T.E. Lawrence has always fascinated me. Like most driven people, Lawrence of Arabia, as he was known, was a mass of complexities. But one beautifully written scene from the classic movie sticks with me. Peter O’Toole’s almost ridiculously good-looking Lawrence is trying to explain Englishmen to his native desert guide as they travel across the desert.
“They are a fat people,” he says.
“You are not fat?” the guide asks.
“No. I am different.”
Gertrude Bell was different, too. She was Lawrence’s contemporary. She had a similarly elite education. She was also in the thick of the “Middle East problem,” as it was known. And she is, according to British diplomats, still remembered fondly in Iraq.
Born into a wealthy family, Bell never married, never had children. She traveled.
After climbing the Alps and forging at least ten new trails, she headed to the desert. She spent the first couple of decades of the 1900s exploring Syria and Mesopotamia, and made an 1800-mile trek around the Arabian Peninsula. She wrote books about her adventures and archeological finds. During those trips, she first met young T. E. Lawrence, who was also exploring archeological sites there.
“An interesting boy,” she called him.
When World War I broke out, she volunteered as a nurse in France after her government declined her request for a Middle-East posting. Later, British Intelligence called on her to guide soldiers through the desert, and she became a respected voice as the British Empire shaped its Middle-East policy.
Both she and Lawrence were assigned to Army Intelligence Service in Cairo. While advising the British army on Basra, she became the only woman political officer in the British armed forces. She later was asked to act as liaison between the emerging Arab government and the British forces. At the Cairo Conference of 1921, both she and Lawrence recommended Prince Faisel, the former leader of Syria, as a unifying head of government as the new king of Iraq. She became Faisel’s trusted advisor and helped him establish his government, as well as schools, a library, and a museum. The experience led her to vow never to help make a king again, finding it “too great a strain.”
Today, the boundaries Bell helped draw are seen as the cause of some of the modern day problems in that region. The Kurds were not given a homeland, over her objections, and the division of their population between Syria, Iraq, and Turkey resulted in their being an oppressed minority in all three countries.
Gertrude Bell was as all people are, complicated, and opinions of her are mixed. She opposed the Zionist movement, fearing it would inflame tensions as well as endanger Jews living in Baghdad. Lawrence considered her a poor judge of character. One colleague called her a “windbag” and a “man/woman.”
She, for her part, felt unsure of the agreement she helped create, wondering if she, herself, would be on the side the she was asking the Arabs to join if she were choosing freely. In a letter to her stepmother in 1916 Bell wrote, “One can’t do much more than sit and record if one is of my sex, devil take it; one can get the things recorded in the right way and that means, I hope, that unconsciously people will judge events as you think they ought to be judged. But it’s small change for doing things, very small change I feel at times.”
But it’s another thing she wrote which seems particularly prescient now. In writing about the Arab negotiations with the British, Bell said, “The credit of European civilization is gone …. How can we, who have managed our own affairs so badly, claim to teach others to manage theirs better?”
Read more installments of Village Voices by Susan Barnett.