Gertrude Bell was the original desert storm — archaeologist, adventurer, diplomat, and soon the subject of a Hollywood film.
Sometime before 2003, though, her bust went missing, along with a plaque beneath that read: “Gertrude Bell, whose memory the Arabs will ever hold in affection.” A genuine epitaph of friendship, or just wishful colonial thinking? Those whose memories of Britain’s entanglements in Iraq go back no further than 2003 might be surprised. A female answer to T.E. Lawrence, Bell shaped the country arguably more than any other figure, helping its Arab tribes rebel against the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the First World War, rebuilding its government, and advising on the new borders that turned Mesopotamia into Iraq. She also foresaw many of the problems that tested Britain and the US nearly a century later, as her headmistressy messages back to Britain often show. “We rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme,” she wrote, upon arriving in Basra in 1916. “Muddle through! Why yes, so we do — wading through blood and tears that need never have been shed.”
Given that its unstable ethnic mix is now considered a textbook case of imperial meddling, it may seem surprising that anyone in Iraq today might have a kind word for Bell. But thanks to her legendary fondness for its people — she spoke much better Arabic than Lawrence — her memory has lived on far longer than the average colonial viceroy. To this day, British women working in Iraq often find themselves smilingly compared to “that Miss Gertrude”, be they diplomats, journalists or simply a bit feisty. “She was a colonialist, yes, but she seemed completely devoted to the country,” says Dr Lamia Al Gailani Werr, a London-based archaeologist who works closely with the Iraqi National Museum.
What is more, Werr says, Bell also helped avert an earlier mass-looting of Iraq’s artefacts — this time by fellow European archaeologists. “It is a shame the bust and the plaque of her have been stolen from the museum,” Werr adds. “Personally I would like to see one back there.”
As of yet, the British government has no plans to insist that the bust be reinstated, despite the British Museum working closely with its Iraqi partner. Today’s politically correct curators, after all, might well balk at insisting that a museum honour its colonial benefactors, even one so key as Bell. Her life, though, is about to get rather wider recognition — courtesy of a new Hollywood film starring Nicole Kidman as Bell, filming of which began in neighbouring Jordan recently.
Kidman, 46, has already played a similarly intrepid character as the war correspondent Martha Gellhorn in HBO’s 2012 film “Hemingway and Gellhorn”. But she admits that capturing Bell, whose extensive archive of letters and books is now held by Newcastle University, is a challenge. “It is a huge endeavour,” she told an interviewer in December. “I’m completely enraptured with her. She basically defined the borders between Iraq and Jordan that exist today, borders that she negotiated between Churchill and different Arab leaders. She went out to the desert with the Bedouin and all the different tribes that were feuding at the turn of the 19th century.” Indeed, given the extraordinary richness of Bell’s life — she was also an expert Alpine mountaineer — it is perhaps surprising that a biopic is only now under way. After all, “Lawrence of Arabia” is just the most obvious screen comparison that comes to mind. Fans of “Indiana Jones”, for example, would appreciate the idea of Bell riding to archaeological digs through deserts of hostile tribesmen, a pistol strapped to her thigh. And there is more than a touch of “Downton Abbey” in her dealings with her male colleagues in turn-of-the century Baghdad, some of whom did not like being bettered by a woman.
To quote the many words of Mark Sykes, architect of the Sykes-Picot agreement that carved up the Ottoman Empire, she was a “conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering [fool]”. The real reason, though, that Hollywood haven’t touched the Bell story in the past may be because of the perceived lack of love interest. Romance, it seems, was the one area of her life where she did not excel. Born into an immensely wealthy steel family in County Durham, she was potentially a very good catch, even if her striking, angular looks did lead to her being described as “handsome” rather than beautiful. But her formidable intellect put off many would-be suitors, and an engagement in her early twenties was broken by her parents because of rumours that her fiancé was a gambler. She spent the rest of her days single, and died in Baghdad in 1926 aged 57, from a sleeping-pill overdose that may have been deliberate. However, over the past decade, new evidence has emerged that challenges Bell’s image as a spinster with better things to do than fall in love.
A cache of letters, some released after a 50-year embargo, has revealed the extent of her passionate affair with Major Charles Doughty-Wylie, an unhappily married Boer War veteran who served as a consul in Turkey. What followed was like a Mesopotamian version of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, the strait-laced Victorian husband becoming besotted with the unconventional woman outside his marriage. Doughty-Wylie, who will be played by “Homeland” star Damian Lewis, felt unable to leave his wife for Bell, and it is thought their relationship was never consummated. But their exchanged correspondence, which Lewis recently visited the Bell archive to study, shows their romance was not short on drama.
By the third year of their affair, Doughty-Wylie was at his wits’ end, having been warned by his wife that she would kill herself if he left her, and by Bell that she would kill herself if he didn’t. Scornful of convention as ever, she had urged him to ignore the social disgrace of divorce, telling him in one heartfelt letter: “It’s that or nothing. I can’t live without you.” Unable to keep either woman happy, he instead chose to lead a group of soldiers on a particularly dangerous beach landing at Gallipoli in April 1915. A Turkish bullet killed him at the moment of victory, and his gallantry won him a posthumous VC. Yet fellow soldiers noticed he seemed strangely calm during battle, taking no weapon with him and making no effort to avoid the Turkish guns. Did he have suicidal intentions of his own that day? Nobody can be sure. But either way, as Werr points out, “The Gertrude Bell story is definitely worthy of a film. She was an adventurer, a British Army officer — and someone who had affairs.”
So who exactly was the lady known as khatun, or “Desert Queen”? Raised by a family of steelmakers who supplied the railways of Britain’s ever-expanding empire, Bell could just have been married off into the aristocracy, as many industrialists’ daughters were. But the Bell family’s riches came with a social conscience. Her father, Sir Hugh Bell, was an active supporter of the trade union movement, and her stepmother, Florence, conducted a pioneering study of the working poor. Hence Gertrude’s education at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where, despite a male tutor who insisted that females sat with their backs to him, she became the first woman to gain a First in modern history. That honed intellect, though, led to her being deemed “too Oxfordy” for success at society balls in London, where she moved after university for her “coming out”.
More interested in metaphysics than marriage, in 1892 she jumped at a chance to accompany her Aunt Mary to Tehran, where her spouse was ambassador. Those early travels with her aunt were to shape the rest of her life. For, as many others have since found out, the Middle East can be a welcoming place for Western women, a place where men may be men but where women can be too, treated as they often are as honorary males. In the company of shaikhs, imams and tribal potentates, first in Tehran and later in Damascus and Baghdad, Bell suffered none of the social judgments made upon her in parlour society back home. Falling in love with the region almost instantly, she mastered Arabic, despite complaining that it had “three sounds almost impossible to the European throat”.
Soon she was roaming deserts where many other explorers feared to tread, relying on trusted local fixers and her own charm with local Bedouin shaikhs, who were always the key to securing safe passage. Wearing a “divided skirt” that allowed her to ride like a man, she would spend up to 12 hours a day in the burning heat, and drink water from stagnant pools.
Yet her travelling caravan also included a tin bath, a full Wedgwood dinner service and a formal dinner dress for evening wear. To the shaikhs she drank tea with, the small, waif-like figure with the ivory cigarette holder was a fascinating enigma. According to Georgina Howell’s acclaimed 2007 biography of Bell, “Daughter of the Desert”, many assumed she was a man until she opened her mouth. Such encounters, though, gave her an unrivalled knowledge of the way Arab society worked. And so it was that in 1917, as a British invasion via Basra sought to oust the Turks from oil-rich Mesopotamia, she was enlisted as the first female military intelligence officer, tasked with assessing Arab willingness to join Lawrence’s anti-Ottoman revolt.
The Turks eventually capitulated after fierce resistance. But what followed bears uncanny resonance with the campaign of 2003. Just like Saddam’s vanquished Baathist regime, the Ottomans left behind a corrupt, ramshackle infrastructure that virtually collapsed overnight, forcing the British to rebuild schools and hospitals from scratch. And as Bell drily remarked: “If it took rather longer to open some of the Baghdad schools than expected, the delay may be attributed to the people themselves, who looted all the furniture and carried off the doors, windows and other portable fittings.”
By 1920, the thinly stretched force of 60,000 troops was fighting an anti-British jihad, waged by extremist Shiites and Ottoman-bribed tribes. With the war-battered British Empire already wary of expansion, the solution was self-government under a British mandate. Bell then played arguably her most influential role, lobbying successfully for King Faisal, a Sunni leader of the Arab revolt, to be installed as Faisal I of what was now Iraq.
The arrangement did not stand the test of time. While the Arab world saw many worse governments, Faisal’s son, who succeeded him as king, was murdered in a military coup in 1958, paving the way for the Baathist takeover a decade later. Perhaps a more damning indictment of Bell’s political judgment, though, was that she saw Iraq’s better-educated Sunni minority as the natural party of government. The more devout Shiites, she said, were too easily swayed by “fanatic” clerics, despite being the two-thirds majority. Thus was sectarian division institutionalised in both the monarchy and Saddam’s Sunni dictatorship, paving the way for the Sunni-Shiite civil war that raged from 2006-07.
“In a sense, Gertrude Bell was right — the Shiites are more emotional people, but her ideas did lay the framework for people like Saddam,” says Mowaffaq Al Rubaie, a Shiite politician who saw the downside of Bell’s legacy first-hand. Tortured by Saddam, he was among the witnesses at the Iraqi dictator’s hanging in 2006, and today displays the gallows rope in his Baghdad home as a reminder of the bad old days. “There was a huge democratic fault in her thinking that would have minority rule forever.”
Nonetheless, she remains a figure of respect among contemporary residents of the British embassy in Baghdad, who keep her original writing table in the ambassador’s dining room.
“Any Arabist in the Foreign Office is always conscious of the remarkable people who first got to know the Arabs, and Gertrude Bell was one of them,” says Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s special envoy to Iraq from 2003-04. “As for her favouring Sunni rule — it was simply a different era. All over the globe, the British were looking for people whom they could work with in administration, so they tended to go for whoever was more educated.”
Today’s Foreign Office staff also envy the freedom she enjoyed. Bell roamed at will for months on end, meeting kings, beggars and jihadists alike. For her successors, every trip outside Baghdad’s Green Zone is security-vetted and requires an armoured car and bodyguards, depriving them of the richness of encounter that made her such an authority. Such knowledge, indeed, was sorely lacking in the post-2003 period, although as Sir Jeremy points out: “We have to be realistic — resources and the politics of dealing with other countries do not allow our diplomats to work like that anymore.” Either way, it is doubtful that Bell would be happy with the Iraq of 2014.
Exactly a century on from the start of the British Mesopotamian campaign, the country is still struggling, with a resurgent Al Qaida now threatening to plunge it back into the dark days of civil war again. Much of Baghdad still lies in ruins, and the small Christian cemetery where Bell’s body still rests is overgrown and bereft of visitors. In similar fashion, Doughty-Wylie remains buried at Gallipoli, where a few months after his death there was a mysterious postscript to their affair.
Towards the end of 1915, and well before the fighting had finished, soldiers reported seeing a visitor at his grave — a woman in a black veil who laid a wreath. Was it a grieving Bell on yet another daring mission? Many scholars of her life believe it was. But while it might make a poignant Hollywood ending for the Kidman/Lewis film, the letters in Bell’s archive shed no real light on the matter. On this particular matter, it seems, the lady who made her mark in so many other ways left no clues.