The Writings of Gertrude Bell, Daring ‘Queen of the Desert’

Nathan Gelgud illustration inspired by Gertrude Bell’s ‘A Woman in Arabia,’ 2015.

Last week, Republicans and Democrats alike searched for various ways of saying the same thing about President Obama: We don’t like the way he handles things with the Middle East. Sound bites from Senator Chuck Schumer and clips of the Republican debate sounded very much the same. Obama is soft on these guys. We should be in charge. We shouldn’t be negotiating anything. We should be telling them what to do.

While all this was happening, I was reading A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert, a collection of journal entries, letters, poems and essays by Gertrude Bell. She was a mountaineer, archaeologist, Arabist, writer, poet, linguist, spy, and one of the first Westerners of the twentieth century to begin to comprehend and tentatively respect the leaders and governments of the Middle East. Writing in Baghdad in 1920, she jotted “How can we, who have managed our affairs so badly, claim to teach others to manage theirs better?”

She was writing about establishing government in Iraq, not nuclear proliferation in Iran, but the connection is hard to miss. The West still presumes that it can push the Middle East around, even though that’s been an essentially untenable position since the beginning of civilization.

The release of this collection is timed to coincide with the release of “Queen of the Desert,” a movie about Bell starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Werner Herzog, but its prescient contents make it relevant even without a movie makeover. Edited by Georgina Howell, who has also written a biography of Bell, this book is helpfully annotated with details about the subject’s life that give context to her writings.

Bell was a pioneering woman in global politics at a time when women were only just being granted the right to vote, and was also a fascinating adventurer and Renaissance woman, as the chapter headings in this book can attest: The Linguist, The Mountaineer, The Desert Traveler, and The Kingmaker are just a few of the roles she played.

This isn’t to say she didn’t also have what some might call first-world problems. “Her highly pressurized life was complicated,” Howell writes, “by her need for a maid, housekeeper, and dressmaker.” Nonetheless, this is a captivating life story about a woman ahead of her time whose casual scribblings turned out to be powerfully visionary. Maybe it’s too much to ask that the politicians vying for office take time out to read A Woman in Arabia, but any smart readers feeling skeptical about the simplification of matters in the Middle East should take note.

Nathan Gelgud illustration inspired by Gertrude Bell's 'A Woman in Arabia,' 2015.

Nathan Gelgud illustration inspired by Gertrude Bell’s ‘A Woman in Arabia,’ 2015.