Thursday, January 13, 2011

DESERT QUEEN by Janet Wallach

"If you liked The Sisters of Sinai," my librarian friend Beth told me, "you'll probably also like Desert Queen."

Both books are about rich, feisty, brilliant, and often misunderstood and misrepresented British ladies who defied convention, traveled without male escorts in the Middle East, accomplished what male rivals only dreamed of, and made enormous contributions. The Smith sisters, twins born in 1843, were devout Scottish Presbyterians whose discoveries advanced the field of biblical studies; Miss Bell, born in 1868, was a North England atheist whose networking genius and intrepid desire for adventure helped to create the modern nation of Iraq. All three women were brilliant linguists. (My review of Sisters is here.)

Gertrude Bell, who has been called "the brains behind Lawrence of Arabia," made her first trip to Jerusalem in 1899 and died in Baghdad in 1926. During that tumultuous quarter-century, the political map of the Middle East was redrawn, and Bell was one of the principal mapmakers - literally, in that much of her work involved drawing maps to inform European diplomats, spies, and businessmen; and figuratively, in that she represented Mesopotamian interests at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, participated in the 1921 Cairo Conference that created the British mandate over Mesopotamia, and was instrumental in making Faisal king of Iraq.

That last sentence only hints at the genius that was Miss Bell. Of the 40 delegates to the Cairo Conference, she was the only female. Without her support, Faisal could never have navigated post-war political chaos and jockeying for power to become ruler of a nation that was not even his own. "I must tell you in confidence that he is my appointment," she wrote to her brother; "everyone is delighted, but they don't know it was I who did it."

And yet for years, Bell had had to endure "the disdain of her colleagues and the humiliation of working without an official position." She may have earned the respect of every sheikh in Araby, but to the British, she was merely a woman. When in 1916 her superior, Sir Percy Cox, finally gave her a salary and the official title of Liaison Officer, she became "the only female Political Officer in the British forces."

Just five years later, the New York Herald was calling her "Mesopotamia's Uncrowned Queen."

Though the book sometimes reads like a novel - and more than once made me wonder how author Janet Wallach could possibly have known that - Wallach says she based her account, right down to reported conversations, on Bell's voluminous letters and diary entries as well as on letters and memoirs written by her family and associates. In addition, Wallach visited many of the sites where Bell traveled and worked, and she has skillfully recreated a bygone era in both England and the Middle East.

Published in 1996, five years after the first Gulf War, the story of Iraq's formation is even more poignant now that fighting has destroyed so much of what Bell hoped - perhaps misguidedly - to create. Wallach's focus, though, is less on geopolitics than on the near mythical and eventually tragic character of Bell herself.

Bell was happy when she was hard at work, whether traveling by camel through uncharted desert, gathering data for British intelligence, schmoozing with world leaders at strategic conferences, or creating her beloved Baghdad Archaeological Museum (which was looted when U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003; click here for more information about the current state of the collection).

She was less happy back in England, where she felt out of place and was constantly reminded of several lost loves. Probably clinically depressed, she lost her appetite for life once her influence in Baghdad began to wane. Her closest friends had moved on to other assignments. Her typical work day dwindled from ten hours to three or four. Her father's fortunes had reversed, and she no longer had funds to finance further adventures. Her health was precarious. And one July night in 1926, just before her 58th birthday, she took an extra dose of sleeping pills.

Gertrude Bell, the extraordinary woman who became one of the most influential Europeans in the Middle East before she ever held an official position, was buried with full military honors.

"Newspapers throughout the world carried her obituary," Wallach writes:
- not just in notices but in long articles complete with her photograph - and in England, King George sent a message to the Bells:

'The Queen and I are grieved to hear of the death of your distinguished and gifted daughter whom we held in high regard.

'The nation will with us mourn the loss of one who by her intellectual powers, force of character and personal courage rendered important and what I trust will prove lasting benefit to the country and to those regions where she worked with such devotion and self-sacrifice. We truly sympathise with you in your sorrow.'

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