A recent and much-celebrated documentary, Letters from Baghdad, produced by Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl, depicts an essential figure from World War I and its aftermath: an explorer, archaeologist, mountain climber, and an intelligence officer for the British who became a modern nation-builder in the Middle East.
She was a woman whose influence would affect the region for the next 100 years—some would blame her in part for what’s been called “the peace to end all peace” after the Great War—but she should have been listened to more.
Gertrude Lowthian Bell’s white papers, maps, and notes on the Arab tribes provided the British Empire’s Cairo Office with some of its most important intelligence on the region. They enabled, for instance, T.E. Lawrence (more popularly known by most as Lawrence of Arabia) to better lead what was called The Arab Revolt against the German-allied Turks.
“We have had great talks and made vast schemes for the government of the universe,” Bell wrote affectionately after one meeting with Lawrence at the height of the war.
Her only desire: that her colleagues and commanders disregard the novelty of her presence as a woman and deal solely with the substantive points in her reports, those vital to the construction of post-Ottoman-Empire Iraq.
“There are times when one gets into a sort of impasse, a helpless feeling that there’s so much to be pulled straight in human affairs and so little pulling power,” she wrote in 1916 from the sweltering port of Basrah. (“One’s bath water, drawn from a tank on the roof, [is] never under 100 except in the early morning. But it doesn’t steam—the air’s hotter.”)
Bell often was frustrated. “I’ve been busy with a long memorandum about the whole of our central Arabian relations, which I’ve just finished,” she wrote to her stepmother in the dreary, grimy Basrah winter of 1916. “It will now go to all the High and Mighty in every part. One can’t do much more than sit and record if one is of my sex, devil take it; [but] one can get things recorded in the right way and that means, I hope, that unconsciously people will judge events as you think they ought to be judged. But it’s… very small change I feel at times.”
Today and, really, ever since Iraq nation-building was forced into the American consciousness by the U.S.-led invasion and occupation in 2003, Bell has been rediscovered as the dynamic and influential woman she was. Historians and biographers have written reams about her, and in one recent feature film, Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, Bell was portrayed by Hollywood star Nicole Kidman.
But most of these works have done exactly what Bell would have despised: They have missed the most important points she sought to make. They have been, as she would say, “small change.”
Whatever her frustrations, the goal of her life and her work was not to be heralded as a gender paradigm, whether forgotten, remembered, or rediscovered. Her significance should always have been placed squarely on the wisdom she was hell-bent on trying to impart to her contemporaries, which should have been heeded in the century since, but has been summarily ignored—or re-learned only after great pain, then forgotten again, as in U.S.-occupied Iraq.
For Bell, the issue at the heart of it all would be the West’s refusal to understand the region in which it immersed itself so forcefully. And the foundation of this understanding had to be recognition of the tribal reality upon which the Middle East had been based for millennia.
Bell’s warning: One cannot supplant thousands of years of tribal context, structure, and history without extreme difficulty, if not brutal blowback. It is not the job of those in the land one is occupying to adopt Western values; they have values of their own that existed long before such Western developments as the schism between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the Crusades, the Magna Carta, the Reformation, or even the Treaty of Westphalia, establishing the notion of state sovereignty.
She also noted that the Arab world had just been occupied for centuries by the Ottomans who, defeated in WWI, were to be replaced by the West as an empire of a different sort—one for which king-making and nation-building were simply meant to serve the Europeans’ (and later the Americans’) vast, unapologetic, and unmitigated political and economic self-interest.
And so, given Bell’s adamant perspective, what exactly was the Arab tribal character she wanted the British government to understand?
This is something about which both Bell and T.E. Lawrence waxed rhapsodic; both were extremely taken by what they deemed to be the inherent but fascinating contradictions of what they considered the Orient.
“For the ordinary Arab the hearth was a university, about which their world passed and where they heard the best talk, the news of their tribe, its poems, histories, love tales, lawsuits, and bargainings,” wrote Lawrence. “The Arab leaders showed a completeness of instinct, a reliance upon intuition, the unperceived foreknown, which left our centrifugal minds gasping.”
Arabia, for both Bell and Lawrence, was a land of extremes. The brutality of the landscape—in its most basic form, the desert—a veritable wasteland in which one lived among the harshest possible elements, with conditions that could change in a moment, had an indelible impact on the Arab character.
Even hellish vistas of desert sand and sun-blackened rock for endless miles could suddenly reveal an oasis. The setting created both an impenetrability in the tribal view of an outsider, while at the same time, if asked, one would be shown the most unexpected and genuine hospitality.
In a culture formed at its foundation from the harshest of conditions, truth, character, and integrity were not just niceties, they were necessities for basic survival. And yet, at the same time, the blood-feuds, the warring clans, and other brutal realities were just as present.
It was this latter quality that allowed the British, among others in the West, to blithely determine that they were dealing with savages inferior in standing and lacking in basic education, who seemed, in their clouded vision, to consider “modernity” anathema. Indeed, for Europeans and Americans, the very term “tribal” is pejorative—a description of extended family relations to lump alongside “clan” and “mafia,” “nepotism” and “corruption.”
This is something with which Bell took distinct issue. The tribes would adopt various aspects of modernity if it fit within the tribal context. They weren’t about to give up that which provided the very foundation of their identity, and that was something anyone working among them needed to understand.
This was a different culture to which most Westerners gave no respect despite its longevity and brilliance. Few knew or cared that the tribal societies of what is now the Middle East and North Africa were responsible for some of the most profound scientific, mathematical, literary, and cultural works ever known, in addition to fostering some of the greatest centers of learning while Europe was in the throes of “the Dark Ages.” Among those centers was Baghdad, where Bell would eventually make her home, and where she died in 1926.
What the British and the West also did not understand was the long history of wariness toward outsiders, until such outsiders proved themselves to be friends—for experience can be a deadly abecedary. Words meant nothing unless backed up by action—which demonstrated character. And those in and from the desert and its environs had a long memory.
Both Bell and Lawrence realized that this was one area in which the British command during WWI—and its civilian superiors in government—were inherently lacking. Self-interest would supersede any promises made, and this would be especially problematic when it came to the betrayal of promises for Arab independence following the defeat of the Ottomans.
Lawrence takes this to an appropriate level of self-abnegation: “We had surrendered, not body alone, but soul to the overmastering greed of victory. By our own act we were drained of morality, of volition, of responsibility, like dead leaves in the wind.”
Bell, while agreeing this was indeed true of her British superiors, nevertheless refused to leave the matter in defeat, instead forging ahead, as was her character, to prevail by giving at least one independent Arab state the chance to be created, and, hopefully, survive.
It was her efforts that created the boundaries drawn to create the state of Iraq, to be led by Prince Faisal (who also knew Lawrence, but preferred Bell for her incapacity to tell anything but the truth instead of basking, as Lawrence often did, in self-promotion).
Faisal, from the Hijaz with its holy cities of Mecca and Medina, would become the new Kingdom of Iraq’s monarch, satisfying at the time both Sunni and Shia contingents because Faisal and his brothers, the other Hashemite princes, claimed direct descendance from the Prophet Mohammed. (Jordan’s King Abdullah still does, and for a time so did Saddam Hussein, but no one believed him.)
Much has been leveled at Bell for her singular role in drawing the boundaries of the post-WWI Middle East; she was the one who knew the dialects, tribes, elders, histories, and customs of nearly every tribal faction from Persia to the Levant. Given tribal reality, and often competing claims and distinct distrusts and hatreds among them, it was an impossible task. But she knew that if she didn’t draw such boundaries and exert her influence, someone else with considerably less knowledge and concern would—with even more calamitous results.
It was thankless in terms of posterity; but those tribes at the time, and the new King Faisal, knew it was her character that was speaking for them, doing her damnedest despite the inherent challenges and future recriminations. Lawrence had not lived up to his promises, but Bell had.
A caricature and bit of doggerel by one of her British superiors summed up their grudging admiration:
From Trebizond to Tripolis
She rolls the Pashas flat
And tells them what to think of this
And what to think of that.
In point of fact, there was no one more respected than Bell as a Westerner in the Middle East; at her death in Baghdad in 1926, when she had taken up collecting and organizing antiquities for the new Iraqi national museum to better commemorate the region’s history, the whole country, and especially those who knew her best among the tribes, mourned.
And so, what of today, and the voices who seem to have rediscovered some of these same truths of the region?
From David Ronfeldt’s 2006 paper for RAND, “Tribes: The First and Forever Form” (PDF) to Jim Gant, a former Green Beret writing about his experiences in Afghanistan in One Tribe at a Time to a recent work on countering the so-called Islamic State by Jack Murphy, Brandon Webb, and Peter Nealen of SOFREP.com, Bell’s wisdom has been reiterated by those with current experience among the tribal societies where the United States has gone to war.
The British scholar and linguist Emma Sky, a civilian adviser to American generals in Iraq during and after “the surge” by U.S. forces a decade ago—when the embrace of many tribal leaders proved a key to the temporary pacification of the country—often found herself compared to Gertrude Bell.
The consensus: From Bell’s time, many patterns remain the same in terms of both the Western motivations for involvement, and the tribal reaction to what is deemed to be Western ignorance, lack of respect, and untrustworthiness.
There are differences of course. The “hearth” is no longer the university; the oasis has been replaced by the air-conditioned shopping mall. The issue of tribalism has become more nuanced as Arab societies have grown bigger and richer and their resources ever more important to the West.
But as Miriam Cooke wrote in her 2013 study, Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf, “the tribal was repressed in the middle of the 20th century because oil imperialists and their local agents considered it a hindrance to modernization, but the tribal is making a comeback in the 21st century,” and as it does so it “signals racial privilege, social status, and exclusive entitlement to a share in national profits.” From the way they dress to the way they talk, Gulf Arabs differentiate and distinguish themselves from the hired laborers they import from around the world.
“Nation building on tribal territories has turned tribe into race into nation,” writes Cooke. “Birthright, genetics, and consanguinity—all provide the crucial building blocks…”
Bell would understand. She was offering sound advice for a reality she knew and could anticipate becoming even more volatile with time. Had anyone actually listened, the last 100 years of history might have turned out differently.
Instead, we see the aftereffects in the news every day: the Wahhabi House of Saud vs. Houthis in Yemen, and the increasingly fraught push-pull relationship with the ruling family of Qatar—the Al Saud trying to put the Al Thani in their place. The strongmen of Iraq and Syria take advantage of tribal and sectarian conflict and we see the continued shifting of strategic alliances to better shore up against the interests of the West. Islamists take advantage of the chaos and conflict, including continued Western hubris and ignorance of the tribal and cultural landscape, for their own ends.
Perhaps this is yet another lesson worth learning: Those who know, know for a reason; information is there if one is willing to find it and be open to heeding the wisdom that it offers. But that indeed is a choice.
—with additional reporting by Christopher Dickey