Most people have heard of Lawrence of Arabia, but not too many have heard of his female counterpart! One of his contemporaries was a woman named Gertrude Bell. Gertrude Bell was born in 1868 and grew up in a wealthy family in England. Unlike other girls in her time period, she had more intellectual interests, such as archaeology, and world travel. Her father was involved in British politics and international matters and may have influenced Bell greatly in her interests in world travel. She was very precocious, and graduated from Oxford as a history major and earned a first class honors degree in only two years at 17! (Imagine a modern 17 year old girl doing the same today!) Bell never married or had children, instead devoting her life to her passion. After Oxford, she traveled with her uncle to Persia, and wrote about it and later went to other parts of the middle east. She also had a knack for languages, and learned Arabic, German, French, Persian, Italian, and Turkish! Bell chronicled her exploits in a book called “Syria: The Desert and the Sown” In 1907, opening up the middle east to the western world.
Most surprisingly however, is that she landed a position with British intelligence after WWI due to her extensive travels. The middle east was in much turmoil after WWI and Bell was useful in gathering intelligence into the landscape and peoples. Gertrude Bell and Lawrence of Arabia actually worked together at one point! If that wasn’t extraordinary enough, Gertrude Bell even played a large role in the founding of modern day Iraq! Bell participated in the Cairo conference of 1921, to help create the state of Iraq, and she and Lawrence of Arabia suggested Faisal bin Hussein to be Iraq’s leader. They said that Faisal would be respected by all groups in the region, and his diplomatic skills would do good. Not only did Bell recommend Faisal, she even advised him and supervised selections for positions in his cabinet! She then continued to help with the administration of Iraq.
In later life, her passion for archaeology led her to create the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, to preserve the ancient history of the region. Bell died in 1926, discovered dead having an overdose of sleeping pills. Many believe it could have been an accident, rather than suicide, as she told her maid to wake her up. She died at the early age of 57. Ill health may have also contributed to her death. Overall, in those 57 years though, she accomplished more than most people on earth would in a hundred! Most women in history are often overrated and played up, to make a politically correct statement, but Bell held her own as a truly exceptional woman, in a time when women did not have the opportunities of today. Indeed, she has done more then most men of her time, and women of ours! Her legacy still lives on, and many Iraqis still know the name “miss Bell”. She truly is an equal among the great figures in history.
Recently, due to more recent events in Iraq and the middle east, interest in her has flared and people now criticize her creation of Iraq, saying it is in just as much conflict as it started, and the government she built has degraded. Bringing her into the spotlight, a movie was made about her called “Queen of The Desert”, chronicling her travels in the middle east. However, I won’t go into a full review, as the movie is long and in some parts tedious, but here are some critiques:
Firstly, the movie did show Bell’s intellect, but it was more centered on the love drama then her actual works. Bell was a likable character and you did see she was intelligent and independent, but the love story was a bit too overshadowing. Secondly, some scenes weren’t clear with what was going on. The plot seemed to not be as coherent as I’d like, jumping from one scene to another. Also, one of my biggest criticisms, was it showed Bell speaking Arabic to locals, but had no subtitles, so we couldn’t understand what she was saying, only adding confusion! In addition, I think they didn’t show her speaking those different languages she knew enough, she should have been given more scenes interacting with the locals using Arabic. It would help showcase her knowledge of the people. The film showed us some of her intellect, but I thought they should have played it up more than make her into a socialite. Also, in one scene, it takes away from Bell’s character, as she actually stole her friend’s beau when she knew he meant so much to her friend. I thought that was rather rude and unkind. Lastly, the plot did chronicle some of her exploits, but wasn’t a linear narrative, and added to some confusion in between. Overall, nothing really to write home about, a mediocre movie, but I do give them credit for tackling such a unique subject! I wish I could have made an animated kids version, maybe, “The Adventures of Gertrude Bell”!