, traversing territory claimed by both the Shammar tribe and their blood enemies, the Sauds. She was by then formally charged by the British government with gathering information about conditions there, though they promised her no protection while she traveled.

At Hayil in 1914 she was held hostage by the local sheik inside his mud fortress — or rather, as he was away, by his tough old grandmother. This family, the Rashids, head of the Shammar, were particularly self-destructive, killing each other off until the young sheik was the only one left to lead the clan. In addition to sounding them out. Bell needed the Rashids to honor a letter of credit so she could provision her caravan, and was held up for several days for reasons she did not really know. She was finally given some bags of gold and sent on her way.

A party in Bagdad, c. 1920.
And always she spent time with the local people, in the desert sitting cross-legged on the ground in their tents, in their homes and coffee houses in town and city. She pleased them with her colloquial Arabic and knowledge of their history, drank countless tiny cups of thick black coffee, exchanged gifts, ate with her fingers the roasted lamb served on huge trays piled with rice, and chain-smoked cigarettes while they sucked water pipes.

During her earlier Syria trip, she even participated in preparations for a tribal raid involving gunfire, chanting and dancing around a bonfire. She often described the cold, damp desert winter in her little sleeping tent, and the usefulness of her fur coat. She was always writing for dresses to be sent from London, but admitted to her stepmother early on that she had arranged to have split skirts made locally so she could ride her horse astride (though camels did not require it). Far from roughing it, she traveled with a table and bed linens, china and crystal, all strapped onto a camel or mule, as well as a folding canvas bathtub — which, on occasions when she camped near a well, rather than an oasis, came in handy to water the camels.

And always she spent time with the local people. in the desert sitting cross-legged on the ground in their tents, in their homes and coffee houses in town and city.
Baghdad At Last
When she finally settled down in Baghdad in 1917, having followed the victorious British army into the city where she would remain until her death less than 10 years later, she became the right-hand "man" for the High Commissioner, Sir Percy Cox, and was named Oriental Secretary, her first paid position with the British government. She was given a house and an office, and had virtual carte blanche to deal with the local political, tribal, ethnic and religious leaders to promote the interests of the British governnient. And since she believed that the British mandate was the best thing that could have happened to Mesopotamia, especially after what she perceived as the misrule of the Turks, she had no problem trying to persuade her clients that what was good for Britain was good for them. Many of them, but not all, agreed.

In a 1920 letter home, she described her method of collecting information. She and a male colleague were invited by a leading figure in Baghdad to meet merchants and caravan drivers in a coffee house. "I do them a good turn whenever I can and they respond by coming in to see me whenever they return from Syria or Arabia and telling me what they've heard and seen. The tea party was delightful. The walls of the diwan are mellow with decades of tobacco smoke, the furniture, benches around the room and one table for us at the upper end. ... We talked Arab polities with great gusto for an hour and a half. ... I do like them so much. They are to me an endless romance. They come and go through the wilderness as if it were a high road, and they all, most politely, treat me as a eolleague, because I, too, have been in Arcadia. When they talk of tribes or sheiks or watering places, I don't need to ask who and where they are. I know; and as they talk I see again the wide Arabian horizon."

Ever the realist, in another letter she refers witli disdain to the English newspapers that expected Cox to bring about a stable, modern state instantly. "He has only to say 'Hey, presto' for an Arab government to leap on to the stage, with another Athene springing from the forehead of Zeus. You may say if you like that Sir Percy will play the role of Zeus, but his Athene will find the stage encumbered by such trifles as the Shiah [sic] problem, the tribal problem and other matters, over which even a goddess might easily stumble." And in another letter, "One of the papers says, quite rightly, that we had promised an Arab government with British advisers, and had set up a British government with Arab advisers. That's a perfectly fair statement. ..."

In another letter she refers with disdain to the English newspapers that expected [High Commissioner Percy] Cox to bring about a stable, modern state instantly.
In a retrospective summary of conditions in Iraq at independence — inserted among Gertrudes letters by her stepmother, for their posthumous publication — Percy Cox noted among other things that "the most thorny problem on the Euphrates at that time (early 1920s) was not so much the tribes as the holy cities of Islam, Karbala and Najaf." The sheiks of these towns, given small monthly allowances and sent home with orders to maintain law and order, "were found to be abusing their positions and making hay while the sun shone; while, worse still, the existence of a brisk trade in supplies to the enemy, both on the Iraq front and in Syria, was brought to light."

Despite such difficulties, by August 1921 Gertrude could write triumphantly that it had been a difficult week but "we have got our King" — in no small part because of her efforts. In addition to the political maneuvering to bring about the new country and drawing its borders, she took on the traditional female tasks of finding King Faisal a house, decorating it, and preparing it for his arrival in Baghdad. She advised him about his coronation clothes, and those of his son, and designed a flag, and helped plan the ceremony itself.

Bell stayed on as general guide, confidante, and friend of the king who, Wallach writes, became a bit restive under her constant watchful eye. She really felt she belonged nowhere else, despite medical advice that she escape the dreaded heat of Baghdad summers. She wrote to her father in 1922 that it is "shocking how the East has wound itself around my heart till I don't know which is me and which is it. ... I'm more a citizen of Bagdad [sic] than many a Bagdadi born, and I'll wager that no Bagdadi cares more, or half so much, for the beauty of the river or the palm gardens, or clings more closely to the rights of citizenship which I have acquired."

Final Years

By August 1921 Gertrude could write triumphantly that it had been a difficult week but "we have got our king" — in no small part because of her efforts.
Within a year or two after the coronation, she realised she needed something else to do and began to plan and build "her" museum, the Iraqi National Museum which she would then help stock from the accumulated artifacts from such fabled sites as Babylon, Nineveh and Ur. In a droll passage, Wallach describes Bell visiting Ur, where the British archaeologist Leonard Woolley was at work, and bribing the local digging team. Bell offered them bakshish (gifts) to produce treasures, which slowly emerged from pockets and other hiding places and which she then packed off hack to Baghdad for her museum.

The writer Vita Sackville-West stayed with Bell in Baghdad in 1926 just a few months before Bell's death. En route to visit her diplomat husband Harold Nicolson in Tehran, Sackville-West describes in her book Passenger to Tehran, published the same year, arriving inside Bell's walled garden ill and exhausted after a journey by land and sea from India. She found Bell's pony hitched in a corner, a couple of dogs, a tame partridge, and the servants' small children among the shrubs and flowers. Taken in hand by Bell before she dashed off to her office, and between making phone calls and chatting about who was coming to lunch, Sackville-West was provided breakfast and a bath in what she describes as a tin saucer.

Responding to her request lor a saluki dog, Bell made a phone call before she left. A short time later Sackville-West was confronted with several local men, each with a dirty and flea-ridden animal — one of the dogs was selected when Bell returned for lunch carrying a handful of flowers for the luncheon table. The other dogs were sent away, and orders given to de-flea and shampoo the one remaining.

Bell later took her to tea with the king, and Sackville-West writes, "I watched them both — the Arab prince and the Englishwoman who were try-ing to build up a new Mesopotamia between them. 'You see,' she had said to me, 'we feel here that we are trying to do something worthwhile, something creative and constructive.' [A]nd despite her deference to his royalty, there could be very little doubt as to which of the two was the real genius of Iraq."

A few months later, on July 11, 1926, Bell went to her bedroom after dinner. She asked her maid to wake her at six the next morning, then took an overdose of sleeping pills and never woke up. She was three days short of her 58th birthday. She was buried the next day – before a huge crowd that gathered along the cortege route to pay their last respects – in the British cemetery of the city she loved.

Political strife in Iraq did not settle down after the coronation. In 1923 Shia divines in the south began to stir up trouble and were shipped off to Persia. The areas east of Erbil, Kifri and Kirkuk were causing headaches for the adminis-trators in Baghdad. The Kurds in the north were kicking up trouble. And, finally, the Turks were ejected along the northern border later that year. But the reign of the Hashemites lasted until 1958, when Faisal's grandson and family were assassinated.

Today, almost 80 years later, Cox's words, written shortly after Bell's death and bound into a volume of her letters, come back to haunt us:

"The Kingdom of Iraq has been placed on its feet, and its frontiers defined; its future prosperity and progress rest with the Iraqis themselves."

Article originally published in the Foreign Service Journal, January 2005. Republished by permission of the Journal and the author.

Barbara Furst worked at the U. S. embassy in New Delhi as a secretary from 1957 to 1959. She later completed a degree in cultural anthropology at Amman University and a diploma in social anthropology at Oxford University. She married a Foreign Service officer, with whom she lived in Pakistan in the late 1960s. There she did field work in a Punjabi village in an attempt to discern the social and economic factors that affect fertility. Later she worked as a contractor in health programs in developing countries for USAID. More recently, she has written travel articles for the Boston Globe and other New England newspapers.

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