MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now we're going to hear about an extraordinary woman whose largely responsible for the founding of modern Iraq. Her name is Gertrude Bell, and she died in Iraq 80 years ago today. She was the first woman to graduate with a history degree from Oxford, and became one of Britain's leading Arabists. Bell road camels with a Bedouin in the Arabian desert and dined on sheep's eyes with tribal sheikhs.
NPR's Jamie Tarabay tells her story from Baghdad.
JAMIE TARABAY reporting:
She's buried here in Baghdad, a simple sandstone block surrounded by wilting flowers. And on one side the words: Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, Oriental Secretary to the High Commission of Iraq, engraved on one side. But the extraordinary life that brought her here began thousands of miles away in the Britain where women still didn't have the vote.
Bell's father, a wealthy industrialist, was well connected. He got her into Oxford at a time when only a handful of girls were allowed to attend. Then, women married young, but her headstrong and ambition nature put off male suitors, and her friends decided to take her away to Romania. And from there, she traveled to Persia, modern day Iran.
Her enchantment with the Orient had begun. Persia, she said, was paradise. She wrote over 1,000 letters in her life. She wrote this of Tehran in 1892:
Unidentified Woman: (Reading) “I never knew what desert was until I came here. It is a very wonderful thing to see.”
But it was the mysterious Arabian desert that intrigued her, and she couldn't resist its call. She moved to Jerusalem to study Arabic. She pressed friends and contacts for details on the feuding tribes roaming Arabia. She traveled by camel from Jerusalem to Jericho to Damascus, fearing neither the Turks nor the Jews, then at war with each other. She crossed the Jordan Valley and carefully photographed and surveyed ancient ruins.
Baghdad University professor Hamid al-Sahdwin(ph).
(Soundbite of foreign language spoken)
Professor HAMID AL-SAHDWIN (Professor, Baghdad University): (Through Translator) She went on a long journey in the desert of night, and lived with the tribes of Shamar for two or three years. She mastered the Bedouin accent. She started composing and reciting poetry in the Bedouin accent. She lived in southern Iraq for four to five months. She learned everything.
TARABAY: Eventually, she reached Baghdad and published a series of articles that drew the attention of the British government. She worked as a spy in the British war office in Cairo during the first world war. Then she went to Mesopotamia to help British high commissioner Sir Percy Cox.
Professor Sahdwin says it was there in the world of men and tradition that she truly stood out.
Prof. SAHDWIN: (Through Translator) Her enthusiasm and diligence made her a force within the administration. There were many competitors, and some were skeptical, but it was the end result that shows who was better.
TARABAY: When the war ended, the division of spoils began. The British and their allies met in Cairo to haggle over the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Her friend, T. E. Lawrence - better known as Lawrence of Arabia - brought with him Faisal the son of the Saudi Sharif Hussein, and soon Bell and Lawrence had convinced London to install Faisal as the new leader of a newly created Iraq, comprising Mosul, Baghdad, and Basrah.
Even as the final lines were being touched up on the map, Bell knew it could barely hold together. She wrote this to her stepmother in August, 1920:
Unidentified Woman: (Reading) “We have made an immense failure here. The system must have been far more at fault than anyone suspected. It will have to be fundamentally changed. I suppose we have underestimated the fact this country is really an inchoate mess of tribes, which can't as yet be reduced to any system. The Turks didn't govern, and we have tried to govern and failed.”
TARABAY: But Bell brought Faisal to Iraq and organized a referendum to validate his position as king. Professor Sahdwin says no one else would have been able to accomplish such a feat.
Prof. SAHDWIN: (Through translator) The role played by Ms. Bell in establishing the modern Iraq was a great one. And some people used to say about her, she was indeed the maker of kings.
TARABAY: Her influence, he says, extended beyond Iraq.
Prof. SAHDWIN: (Through translator) She contributed to making the Iraqi throne, that of King Faisal, along with Sir Percy Cox, she established the Kuwaiti Emirate. She also helped found the East Jordan Emirate, what later came to be known as the Jordanian kingdom under the leadership of Prince Abdullah. So what do you call a woman who did all that?
TARABAY: She loved Iraq and felt more at home in her house by the Tigris River than her family's country home in England. And she wanted Iraq to succeed. But her constitutional monarchy was deposed by a military coup after only 17 years. Yet Iraq still bears her imprint.
She established the country's first museum and left it 50,000 British pounds in her will. It's now closed to the public because of the ongoing violence. After the fall of the regime, looters laid claim to many of the priceless artifacts collected in the museum, of which only a handful - including the sacred 5,200-year-old vase of Warka - had been retrieved.
Sitting in his old Baghdad house, historian Bahna Abulsov(ph) says Bell had many Iraqi friends, including Haji Naji(ph), a landowner with a famous garden of palm groves on the Tigris.
Mr. BAHNA ABULSOV (Historian): She used to arrive early in the morning before the sun arise - ride the horse from her house in (unintelligible) and go and have a breakfast with Haji Naji, and come back to her office around eight.
TARABAY: When she died, all of Baghdad turned out for her farewell. At the arid cemetery in the Bato Sharjee(ph) neighborhood, the woman dubbed the uncrowned queen of Iraq lies in a simple stone tomb surrounded by the eroded epitaphs of British soldiers, diplomats, and Iraqi Christians.
Caretaker Ali Monsieur(ph) is a wizened, gaunt man in his 60s. His family has tended the cemetery for generations.
Mr. ALI MONSIEUR (Cemetery Caretaker): (Through translator) Right there lies the Dr. Wadia Elias(ph) Hadad, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Also, there is a tribe(ph) of the North or South American ambassador. I am not quite sure. And also, there is a number of British officers who were killed in the British advance on Baghdad from Basrah, so they brought them here for burial.
TARABAY: Monsieur's son Hamatz(ph) says people flocked to Bell's grave before the war. But recently, her only visitors were a couple of British military officers.
Mr. HAMATZ MONSIEUR: (Through translator) I got to know about her through the visitors who come here, and from my father and uncle, and from the elderly. And tomorrow, we may be asked about her by our children. And it is history. We will tell it again.
(Soundbite of clanging)
TARABAY: Bell died at 57, reportedly from an overdose of sleeping pills. She never married. In one of her last letters, she revealed how depressed she'd become.
Unidentified Woman: (Reading) “It is too lonely, my existence here. One can't go on forever living alone. At least I don't feel I can.”
TARABAY: Jaime Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.
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