Queen of the Desert: Gertrude Bell, a Woman of Influence


QOD Nicole 1Quiet determination, practical idealism, honest opportunism and an irresistibly vital character would be one way of describing the attributes of the daring English scholarly adventuress Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (1868-1926).

Brains, boldness, beauty, courage and conviction would be another, and Australian actor Nicole Kidman’s sensitive portrayal of this extraordinary woman in the film Queen of the Desert, directed and written by Werner Herzog, is certainly noteworthy.

QOD Nicole & PattisonNicole Kidman stars alongside award winning actors James Franco and Damian Lewis as the men in Gertrude’s life with Robert Pattison featuring as Lawrence of Arabia, her friend. Herzog has in the main it seems until this film concentrated on stories from a male perspective. Some have taken umbrage to his change of pace for this.

It is a contemplative slowly evolving film about a fearless woman and the significant contribution she made to history. Gertrude Bell is also remembered for translating the teachings of Hafiz, considered among the finest and most truly poetical renderings of any Persian poet presented in the English language, one admired by a majority of readers.

It was the proclamation of thy love
That shook the strings of Life’s most secret lyre,
And still my breast heaves with last night’s desire,
For countless echoes from that music sprang

Hafiz of Shiraz was regarded as an infidel in his day recognized in the East not only for the excellence of his poetry, but also as a Sufi illuminate. Hafiz’s poetry certainly appeals to all those who want to embolden the soul of the ‘seeker’ to perceive itself.

QOD Nicole 2During her lifetime Gertrude Bell spoke Arabic, Persian, French and German, as well as Italian and Turkish and her personal correspondence, diaries, notebooks, notes, reports, memoranda and cuttings still exist.

There are also some 1,600 letters written 1877-1879, from 1893-1900 as well as archaeological, and travel photographs taken on her travels through the Middle East that still exist today as part of her archive.

Nicole and HerzogIn writing the script for the film Werner Herzog was able to access a great deal of knowledge about this amazing woman of influence, who was an intrepid traveller, writer, archaeologist, explorer, cartographer and political officer.

She had at first been home-schooled, before attending school in London. After graduating with a first-class degree in Modern History from Oxford University, Bell travelled in Europe, climbing a number of mountains in Switzerland and as well, completing two around-the-world trips: one in 1897-1898 and one in 1902-1903. She certainly wasn’t frail or feint hearted!

Gertrude Bell investigated archaeological sites throughout the Syrian Desert to Asia-Minor, developing an abiding love for the Arab peoples, learning their languages and establishing the Archaeological Museum in Baghdad, so sadly looted in recent history.

QOD 4Her study, in 1907 published as The Thousand and One Churches remains the standard work on early Byzantine architecture in Anatolia.

The movie starts during her first time stationed in Teheran and had adventures in the desert and then again with her return, when keeping pace with the glories of the Persian poetry she translated and so often eloquently recites, she travelled extensively throughout the Middle East.

Her journeys to extraordinary places took place during the period when the Ottoman Empire was coming to an end prior to, during and at the end of World War I, and she was consulted by the British government because of her extensive knowledge or Arab territories and its many diverse peoples.

The movie is subtle to a point that we realise the director is revealing his deep understanding of the respect the material and stories of this singular woman in history so many admired, needed to be treated and presented in true understated style.

QOD 2Queen of the Desert would certainly not appeal to those seeking a superficial skin deep action based romantic period movie to chill out on. This is a romantic movie like none before it, one where passions and feelings while deeply explored are marked by abstinence, not something modern society likes or wants to understand at all.

It also confirms the thought that a woman heavily clad in body concealing clothing, wearing a headscarf cleverly entwined while wearing solid boots to tramp through the desert and ride on a camel, can be far ‘sexier’ than a woman wearing little, or nothing at all.

Gertrude Bell as played by Kidman is a noble intelligent woman with both the bearing and carriage to carry the role off superbly – she is steely and strong when dealing with the powerful and dangerous men of her world at a time when woman were seeking to be regarded as equal.

Bell secured respect because she did not put herself up as trying to beat many of the men she met at their own game, but rather proved her own value and worth as she supported the efforts of those she worked with and admired in many different ways.

QOD Reading PoetryGertrude Bell was born into a society where not ever having to worry about her security or living must have been liberating allowing her to concentrate on educating her mind and learning from the mistakes of the past.

As she proceeded into the future while at all times endeavouring to be fair and caring in her treatment of others no matter what their backgrounds or circumstances.

She treated men as she wished to be treated herself, with respect and honour, valuing those who travelled with her on a daily basis, as they guarded her, looked to her comfort and contributed to her continued well being. She regarded them all as equal to those defining men in history at the time whose confidence and hospitality she enjoyed.

A young 22 year old T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson), England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Christopher Fulford), together with the Sheiks of many tribes and the future Kings of Arabia and Jordan featured prominently among them.

Herzog does give Bell superiority, but only as a symbol of the equality women were seeking and to express that desire to rise above petty bureaucracy and the current ‘social and political’ system, to find a way forward diplomatically that would be mutually beneficial to all.

I may be out of step with other critics, but I must admit I enjoyed this movie; it is delivered as a supreme understatement in style, with sweeping panoramas of the endless, restless sweeping sands highlighting the still and peaceful qualities of the desert, which make you want to jump on a camel and explore it yourself.

QOD Nicle & Franco 4The costuming of the period is both elegant and restrained, while the settings range from the exploration of opulent palaces to the benefits of the Oriental bazaar, where honour continues to be part of trading and bargaining for the best price.

This for me was Kidman’s best performance to date; I could believe she was a twenty something year old when she started out and enjoyed watching her mature her character as the story progressed. Considering that scenes are often shot outside an evolutionary sequence, this was very impressive.

QOD Nicole 5

She made our hearts ache with the youthful love she felt for the first of the two men it depicts as having in her life. Henry Cadogan an aspiring English diplomat working as the secretary at the Embassy when she arrives in Tehran in 1892, played with pathos by American actor James Franco.

Despite Gertrude accepting his proposal of marriage as he had stolen her heart, it was still an age where her father had to give his permission and he refuses to allow her to marry a man who has in his mind only meagre prospects, with heartbreakingly tragic results.

Then there is the mature already married military man Charles Doughty-Wylie.

She meets him  in Konya Turkey in 1907, where their relationship begins with a much slower acquaintance that grows into a more mature love that has to bear a great deal.

QOD Nicole & DamianPlayed convincingly by Damian Lewis, Charles Doughty-Wylie is powerless to secure the divorce he wants so that he can be with his Gertrude forever .

He selfishly plots to deliberately place himself in the front row of fire in the landing at Gallipoli in April 1915 where he is shot to death, turning her life into turmoil.

After Major Wylie dies Bell summoned the courage of her convictions, which allows her to continue her consulting peacemaking role in the region, which proves invaluable to the British until her death.

Queen of the Desert has been criticised for not seizing an opportunity to comment on the consequences of many of the decisions she is involved with following Word War I, when Britain was settling its protectorate territories.

Surely though we cannot pin all Iraq’s woes on her single broad shoulders as she died within just a few years of the new states coming into being.

After that surely it was up to those men of their time appointed to be wise above all else. Her influence would have faded quickly at diplomacy levels, while perhaps not as quickly among the tribes people she honoured, who to this day hold her memory with affection.

QOD Nicole & Franco 3The movie ends with Gertrude Bell discussing the future and the fact that they will become Kings with the sons of Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, Faisal and Abudullah , much to their puzzlement.

It is a fact that they did become the rulers of Iraq and Transjordan in 1921 thanks to the British. In an obituary written by her peer D.G. Hogarth, he expressed the respect British officials held for her by saying.

No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit”.

Gertrude Bell with Winston Churchill

Gertrude Bell, third from left, was flanked by Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence on a visit to the Pyramids in 1921. Courtesy The Gertrude Bell Archive

Gertrude Bell was the only woman invited to a 1921 conference in Cairo by the secretary of state for the colonies, Winston Churchill. When she was laid to rest in 1926 the English High Commissioner in Iraq reported ‘…the end came to her so swiftly and so soon. Life would inexorably have led her down the slope, death stayed her at the summit’.

THE days of absence and the bitter nights
Of separation, all are at an end!
Where is the influence of the star that blights
My hope? The omen answers: At an end

She was indeed a Queen of the Desert                       … 4.5

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016

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