Page 15, 1st December 2006

1st December 2006
Page 15
Page 15, 1st December 2006 — Queen of the desert

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Locations: Delhi, Tehran, Cairo, Jerusalem, Oxford


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Queen of the desert

Charlotte Wilkins admires the gumption of Gertrude Bell

Daughter of the Desert: The Remarkable Life of Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell, Macmillan L20

The intrepid and eventful life of Gertrude Bell is a biographer's dream. Arguably one of the architects of modem Iraq and more famous'than T E Lawrence at the time, the list of her achievements is long and impressive: mountaineer, poet, traveller and travel writer, politician, linguist, archaeologist, spy, explorer, gardener and cartologist. In each of these varied careers she excelled, leading her biographer, Georgina Howell, to compare her with Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great.

Her birth in 1868 was no handicap to her success. Born into wealth and privilege, Gertrude went to Oxford, where she was the first woman to get a first, a degree she obtained in a mere two years. Shunning the conventional demands of the late 19th century and the rounds of parties, balls and husband-hunting, the headstrong and unruly Gertrude set about visiting Tehran, learning Persian and climbing the Matterhorn instead.

A trip to Jerusalem in 1900 led to her discovery of, and subsequent passion for, the desert. Disguising herself as a man, she travelled with two pistols strapped to her calves, a folding bath and a complete Wedgwood set of china. Such was the style of her desert travels that the Bedouin would ask: "Have you seen a queen travelling?"

The fearless Gertrude was rarely daunted, visiting sheikhs in their tents and charming them with recitals of more mystical Arab poetry than they themselves knew. Her two years of travels inspired The Desert and the Sown, still a classic of travel writing, while her field books and maps are still held and referred to by the Royal Geographical Society.

Howell implies that Gertrude almost relished courting danger; although generally undaunted by the hardships of the desert, she only cracked once, when forced to eat bully beef for two weeks running.

Unlike Freya Stark, however, Gertrude did not pretend to be stupid. Her opinionated, confrontational style did not endear her to everyone she met. Sir Mark Sykes, whom she had irritated by beating him to the Jebel Druze, described her as a "silly, chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass". Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud also mimicked her relentlessly. Yet although Howell takes pains to remind us that Bell operated in a male-dominated world, she is surprisingly accommodating of Bell's opposition to the suffragettes.

Such was her knowledge of Arabia and the Arab world that Whitehall recognised her value and she became the first woman officer in the history of British military intelligence. During the First World War, Major Miss Bell went to Cairo, to Delhi to advise the Viceroy of India, and then on to Basra where she liaised between Cairo and Delhi intelligence. Along with T E Lawrence, she befriended King Faisal. promoting Arab self-determination and playing an indispensable role in the shaping of modern Iraq.

However, despite her many accomplishments, her personal life was continually tinged with tragedy. The first man she loved, Henry Cadogan, died of pneumonia soon after her parents forbade the match. Her second great love, Dick Doughty-Wylie, was married — and despite her adventurous attempts to lure him away from his wife, she failed to do so, learning of his tragic death at Gallipoli in a throwaway remark at a lunch party.

It was this, perhaps coupled with the collapse of the political set-up that she been a part of, that may have caused her to take her own life. In 1926, shortly before her 58th birthday, Gertrude was found dead with a bottle of pills beside her.

There are many resonances with modern-day Iraq in this book, none the more so than Gertrude's own description of her first glimpse of Mesopotamia: "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."

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