A recent and much-celebrated documentary, Letters from Baghdad, produced by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl, depicts an essential figure from World War I and its aftermath: an explorer, archaeologist, mountain climber, and an intelligence officer for the British who became a modern nation-builder in the Middle East.
She was a woman whose influence would affect the region for the next 100 years—some would blame her in part for what’s been called “the peace to end all peace” after the Great War—but she should have been listened to more.
Gertrude Lowthian Bell’s white papers, maps, and notes on the Arab tribes provided the British Empire’s Cairo Office with some of its most important intelligence on the region. They enabled, for instance, T.E. Lawrence (more popularly known by most as Lawrence of Arabia) to better lead what was called The Arab Revolt against the German-allied Turks.
“We have had great talks and made vast schemes for the government of the universe,” Bell wrote affectionately after one meeting with Lawrence at the height of the war.
Her only desire: that her colleagues and commanders disregard the novelty of her presence as a woman and deal solely with the substantive points in her reports, those vital to the construction of post-Ottoman-Empire Iraq.
“There are times when one gets into a sort of impasse, a helpless feeling that there’s so much to be pulled straight in human affairs and so little pulling power,” she wrote in 1916 from the sweltering port of Basrah. (“One’s bath water, drawn from a tank on the roof, [is] never under 100 except in the early morning. But it doesn’t steam—the air’s hotter.”)
Bell often was frustrated. “I’ve been busy with a long memorandum about the whole of our central Arabian relations, which I’ve just finished,” she wrote to her stepmother in the dreary, grimy Basrah winter of 1916. “It will now go to all the High and Mighty in every part. One can’t do much more than sit and record if one is of my sex, devil take it; [but] one can get 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… very small change I feel at times.”
Read the rest in the Daily Beast.
Featured Image: NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY
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