BAGHDAD — A picture of Gertrude Bell, the British diplomat and spy, still hangs on a wall in the Alwiya Club, the Baghdad clubhouse for the social elite that she established, and black-and-white photographs of her can be found in the collections of the city’s old families.
More than anyone else, she is credited with creating modern Iraq — drawing its borders, choosing its king — after the upheavals of World War I. She also died here, and her raised tomb surrounded by jasmine bushes in a British cemetery has been tended for decades by a man named Ali Mansour.
“We love her around here,” Mansour said. “She brought Iraqis together.”
Today, though, her legacy, which has always been fragile, is at risk of being undone amid the renewed sectarian violence that has already seen Sunni militants effectively erase the border she drew between Iraq and Syria and raised the possibility of Iraq fracturing into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish territories.
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Seen through the experience of Iraq’s tumultuous recent past, the decisions made by Miss Bell, as she is still affectionately referred to by Iraqis, and others working for the British and French to reorder the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire collapsed nearly a century ago, hold cautionary lessons for those seeking to bring stability or seek advantage in the region now.
While claimed by the Iraqis as one of their own, Bell was an agent for her own country, advancing the interests of the British to secure influence, and oil, in Iraq, and to counter the efforts of Germany to position itself as a beneficiary of the decline of the Ottoman Turks, who had lost their hold over the Balkans and were quickly losing their control over the Arabs.
As a member of the Arab Bureau, the British intelligence office in Cairo during the war, she, along with her countryman T.E. Lawrence, helped rally the Arab revolt against the Turks from 1916 to 1918, arming the Arabs and promising them an independent Arab state. As the revolt unfolded, diplomats secretly agreed to carve up the Middle East into French and British spheres in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, an accord named after the envoys who wrote it.
In her time, she was considered more influential than Lawrence over British policy in Arabia. But in the decades since, it was Lawrence who went on to greater fame, burnished by his own book, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” and an Oscar-winning movie that immortalized his role.
“She wanted to keep a low profile, while Lawrence wanted to have as great a profile as he could get,” said Janet Wallach, who has written a biography of Bell.
Now, though, Bell may finally earn the broader fame she worked hard to keep in abeyance. She will be the subject of a Hollywood film, in which she will be played by Nicole Kidman, as well as a full-length documentary, “Letters from Baghdad.”
Bell’s life and legacy were also the subject of an international scholarly conference last year in London, the first of its kind.
In an opening speech at the conference, Saad Eskander, director of Iraq’s national library and archives, referred to Lawrence’s fame in the Middle East and then said, “But in Iraq, it is only Gertrude Bell who occupies an exceptional place both in the imagination of its ordinary people and in the mind of its cultural and political elites.”
This burst of cultural output about her life, which scholars hope will elevate her to what they believe is her rightful place in history, comes at a time when the core of her legacy — the effort to knit Iraq’s volatile mix of religious sects and ethnicities into a stable nation — has again become vital to the region and the world. And it is focusing new attention on the degree to which decisions made by the European powers for their own gain during Bell’s time helped create the divisions that are again bloodying the Middle East.
“This lie to the Arabs is why we have these problems today,” said Sharif Ali bin Hussein, a descendant of King Faisal, who became the leader of Iraq, under a British mandate, in 1921.
He continued, saying that the problems of today’s Middle East are, “a result of the European colonial avarice.”
Hussein, who lives in Baghdad in a house once owned by Saddam Hussein’s brother, holds Bell apart from this. He described her as one of the few true friends to the Arabs, who, despite the decisions of her government, worked hard for the cause of Arab self-determination. “I think Gertrude Bell’s role in this was she was very much on the side of the Arabs,” he said.
Some critics, including Eskander, point to Bell’s legacy in empowering a Sunni elite as a new political class, at the expense of the majority Shiite population, and say it helped set the conditions for today’s rampant sectarianism. “She wanted the British to make a deal with the Sunni elite at the time, at the expense of the rest of the population,” he said.
Still, with some reverence, Eskander calls her “the first lady of Iraq, the real queen of Iraq.”
Georgina Howell, who wrote a biography of Bell and is editing a new anthology of her writings, wrote in an email, “For the Sunni-Shia violence, do not blame Miss Bell. The Turks gave unjustified privilege to the Sunnis for 300 years.”
In supporting the Sunni elite — many of whom were former Ottoman soldiers — she also reached out to the Shiite community. One of her most important relationships was with Haji Naji, a Shiite and one of Baghdad’s most prominent landlords at the time. Many days she rode her horse to meet Haji Naji for a picnic in his orchards, where he offered advice on how to deal with the Shiite community and Iraq’s many other factions.
“She used to ask him about how to deal with the Iraqis,” said Fadhil al-Lami, a descendant of Haji Naji who lives in Baghdad, recalling the stories that have been passed down in his family. “Iraqis weren’t getting along, then and now. It’s not an easy society.”
Despite the reverence in which she is still held here today, the truth is that her dream of a unified, peaceful and prosperous Iraq has been unfulfilled. The Americans encountered the same problems she did in trying to forge a national consensus from a disparate patchwork of ethnicities (Arab and Kurd) and sects (Sunnis and Shiites).
“The problems we face now are the same problems we faced after World War I,” Eskander said. “We are trying to form an identity. Is it an Arab state? An Iraqi state?”
Then and now, he said, “There is nothing to unite the Iraqi people.”