Tales from the Queen of the Desert by Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell was a pioneering and fascinating woman, very much ahead of her time. As Wikipedia tells us: Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE (14 July 1868 – 12 July 1926) was an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, archaeologist and spy who explored, mapped, and became highly influential to British imperial policy-making due to her skill and contacts, built up through extensive travels in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia. Along with T. E. Lawrence, Bell helped establish the Hashemite dynasties in what is today Jordan as well as in Iraq.

She played a major role in establishing and helping administer the modern state of Iraq, utilising her unique perspective from her travels and relations with tribal leaders throughout the Middle East. During her lifetime she was highly esteemed and trusted by British officials and given an immense amount of power for a woman at the time. She has been described as “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection”.

Yup – that’s pretty inspirational! Her books are still in print today and she turns up regularly in anthologies of travel writing. And the full Wikipedia entry makes fascinating reading; here was a woman not afraid to go out into the world and explore it, trying to change it for the better.

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“Tales from the Queen of the Desert” collects extracts from two of Bell’s works, “Persia” and “Syria: The Desert and the Sown”, and it’s been published to coincide with a planned movie of Bell’s life starring Nicole Kidman. As I haven’t read the originals, I can’t give any info on what’s been edited or whether this edition improves on reading the full books. However, what I can say is that it’s absorbing stuff!

With the impression of the deserted western roads still fresh in your memory, the appearance of the bazaars and of this eastern gate will fill you with surprise. Tehran, which from the west looked almost like a city of the dead, cut from all intercourse with the outer world, is alive after all and in eager relationship with a world of its own. Here in the dust and the sunshine is an epitome of the living East, and, standing unnoticed in such a doorway, you will admit that you have not travelled in vain. But as the wonderful procession of people files past you, too intent upon their own affairs to give you more
than a contemptuous glance, you will realize what a gulf lies between you. The East looks to itself; it knows nothing of the greater world of which you are a citizen, asks nothing of you and of your civilization.

Bell was a seasoned traveller and a great lover of antiquities and archaeology and that shines through in her prose. She’s keen to discover new and uncharted sites, unflustered by the difficulties of travel and seems to rise to meet any challenge unbowed. Whether dining with a notable host in soaking wet clothes, travelling half the length of a country without a passport or negotiating the delicacies of Arab politics, nothing flummoxes her. Although it’s not revealed by this book, she had quite a hand in the formation of the modern Arab countries as the Wikipedia article reveals, and the peoples of the countries she travelled through seem to hold her in great esteem.

I have to admit that I find Eastern politics frankly baffling and I did struggle a little here, not knowing the background in detail. Much of the problems seem to stem from tribal and religious feuds and dissent which continue to today, and it’s a great shame that some kind of peace and tolerance has not been found amongst races and creeds. Bell observes the East with a cool Western gaze and is quick to define particular races by particular characteristics, something we might not do so rapidly nowadays.

And these gardens, also with their tall trees and peaceful tanks, are subject to the unexpected vicissitudes of Eastern fortune. The minister falls into disgrace, the rich merchant is ruined by the exactions of his sovereign ; the stream is turned off, the water ceases to flow into the tanks and to leap in the fountains, the trees die, the flowers wither, the walls crumble into unheeded decay, and in a few years the tiny paradise has been swept forgotten from the face of the earth, and the conquering desert spreads its dust and ashes once more over it all.

However, where the book comes alive is with its travel reportage. Bell’s writing is wonderful, with luminous descriptions of landscape and desert. It’s clear she adored the country, loving the freedom of travel, and revelling in the relative lack of restriction compared with Victorian and Edwardian society. What’s fascinating also is seeing the difference between the tribal attitudes to woman and that accorded to her, as a Christian Englishwoman, given much more liberty that the females in the harem.

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It’s the imagery I return to, the wonderful conjuring up of the strange terrain and the mystical ruins she passes through, recording many for posterity before the locals dismantle them without ceremony to build their own dwellings. I got to the end of this book and suddenly felt a loss, only then realising quite how absorbed in Bell’s life and travels I’d become.

To wake in that desert dawn was like waking in the heart of an opal. The mists lifting their heads out of the hollows, the dews floating in ghostly wreaths from the black tents, were shot through first with the faint glories of the eastern sky and then with the strong yellow rays of the risen sun. I sent a silver and purple kerchief to Fellah ul ‘Isa, “for the little son ” who had played solemnly about the hearth, took grateful leave of Namrud, drank a parting cup of coffee, and, the old sheikh holding my stirrup, mounted and rode away with Gablan. We climbed the Jebel el ‘Alya and crossed the wide summit of the range ; the landscape was akin to that of our own English border country but bigger, the sweeping curves more generous, the distances further away. The glorious cold air intoxicated every sense and set the blood throbbing to my mind.

Bell quotes an Arab poem which ends with the words “And the best companion for all time is a book.” I have to concur with that, because this book was a wonderful companion and allowed me to spend some time alongside Gertrude Bell during her travels. If you’re interested in pioneering women, this is definitely a good place to start – and I really want to explore more of her life and work!

(Review copy kindly provided by Hesperus Press, for which many thanks!)

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