Gertrude Bell helped in creating a geo-political order for the West’s benefit but the one that spawned schisms the Middle East continues to grapple with by deciding the future of Arabs without letting them have a say in it
Sometime in 1915, British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes slid his finger across a map spread out on a table he sat across with British Prime Minister H H Asquith to discuss Middle East’s political future. Sykes told Asquith he would like to draw a line from Acre, now on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, to Kirkukin modern-day Iraq’s northern mountains region, on the map as their sphere of influence.
A year later, Sykes and French lawyer-diplomat François Georges-Picot would secretly hammer out an accord to formalise the scheme as their shared spoils of the First World War. They arbitrarily drew straight lines with, as Tarek Osman noted in a December 2013 piece on bbc.com, a ‘crude chinagraph-pencil’ and a ruler on the region’s map.
The territories Sykes and Picot marked as ‘A’ went to France and ‘B’ to Britain, ignoring local identities and preferences. The pact created a geo-political order for the West’s benefit but spawned troubles and schisms that the region continues to grapple with. It decided the future of Arabs without letting them have a say in it.
Arabist Gertrude Bell, who helped create Iraq as a consequence of the Sykes-Picot pact, thought the statehood she achieved for the country gave her some sort of immortality. But she appeared all but forgotten in Baghdad when I visited the city as part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS in 2016.
Gertrude Bell made Baghdad her permanent home until her death. Her raised tomb at an Anglican Church’s cemetery in Baghdad’s Bab al Sharki neighbourhood had been crumbling and in disrepair near a bustling square of stalls and shops.
British delegations would visit the tomb to pay homage to Gertrude Bell until they stopped coming when Baghdad became increasingly unsafe following the American occupation. Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi’s family planted a ring of jasmine trees and date palms around Gertrude Bell’s grave in 2005 when he was trying to attain power with the West’s blessings.
Gertrude Bell appeared to have since sunk into oblivion in the region, where the Sykes-Picot pact has come to define the infamous Western divide and control policy, making its originators’ the most reviled people.
From secular Nasserist (Egypt), Baathist (Iraq and Syria) pan-Arab nationalist ideologies to nihilist cult ISIS have sought to undo the borders Sykes and Picot created.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi vowed not to stop until they hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy when the ISIS chief’s murderous followers swept across Syria and Iraq in 2014. He briefly threatened to finish the veneer of statehood Europeans such as Gertrude Bell imposed with what James Buchan, in a March 3003 piece in The Guardian, called ‘emptiness underneath’ in the Arab world.
Bell was candid enough to write to her father in December 1920 that ‘Mesopotamia [Iraq] is not a civilised state.’ Iraq’s creation nevertheless capped her remarkable career. Bell excelled in everything she did. And she did a lot.
After graduating from Oxford University, she went on to become ‘the greatest woman mountaineer of her age.’ She later became an archaeologist and a linguist before finding her true calling as an Arabist.
Bell’s interest in the region began when she visited Iran in 1892 to see her uncle, who was the British ambassador there. She learnt Persian, wrote her first travel book, and translated the Persian poet Hafez.
Bell, who was born into an ironmasters family and became the first woman to graduate in modern history with a first-class degree from Oxford, spent the next decade making two round-the-world trips, and in the Alps.
Bell returned to the Middle East to learn Arabic in Jerusalem in 1897 and permanently got involved in the region. At the peak of her power in Baghdad in the 1920s, Gertrude Bell believed she would be remembered long after she is gone.
In her lifetime, she had every reason to believe so. People in Baghdad knew Bell as Khatun (gentlewoman) and saluted her every time they saw her pass by. Bell organised bathing parties apart from picnics in Baghdad’s palm gardens. An overdose of sleeping pills apparently killed her at 57 in 1926 in her well-appointed house overlooking the Tigris at Bab al Sharki where Al Rasheed Street ends.
Bell’s death ended her lifelong fascination with the Middle East, where, Buchan wrote, she seemed to move ‘as an equal among the sheikhs without compromising her British femininity.’ Iraqi politician and later Prime Minister Nuri al-Said felt there is ‘only one Khatun… For a hundred years, they’ll talk of the Khatun riding by.’ Bell felt they ‘very likely will.’
As an all-powerful colonial administrator, Bell installed Hashemite King Faisal as Iraq’s constitutional monarch. She became Faisal’s indispensable adviser, a ‘right-hand man’, as the British press put it, after sketching out the country’s border’ with Saudi Arabia.
Bell was the centre of attraction at Faisal’s installation ceremony marked by a 21gun salute amid chants of ‘long live the king’ in 1921. Bell now lies buried in Baghdad unsung and perhaps unsurprisingly. She was after all a key figure in the implementation of the Sykes-Picot, which betrayed Arabs.
The accord placed Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine under British and Syria and Lebanon under French influence. It deprived Arabs of the freedom Britain promised them in exchange for joining hands against their Ottomans rulers.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide