Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Lady of Iraq

From the Jerusalem Post:
T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia, as he is more commonly known – may have hogged the limelight in early twentieth-century Britain as a swashbuckling campaigner in the deserts of Arabia. But his associate and contemporary, Gertrude Bell, was no slouch on matters Middle East either. Bell was a bona fide trailblazer, a woman of towering intellect and ability whose achievements in the Arab region led many to call her the “uncrowned queen of Iraq” following her involvement in the country’s uncertain beginnings as its architect and creator.

Aslender woman with red hair and piercing green eyes, Bell, who died 85 years ago last month, is today perceived as a figure who, far from accepting the traditional gender roles that made her era of post-Victorian England a distinctly male domain, pursued a life away from the bonds of marriage and the responsibilities of motherhood. Yet, when her immersion in the cut and thrust of Middle East realpolitik offered up the chance to build a stable and unified nation state, Bell exposed herself to an immense – some say, insurmountable – undertaking, one that continues to haunt the Middle East to this very day.

However, it was her 1916 appointment as a political officer in Basra, in southern Iraq, that thrust her into the political and diplomatic limelight. There, in the ancient land of Mesopotamia, she won the affection of Arab statesmen, founded a national museum and had significant input into the design and constitution of the new Iraq – established under a British mandate in 1920 from the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. It was there, a decade after she arrived, that she died quite suddenly after overdosing on sleeping pills, either by accident or by design.

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