Book Review

A woman in Arabia: the writings of the queen of the desert By Gertrude Bell

I have been away for a few weeks. They were tough two weeks. I discovered that when I am not well I find no joy in writing. I thank God I have a friend like Ken. He contributed once again to my blog. He reviewed a book we both read and enjoyed. It is fitting that in the same month as International Women’s Day, we feature the writings of one of the most remarkable women of the 19th and 20th centuries. Into only 58 years, Gertrude Bell packed enough adventure and intrigue to last several lifetimes.

Born in 1868, she was the first woman to obtain a First Class Honours Degree in History at Oxford (in only 2 years). She mastered mountaineering (she has a Swiss peak named after her), photography, mapmaking, archeology, and six languages (including Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish)  before starting in 1892 to travel throughout the Middle East – much of it by horse and camel including crossing the Arabian Desert twelve times. She remained in the region for the rest of her life.

Gertrude experienced first hand some of the most important events in the Middle East of the early 20th century. Her political dispatches to the British government and military during World War I provided detailed knowledge of desert wells and complex tribal alliances that helped defeat Ottoman forces in the region.

Through her love for the region, her integrity and her affinity for people, she become one of the very few Westerners who gained the trust of key Arab tribal leaders. As a result, she became their trusted adviser and by the end of World War One, had played a key role in establishing the states of Transjordan and Iraq, co-ordinating the coronation of their first kings and then establishing the Iraq Museum.

She vociferously opposed the carve-up of the Levant between Britain and France and predicted the Arab-Israeli conflict and the chaos in Syria that came to the region many years later.

The book itself comprises neatly-assembled writings from Gertrude’s Middle Eastern diaries, letters to her parents and friends as well as reflections on daily developments in the life of a traveller-diplomat-intelligence officer who excelled in a male-dominated world.

Underneath the briskly-written description of her activities (in the style of an aristocratic Englishwoman which is very much of its time) lies a certain sadness: at being apart from her parents, at her unrequited love for a man; and at the tragic history which she saw unfolding in the Middle East. She never married and died in Baghdad in 1926.

This is a fascinating book about a woman who was much less famous than TE Lawrence (of Arabia) but who achieved just as much, particularly in an age when the gap between women and men was so large. Gertrude Bell was an international woman of great substance and stature – this book celebrates her life and achievements.

Who should read this book: Those interested in stories related to gender

Why you should read this book: To enjoy a biography like no other; one celebrating life and achievements

Book genre: Biography

Rating by Stylo à Bille

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