A woman did it?
Even the name 'Iraq' had referred only to a province of the Ottoman Empire, the separate villayets administered from Mosul, Baghdad and Al Basra. Out of these centuries of separateness, this Turkish confederation, how did a "unified" country of Kurd, Sunni and Shia happen?
A woman did it?
After Turkey's defeat in WW I, a woman drew lines in the sand. Yes, an Englishwoman. And lo, the "country" of Iraq happened, borders loosely based on ancient Mesopotamia, the land which knew Sumerians, Persians, Babylonians and Alexander the Great long before Arab muslims came with their swords and their Korans.
She drew lines in the sand.... This is historical fact, not a jest of the gods playing Cherchez La Femme?
But Gertrude Bell fit no typical resume, or portfolio, or Gender Studies Program, or even a Bob Dylan song: She was 'Not Just Like a Woman.' Her one true mate in life may have been the British Lion. Yet, today's politically correct definitions of "imperialism" don't begin to unravel her. Two authors have made notable attempts--Janet Wallach (Desert Queen) and HVF Winstone (Gertrude Bell)
After traveling around the world twice, and climbing icy peaks in the Swiss Alps, she came to love Arabia. It was her great escape from Victorian England. She learned its language and its ways, engaged its sheikhs and tribes, sat cross-legged with them in town, village or wilderness (even argued with them), rode its camels intrepidly in the desert, without armed escort (but a full wardrobe and fine dinnerware)--- the fearless in search of the fabulous. A prolific writer, she described getting up in desert sunrise as like "waking in an opal." Hopelessly romantic? Wallach quotes a sample of how she put it:
"I don't care to be in London much. I like Baghdad, and I like Iraq. It's the real East, and it is stirring; things are happening here, and the romance of it all touches me and absorbs me."
They returned her feelings. They called her "Daughter of the Desert,' 'the White Queen,' Al Khatoun (The Lady.) Later, after drawing its borders, she was known as the 'Uncrowned Queen of Iraq.' She became an official, a king-maker, in her way a "British ruler." When she was called the most powerful woman in the Empire, it had nothing to do with breast measurements or Hollywood promos or tabloid hi-jinx or the late-night "celeb" circuit.
How did Iraq happen? What about, How did Getrude Bell happen, i.e. something which today is not and probably cannot be: an authentic adventuress in the grand style?
The ironies and paradox began early. This Arabist extraordinaire was born heiress to a lord of industry in ironworks (or as the Left would say, 'a capitalist who exploits the workers'). After home schooling, she was the first woman to graduate from Oxford with first-class honors in history.That didn't mean she could visit the British Museum without a chaperone. She could not, in the late 19th century. After three seasons as a debutante, when a young lady seeks a gentleman husband, she gave it up. There was no one who she and her formidable parent could agree on, and she would not rebuff "my dear father."
Ready for another pc study in "female liberation," where author, producer, director or politico applauds the heroine who breaks free from shackles of male chauvinism?
Not so fast.... Gertrude Bell, it's true, expected the world to treat her as a person, and it did. Meaning she was a "progressive," ahead of her time? No. Not really. She was never that. Feminist? Sorry, not at all. Women, she believed, should not even vote. She would not suffer the suffragettes. In this sense she was way behind the agitprop times, and proud of it, never flinching. She was not "down with the sisters." She never believed that merit can be legislated. She escaped her English routine because she felt the old "call of the East," not to blaze a trail that few could hope to follow anyway. She was privileged, yes, but she was also high-spirited, edgy, slender, chain-smoking and red-haired. She understood an Arab friend who said to her, "Real freedom cannot be given. It can only be taken."
Obviously her upper class access to "ruling circles" helped (as the Left will point out), but most others--male or female-- with similar "connections" did not travel to Persia, learn the language and do a widely acclaimed translation of the 14th century classical poet Hafiz.
Sooner or later the London Home Office, with so many interests in the Middle East, was going to hear about a camel-riding compatriot who had learned Farsi, Turkish and Arabic and even knew the tribes and sheikhs and bedouins. . A woman? Yes, by Jove, and maybe only a woman could have dared and gotten away with it...Well, so be it.
Born with a silver spoon in her mouth? Yes, and she adored that spoon, despite the envious. She crossed the sands of Arabia with servants, cooks, bed linen, china, crystal, a caravan of mules, a folding leather tub, and her fur coat served well for those damp winter nights in a tent. Try and guilt-trip her about it.
She bumped into fellow Arabist and archaeologist T.E. Lawrence in the Syrian frontier when he was 19, before either had become British agents allied with Arabs against the Turks. She taught him much. He called her "Gerty" and she called him "The Little One" long before he became famous as "Lawrence of Arabia" when he worked with muslim guerillas to drive out the Turks, (as Americans decades later worked with muslim guerillas to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan.)
Winston Churchill appreciated her. In 1920, after the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the Great War, she was named Oriental Secretary to the British High Command in Iraq. Not everyone had been amused, including Sir Mark Sykes, pre-WW I British Foreign Office Arabist. He thought her "a damned fool," creating an "uproar" everywhere she went in the Middle East, "a terror of the desert."
But there was other terror on the desert horizon. What about the Islamic and ethnic passions unleashed in this ominous power vaccuum with the old Turkish rulers gone? Communists, socialists and other "progressives" said empires are out of date. Americans called for self-determination, no colonies. The League of Nations authorized a 'British Mandate' here. In 1921 Winston Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, summoned his top Middle East experts to Egypt for a "conference on Mesopotamia." That is, he invited 39 men and Gertrude Bell. There is a group foto, showing the most prominent. She is next to Churchill and T.E. Lawrence, all high atop their camels, in the background the Sphinx and Pyramid.
The Daughter of the Desert was asked to assist with drawing the border lines. She got out her tracing paper. What are now called Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia came into being. She also backed Prince Feisal from Mecca for ruler of Iraq. He was a Hashemite, not one of those Wahabbi who would encourage the religious fanatics.
And so, was it all Gertrude Bell's doing---the entity now called Iraq?
Certainly not. Well, very likely not. Everyone had to know that Kurds, Sunni and Shia had never been a unified "nation" and that Turks had ruled and administered them separately, in villayets, for centuries. London, for its reasons, wanted a "unified" Iraq under British Mandate. Churchill supported this. Gertrude Bell acquiesced, and agreed to draw lines in the sand. In her voluminous journals there are entries about Shia from Basra, pleading with her for autonomy separate from Kurd and Sunni. She told them she could do nothing. The Home Office had decided. She said it was out of her hands, and it probably was.
Her fall from grace may have begun in 1922 Although she was British Empire to the bone, she sided with the Iraqi government when it refused to accept the British Mandate. London reacted. They phased her out of the Iraqi administration.
Now she, who had been in everything, was no longer in the thick of it. Even her protege Prince Feisal, the Hashemite from Mecca who the French expelled from Syria, was increasingly confident as King of Iraq. He no longer seemed to need her. She still worked as Director of Antiquities with the National Museum she founded, and could be seen riding her camel at sunrise. She had always been child-less and un-married. With her fifty-eighth birthday approaching she was alone and her health was deteriorating after the broil of ten Iraqi summers. One night she took too many sleeping pills. She died in Baghdad on July 12, 1926.
Between 1900-1918 she took about 7000 photographs. including many of archaeological sites since damaged or destroyed. The Gertrude Bell papers include 16 travel journals and 1600 letters to her parents.
Gertrude Bell had lived a life. She was buried in Baghdad.