An Important Lady: Gertrude Bell in Iraq
November 26, 2017. One hundred years ago to the day, The Manchester Guardian published the contents of an agreement between England and France (ratified by Russia) that divided the Middle East into European zones of influence. This treaty (which would become known as the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916) directly contradicted the terms of the agreement between Britain and Middle Eastern authorities, detailed in the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence. This treaty was the starting point for the deterioration of Anglo-Arab relations during and after the First World War. Today, in the shadow of continued extremist violence in the Middle East, as well as resurgent Russian interference in the region, the treaty has become almost a household term used to signify the obtuse imperialism that crippled the post-Ottoman Middle East.
Few are familiar with Sykes himself, however—and fewer still with his female counterpart Gertrude Bell, Britain’s “Oriental Secretary” and architect of the nation-state of Iraq. She, too, deserves our consideration as we reflect upon the birth of the modern Middle East. Though her policies failed to lay a stable foundation for a unified Iraqi state, her unique approach to Anglo-Iraqi diplomacy still has vital lessons for modern policy-makers.
In pre-war Britain, where personality and position in society went a long way towards buying an official post in any one of the “Oriental” corners of the Empire, bluebloods such as Sykes and Bell found themselves in good stead. During the First World War, they cashed in on their connections to land positions as intelligence officials in the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. Sykes had spent some time in the region (newly styled the “Middle East” by the American admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan), but Bell was a local celebrity. Sheikhs from Syria to Afghanistan to Lebanon greeted each other with the question “Have you ever met Miss Gertrude Bell?”
The first woman to receive a first class degree from Oxford, a popular author, an archaeologist, and socialite, Bell had travelled for over two decades in the Middle East before the Great War. In her letters to her family (and one clandestine lover) she detailed her expeditions from obscure Ottoman outposts to ancient cities governed by erratic tribal laws. “Before leaving this morning I went to the house of my friend, Ali el Kady, to drink a cup of tea…” she wrote casually of one of the Jebel Druze, a notoriously unpredictable tribe, “He was very vague about the tea making, consulting me as to whether he ought to boil the water and the milk together.”
Although the romance of “The Orient” loomed large in the British imagination during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Bell was unique in her approach to its exploration. Only T.E. Lawrence (her one-time protégé) rivalled her in her zeal for Arab cultures and politics. As with Lawrence, her penchant for local languages and customs won her the friendship of the most powerful individuals in the Middle East.
A “silly, chattering, windbag”?
Not everyone was equally impressed. Sir Mark Sykes, after meeting Bell on one of his own tours of the Middle East, called her a “silly, chattering, windbag of a conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-waggling, blithering ass.” But (unlike Sykes) Bell was by then well on her way to mastering the details of regional cultures – as well as their various fractious leaders and their complex web of tribal and sectarian loyalties. This made bestsellers of her travel memoirs, and eventually secured her an influential position on the Arab Bureau, Britain’s new wartime office and Sykes’s own brainchild. From this point in 1916 until her death ten years later, Bell was the midwife for the nascent state of Iraq.
First in Cairo, then in Iraq, Bell became a crucial—if unorthodox—member of the British war effort in Ottoman territories. She was named Britain’s “Oriental Secretary” in Iraq, and, casting aside the social stays of Victorian England (although she always remained aggressively well-dressed), she declared, “I’m an officer and I’m sexless.” By 1921, Bell had become the single most important liaison to the Arabs in the eyes of the British government—and to competing Iraqi notables, she was “al-Khatun,” or “an important lady,” and the font of political influence.
From the end of the war until Bell’s death in 1926, she single-handedly directed local diplomacy, entertaining the region’s most powerful sheikhs, cajoling or cutting deals to ensure regional security. (One of these notables was Ibn Sa’ud, who would later bequeath his name to the state of Saudi Arabia.)
At the Cairo Conference, called to rework some of the more disastrous post-war provisions in the Middle East, Bell worked alongside Churchill, softening his hard line policies. Yet most importantly, Bell convinced him that Faisal, the well-spoken, aristocratic leader of the Arab Revolt, was the best candidate for the British-dominated Iraqi monarchy (“Can you make sure he is chosen locally?” Churchill asked Bell drily.)
Tales of Bell’s influence punctuate accounts of Faisal’s early reign. “People like to see you at the meetings for Faisal,” said future Iraqi prime minister Nuri Sa’id to Bell, “Wherever you are they know it will be all right.” Throughout the frustrations of a weak, mandated government, and although her relationship with both the British government and even her dearest friend King Faisal eventually frayed, Bell remained a reassuring, sympathetic force to many of the Iraqi people. When Bell died in 1926, thousands of Iraqis attended her funeral and burial.
Bell’s greatest legacy, the Iraqi monarchy, survived her by only 37 years. Yet other legacies live on. The National Library of Iraq, the Baghdad Archaeological Museum (now called the National Museum of Iraq—and looted by the 2003 invasion) and the Alwiya Club all bear her fingerprints, and for many Iraqis, national affection for Bell remains intact.
As the seams of empire reopen in continued displays of sectarian violence, it is important to consider not only Sykes-Picot, but also the lesser-known players in the drama of the early modern Middle East. Through her careful and dedicated study of the Arab world, Bell arrived at a simple human truth: that one people cannot rule over another for long. In 1909, on one of her many expeditions in northern Iraq, Bell observed: “We people of the west can always conquer, but we can never hold Asia – that seemed to me to be the legend written across the landscape.” This truth eluded the best men and women of her day, and even still escapes many of today’s most powerful leaders.
This article is based on Alice’s fourth year senior dissertation at Colby College.