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The second time, during the period in which she was an intelligence officer in Basra, was April , Those were exactly the days in which her friends T. Lawrence and Aubrey Herbert--with whom she had discussed "vast schemes for the government of the universe" the previous week--were entrusted with the attempt to break the Turkish siege of Kut, in which starving British soldiers and townspeople were reduced to eating rats and dogs. According to Gertrude's letters home, she went "up the Shatt al' Arab to check the maps.

She ventured alone and disguised into the remotest districts. Death held no fear for her. Her personal safety was her last consideration. Even in her midfifties, when she and Haji Naji, a gardener and great friend, were harassed by a mad dervish with an iron staff, she snatched it up and struck him with it. He left. During her lifetime she made seven expeditions into the vast regions of the Middle East and Turkey, first as a wealthy tourist but soon as an archaeologist, explorer, and information gatherer for the British government.

They were possibly the happiest times of her life. Once she was based in an office, whether engaged on war work or administration, she worked harder and longer than anyone but occasionally yearned for adventure again.

A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert by Gertrude Bell

And, in when she was fifty-six, "I'm planning a two days' jaunt by myself in the desert. I want to feel savage and independent again instead of being [Oriental] Secretary in a High Commissioner's office. The truth is I wonder how I bear being so civilised and respectable after the life I've led. Gertrude soldiered on, year after year, as political officer and then Oriental secretary with her self-imposed mission to grant as complete a measure of autonomy to her beloved Arabs as was compatible with some temporary British guidance and support.

Her dream was that Iraq should gain ultimate independence. She dedicated her life in Baghdad to the championing of the Arab cause, reaching the very limits of her purview as a loyal administrator employed and paid by Britain. She placed little faith in politicians: the British who betrayed the promise to give the Arabs self-determination; the French who bombed their way to control of Syria; and the Americans who proposed a benevolent world order, including a League of Nations, and then did nothing to support it.

She had to fight her corner every inch of the way, and she often had to fight her own side. There were objections to her as a woman alongside the military, objections to her rank, objections to her being in the front line. She had to fight when an interim boss tried to have her sacked, when Winston Churchill wanted to pull out of Iraq altogether, and again when political machinations brought all her achievements to the brink of disaster.

Her lifelong creed was to seek out and engage with the opposition in order to understand their point of view. This was regarded with the deepest suspicion by some of her colonialist colleagues, who knew that her Baghdad house was frequented by dangerous nationalists subversive to the British administration. In guiding the new British administration of Iraq, she was doing the most important work she had ever undertaken.

To the people queuing up outside the secretariat in Baghdad, she was more than an administrator; she was someone they could trust. She spoke their language and had never lied to them. She respected them and their ways to the point of entrusting her life to them while traveling alone through their deserts. She understood Bedouin etiquette and the hereditary lines of Arab families. She also understood the priorities of the Bedouin nomads and those who had begun to farm, the traders and landowners, the Christian professionals, the clerks and teachers, and each of the explosive mixtures of races and religions in the unmapped territories the Arabs shared with the Armenians, Assyrians, Turks, Persians, and Kurds.

Once face-to-face with Gertrude, the Oriental secretary, and Sir Percy Cox, the high commissioner, the sheikhs and Mesopotamian notables lodged their interests with the brand-new British administration of the summer of They were welcomed, listened to, their situations comprehended. They were assured that the British administration would be benevolent and was prepared for the huge expenditure in effort and money that would secure their various ways of life.

Each one of the representatives had to be met with proper traditional courtesies, such as the giving of small presents, and lengthy discussions had to take place. In the meeting of the two agendas, those of the administration and the population, a good part of Gertrude's day was spent in trading government favors to establish cooperation. If the American and British invaders of , after ousting Saddam Hussein, had read and taken to heart what Gertrude had to say on establishing peace in Iraq, there might have been far fewer of the bombings and burnings that have continued to this day.

A Woman in Arabia

She wrote of the importance on the part of the administration of "a just comprehension of the conflicting claims of different classes of the population" and its ability to "command the confidence of the people so as to secure the co-operation of public opinion. Of course she knew that Iraq would risk continual disruption.

She was fulfilling the promise of self-determination, but it must not be forgotten that Gertrude had another urgent reason for wanting Iraq established.


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  • Had Britain evacuated Iraq after World War I, as Winston Churchill advocated, the Turks would have surged back from the north to exact revenge and reinstate the institutionalized corruption and the appropriation of taxes of their old Ottoman Empire. There was a very real threat from the Russian Bolshevik army, planning to drive the Communist revolution south to conquer the Middle East.

    In the south, Ibn Saud and his fearsome Wahhabis were already attacking the borders. Without western endorsement and British support, Iraq would have faced three powerful enemies without an army to defend it. The peoples of the Middle East who had failed to make their case for nationhood or political identity at the time of the Paris Peace Conference--for instance, the Kurdish people--remained at the mercy of massacres and incursions by their neighbors.


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    The country needed to be inclusive enough and large enough to raise an army capable of repelling enemies. Her influence spread beyond the borders of Iraq, to Palestine and southern Arabia. In November , Lord Arthur James Balfour, Prime Minister Lloyd George's languid foreign secretary, issued a declaration sympathetic to the Zionist cause, stating that the British government approved "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.

    In support of his argument he read to the Cabinet a strongly argued letter from Gertrude against it, forecasting future trouble without end. I am sorry to bother the Cabinet with another Paper on this subject, but I have obtained some more information which I would like to lay before them.

    Gertrude Bell - Britain's 'Queen of the Desert'

    We have received at the India Office a series of valuable papers on Turkey in Asia from the pen of Miss Gertrude Lowthian Bell, the remarkable woman who, after years of knowledge gained by unique travel in these regions, is acting as Assistant Political Officer in Baghdad. She writes Not least among the denationalising forces is the fact that a part of Syria, though like the rest mainly inhabited by Arabs, is regarded by a non-Arab people as its prescriptive inheritance.

    At a liberal estimate the Jews of Palestine may form a quarter of the population of the province, the Christians a fifth, while the remainder are Mohammedan Arabs.

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    Jewish immigration has been artificially fostered by doles and subventions from millionaire co-religionists in Europe; the new colonies have now taken root and are more or less self-supporting. The pious hope that an independent Jewish state may some day be established in Palestine no doubt exists, though it may be questioned whether among local Jews there is any acute desire to see it realised, except as a means of escape from Turkish oppression; it is perhaps more lively in the breasts of those who live far from the rocky Palestinian hills and have no intention of changing their domicile.

    Lord Cromer took pleasure in relating a conversation which he had held on the subject with one of the best known English Jews, who observed: 'If a Jewish Kingdom were to be established at Jerusalem I should lose no time in applying for the post of Ambassador in London'. Apart from the prevalence of such sentiments two considerations rule out the conception of an independent Jewish Palestine from practical politics.

    The first is that the province as we know it is not Jewish, and that neither Mohammedan nor Arab would accept Jewish authority; the second that the capital, Jerusalem, is equally sacred to three faiths, Jewish, Christian and Moslem, and should never, if it can be avoided, be put under the exclusive control of any one local faction, no matter how carefully the rights of the other two may be safeguarded. Sir Edwin went on to list some hundred prominent Jews who were anti-Zionist and to make the point that the bond that united Israel was not one of politics but of a common religion.

    This paper, headed by Gertrude's contribution, achieved the change of a single word in the Balfour Declaration: Palestine would become a home for the Jews--not the home.