Queen of the Desert

Gertrude Bell: the spy you have never heard of

I admit that, before watching Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, I had not heard of Gertrude Bell. Considering Bell’s influence in shaping the political landscape of the Middle East in the early twentieth century, combined with the fact that I am studying towards a university degree in politics and economics, this is an embarrassing confession. Alleviated slightly however, by the fact that, strangely, Bell’s fame does not transcend the realms of the academic circles.

Brimming with beautiful images of sand dunes, Queen of the Desert (2015) trades an in-depth account of Bell’s significant work in the Middle East for the atmospheric portrayal of a soft-centred romance. While serving as an example of beautiful cinematography, Herzog’s film merely grazes the surface of Bell’s fascinating career as a diplomat and political intelligence officer of the British Government.

Characterised as a ‘female Lawrence of Arabia’ by scholars, Gertrude Bell is not a widely known figure. Her contemporary on the other hand, T.E. Lawrence, has been posthumously propelled into the mainstream, partly a result of the highly acclaimed film Lawrence of Arabia (1962). On a quest to address her lack of widespread recognition, I decided to delve deeper into her multi-faceted professional life as an explorer, writer, archaeologist and diplomat.

Born in 1868, in County Durham, North East England, Gertrude Bell was offered an education of the highest quality, proceeding to graduate from Oxford with a first-class degree in Modern History. She was the first woman to do so. However, Bell’s academic prowess was not celebrated in Victorian England. Soon after graduating, she was cautioned, by her stepmother, to avoid scaring potential suitors with her intelligence. This seemed to have the adverse effect, increasing Bell’s appetite for learning. Fluent in no less than four languages, she immersed herself in the study of Farsi after visiting Tehran in 1892. The wealth of her family, fortified by her father’s diplomatic connections facilitated Bell’s travels, giving her the opportunity to embark on voyages beyond Europe.

Learning Farsi allowed Bell to gain an understanding of Bedouin culture, beyond the confines of history books. Captivated by the desert and its inhabitants, she did not hesitate to adopt their lifestyle, travelling deep into the desert, alongside her trusted servant Fattuh. Bell’s diary entries reflect her fondness for the desert. She felt more at home in the dunes than in her manor in England.

By the outbreak of World War I, Bell had become the Westerner with the highest level of knowledge about tribal politics, Bedouin genealogies and potential heirs. Acknowledging her expertise in the area, Winston Churchill appointed Bell as Oriental Secretary in 1917. Her role included conducting espionage on behalf of the British government, in order to advance the Empire’s interests in the area. Although initially a colonialist, through her travels, Bell had become a supporter of Arab self-rule, which influenced her when delineating Iraq’s borders in the early 1920s.
A defining characteristic of her personality was her fearless nature. Known for the phrase ‘English women are never afraid’, Bell was revered in British diplomatic circles for her dynamic character. However, the line distinguishing bravery from recklessness is rarely drawn clearly. As a result, the former can quickly morph into the latter. This was the case when Bell, a budding mountaineer, attempted in 1902 to conquer the peak of the unclimbed north-east face of the Finsteraarhorn, in the Alps. Her daring nature and direct manner, paired with her expansive knowledge of Arab tribal relations, earned Bell the respect of even the most formidable tribes, such as the Beni-Sakhr tribe in Jordan. Evidencing this is the fact that she was permitted to abstain from wearing a veil, a gesture unheard of in the Middle East.

During her travels in the Middle East, Bell was treated with the utmost respect by the locals. Addressed as ‘El Khatoun’, she was known as ‘the Lady of the Court’. To this day, Bell is remembered fondly in the Middle East, as the foreigner with the best understanding of the Arab people.

A cloud of mystery enshrouds her death, as it is unknown whether the overdose of sleeping pills which ended Bell’s life was accidental or intended.

The reality that Bell is less known than her male counterpart, T.E. Lawrence, despite doing the same type of work in the Middle East, remains a mystery. In fact, Bell held a higher post than T.E. Lawrence in the British diplomatic team appointed to deal with the aftermath of the Fall of Baghdad in 1917. However, he remains the symbol of British-Arab relations, and by extension, the link connecting the West to the Middle East.

This difference in the posthumous recognition received by the two diplomats could be viewed as a result of gender disparity. Support for this viewpoint is found in the differences between the films portraying their lives, Lawrence of Arabia and Queen of the Desert. Whereas Lawrence of Arabia focuses on the importance of T.E Lawrence’s role as a mediator between the British Empire and the Middle East delegation in the Middle East, Queen of the Desert devotes a disproportionately large amount of screen time to Bell’s love life compared to the screen time depicting her diplomatic work in the Middle East.

Acknowledging that this is most likely an attempt by the screenwriter to render the film more audience friendly, I think that the film would still have been sufficiently interesting to attract viewers without the heavy focus on Bell’s personal life. From that observation, it is easy to conclude that this difference in the portrayal of the two diplomats classifies as an instance of gender bias.

However, it should be noted that Bell’s personal life was highly unusual for a woman of her time. Defying society’s expectations of marrying and having children would surely not have been an easy feat in Victorian England. Her choice to earn a university degree and then spend her days travelling abroad, exploring different cultures and religions, conveys Bell’s inclination to challenge societal norms. In this sense the film’s depiction of her personal life serves to highlight Bell’s accomplishments, by giving viewers insight into her personality. This is achieved through the depiction of her romantic relationships.

A turning point in Queen of the Desert is the portrayal of Bell enduring the tragic loss of the love of her life. As a means of dealing with the unbearable heartache, Bell summons the remnants of her inner strength to embark on her most dangerous journey; a venture into the Ha’il region in central Arabia, in 1913. In this sense, the portrayal of the coping mechanism employed by Bell in her personal life emphasizes her resilience and fearless nature. The cultivation of these two traits enabled Bell to have such an exhilarating career, from befriending formidable sheikhs to being the only woman appointed to political office in the Arab Bureau.

The topic of gender bias is still relevant in today’s world, yet elicits weary eyerolls the instance it is brought up in a conversation. It is a difficult topic to broach and the film’s seemingly earnest attempts at portraying Bell as a symbol of female empowerment are sabotaged by the script’s intense focus on her love life. This creative choice defines such a multi-faceted woman mainly through her relationships with men, in effect reducing Bell to her choice in men.

In the end, the numerous accomplishments of Gertrude Bell, brought to fruition through her determination and resilience, represent the professional success of a woman living in a man’s world.

Image credit: wikipedia.org

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Ilia Maniki

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