Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach

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“Great persons, like great empires, leave their mark on history.”

There’s a photo in this book of the 1921 Cairo Conference, called by Winston Churchill to figure out what to do with the newly-independent Arabia, and of the forty delegates pictured, there is one woman: Gertrude Bell. She was a colleague of Winston Churchill and TE Lawrence, and a close personal adviser to King Faisel (better known as Alec Guiness in Lawrence of Arabia, a four hour yawnfest of a movie that features Gertrude Bell exactly zero times). How does a woman born in 1868 end up traveling to parts of the Middle East that have never been explored by white men before, become a vital part of the British government in Arabia, and create the borders of modern day Iraq? The short answer is: with a hell of a lot of determination, curiosity, spirit, and (to be fair) Daddy’s money. But mostly the first three, because damn this lady was impressive.

Gertrude Bell, after attending Oxford (and being one of the few women to do so) deciding that traveling would be more fun than getting married, so she set off for the Middle East and began essentially wandering around waiting to run into something cool. This is the sort of person Gertrude Bell was: when her guides told her, “We can’t go east, there’s a super scary warlord who lives there and we should avoid his land” she replied, “East it is, then!” and then the next thing you know she and the warlord would be having tea and becoming friends.

This ability of Bell’s – to wander wherever the hell she felt like, meeting the locals on her way, came in handy when the British government started messing in Middle Eastern politics in the early 1900’s. They needed someone who knew the landscape and the locals, and there was actually only one person who fit the bill. So Gertrude Bell became the Oriental Secretary in Iraq, and ended up helping to create the modern Middle East (and the Iraq Museum – did I mention she dabbled in archaeology? and by “dabbled” I mean discovered and documented ruins and published several books and articles?). All of this, despite the fact that she never had any real interest in politics. As she wrote to a friend, “I shan’t go on running the affairs of Mesopatamia…but for the moment there wasn’t anyone else to do it and as there wasn’t a second to lose I just upped and did it.”

Wallach’s account of Bell’s life is fascinating, well-researched and (because Bell wrote a shit-ton of letters and diaries in her lifetime) very thorough and detailed. In addition to being a complex portrait of a woman who is way less well-known than she deserves to be, Wallach’s book also serves as a good introduction to the clusterfuck that is the modern-day Middle East. While reading about the British government’s attempts to set up a stable government in Iraq, it was downright eerie to spot the modern parallels to current American affairs in the region: “While Gertrude and John Van Ess discussed the fate of Iraq, the country was also the topic at Whitehall. A strong contingent felt that Mesopotamia had already cost Britain too much money and too many lives (there were 17,000 British and 44,000 Indian troops in Iraq, and combined with the 23,000 troops in Palestine it was costing England 35.5 million pounds a year to keep the garrisons in place), but few could deny Mesopotamia’s importance as a future source of oil.”

Mark Twain was right: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.

The book is exciting on every page, with political intrigue, feuding desert tribes, romance, and entire nations being formed through the influence of a handful of people. In fact, the story is so engrossing that it’s easy to miss the underlying sadness of the book. Gertrude Bell’s life may have been exciting, and she may have been a great historical figure, but she herself was actually a profoundly depressing person. She had no children and never married, and not by choice – her first love was rejected by her family for being middle class, her second romantic interest was a) already married and b) killed in World War I, and when she fell in love a third time, the man refused to marry her. She had many work colleagues but very few friends, owing to her caustic personality (in her defense, being a single woman who traveled the desert by herself and made her own way in the world leaves one with very few fucks to give), and often wrote in her letters about how lonely she was.

Gertrude doesn’t even come across as a very nice person in this book – it’s made pretty clear that she was only able to accomplish all of her great feats because she was a rich girl with nothing better to do who traveled the world on her father’s dime, and her attitude towards Middle Eastern locals can be optimistically described as “patronizing.” She once describes Arabs as being “like very old children” and believes that they aren’t capable of governing themselves. Although she studied Arabic and Turkish for hours a day, she was an atheist who had no interest in learning about Islam, and didn’t see any reason to visit the Arab women in their harems. (luckily she changed her tune towards the end of her life, becoming more interested in harem life and even admitting that the Arabs are better off running their own government) Most damning, Gertrude Bell was an anti-suffrage supporter. You read that right: a woman who attended Oxford in the 1800s, published books and articles, and was a vital political asset in the Middle East believed that women shouldn’t have the right to vote.

If I were to meet Gertrude Bell in real life, I’m sure I would dislike her. She was proud, demanding, stubborn, and hypocritical. But her life is a fascinating one, and she deserves much more credit than the world has given her.

Verdict: four out of five stars

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