Gertrude Bell was an early crafter of the modern state of Iraq. She and T.E. Lawrence had faith in the leadership qualities of Faisal bin Hussein, a sheik who had been betrayed by the French. Acknowledged by the British government to be an expert in Arab regional affairs, Bell brokered behind the scenes, bringing her considerable influence to bear.
Her tactic for Faisal's "democratic" ascent to power was carefully plotted: "As a Sunni ruler in a country with a Shia majority, the Amir's descent from the Prophet would be his trump card...he would need to go to Mecca first...support would grow as he progressed east." Bell correctly reasoned that a nation ruled by theocratic Shi'ites would be disastrous and saw Faisal as a force for unity. Yet there was an undeniable sense of rigging in the "democracy" that Bell and others envisioned. Churchill asked, "Can you make sure (Faisal) is chosen locally?" and remarked sagely that
Western political methods were "not necessarily applicable to the East."
Bell, a woman of aristocratic background, graduate of Oxford and scholar of archaeology, was a seasoned
arabophile who had dressed as a man in order to penetrate the male-dominated culture of the Middle East. She climbed the highest mountains and crossed deserts where no white woman had trod. She spoke fluent Arabic among other languages and translated Sufi poetry with ease, bringing the works of Hafiz into the light of modern appreciation. She traversed the formidable Nefud Desert just to say she could, and reluctantly penned books about her travels. She was an anti-suffragette, having no respect for women who claimed to want to vote but still languished in the kitchen and the bedroom. Bell was a dynamo who could be dictatorial and demure as the situation required.
Unlucky in love, she lost two sweethearts, one a charming but dissolute gambler from whom she painfully disconnected when her family insisted that he could never support her properly, and the other a married man killed at Gallipoli. Legends persisted of a woman veiled in black who visited his grave in Turkey - was it Gertrude, or his widow?
Bell nourished high hopes for the noble Faisal and the new state of Iraq, but did not fully recognize that her schemes carried an agenda of English machinations that would ultimately make the British hated in the region. Called the unofficial "first Queen of Iraq," she later declared her exhaustion with "king-making" and retired graciously. Nonetheless, her stateswomanship in the the Middle East was seen by the British as her greatest triumph. Lawrence eulogized informally after her presumed suicide: "That Irak state is a fine monument."
Faisal's dynasty ruled Iraq in unity and peace for nearly 40 years, until it finally deteriorated into factionalism. As Howell puts it, "What would America and Britain not give today for the promise of a peaceful and well-governed Iraq for even four years?"
Georgina Howell is a journalist living in London. She presents Bell as a heroine for all peoples and all times, sadly remembered today only by a few of her countrymen.