Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Woman who made Iraq.


Following my pieces about Dorothy Parker, Ida Tarbell and Anne Hutchinson my good friend Charlotte recommended a biography of Gertrude Bell, (1868-1926) an extraordinary person who was an expert on the near/middle East.

Alongside Charlotte I  also recommend “Gertrude Bell:  Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations” by Georgia Howell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).   

 It is a fascinating tale of a brilliant, brave, adventurous and wise woman who was the virtual shaper of British foreign policy in “Mesopotamia” following World War I after the Ottoman Empire collapsed.  Do buy the book or borrow it from your local library.

Wikipedia has the following on Bell  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Bell

Do also read the Atlantic Magazine review of Howell’s biography at

You will note the misogynist views of her critics in passages such as this:

“As to the prejudices of Sir Mark Sykes, co-author of the secret deal with France and Russia, she had acquired an early warning. They had met in Haifa as early as 1905, where he had appalled her with his talk of Arabs as “animals” who were “cowardly,” “diseased,” and “idle.” She had also been several steps ahead of him on an expedition to the Druze fastnesses of Lebanon and Syria, and he always attributed her head start to foul play. As he complained fairly comprehensively in a letter to his wife: “Confound the silly chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass!”


Such misogyny, perpetuated by journalists, teachers, and historians alike, means that Gertrude Bell is much less known than Lawrence of Arabia.

Oddly enough she (like Ida Tarbell) was an anti-suffragist!

Bell was also an unabashed Imperialist. It is to her, for better or worse, that we owe the 20th Century creations of Iraq, Jordan,  and Saudi Arabia as nation states.



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