Gertrude Bell and the Birth of Iraq
by Chris Calder
America has its Founding Fathers; the modern nation of Iraq has a peculiar kind of Founding Mother.
Or maybe she was a national nanny. For Iraq's Founding ... Someone ... was not Iraqi, but a red-haired, Oxford-educated mountaineer, an honored poet and opponent to suffragettes, an Arabist and proud British imperialist named Gertrude Bell.
Gertrude Bell designed — literally drew onto the map — the country that America is now trying to (perfectly Orwellian term) "rebuild." She did so via her mastery of Arabic, Persian and Turkish; her deep knowledge of the Arab tribes and friendships with their sheiks; through the immense influence she carried with the leadership of the British Empire.
She was one of the world's most powerful women at the beginning of the 20th century, a key shaper of the version of the Middle East over which our soldiers are killing and dying, for us, right now.
Even that brief, incomplete resume hints at why Bell's name rarely makes the feminist pantheon. But why the mention of Gertrude Bell or of the West's first invasion of Iraq is so rare these days is harder to understand.
Though maybe, in this age of the Memory Hole, not.
* * *
Gertrude Bell crossed Arabia when that land was largely a blank patch on Europe's maps. She traveled alone, it's said, but that's not counting the train of servants, from cooks to armed guards to muleteers, all Arab, who followed her across the desert over more than a decade. Miss Bell, as she was known formally for her 58 years, dined on china even when she traveled by camel. And she always sent for the latest fashions from London even after she had lived as Khatun, a particular kind of great lady, in Baghdad for many years.
Bell very genuinely fell in love with the people of Arabia. (When she first visited the area, the land was a set of vilayets, or provinces of the Ottoman Empire). Bell's fascination and affection were returned, and she received a warm welcome from people who might have shot a lone male British explorer.
Bell's biographer, Janet Wallach, recounts the first journey Bell took from Jerusalem to Damascus in 1900: "In the heart of the mountains called the Jebel Druze, she rode through one tiny village after another, causing a stir as she passed the white-turbaned, black-robed men. At Miyemir she stopped to water her horse. The veiled women, dressed in their long blue and red robes, were filling their earthenware jugs, dipping them into the pool. Gertrude dismounted, and a young man about 19 approached; like all the Druze men and women, he had outlined his enormous eyes in black kohl. The beautiful boy took her hands, and, to her surprise, kissed her on both her cheeks. Other men followed, shaking her hand, eager to inspect the stranger."
Bell was hooked, it was clear, when she wrote at the end of her trip from Damascus, "with the desert almost up to its gates, and the breath of it blowing in with every wind, and the spirit of it passing in through the city gates with every Arab camel driver. That is the heart of the whole matter."
Six times over the next 12 years, Bell rode across Arabia, until she knew the doings of the sheiks better than those of British society. She became a renowned figure among the tribes, a Person, she liked to say. She got to know the intricacies of their alliances and rivalries:
"For the moment, at least, the Beni Shakr were her friends. Five years earlier they had called her a "daughter of the desert." Now, as she lunched in her tent, enjoying a meal of curry served on fine china, washing it down with a glass of wine, one of the Beni Shakr joined her, and they sat together, drinking coffee, smoking her Egyptian cigarettes, and talking of the bloodthirsty Druze. At nightfall the desert turned cold and wet; she wrapped herself in her fur, slipped a hot water bottle between her sheets, and went to bed."
A few days later Bell visits the very same Druze at their desert castle and finds them readying for battle against the Beni Shakr, whose tents she has just left.
"One (Druze fighter) noticed Gertrude. He strode up and raised his sword above his head. 'Lady!,' he cried, 'the English and the Druze are one'."
"'Thank God!,' she answered, 'We too are a fighting race'."
* * *
In 1914, the British indeed brought war to Mesopotamia. From their long-held (since the 17th century) base in Basra, they sent an army north along the Euphrates River toward Baghdad. But here's where things stop looking like an old Imperial expedition and more like the nightmare battlefield of the 20th century. Over three months, the British lost 25,000 men during a siege at Kut. It was, at the height of British power, the nation's biggest military disaster to that time.
Iraq was a battleground in the First World War for one reason.
As Wallach describes the British position at the beginning of the war, their "unrivaled navy delivered goods around the world and brought home three-quarters of (the country's) food supply. To maintain its superiority, in 1911 the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had ordered a major change, switching the nation's battleships from coal-burning engines to oil. Far superior to the traditional ships, these new oil-burning vessels could travel faster, cover a greater range, and be refueled at sea; what's more, their crews would not be exhausted by having to refuel, and would require less manpower."
Wallach continues, "Britain had been the world's leading provider of coal, but she had no oil of her own. In 1912, Churchill signed an agreement for a major share in the Anglo-Persian oil company, with its oil wells in southern Persia and refineries at Abadan, close to Basra. It was essential for Britain to protect that vital area..."
* * *
Unlike the American invasion 90 years later, the British drive to Baghdad was slow and excruciating. But after three months they captured the city and for a while things were calm, especially when compared to Baghdad today. Gertrude Bell, for instance, was given the title "Oriental Secretary" to the British government three months after the invasion ended. She rode her horse alone along the banks of the Euphrates River each morning at 6am before dressing for work.
At the office, she met with an endless stream of sheiks and religious leaders. Relying on her decade-plus experience in the desert, she discovered from these men, always men, their views about the future of the country, their needs, the needs of their people, and reported all to the British High Commissioner.
But the British either wouldn't or couldn't put together an Iraqi government. In truth, they weren't totally convinced they wanted to sponsor an Iraqi state at all. Churchill favored letting most of Iraq go, fortifying only the oil fields near Basra.
A year and a half went by under British military rule before the tribes along the Euphrates rebelled. In a town called Dair, British soldiers arrested the mayor. The townspeople, Wallach writes, "blew up the oil dump, wounding 90 people, released all the prisoners from the jail and attacked the British army barracks. When the Political Officer tried to make peace in the town, the sheiks attacked him in a fury. Just as they were about to kill him, two British airplanes flew overhead, spraying the town with machine-gun fire."
Iraq was Britain's testing ground for the use of aircraft against guerrilla fighters and their villages (another of Churchill's pet ideas). The British spent the 1920s, 30s, 40s and most of the 50s bombing and strafing desert outposts in Iraq. What does it say about the nature of progress that Britain and the US spent the 1990s doing essentially the same thing?
* * *
Examining Britain's occupation of Iraq for clues to the future of America's is a murky prospect. One interesting detail, though, is that a couple of years after Britain's occupation began, the British public rebelled against the cost of the war. Officials started looking for ways to cut costs quickly. Churchill (again Churchill) called a conference in Cairo, inviting 40 experts on Mesopotamia: 39 men and Gertrude Bell.
Many officials wanted to pull out of Mesopotamia altogether, except for the Persian Gulf. Bell and a few others, like T.E. Lawrence, argued for making and backing an Arab kingdom in Iraq. Bell's party eventually persuaded Churchill that Arab monarchies with British power behind them would make for a more stable region, cheaper in the long run as a provider of oil.
After the Cairo Conference, according to Wallach, "almost everything (Bell) had wished for now had a chance of coming true. The country would consist of all three vilayets — Baghdad, Basra and Mosul; the Sunnis, Shiites, Jews, Christians and Kurds would be united under a Sharifian king; and Iraq, rich, prosperous and led by Faisal, would be a loyal protégé of Britain. If Gertrude could bring it all off, it would be more than interesting, it would be a model for the entire Middle East."
* * *
Back in Iraq, "model for the entire Middle East," British soldiers were putting down the rebellion, killing an estimated 10,000 Iraqis. Most towns went again under British control; those which didn't were razed with explosives. But the Iraqi resistance would not die, until the British were driven out more than 30 years later.
Furthering its plan to establish Arab kingdoms, Britain chose the sons of Sharif Hussein, Faisal and Abdullah, to be its native allies in the Middle East. Faisal was put on a throne in Damascus and crowned ruler of "Greater Syria." Abdullah was crowned king of Transjordan.
The Arab government in Damascus lasted just under two years. (Jordan exists to this day, with Abdullah's great grandson on the throne.) But in 1921, the French kicked out Faisal's administration. Presented with an out-of-work king (Faisal) and a country dangerously adrift (Iraq), the British decided to put the two together. They organized a long, public processional for Faisal from Basra to Baghdad, hoping that by the time the tour was completed, Faisal would generate enough excitement among the public to allow the British to crown him "by acclamation" and get away with it.
Once again, Gertrude Bell was in the thick of the plans. She attached herself as advisor to Faisal and oversaw everything from the daily round of appointments to the furnishings of the new royal palace in Baghdad.
* * *
The wrench in Britain's plans was named Ibn Saud. A powerful chieftain who had also been in the pay of the British for decades, he refused to submit to Faisal's rule. The lands that his tribes and flocks roamed were not Iraq, he claimed, but Arabia, and his own.
All other methods failing, the British decided to carve a kingdom for Ibn Saud out of Transjordan and Iraq. The following passage describing how the deal was made is worth quoting at length. It is Wallach's description of the birth of the modern Middle East, with hints of how things could have been:
"Ibn Saud's slaves prepared for (Cox's) arrival. Lavish white tents of various sizes were pitched in the sand for sleeping, bathing, dining and entertaining; thick carpets were laid, luxurious furnishings installed and ample supplies of fresh fruits, Perrier water, Cuban cigars and Johnny Walker Scotch were stocked for (Cox.)
"The negotiations over the boundary lines went on for five days and nights while Cox, dressed in his suit, bow tie and felt fedora, served as a mediator between the robed representatives of Iraq, Kuwait and Arabia. Ibn Saud demanded that the borders be based on tribes, not territory, and according to his scheme, two groups — Fahad Bey's Anazeh and part of the Shammar — would belong to Arabia, regardless of how far north they traveled. The two tribes would become a movable border, expanding and contracting, adjusting as they searched for grazing grounds; the border would change according to their nomadic needs. "East is East and West is West," Kipling had written, and the two were never farther apart. To Cox and the British, the notion of property revolved around territory, but for Ibn Saud and the Bedouin, the idea of property was tied to people.
"No progress could possibly be made, and by the sixth day Sir Percy lost his temper. With only Major Dixon at the meeting, he berated Ibn Saud as if he were a schoolboy. At the rate both sides were going, he told the perfumed Arabian ruler, nothing would be settled for a year. Ibn Saud was on the verge of tears; Sir Percy Cox was his father and mother, he cried, the one who had made him and raised him from nothing to the position he held. He would surrender "half his kingdom, nay the whole, if Sir Percy ordered."
With that, Sir Percy took hold of the map. Carefully drawing a red line across the face of it, he assigned a chunk of the Nejd to Iraq; then to placate Ibn Saud, he took almost two thirds of the territory of Kuwait and gave it to Arabia. Last, drawing two zones, and declaring that they should be neutral, he called one the Kuwait neutral zone and the other the Iraq neutral zone. When a representative of Ibn Saud pressed Cox not to make a Kuwait neutral zone, Sir Percy asked him why. "Quite candidly," the man answered, "because we think oil exists there." "That," replied the High Commissioner, "is exactly why I have made it a neutral zone. Each side shall have a half-share." The agreement, signed by all three sides at the beginning of December 1922, confirmed the boundary lines drawn so carefully by Gertrude Bell. But for seventy years, up until and including the 1990 Gulf War involving Iraq and Kuwait, the dispute over the borders would continue."
* * *
With the creation of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq, the map of the modern Middle East was complete. The British managed to keep their royal surrogates in Iraq until 1958, when military officers shot the young king (Faisal's grandson), his regent and prime minister.
Gertrude Bell stayed on in Iraq, though her influence waned. Faisal, once he settled into power, needed his motherly British advisor less. Gertrude Bell's main project became the archeological collection that formed the core of the Baghdad Museum. She also took an interest in women's schooling and, before the sanctions and war of the past two decades, Iraqi women indeed had relatively great power and independence within the Muslim world, based largely on education. Of course now, under America's reign of light, both the museum and women's economic position are trashed.
Gertrude Bell died in May of 1924 at the age of 58. Her achievements were already, literally, written in stone. But she died outside the glow of power, using an extra dose of sleeping pills, Wallach writes, "to wipe away the dreary future."
One thing the British were never able to do is to inspire in the mass of Iraqis the vision of a western style democracy for their country. Now America seems to be failing at the same thing, and many Americans ask why.
Perhaps for an answer we should look homeward.
Plenty Coup was a Crow Indian chief. His people, like Iraqis today, were impoverished in their own land and ravaged by war because they stood between Western expansion and the prime resources of the day. Plenty Coup talked about a different war, in a different time. Yet his words resonate. In many ways it has been the same war for all these years:
The Americans, he said, "spoke very loudly when they said their laws were made for everybody, but we soon learned that although they expected us to keep them, they thought nothing of breaking them themselves. They told us not to drink whisky, yet they made it themselves and traded it to us for furs and robes until both were nearly gone. Their Wise Ones said we might have their religion, but when we tried to understand it we found that there were too many kinds of religion to understand, and that scarcely any two white men agreed which was the right one to learn. This bothered us a good deal until we saw that the white man did not take his religion any more seriously than he did his laws, and that he kept both of them just behind him, like Helpers, to use when they might do him good in his dealings with strangers. These were not our ways. We kept the laws we made and lived our religion. We have never been able to understand the white man, who fools nobody but himself."
(This article is based almost completely on Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia, by Janet Wallach, Random House, 1996.)