Letters from Baghdad is an intriguing new documentary film about Gertrude Bell, the English adventurer and evidently self taught cartographer who literally drew the borders of modern Iraq. Her industrialist father’s wealth freed her to pursue a lifelong fascination with the Mideast. Bell’s decades of exploration led to her moniker as the female Lawrence of Arabia, with whom she was a frenemy. It also led to her collaboration with Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill at the 1921 Cairo Conference, where the Mideast’s current tenuous boundaries were crafted, for good or ill.
Bell was fluent in Arabic and Persian, among other languages, and under suspicious Ottomon eyes she ceaselessly traversed the deserts of Arabia before WWI, becoming intimately familiar with the region’s politics, geography and personalities. She chronicled her adventures with letters and photos that adorn this film. As an unashamed clotheshorse, she travelled heavy, with a train of camels, herself always dressed and accoutred in the style befitting a woman of her social standing. She drank tea with veiled Arab women while winning the confidence of their husbands, whose alliance the Allies would soon need against the Turks and Central Powers. Bell was perhaps the era’s supreme expert on Arab tribal societies, whose culture and intrigues captivated her imagination.
Loyal to her own land and sovereign, Bell was also an enthusiast for Arab self-determination, and she sought to mitigate the colonial enterprise of dividing post-Ottoman Arabia between the British and French empires or spheres. Like Lawrence, she successfully advocated for Hashemite monarchies in both newly created Jordan and Iraq. Establishing herself in Baghdad, she was a chief counselor to King Faisal, who realized his debt to her for his crown. With her tireless energy and discipline, she also helped found Baghdad’s library and its archaeological museum, the latter of which was infamously looted in the chaos after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in the 2003 U.S. led invasion.
Bell was difficult, arrogant, diffident, brilliant, competent and fearless. Churchill boasted later that he had with a pen stroke created Jordan on a Sunday afternoon in Cairo. He also commonly gets credit or blame for Iraq, when Bell is actually central to its story. Problems of today, in the Mideast and elsewhere, are routinely faulted on European colonialism and its arbitrary borders. But Bell was not clueless when she put Iraq to paper. Somebody had to, and she was likely more qualified than any other. In the film she’s quoted explaining her belief that the Sunni minority, led by King Faisal, must be included in Iraq and elevated to power to prevent an aggressive Shiite theocracy.
The monarchy Bell helped emplace in Iraq lasted four decades, until Faisal’s grandson, when it was viciously overthrown in 1958 with the royal family’s mass murder by precursors to the Baathists whom Saddam would later lead. Modern Iraq has now endured nearly one century. Will it long survive, with the borders Bell penned? Is she to blame for Iraq’s almost endlessly violent instability? Was the U.S. overthrow of Saddam and subsequent attempt to impose a democratic republic an unfortunate extension of untenable Western imposition?
Americans are especially habituated to locating in one person or event the supposed cause for all subsequent problems or calamities. If only there had never been an Iraq War! If only the British had never created Iraq! For Americans, there must have always been a Garden of Eden, a fruit tree, a Satan, a bite of the fruit, and a calamitous fall.
But more typically there are impossibly complex situations in which the decision makers at hand strive to craft the least destructive solution aspiring for a sustainable order for as long as possible. The nation and monarchy Bell created out of sects, tribes, villages and desert that had endured countless conquests by assorted empires across millennia was likely the best that could be cobbled together at the time. Certainly Iraq’s benign monarchy, like all Mideast and Near-east monarchies, was preferable to subsequent tyrannies. Critics of British colonialists like Bell, and of the U.S. overthrow of Saddam, years later loudly attach blame but rarely suggest plausible alternatives had they been the decision makers.
The American propensity to project the narrative of a corrupted Eden onto countless political imbroglios of course is based on the original Bible story of humanity’s fall from grace. If that story is true, then all human endeavors, political and otherwise, are riddled with sin, tragedy and frailty. There’s never a permanent solution, just transitory ones that at best endure for a season or two, until the next upheaval.
Bell, who tragically died in middle age from a sleeping pill overdose, knew history and fallen humanity too well to have imagined the fragile nation she created had a long, smooth path forward. She tried, and succeeded for a while. Often such temporary, partial success is the best for which to hope and strive.