The Arab of Mesopotamia

by Gertrude Bell, Introduction by Paul Rich

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One very determined woman incontestably held her own and more with the great figures of the Middle East in the early twentieth century. That was Gertrude Bell. Highly strung, petulant, aggressive, and gossipy, she occasionally provided tea but rarely sympathy to the extraordinary group of British imperial administrators whose adventures centered on Basra at the head of the Gulf in 1914–1916. Not enough has been made of the Barra cabal as a group rather than individuals. Nor have the machinations of the ‘Basra gang’ had the attention given to figures such as Lawrence of Arabia and General Allenby, individuals who when all is said and done were not deeply involved in Gulf and Iraqi affairs.

The Arab of Mesopotamia is a collection of once confidential briefing papers that Bell helped to produce for British army officers new to the Mesopotamian theater, published in Basra by a military printer. The tone confirms views that Gertrude Bell and her colleagues were interested in the possibility of playing on the world stage and wanted quiet in the shaikhdoms while they pursued notions of a Middle East empire that would rival the Indian empire. Heady plans were made for an Imperial service that would include Arabia, Iraq, the Trans-Jordan, and even the Sudan. While exiting, this ‘mega outlook’ was opposed to Arab concerns.

arabThe apotheosis for Bell was reached in 1921 when Winston Churchill called a famous meet- ing of forty Middle East experts in Cairo. The conference photography shows her as the lone woman. Secreted in the Semiramis Hotel, she and the other ‘forty thieves’ laid out policies whose failures (and Lawrence’s disillusionment) are well known.

Therein lies the tragedy of her life, perhaps more of a tragedy that than of Lawrence. Almost none of the undertakings to the Arabs to which she was an enthusiastic participant were realized. There were a number of these promises, although they were less publicized than those made in the famous McMahon letters. For example, the assurances at the 1916 durbar at Kuwait were equally dishonored: the shaikh of Kuwait received a CSI and Ibn Saud got the KCIE along with pledges that with the defeat of the Turks: “The dream of Arab unity … has been brought nearer fulfillment than dreams are wont to come, but the role of presiding genius has been recast.”

Instead of an Arabian viceregality that would justify the wonderful title of ‘Viceroys of the Gulf,’ or of a ‘final’ resolution of the region’s conflicts, British Imperial administration be- tween the world wars became a long and unsatisfactory interlude in which little was accomplished. Hobson remarks in Imperialism about the use of ‘masked worlds’ and an Imperial Genius for inconsistency: “Most of the men who have misled … have first been obliged to mislead themselves.” This was the case with Gertrude Bell, who committed suicide in 1926. After she and her friends departed the scene, the air went out if the balloon, and the ‘countervailing disadvantages’ of being misled became apparent to the Arabs. This little-known book is one key to heady days at Basra when the Middle East empire seemed likely.