If you think of those early years of Arab nationalism and middle-east peace settlements, you might think of Sykes/Piquot, possibly of Lawrence and his disillusion when wartime promises to Arab leaders were disavowed after the war.
Before tonight though, I wouldn’t have thought of Gertrude Bell.
I knew she was around the Middle East at the time, but in my mind I had her down as one of that tribe of English gentlewomen, dressed improbably in full Edwardian splendour, who spent their lives in foreign parts, writing the occasional travel book.
Yet Bell was a much more significant figure than that. She was a true adventurer, exploring parts of the Arab world where almost no European had been before. She became expert in language, customs and tribal relations before the first world war and was then able to offer insights and strategic advice to soldiers and statesmen both while the fighting was going on and through the post war settlements.
She was Al-Khatun – the woman who advises the ruler. She was pretty much the architect of the new country of Iraq, fighting for the right of Arabs to govern the new state.
Her story is told vividly in a recent documentary C and I watched last night, called Letters From Baghdad. Based on letters and reports, some of them secret, it revealed a clever, warm and passionate woman who was able to face down so much official (and male) resistance to the very idea of a woman playing any sort of role in politics. The mix of modern and archive footage managed to give a real immediacy to the story. Here’s the trailer:
The credits are fascinating too – the film has clearly been funded and made on a very different model to most. Lists of supporters – almost all of them women – scroll past and, if you go to the film’s website, you can see that it is the first fruit of a project to make different a sort of film. Worth exploring in its own right.
The website is here.