Many years ago I read and thoroughly enjoyed a book called Kingmakers: the invention of the modern Middle East by Karl Ernest Meyer. This book is a compilation of short bios about the individuals, primarily British and American, who drew (often arbitrarily), in the wake of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the modern borders of the Middle East and put their choices of rulers in place. One of the characters that most fascinated me was Gertrude Bell, because she was a woman who stepped out of the strictures of her time to become, as she was fond of saying, “A Person”. One of my reading friends, who also has an interest in reading about the Middle East, read Desert Queen, a biography of Gertrude Bell, and highly recommended it to me.
I went into this book fully prepared, based on the subject matter, to love it. There were many positive points, which made me see why my friend Fran enjoyed it so much. Janet Wallach’s writing is lively, organized, and well-researched. Unfortunately for me, over the course of reading this book, I developed a serious dislike of Gertrude Bell, and those feelings, put alongside Wallach’s complete inability to see her subject’s faults, caused me to become downright tetchy at times.
The author put a lot of focus on Gertrude Bell’s romantic life. In her writing, she quotes extensively from first person letters written between the subjects involved—a definite plus. However, Wallach seems to get completely swept away in the romance of it all and completely looses her objectivity. She is quick to point out that Bell longed for a husband and children, but she never seems to cotton on to the fact that all three of Bell’s significant relationships, the very ones that she writes about so enthusiastically, were all with married men. Wallach completely misses the opportunity to delve into the complex psychology of her subject, including what it was in Gertrude’s character that rendered her unable to form an attachment to a man who was actually available to fulfill her allegedly oft expressed desire for a family of her own.
The more I learned about Bell’s political wrangling, the less respect I had for her. There is no doubt that, among her peers, male or female, she had developed the strongest ties with and the greatest understanding of the many tribes of the Mesopotamian region to which she devoted her life’s work. However, when it came right down to it, she made the gravest of misjudgments in both her choice of boundary lines and a ruler for the newly formed Iraq. In my opinion, the borders drawn upon her insistence were irrespective of traditional tribal lands, knowledge that she certainly possessed, and have caused unrest that still unsettles the Middle East today. Gertrude worked tirelessly to force through her choice of ruler as well—a man who while a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammad, was not in any way familiar with the tribes of the area, because he was from Damascus, a Syrian city he pined for his whole life, never giving his loyalties to the area over which he was given dominion.
There is no doubt that Wallach’s book lays out all of the facts, but she is so enamored of her subject that she fails, even while pointing them out to her reader, to grasp and delve into all of Gertrude Bell’s failings. When taken in context of the time in which she lived, it is an undisputed fact that Bell was an amazing woman. She blazed trails in global politics that very few women of her time managed. Not only did she insert herself into what was normally deemed a “men’s domain”, she earned the respect of the men she dealt with, both western and Middle Eastern. Many Middle Eastern leaders would only parlay with her, instead of her western male counterparts—a fact doubly impressive given the traditional role of women in this predominantly Islamic region. I would have liked a less biased book that further explored the complexity of the woman, both on the field of Middle Eastern politics and in her personal life.
The audio version, narrated by Jean Gilpin, was painfully slow. This is only the second book that I have sped up to 1.5 (the other was Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve). I could not understand how a book that was only 400 pages, including all end notes and bibliography, could clock in at twenty hours on audio. It only took a couple of minutes to figure out why. Once sped up, the narration is very good, and I didn’t miss access to any of the end of book information (I did initially intend to read the book in print and previewed the book before deciding to listen to the audio instead). I did look up a couple of maps online.
Despite my dislike of Gertrude herself and the obviously biased telling, I do think that this is a book worth reading. The reader is introduced to many pivotal players in the formation of the modern Middle East—including everyone’s favorite, Lawrence of Arabia, and the story is certainly well told in a highly readable fashion. I think too, that most readers will find it fascinating to see how what took place almost a century ago has had lasting impact on the Middle East we deal with today.