Arabian nights of Gertrude Bell, The
AH, THE MYSTERIOUS EAST! The romance of the desert and the glamour of sheiks and harems, camels and oases, date palms, loaves of bread, jugs of wine, and above all the Arabs, silently folding their tents and stealing away. For anyone of Queen Victoria’s generation, Arabia was primarily a place of the imagination, mapped out in childhood, populated by Ali Baba, Sinbad, and Haroun al-Rashid out of the Arabian Nights. Open sesame! and anything could happen. As the pink bits of the globe expanded during Victoria’s reign, one might have expected the magic to fade, but instead the mystique of the mysterious East grew as true adventure replaced fairy tale. The flamboyant Sir Richard Burton recounted his journey to the forbidden city of Mecca which he penetrated in disguise in his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to ElMedinah and Meccah (3 volumes, 1855-56) and Charles Doughty described, in an almost indescribable self-created prose, the two years he spent among the nomadic Bedouin in Travels in Arabia Deserter (2 volumes, 1888). The pattern culminated in T. E. Lawrence’s account, by turns factual and mystic, of the Arab War which was first printed privately in 1926 as The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (only one volume, but it’s not short). These rivals to The Thousand and One Nights still tell tales of stratagems and spoils, but, as time passed and the empire grew, magic carpets and roc’s eggs made way for mail routes and railways.
Another casualty of progress was Scheherazade, the teller but not the doer of adventures. “It’s a bore being a woman when you are in Arabia,” Gertrude Bell remarked.1 And Bell is the authority on being an Edwardian woman in Arabia. Every Macaulayan schoolboy knows that Ptolemy, like Caesar with Gaul, divided Arabia into three parts: Arabia Felix (the fortunately fruitful bit of the main peninsula), Arabia Petr-aea (the rocky part that includes the Sinai peninsula), and Arabia Deserter, the vast trackless wastes of sand and volcanic rock that make up the deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia. This last Arabia was the one to which Gertrude Bell devoted much of her life. She plotted its scanty ruins and wells before the First World War, helped divide and govern it after the war, and left L50,000 to the museum that would help preserve its artefacts after her death. Like her male fellow adventurers, Bell fell for the spell of the desert, and she was never boring.
Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was born with an iron spoon in her mouth at a time when iron production was very profitable. Her father, Sir Hugh Bell, was an industrialist baronet filled with the ideals of high Victorian liberalism, devotion to empire, and profit-these were not, to his mind, incompatible aims. Bell’s stepmother (her mother having died when Bell was three) was a Frenchwoman who immersed herself seriously in some of the social issues of the day. At the Works: A Study of a Manufacturing Town is still a useful portrait of the manufacturing townMiddlesbrough, in Northumbria-that made the Bells’ fortune. Lady Florence Bell also wrote plays-mostly society comedies-and a few educational books for children including the pre-Rattigan French Without Tears. Gertrude was brought up to be physically fearless and intellectually confident. And she was also a systematic student of whatever she put her mind to. When she was sixteen, her parents agreed to send her to Queen’s College, London, and, two years later, to Lady Margaret Hall, then only in its seventh year. She read Modern History and was the first woman to get a First in that subject. But after that coup, what then? The young men she met weren’t all that interesting and she had no interest in becoming a don. Fencing lessons helped. Visits with her diplomat cousins the Lascelles in Romania and, later, Teheran honed her diplomatic skills and amateur intelligencegathering. Bell had learned Persian well enough to translate the poems of Hafiz (published in 1897), and she began on Arabic, too. As a reading language, it had seemed easy at first, but it turned out, she wrote her parents, to be rather difficult to speak: “The worst I think is a very much aspirated H. I can only say it by holding down my tongue with one finger, but then one can’t carry on a conversation with your finger down your throat, can you?” (Persian and Arabic joined her French, Italian, German, and Turkish). Mountain climbing in the French and Swiss Alps (leaving behind “Gertrude’s Peak”) and the Rockies further developed her taste for intrepid-not to say foolhardy-tests of physical endurance. Globetrotting to Palmyra, Damascus, Cairo, Jerusalem, India, Singapore, Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo, Chicago, Niagara Falls, even Boston, enlarged her sense of possibilityand lack of it. For if all these experiences relieved the boredom of a well-brought-up young lady’s life in Mayfair, they nonetheless proved a Barmecide feast. Bell hungered for a more substantial life.
In 1904, at thirty-six, Gertrude Bell determined to follow up her interests in a newly concentrated way. She gave up mountain climbing and returned to serious study, working under Salomon Reinach, a French archaeologist. Recognizing that “there is still much exploration to be done in Syria and on the edge of the desert,” Bell planned to study “those vestiges of antiquity that catch the eye of a casual observer.” But besides archaeology she was interested in social contacts, especially of the two groups of Arab people she had earlier found most fascinating: the Druze and the Bedouin. This journey became the basis for her best travel book, The Desert and the Sown (1907)-crammed with conversations and photographs, something between travel guide and ethnography with pauses for somewhat woolly political recommendations (the root of various difficulties within the Ottoman empire “lies in the disappearance of English influence at Constantinople”). Some serious archaeological work resulted from this trip too, appearing in Reinach’s journal, the Revue Archeologique.
The Desert and the Sown began to shape her reputation as a knowledgeable and well-connected source for information useful to the British Empire. Mostly, though, that journey and book taught her, or confirmed for her, that her life lay in the East, not among the sown regions, but in the desert. The desert for her represented a place of liberty: “I cut myself loose from civilization.” Or, as she put it more formally at the beginning of The Desert and the Sown:
To those bred under an elaborate social order few such moments of exhilaration can come as that which stands at the threshold of wild travel. The gates of the enclosed garden are thrown open, the chain at the entrance of the sanctuary is lowered, with a wary glance to right and lift you step forth, and, behold! the immeasurable world. The world of adventure and of enterprise, dark with hurrying storms, glittering in raw sunlight, an unanswered question and an unanswerable doubt hidden in the fold of every hill. Into it you must go alone, separated from the troops of friends that walk the rose alleys, stripped of the purple and fine linen that impede the fighting arm, roofless, defenceless, without possessions. . . . So you leave the sheltered close, and, like the man in the fairy story, you feel the bands break that were riveted about your heart, as you enter the path that stretches across the rounded shoulder of the earth.
On the eve of World War I, when she was in her mid-forties, Bell determined on a solo (that is, unaccompanied by fellow Europeans) trek through Arabia Deserta where, as she put it, “the world is all dried up”: “The desert, there is no denying it, the desert looks terrible from without.” But its very “desolation and emptiness” added to the beauty of the desert spring, individual flowers standing out like “separate jewels.”
There are no words to tell you how bare and forbidding is this land. It gleams black with thickly strewn flints, mile after mile of flat black country, and nothing grows, except the scrub in the valley beds. I found a brave little geranium flowering yesterday in the low ground-the only flower I have seen. But that valiant family sends out its colonies to every part-God give it the reward! No, not the only flower-the marigold is no less courageous. I saw his cheerful yellow face among the stones at Tubah.
The beauty and gravity of the desert landscape often struck her, but the desert also provided fun: “When we had got into camp ‘Ali, Sayyah and I climbed up a neighbouring tell and scouted for Arabs. When we were little, Maurice [her half-brother] and I, we had a favourite game which consisted in wandering all over the house, up and down the staircases, without being seen by the housemaids-I felt exactly as if we were playing that beloved game as we crept up to the shoulder of the tell. But a careful survey through my glasses revealed no housemaids, and we went on boldly to the top where we had a glorious view.”
The chief destination of Bell’s trip was Hayyil, a solitary dot in the middle of the Syrian desert that was a stopping place on the pilgrimage from Mesopotamia to Mecca. The walled city of Hayyil had a nimbus of mystery-hardly any Europeans had seen it at all (Lady Anne Blunt around 1880 and Charles Doughty twice). And, as the stronghold of the bloodthirsty Rashids, chief rivals of the Sauds, it held up-to-the-minute importance in the calculus of power. Bell, entirely unofficially, planned to plumb its secrets. To do so, she had to hide ammunition in her shoe heels and maps under petticoats to get through Turkish customs, sign waivers absolving the English and Turks of any responsibility for anything that might happen to her, and spend a lot of unreimbursable money. Flouting officialdom was part of the fun. “Do you know that I am an outlaw?” she wrote, quickly adding, “a very harmless outlaw.”
I have been quoting from the diaries Bell kept during the trip. Each night Bell would write a fairly long and detailed chronicle of the day’s trek, including plotting coordinates, food, conversations, specifications of any ruins they might have come across (“I could not say no, and leave a ruin behind me”). After her trip, any practical intelligence would be turned into reports for the Arab Bureau. But every few nights, Bell revised the more personal material-scenic descriptions, farcical misadventures, musings on her life-for a diary meant to be read by one other person. Richard Doughty-Wylie, nephew of the explorer, was the man Bell loved. He too was a lover of the East. Doughty-Wylie was married, and the relationship between them was fated to be unconsummated and secret. In the comparison of the diaries Bell kept for herself and the one she wrote for Doughty-Wylie, we can see Bell craft herself into a modern Scheherazade. She wrote to tie him to her, to impress him with her skill and sensibility, and above all to entertain-with her stories, shifting moods, and verbal dexterity. Here, for example, is an atmospheric entry, falling into Arabic rhythms, on a visit with a benevolent desert sheik on her way to Hayyil.
The days spent with Muhammad were not wasted. I had never been in a big shaikh’s camp before and all was new and interesting. And very beautiful-the sandy valley and M.’s big 5 poled tent where we sat at night, while a man sang of the deeds and days of all the Arabs, and the bowls of camel milk brought in to us when the nagas [shecamels] came back with their calves-and not least Muhammad’s great figure sitting on the cushions beside me, with the white keffiyye falling over his black brows and his eyes flashing in question and answer, I saw his jurisdiction and found it to be just; I heard his tales of the desert and made friends with his women; and I made friends with him. He is a man, and a good fellow; you can lay your head down in his tents, and sleep at night, and have no fear. No, they were not wasted, those days.
And here an encounter with another desert sheikh, less benevolent and one-eyed.
He received us with all show of friendliness, but over the first coffee cup he was already questioning me as to my knowledge of the country and my purpose in coming. After I had eaten dates with him I went to my tents, where he presently followed me and proceeded to examine all my possessions. As ill luck would have it his eye fell on my Zeiss glass and he fixed his affections upon it instantly. He asked for everything he saw and I refused all. By night fall it was agreed that I should give him a revolver and he would send his nephew with us as rafiq [a local tribal guide to ensure safe dealings with neighboring tribes]. But in the morning he again reverted to the glass and threatened to send us away companionless and fall upon us in the night. This was not said to me, but to [her servant companions] Fattuh and Said, with further declarations that no Christian woman had ever travelled here, and none should travel. Whether these threats would have been put into execution or not, I do not know-it is the sort of doubt which one does not bring to the test if one can help it; but Said, who knows the Arabs well and knew this man also, whispered to Fattuh that it were best to give way lest worse should befall, and it ended in our being stripped of both glass and revolver.
No turning the other cheek for Bell: “May God deprive him of the other eye also!”
At the start of her journey to Hayyil, Bell had thought all the risks were worth it. And, by some standards, the trip was a success. The Royal Geographical Society awarded her the gold medal for this expedition. And Jeremy Wilson, in his authorized biography of T. E. Lawrence, notes that her journey provided a “mass of information … about the tribal elements ranging betwen the Hejaz Railway on the one flank and the Sirhan and Nefud on the other, particularly about the Howaitat group” which was of “signal use” to Lawrence and the British in the Arab campaigns of 1917 and 1918. But as if it were an emblem of her life, the journey, despite its usefulness, didn’t turn out as Bell had planned. When she reached Hayyil, the current Rashid emir was out on a raid and she was elegantly but unmistakably held prisoner for eleven days. To Doughty-Wylie she presented a fairly insouciant account (“It gets upon your nerves when you sit day after day between high mud walls and I thank heaven that my nerves are not very responsive”), but the diary she kept for herself conveys the genuine threat. She was prevented from continuing on to visit the Sauds. Above all, she feared the futility of her self-chosen adventure.
It is nothing, the journey to Nejd, so far as any real advantage goes, or any real addition to knowledge…. Here, if there is anything to record the probability is that you can’t find it or reach it, because a hostile tribe bars your way, or the road is waterless, or something of that kind, and that which has chanced to lie upon my path for the last 10 days is not worth mentioning-two wells, as I said before, and really I can think of nothing else. So you see the cause of my depression. I fear when I come to the end I shall not look back and say: That was worth doing; but more likely when I look back I shall say: It was a waste of time. It’s done now, and there is no remedy, but I think I was a fool to come into these wastes when I have not, and cannot have, a free hand to work at the things I care for.
Bell’s life for the next twelve years until her death was crammed full of useful employment, but it’s arguable that she ever felt she had a free hand. She worked with the Red Cross in France at the beginning of the war; during the war, she worked at the Cairo Intelligence Department and became the Mesopotamian correspondent of the Arab Bureau in Basra. At the Paris Peace conference, she represented (and began to redefine) British interests; at the Cairo conference, Bell and Lawrence advised Churchill on setting up Feisal’s ascendancy to the throne of Iraq. As Oriental Secretary in Baghdad (the first woman imperial servant, apparently), she became Feisal’s chief confidant (“When I come to think of it, it is curious to be settling the family affairs of a descendant of the Prophet who is also King of Iraq”). Awards and honors were hers. But Doughty-Wylie had been killed at Gallipoli; her later passion for a young English adviser to King Feisal was unrequited; it seems likely that, a few days before her fifty-eighth birthday, Gertrude Bell committed suicide.
Rosemary O’Brien’s glossy new edition of Bell’s trek through Arabia Deserta is a pleasant book to have, although the map could be more detailed and the minuscule index is scandalously useless, particularly in a book on a woman who valued the careful collection and retrieval of information. O’Brien includes both diaries and enlivens them with truly outstanding examples of some of the 6000 photographs Bell took during her life in the East. O’Brien’s introduction is more useful on general background than on insight, which tends toward the Oprahesque (“Bell seems to have sought danger as an aphrodisiac, possibly the expression of thwarted sexuality”; Bell “spent a large part of [her life] in a masculine world, yet never lost her feminine interest in clothes and gardening”; and T. E. Lawrence “gain[ed] fame” as “a phenomenon of imperialism” and “an icon of modern sexual confusion”). Her literary judgment is Oprah-esque, too: O’Brien claims, for instance, that in the Doughty-Wylie diary Bell “transformed . . . minutiae into narratives that rank with the century’s best travel literature.” One wishes this were true, but unfortunately it’s not. The diary, for all its charms, is too diffuse. Secondhand bookshops offer a better chance to get a real sense of Bell’s mind, character, and prose. Her letters, published first in 1927 by her stepmother and occasionally republished in selections, are the most revealing of her quicksilver impressions and enthusiasms, and, to my mind, contain her best writing. The Desert and the Sown was republished by Virago a while back, and her other travel books resurface from time to time. Although I’ve never seen it, the Golden Cockerell Press published her confidential despatches “reprinted from the secret ‘Arab Bulletin”‘ under the title The Arab War (they sound more tantalizing than the usual bureaucratic product).
O’Brien’s language is cliched when she claims that Bell was “seeking a role for herself,” but she’s quite right. And all this time later, we still are too, grandiosely and desperately trying to pin Bell down as archaeologist, writer, historian, government official, translator, traveler, adventurer, mountain climber, uncrowned queen of Iraq, antisuffragist, and spy. The sad truth-and it’s one not limited to Edwardian women-is that Bell never hit upon the one single outlet or form into which her character could be concentrated and discerned whole. The pleasantly dyspeptic traveler Robert Byron, in The Road to Oxiana, describes his experience, seven years after Bell’s death, at the Baghdad Museum which Bell had helped found and funded in her will: “On the wall outside, King Feisal has erected a memorial tablet to Gertrude Bell. Presuming the inscription was meant by King Feisal to be read, I stepped up to read it. At which four policemen set up a shout and dragged me away. I asked the director of the museum why this was. `If you have short sight, you can get special leave,’ he snapped.” This seems an oddly fitting memorial for Bell: admirable but difficult to make out. We might never see Bell clearly, but we can continue being entertained by her Arabian nights.
1 GERTRUDE BELL: The Arabian Diaries, 191-1914, ed. by Rosemary O’Brien. With photographs by Gertrude BelL Syracuse University Press. $29.95.
teaches Victorian literature at Providence College.
Copyright Hudson Review Autumn 2001
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