A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq

bellA Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq
by Liora Lukitz
(London: I.B. Tauris, 2014 [2006]) 320 pp.

Reviewed by Dr. Justin Fantauzzo, Assistant Professor, History Department, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Gertrude Bell, a young, affluent, Oxford-educated Briton, was at the center of the diplomatic discussions and occasionally ferocious debates that led to the Kingdom of Iraq’s creation after the First World War. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of T.E. Lawrence, King Faisal, and Mark Sykes (of Sykes-Picot infamy), names well known to academics and the public alike, Bell moved in privileged circles. And in Liora Lukitz’s A Quest in the Middle East, Bell’s personal story, that of a surprisingly insecure, lonely, but exceptionally gifted scholar and diplomat, and her intense involvement in Britain’s post-war re-shaping of the Middle East, jumps off the pages.

Based on Bell’s personal correspondence with family, friends, and colleagues, A Quest in the Middle East is, at its heart, a story about Bell’s search for meaning and belonging in an increasingly modern world. Disenchanted with the drab industrial greyness of northern England, it was in the Middle East, and in Iraq, in particular, that Bell found felt most at home. Family connections first led her to the Middle East and employment with the Arab Bureau during the First World War. Soon after she became an ardent supporter of Arab nationalism, much like Lawrence, and Britain’s imperial project in the post-war Middle East. She worked tirelessly alongside her Arab Bureau colleagues and in concert with Arab and Kurdish nationalists throughout the early 1920s to form Iraq; a compromise between British and League of Nations rule and self-determination for Iraqi Arabs and Kurds. Along the way, Lukitz does well to expose Bell’s humanity as a woman living and working in a predominantly man’s world, her frustrations with her nearly non-existent love life, and with her seemingly contradictory devotion both to the Arabs’ cause and to the British Empire.

Yet as absorbing as Bell’s personal life is, and it was a life full of adventure and intrigue, her opinions on Iraq, despite being nearly a hundred years old, are sure to fascinate modern readers. For many, they’ll reinforce the argument made by a burgeoning number of contemporary academics and political commentators that Iraq was doomed to failure. Bell recognized from the very beginning Iraq’s potentially fatal flaws: the possibility of a “Shi’a theocracy” (p.140) hijacking Iraq’s Constituent Assembly and constantly at odds with Iraqi Sunnis; that Iraqi Kurds had every right to self-determination but were desperately needed to balance Iraq’s Muslim population; that the country’s Yazidi minority didn’t quite fit in; and that Persia would continue to export radical Shi’a clerics across the border in an effort to influence Iraqi Shi’as. In one of Bell’s sharpest observations, and in a nod to her affectionate relationship with Faisal, she was convinced that all the Kurds needed to make a strong case to the international community for statehood was a charismatic personality to unite the Kurds; a “Kurdish Faysal” (p.155), as she put it.

Ultimately, Lukitz’s book, like Bell herself, is hard to pin down. On the one hand, A Quest in the Middle East is an exceptionally readable and rewarding biography of an extraordinary life. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely to find its way onto many academic bookshelves. Lukitz’s biography rarely steps outside of Bell’s personal life and offers little, if anything, in the way of an argument or broader talking point. On the other hand, Lukitz’s biography struggles to define itself. Is it a narrative of Bell’s remarkable personal life; a life that was wedded to the Middle East and Iraq? Or is it a story about Iraq as seen through the eyes of one of the British Empire’s best and brightest? Either way, the general reading public will surely find Lukitz’s biography an entertaining and engrossing story not only about what came to be, an Iraq that was reluctantly unified from Mosul to Baghdad to Basra, but also about what could have been. What if Mosul’s Kurds were given independence? What if Sunni and Shi’a Arabs had formed separate states? Given the current state of Iraq, A Quest in the Middle East leaves the reader with much to think about and, sadly, much to lament.

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