Any student or observer of the Middle East has likely heard of a young man named T.E. Lawrence, whose integration into the tribes of Arabia in the early 20th century helped shape the current reality of this turbulent region. His famous work, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, has become essential reading for anyone interested in the Middle East. Yet few have heard of his fierce and intelligent female counterpart, Gertrude Lowthian Bell (1868-1926), whose story has largely been left untold.
This is slowly changing, however, as a recent documentary shows. Letters from Baghdad charts Bell’s life through her own journals and letters, from her Oxford days, when she blazed the trail for female students, to her climbing endeavours, when she reached numerous new and undiscovered peaks in the Alps, to her pioneering exploration of the Middle East.
Letters from Baghdad explains how the stage was set 100 years ago for the tyranny and sectarian strife that is currently engulfing the Middle East, and it gives a much-needed voice to one of the most important British figures of the time, who predicted how the future of the region would unfold.
Bell traversed multiple routes through the Middle Eastern deserts that had previously never been navigated by anyone from the West. She travelled on camelback with a host of local guides, coming to know the desert as well as its inhabitants and developing a deep understanding of the local tribal landscape. It was not long before the movers and shakers of the British Empire realised her value to their interests in the region.
Bell, who was one of the first employees of what would later become MI6, worked for the British government in Cairo and later Baghdad, playing a key role in the creation of the state of Iraq. She saw, when officials in London could not – or did not want to – the dangers of meddling in the affairs of foreign states and was deeply sceptical of London’s interests in the Middle East. Her warnings about the fate of the region, as history shows, fell on deaf ears in Whitehall.
The documentary also sheds light on her remarkable, if somewhat testing personality and her troubled personal life. She developed a deep connection with the Arab peoples, who loved and respected her and treated her as one of their own. However, she did not bestow a positive impression on all those she encountered – particularly the Western men with whom she would not hesitate to disagree. At a time when education of women was limited and respect for them as freethinking decision-makers even more so, Bell was not afraid to speak her mind, regardless of who she offended.
Though she was immensely close with her family, Bell never married. It seems she fell in love twice, once during her younger years, though her parents refused to give permission for the pair to be married and he passed away shortly after. She later fell deeply in love with Lieutenant Colonel Charles Doughty-Wilie, but their relationship met a similarly tragic end; Doughty-Wilie was married, and the pair exchanged love letters for a number of years until he was killed at Gallipoli in 1915. Gertrude heard of his death by chance at a dinner party, and she arguably never recovered from the sorrow.
Bell passed away in Baghdad in 1926 from an overdose of sleeping tablets. Many believe she took her own life. She has been remembered as a hero and a pioneer by those who knew and loved her, yet history has largely failed to appreciate her achievements and the mark she left on the region. This is slowly changing, however, as authors and filmmakers have begun to tell her remarkable story, which holds valuable lessons that are still relevant in the Middle East today.