Rosemary O’Brien, ed. Gertrude Bell: The Arabian Diaries, 1913-1914 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000).

Nuha al-Radi, Baghdad Diaries (London: Saqi Books, 1998).

Paul Rich, ed. Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Gertrude Bell’s The Arab of Mesopotamia (Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press, 2001).

Since the 1991 Gulf war, a cottage industry publishing little-known or out-of-print British writings about Iraq has developed. Two collections of writings by Gertrude Bell, a long-time member of Britain’s Arab Bureau in Iraq, stand out, because they bring into focus the often uncritical contemporary fascination with the imperial cultural sensibility toward the modern Middle East.

An elegantly printed volume titled Gertrude Bell: The Arabian Diaries, edited and introduced by Rosemary O’Brien, presents two versions of Bell’s travel diary from November 1913 until May 1914, when she journeyed south from Damascus into parts of northern Arabia and then north to Baghdad and back to Damascus via Palmyra. The first version, the “centerpiece” of the volume, consists of correspondence written to her lover Charles Doughty-Wylie, nephew of Charles Doughty, author of Arabia Deserta. In her introduction, O’Brien makes Bell’s relationship with Doughty-Wylie as important as Bell’s representation of her desert sojourn. She presents Bell as an intrepid woman traveler, inspired in part by a masculine ideal of Edwardian courage and martial valor associated with Doughty-Wylie, who met his end at Gallipoli in 1915. Consequently, the edited volume privileges a narrative that expresses Bell’s attachment to a distant lover whose absence is replaced by the mystical allure of the desert. “[Bell] wanted a commitment,” O’Brien notes. “[Doughty-Wylie] could not give it. Thus they reached an impasse that neither was able to resolve…. There would be consolation in the desert.” O’Brien herself is swept away by the romance of Bell’s inexplicable wanderings among the Bedouin tribes.

This epistolary version of the diary is based on Bell’s revisions and elaborations of her more cryptic entries, included in an appendix. Bell’s most revealing observations, which concern the cultures and landscapes of the desert, possess a pseudo-ethnographic quality that O’Brien has reinforced by illustrating the text with Bell’s photographs. Here O’Brien presents Bell as the modern explorer of hostile uncharted lands, an image she magnifies in her comments about Bell’s relations with women:

Not surprisingly, given her contrary nature, she joined the anti-suffragette campaign in England. In Arabia, however, she lingered in the Bedouin harems, those special areas set aside for females. Sensing a sympathetic ear, the women confided in her the difficulties of their existence. They lived constantly on the move. They ate meager diets of dates and milk (and occasionally starved during harsh winters). Their responsibilities included the rugged tasks of setting up and striking the tents, filling the water skins, and preparing food. They gathered camel dung for fires, and often bore the agonies of pain of mothers whose children die of disease and cold.

O’Brien uses Bell to portray Bedouin women as pathetic victims of their conditions. If one looks elsewhere in Bell’s diary, however, the Bedouin harem is depicted in an altogether different manner. On March 6, 1914, Bell wrote:

Next day word from the Amir’s mother, Mudi, inviting me to visit them for that evening. I went (riding solemnly through the silent moonlit streets of this strange place), and passed two hours taken straight from the Arabian Nights with the women of the palace. I imagine that there are few places left wherein you can see the unadulterated East in its habit as it has lived for centuries and centuries—of those few Hayyil is one. There they were, those women — wrapped in Indian brocades, hung with jewels, served by slaves and there was not one single thing about them which betrayed the base existence of Europe and Europeans — except me. I was the blot.

These two stock Western images of Arab women — pathetic beasts of burden and languorous harem beauties — are reiterated first by Bell and then again by O’Brien. At the general discursive level, these observations function to establish the absolute difference between Arabs and Westerners.

Although O’Brien stresses the romantic and ethnographic character of the diary, she recognizes another major thread concerning the political situation in the Arab zones under direct Ottoman authority and those areas on the Arab periphery of the fraying empire. After arriving in Baghdad on March 28, 1914, Bell wrote a long entry to Doughty-Wylie in which she claims:

I’m quite right in my impression of Iraq — I hear it on every side. The country is entirely out of hand, the reins of government were all dropped during the war (nor held very firmly before) the roads are not safe, trade unions decadent, the whole thing has gone to ruin. It is dreadful. And they all regret Nazim Pasha now, these people who hated him while he was here.

Despite the evident political content of the diary and Bell’s emerging role as a British imperial operative, O’Brien directs the reader to other matters — Bell’s unrequited love and the representation of Bedouin women. This editorial approach presents the diary as strictly a historical curiosity.

In contrast, Paul Rich’s facsimile edition of The Arab of Mesopotamia, published with the more exotic title Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers, directly addresses the political relevance of Bell’s writings for the present. At the end of his introduction, Rich suggests that “notwithstanding its apology for British intervention, Bell’s handbook might well be distributed to policymakers of the present era and read profitably by them.” It is unclear how Bell’s description of Iraq in 1914 could be of use to US officials in the 2000s. Surely Rich does not mean to suggest that the conditions in Iraq have changed little throughout the twentieth century?

Unlike The Arabian Diaries, this volume of Bell’s writing has little personal content. Written in 1916 as a manual for British soldiers serving in Iraq, Bell’s The Arab of Mesopotamia consists of a mixture of tribal histories, political analysis and speculation on the future of British rule. In his introduction, Rich positions Bell at the center of imperial policy on Iraq to credit her with developing a strategy that in part underwrote British rule in the region from the end of World War I until the late 1950s. Rich has no romantic illusions about her effectiveness as a policymaker: “the long-term consequences of her advice while serving as a confidant and adviser in Basra and Baghdad are more open to question than is her facility as a writer.” His interest in Bell stems, therefore, from her prolific production of texts — this particular piece “provides a convenient focus for considering the attitude of the unique cabal to which she belonged.”

Bell and the other Arabists who contributed to crafting British Middle East policy share a confidence in Britain’s ability to bring order to the chaos produced by Arab hostility to Ottoman rule. The tyranny of the Ottomans is set against the good works of the British. For example, she paraphrases a 1915 speech by Ibn Sa‘ud in which he ostensibly “pointed out that whereas the Ottoman Government had sought to dismember and weaken the Arab nation, British policy aimed at uniting and strengthening their leaders, and the Chief Political Officer [Percy Cox] as he listened to words which will be repeated and discussed round every camp fire, must have looked back on years of patient work in the Gulf and seen that they were good.”

The idea of a unified, nominally independent Arab nation under the tutelage of the British was held in common by Bell and T. E. Lawrence. Nevertheless, the post-World War I partition of the Arab provinces exposed the British lies that were used to secure Arab support. From Bell’s perspective, securing an alliance with the Bedouin was necessary to defeat the Ottoman military. Once victorious, she believed, Britain would successfully impose colonial “administration” in Iraq through the ostensible reconstruction of the country:

Not least among the elements of persuasion are the constructive works which have been undertaken, mainly for military purposes, along both rivers. Railway, road and dike have proved the word “government” has a new significance and already a comparison is drawn between the constructive energy of the British and the devastation which marked Ottoman rule. “The gradual progress of the railway,” says a recent report from a district on the Euphrates, “is having a wonderfully calming effect.” Perhaps more than anything the advent of the line has quieted the tribes.

The analogies between past British policies and present US policies are hard to miss: first, to promise independence from a despotic ruler, but to deliver a military occupation, and then, in the face of resistance, to rebuild rudimentary infrastructure whose primary function is aimed at facilitating the military occupation.

Unlike defenders of the US presence in Iraq, who never question the righteousness of US might, Bell has certain anxieties about British colonial rule. She even momentarily pursued a logic that might explain Arab opposition to the British presence: “True the Turks were bad masters, but who shall say that the English will in the end be better?” This instant of doubt passed quickly, however. “Baghdad lies in our hands as a trust and an opportunity, to grow, if we will, into a splendid example of modern Arab civilization,” she continued. Not unlike Bush administration rhetoric about transforming the Arab world, Bell articulates a civilizing mission molded to fit securely within the repressive embrace of the empire.

The rescue of Gertrude Bell from underneath T. E. Lawrence’s shadow in the 1990s makes one wonder if US Middle East policy is a cynical reiteration of the past. Anyone who reads carefully through the writings of Lawrence or Bell will be immediately struck by the similarities between the rhetoric of British imperialists during World War I and the language used to justify the US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003. Even if the historical analogies are not entirely convincing, the rediscovery of Bell’s writings during the sanctions decade highlights the ugly legacies of modern imperialism.

Nuha al-Radi’s Baghdad Diaries is perhaps the only contemporary Iraqi counterpoint to these writings. Al-Radi is an artist educated in Britain who returned to Baghdad to pursue her career. Her vivid personal account depicts life in Baghdad during Desert Storm and under the sanctions regime of the 1990s. The book is divided into three parts roughly corresponding with the 1991 Gulf war, the UN sanctions and finally her exile in Jordan and Lebanon. Al-Radi stresses the quotidian necessities that come to constitute her life as it is constrained by the suffocating effects of US-led war, sanctions and bombing. Her art, sculpture built from destroyed military hardware, evokes the complex relations of power that conditioned the life of Iraqis in the 1990s. She explained to a CNN correspondent:

“These particular sculptures are made of large coiled springs from lorries which I have painted to look like snakes; inside these coiled springs are a few stones painted to look like animals. These snakes symbolize the dictatorship.” I told her they swallow the people whole, not just our dictatorship but all of them, yours included. “In fact,” I added, “yours is the biggest of all because it has swallowed up the whole world.”

Al-Radi’s critique in sculpture suggests that the greater a government’s power, the greater its potential to perpetrate injustice. In addition to studying Bell’s representation of Iraq in the early twentieth century, US war planners and their apologists would have done well to read the artist’s portrait of the life-reducing impact of war and its aftermath on contemporary residents of Baghdad. If Bell’s writings provide an image of imperialism in the past, al-Radi’s diary is a powerful statement about the contemporary form of empire that began to take shape in the wake of Desert Storm.

How to cite this article:

Salah Hassan "Baghdad Diaries, Then and Now," Middle East Report 227 (Summer 2003).

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