I first encountered the work of the British traveller, archeologist, and spy Gertrude Bell many years ago, while hunting in the archives for a Carmelite priest named Père Anastase-Marie de Saint-Élie, an obscure figure in the history of Arabic lexicography. “He’s a jolly monk, an Arab from the Lebanon straight out of Chaucer all the same and with a clear eye fixed on the main chance; very learned in his own tongue, he speaks and writes French like a Frenchman,” Bell wrote of Anastase, in a letter to her father on November 9, 1917. “I like him none the worse for his being in spite of his cloth, I’m persuaded, a rogue.”
In the course of the afternoon, I forgot about the priest and became absorbed by Bell’s letters, which are as rich in ethnographic detail as any of the great nineteenth-century European travelogues, but chattier—devoid of the heroic rhetoric of T. E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” Bell, who was born in 1868 to wealthy industrialists, and earned first-class honors in Modern History at Oxford, was sent to Persia by her stepmother in 1892, and, staying with the family of the British ambassador in Tehran, was immediately captivated by her environs. She returned to the region to travel across Syria and the northern reaches of the Arabian desert, taking photographs and excavating ancient ruins as an amateur archeologist. She also became fluent in Arabic and Persian, spending months at a time exploring some of the most forbidding landscapes in the Middle East. During her travels, she learned about “the politics of the desert: who had sold horses, who owned camels, who had been killed in a raid, how much the blood money would be or where the next battle,” as she put it in a letter to her family, in May, 1900. She also unnerved the authorities. The Ottomans thought her a spy, and the British made a show of discouraging her from venturing into unsafe territory, while also hoping to benefit from the information she gathered.
Eventually, Bell was entrusted by the British government, on the basis of her unparalleled knowledge of the region, to sketch out what she describes as “a reasonable border” between Iraq and the territory controlled by Ibn Saud, the founder of the future Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This task, along with her advocacy for Arab self-determination at the Cairo Conference of 1921, is one of the reasons why historians, biographers, and filmmakers have crowded around her, particularly since Iraq has again become a focus of geopolitical contestation. The other reason is her letters, which capture both her charisma and the intensely social character of her time in the Middle East. Like the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks in recent years, Bell’s archive of correspondence is a reminder of the daily disorder obscured by other political documents: maps, treaties, bulletins.