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Who was Gertrude Bell?

I’m just finishing Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads (expect a review soon) but wanted to share a character who struck me immediately.

A quick note of self-consciousness: Gertrude Bell is hardly news, but she’s new to me. And I think that warrants a post!

You probably already surmised a bit about Bell from the photo atop – she’s third from the left, Winston Churchill second, and T.E. Lawrence furthest to the left.

Whether you believe the great (wo)man theory of history, this trio was titanic! And while Bell’s gender certainly amplifies the significance of her acts, the acts themselves were myriad and influential.

She is chiefly known today for her work in the creation of Iraq (as well as its flag), as she and her associates had the insight that combining the very different provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul would leave a very weak nation-state.

In the wake of the Iraq war, interest in Bell rose again, sparking this fascinating piece of reporting in the Guardian:

The historical waters have closed over TE Lawrence. Even back in the 70s, I could find nobody with any recollection of him at the scenes of his exploits in western Arabia. But “Miss Bell” is still a name in Baghdad. Even in conversations with the vicious and cornered cadres of Saddam Hussein’s regime, her name will come up to evoke, for a moment, an innocent Baghdad of picnics in the palm gardens and bathing parties in the Tigris.

The New York Times has offered more specific reasons for Bell’s longevity in the minds of Iraqi people. It wasn’t just her key role in forming Iraq, but a connection to the people built on something other than vainglory:

Ali Nashmy, an Iraqi historian, explained her hold on the Iraqi collective memory by saying: “She stays in the Iraqi mind. An army invades, and one of them is this smart, beautiful woman.”

Fluent in Arabic, she gave regular speeches in Baghdad, making sure, she wrote in a letter home, to speak in “highfalutin literary Arabic.” In a conservative, male-dominated society, her speeches were remarkable. “Many of the youth came to just look at her legs, because they never saw legs,” Mr. Nashmy said.

Nicole Kidman played Bell in a just-released Werner Herzog documentary, Queen of the Desert. Sounds tempting, but alas the reviews have been dour (16% on Rotten Tomatoes). Enamored as I am with Bell, I’ll stick to Lawrence of Arabia for now.

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