A suicidal end for uncrowned queen

A Quest in the Middle East

August 18, 2006

History does not repeat itself. Or does it? When the British took control of Mesopotamia (as it was then called) following the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, they had to struggle with a jungle of ethnic, tribal and religious identities, with the fruits of nationalism whose seed had been spread over the previous decades, and with their own cluelessness when dealing with mentalities they perceived as utterly different from their own. Nation-building in what was to become Iraq was truly among the most troublesome tasks the Empire had to shoulder in the interwar years.

Gertrude Lowthian Bell, "scholar, historian, archaeologist, explorer, poet, mountaineer, gardener, distinguished servant of the state" (as the little epitaph that is fixed to the wall of her birth house in Washington, Durham, notes) was instrumental in the creation of modern Iraq, a kingmaker (to whom Faysal, the Hashimite, owed his throne) and arguably the most powerful woman of her time - on a global scale. In 1920, Bell, who had spent her earlier life touring the Ottoman Near East and, from 1915 onwards, had served under Gilbert Clayton in the Oriental Bureau in Cairo, was appointed Oriental Secretary to the British High Commissioner in Baghdad, Sir Percy Cox. In the years to come, she was Iraq's "uncrowned queen".

In her official memoranda, her diaries and in particular her letters to family and friends, Bell left an impressive corpus of statements, observations and analyses. Her writings reveal an intellectual understanding of the social and mental complexities of the Near East, a great deal of sympathy for her Arab friends and yet at the same time the deeply entrenched image of profound "otherness" so exemplary for Orientalist projections. "The Arab is like a very old child," she once remarked, and her attitude towards the Arab representatives she had to deal with remained patronising until her death on July 12, 1926, when she committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Though she gradually understood the Arabs' striving for independence, she regarded a long-term British mandate as the safest way for Iraq to move towards a brighter future. History should prove her wrong.

By joining the strands of Bell's fascinating life and the early days of modern Iraq, Liora Lukitz's A Quest in the Middle East exposes this story of hope and resignation to any reader who wants to get to the bottom of things. The book is more than a learned study in the origins of the present-day plight of the Middle East and far more than a readable biography of a remarkable individual.

Lukitz congenially exploits Bell's intellectual legacy, constructing from it a remarkable portrait of the person and her period. Keeping the balance between empathy and distance, she avoids the pitfalls of modern Western scholarship dealing with the Near East: she neither overemphasises the Orientalist approach to the Middle East Bell shared with her contemporaries, nor makes her protagonist unduly heroic.

While Bell herself epitomises the dilemma of those who desperately try to consolidate present-day Iraq by imposing their own order on it, Lukitz's quest in the Middle East makes her book the ideal guide to this stricken country and its more recent history. History repeats itself, sometimes.

"But what do you think, Khatun?", Bell was constantly asked by her Iraqi friends about the future of their country. Sadly, in the Baghdad of 2006, her answer would again lie with sleeping pills.

Michael Sommer is lecturer in ancient history, Liverpool University.

A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq

Author - Liora Lukitz
Publisher - Tauris
Pages - 306
Price - £24.50
ISBN - 1 85043 415 8

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