Thursday, January 22, 2009

Other: Gertrude Bell

Some quotations:
I propose to assume... that the welfare and prosperity of Iraq is not incompatible with the welfare and prosperity of any other portion of the world. I assume therefore as an axiom that if, in disposing of the question of the future administration of Iraq, we allow ourselves to be influenced by any other consideration whatsoever other than the well being of the country itself and its people we shall be guilty of a shameless act of deliberate dishonesty rendered the more heinous and comtemptible by our reiterated declarations of disinterested solicitude for the peoples concerned.
Any administration must bring to the task... singular integrity and diligence, combined with a just comprehension of the conflicting claims of different classes of the population. It must also command the confidence of the people so as to secure the co-operation of public opinion, without which so complex a tangle count not be unravelled.
Those words were written by Gertrude Bell almost 90 years ago, when she was one of the key players in the British administration to build a cohesive and what was supposed to be an eventually independent nation in Iraq. They established a somewhat-democratically elected government under the non-Iraqi Faisal bin Hussein, son of the Sharif of Mecca. Faisal was elected king of Iraq in 1921 by the forming nation's various tribes -- with the strong urging of the British, Bell in particular, who was charmed by Faisal's bearing, intelligence, and even-handedness. The new nation had its first elections in 1924, and the British could take a slightly less active role in the country's affairs.1

Bell, whose extensive travels in the area earlier in her life had stemmed directly from her amateur archaeological and anthropological interests, was appointed by Faisal as the nation's first Director of Antiquities and she founded the national museum and formulated laws to stem the thriving black market export of the nation's artifacts. Her health was already failing, though, after years of heavy smoking, ceaseless hard and difficult work ("You may rely upon one thing — I'll never engage in creating kings again; it's too great a strain"), and of living in her beloved Iraq, whose climate had nonetheless ravaged her body.

Bell had never married. The great love of her life had been a British officer. In a different age he would almost certainly have divorced his difficult and ill-matched wife for Bell, but they didn't live in that age, and he died at Gallipoli.

She visited her beloved family in Britain one last time in 1925, but years of loss of loved ones and of difficult choices had left her depressed, and she was frail and tired and had possibly been diagnosed on that visit with a terminal lung ailment, perhaps cancer. Her maid found her dead of a sleeping pill overdose on July 12, 1926, a few days before her 58th birthday. She was buried in Baghdad at a state funeral, and her parents received a flood of condolences from people who had worked with her over the years, known her personally, or admired her from afar, including Winston Churchill, King George V, and of course, King Faisal.

Even late in life, she remained "a social hand grenade." At a small party with a young British official and his new wife, she loudly remarked, in the hearing of everyone there, "Why will promising young Englishmen marry such fools of women?"

Supposedly, her singular historical and cultural insights have become required reading at the Pentagon2, but you'd have to wonder and wish that they'd read them before 2003 instead of after.

However, even if you're not in charge of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, Bell was by any standards remarkable, and Georgina Howell's biography Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations, while clearly rather biased by Howell's unapologetic admirations, offers a vibrant portrait of the king-maker.

1 Britain granted full independence, with some caveats, in 1932, but invaded the country in 1941 to ensure the continuing supply of oil for its war engine.
2 This article, published in 2004 in the online journal Strategic Insights by the U.S. Navy's Center for Contemporary Conflict, compares the nation-building of the British 90 years ago with America's today.

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