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

Liora Lukitz
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

20 Dec 2005
Revered or reviled, Gertrude Bell was a commanding figure: scholar, linguist, archeologist, traveller and "orientalist". Belonging to the tradition of the great British Middle East enthusiasts of the early 20th century, she explored the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I and was hugely instrumental in the post-war reconfiguration of the Arab states in the Middle East. She was a prime mover in drawing up Iraq's boundaries and establishing a constitutional monarchy there with a parliament, civil service and legal system; she was influential in creating a state which had all the trappings of independence while remaining a virtual British colony. This book offers a contribution to the study of Bell's colourful life - exploring the personal passions, desires and relationships that drove her - as well as to an understanding of the creation of a country so central to the instability of today's Middle East. Using various sources, including Bell's own diaries and letters, Liora Lukitz provides a portrait of this influential character and the tragedy, vulnerability and frustrations that were key to her quest for both a British-dominated Middle East, and relief from the torture of her romantic failures.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: I.B.Tauris; annotated edition edition (20 Dec 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1850434158
  • ISBN-13: 978-1850434153
  • Product Dimensions: 24 x 16.4 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,424,141 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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A fascinating book, well worth reading for new insights into a personality
who deserves to be better known and understood. Richard Muir -- Asian Affairs

A first-rate scholarly study of the Iraqi state -- Haaretz

About the Author

Liora Lukitz obtained her PhD from the London School of Economics and has been for several years a research fellow at the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard University.

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The caravan left Damascus on 16 December 1913, heading for Ha'il in Central Arabia. Read the first page
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4 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good Biography but not as an Academic Reference 18 April 2006
When I started reading this book I just wanted to know Miss Bell's role and her influence in shaping Modern Iraqi History. the book ainly highlights her pre-Iraq life and post-1920 Iraq era when she became a close advisor of King Faisal. the sheds very little light on the period between the two eras( between 1916-1921) in which four major events happened in iraq: the Jihad movement and the defeat of the british army in Kut Alamarah in 1916, the 1918 uprising in Najaf and the 1920 revolution in Iraq. As a result of these major events the shia of Iraq have been excluded from any political role in shaping the future government of Iraq. to me the question is still unanswered; if not Gertrude Bell, who stands behind keeping the Shia away from the critical positions of new Iraq?
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Our Eastern Affairs are Complex Beyond All Words" 17 July 2006
By William J. Bowers - Published on Amazon.com
History is useful not only for revealing the past, but also in foreshadowing the future. In the case of Iraq, this is no small matter. This book by Liora Likutz, a scholar who is currently at the Truman Institute in Jerusalem, describes the making of modern Iraq through the life of one the two key protagonists who drew its boundaries on the map following World War I. Those two individuals were T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell. While the broad outline of Lawrence's life and exploits in the Middle East are well known to many, Gertrude Bell remains more of a mystery. This book attempts to pull back that veil. Anyone who seeks to understand the currents and tides swirling underneath modern Iraq needs to understand how this country came to be, and the complex life of Gertrude Bell is a good place to start.

Gertrude Bell was born on 14 July (ironically, the Baath Party National Holiday) in 1868 to a wealthy Victorian family. She attended Queen's College in London and later studied history at Oxford. Exceptionally bright, she not only excelled at academics but also proved herself to be a durable athlete who could compete with the boys. Following school, Gertrude met a young man named Henry Cadogan when she was 24 and desired to marry him. But her parents disapproved of this union because Cadogan was a "poor diplomat" not from a well-to-do family. Although the two shared common interests and might have made a happy couple, Gertrude - ever the dutiful daughter -shunned this relationship. She instead went to Bombay, India in 1902 and saw firsthand how Lord Curzon's rigid policies of not appointing Indians to his governing committees created opposition to British rule there. She carried this lesson with her. Britain's interest in India eventually brought Gertrude to Mespotamia, where she had an unconsummated affair with a British officer named Dick Doughty-Wylie. Gertrude did not understand Doughty-Wylie's devotion to his wife however, and perhaps persisted in this stillborn relationship because it did not impinge on her intellectual interests or her freedom. Doughty-Wylie, promoted to LtCol by 1916, was killed at Gallipoli in an attack on the Sidd-al-Barh castle for which he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Gertrude probably never completely recovered.

The British interest in Basra and concern over it falling into Turkish hands led the British to mount an expedition to Baghdad in 1916. In the climax to this disastrous campaign, 17,600 colonial troops ended up surrendering at Al Kut and were marched into enemy captivity. Later revelations of the Sykes-Picot Agreement (the secret agreement between the British and French to carve up the post-war Middle East) and the important question of what would happen to Mosul after the war convinced British administrators to stay involved in Iraq for years to come. And Gertrude intended to play a key role in what would happen in this Cradle of Civilization.

Gertrude quickly discovered that the population of Mesopotamia wanted to manage their own affairs, even if less competently than the British. This caused her to clash with other administrators. She also disagreed with them over the shape of the future Iraq: while some thought it would be impossible to unite the disparate populations of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul, Bell envisioned an independent and unified Iraq that encompassed these key population centers. She thought Wilson's "rigidity" (like Curzon's earlier) had caused the July 1920 rebellion to spread from the south of the country to the west, ultimately costing hundreds of British lives and thousands of Arab lives.

Many tribes still resisted a Sunni-led government in Baghdad and instead preferred an Islamic government based out of Najaf and Karbala. Churchill, now Secretary of State for the colonies, sought to mobilize public opinion to convince the British it was worth their treasure to maintain presence in Iraq for a prolonged period. Britain would maintain control over the country primarily with its air force (similar to the no-fly zones between Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom) rather than committing large numbers of ground troops.

King Faysal I was finally coronated as King of Iraq on 23 August 1921. Gertrude developed a good relationship with him and was enamored of her role in "making Kings and inventing kingdoms." The Kurds still longed for self-rule however, and Faysal's weak governmental institutions depended upon British arms to give his rule sanction. By 1923, after much diplomatic wrangling, modern Iraq had taken shape. Mosul would stay within Iraq despite the Kurds' insistence on independence because: 1) it could not survive economically without the rest of Iraq, 2) it was not a Turkish province - nor it could it be allowed to become one, and 3) no oil concessions could be given to foreign oil companies. Oil was the driving strategic interest for Britain keeping its foot firmly planted in Iraq.

Gertrude saw the Sunni tribal leaders as the natural elites and thus the future rulers. As Iraq hardened into the form it would maintain for the remainder of the 20th Century and into the 21st, Gertrude's role in politics diminished and she became totally absorbed in her work at the Baghdad Museum. Alone and depressed yet unable to break away from the work she had anchored herself to for so much of her life, Gertrude took her own life with an overdose of sleeping pills in July 1926. She was buried on 12 July in Baghdad.

Likutz has produced a fine book that will be of interest to anyone who wants to learn more about Gertrude Bell and the making of modern Iraq. It is a brisk read, yet very impressively researched, relying primarily on Gertrude Bell's own letters. My only criticism of this book is that it does not contain any maps. These would have been very helpful in explaining the military campaign into Mesopotamia and surrender at Al Kut, the importance of Iraq vis-à-vis Britain's India policy, and the drawing of the post-war boundaries that Gertrude Bell played such a large role in. Still, the books' strengths outweigh this one weakness, and if you are interested in Iraq, you will not be disappointed.
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding Irak 9 Feb 2006
By Fino - Published on Amazon.com
Facinating and exciting point of view of Irak through Gertrude Bell's life.

Must be read if you want to understand what is happening now in this country.
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