You might be forgiven for not realizing that Werner Herzog released a movie in which Nicole Kidman plays Gertrude Bell a couple of years ago. Queen of the Desert (2015, dir. Werner Herzog) got panned by the critics when it was given a showing and as a result it got shelved until 2017, when Letters from Baghdad, a documentary about Bell was released. Even then, it was released to only two American theaters and had no PR campaign to support it. Needless to say, it sank like a stone.
But you might also be forgiven for not knowing who Gertrude Bell was. She only played a major role in shaping 20thcentury international events in the Middle East.
Gertrude Bell was born in 1868 to a British industrialist and minor noble. She studied modern history at Oxford, being one of the first women to graduate with a first class honors degree. In her mid-20s, she began to travel the world, visiting her uncle in Tehran, where she acquired an abiding love of the Middle East. She had a talent for languages, ultimately becoming fluent in Persian, Arabic, French, and German and able to hold a conversation in Turkish and Italian. This linguistic skill proved enormously useful as she traveled through Ottoman Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Arabia. She became interested in archaeology and did work in Mesopotamia and southern Asia Minor, where she met T.E. Lawrence, the famous ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
When the Great War broke out in 1914, the British, who controlled Egypt, realized that they had very little real intelligence on much of the Middle East. So they summoned both her and Lawrence to Cairo and eventually appointed her as a Liaison Officer to the Arab Bureau in Cairo, making her the first female intelligence officer in the British military. (She was called “Major Miss Bell”.) She used her extensive knowledge of the geography and peoples of the region to draw maps and offer guidance on how to navigate the political conflicts particularly of Mesopotamia.
Bell possessed extensive knowledge of the various tribal groups, arguably superior to even Lawrence. The British didn’t have the forces to conduct a full-scale invasion of the Ottoman Empire, so instead they focused on persuading native peoples in the region to revolt against the Turks. In that project, Bell and Lawrence made a major contribution to the war effort, eventually helping to foment the Arab Revolt.
After the British occupied Baghdad, she was sent there and appointed as Oriental Secretary. As a result, when the Ottoman Empire was broken up in 1919, she emerged as one of the most important figures in the discussion of how to redraw the map of the Middle East. Her report “Self Determination in Mesopotamia” argued that Iraq should be established as an independent state and is considered a masterpiece of the genre. The British Commissioner for Mesopotamia disagreed, pushing for an Arab government under British control, but in 1921, Winston Churchill, the new Colonial Secretary, agreed with Bell. As a result, Bell’s views on the region were to a considerable extent decisive for the establishment of Iraq and Jordan as independent states.
Bell and Lawrence understood that the British had over-promised. British officials had basically told everyone, including the Arabs and the Zionists, that they could have independent territory. That was bound to make some people unhappy at some point. Lawrence mostly gave up in disgust, but Bell was determined to find a way to satisfy at least some of the people she had dealt with.
The Hashemites and the Al-Sauds
One thing Bell’s adventures in Arabia had taught her was that there were two dominant clans in the region, the Hashemites and the Al-Sauds. The Hashemites were the clan of the Prophet Muhammad. Hussein ibn Ali, one of the leaders of the Hashemites, was a sharif, a direct descendant of the Prophet, and the Emir of Mecca, the holiest city for Muslims. He represented a very traditional form of Islam, open, tolerant, and not very dogmatic.
In contrast, Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki ibn Muhammad al-Saud came from a family that had ruled Arabia by right of conquest off and on for two centuries. The Al-Sauds (or just Saudis, as they are called in the West) had built an alliance with the followers of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d.1792), a Puritanical Muslim imam who had developed a movement aimed at purging Islam of what Abd al-Wahhab saw as unIslamic innovations that had crept into the faith in the generations after the Prophet. Despite their traditionalist rhetoric, the Wahhabis represented a radical new branch of Islam—strict, dogmatic, and intolerant of anything that did not fit into their vision of what Islam ought to be. In their minds, Wahhabism represented the only genuine form of Islam and anyone who did not accept it could be conquered and forced to obey Wahhabi principles. For example, when the Wahhabis first got control of Mecca in the early 19th century, they destroyed the tombs of all of the Prophet’s wives and other members of his family because they felt that honoring anyone other than Allah was immoral; only an enormous outcry kept them from destroying the Prophet’s tomb. (A few years ago, archaeologists found what they believed was the grave of the Prophet’s mother Amina. The Saudi government promptly destroyed it.)
To simplify a complex set of issues, the alliance was based on the principle that the Al-Sauds would impose Wahhabist practices on Arabia in return for the Wahhabis aggressively supporting the Al-Sauds. Both the Wahhabis and the Al-Sauds wanted to control Mecca and Medina because it strengthened their claim to represent true Islam, while Hussein wanted to control the Hejaz (roughly, western Arabia, where Mecca and Medina are located). Bell is probably the first Westerner to realize that al-Saud and Hussein were on a collision course, and she favored Hussein. The British promised Hussein a wider Arab state (roughly everything between Egypt and Persia with a few small exceptions), but then turned around and agreed to give Syria and Lebanon to France and agreed in theory to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Hussein helped lead the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. But after the war, he was angry at the British for not giving him everything he felt he had been promised, so he simply declared himself the king of the Hejaz and king of all Arabs to boot. When al-Saud attacked the Hejaz in 1924, the British provided no help to Hussein, and he was quickly driven out and effectively lost his kingdom. Al-Saud established the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an officially Wahhabist state whose current ruler, Salman ibn Abdulaziz, is his son. The Saudis have been promoting their intolerant strand of Islam ever since, using their oil dollars to spread Wahhabi Islam across the planet.
The British were in a much better position to dictate what was going to happen further north, in Mesopotamia. They had already agreed to give what would become Syria and Lebanon to the French, but the territories between there and Persia were more or less theirs to organize. Bell was determined to put the sons of Hussein, Faisal and Abdullah, on their own thrones. Ultimately, with her aid, Faisal wound up ruling Iraq and Abdullah became the king of Transjordan (now generally just called Jordan). Thanks to Bell, both of these countries became independent Arab states rather that puppet-states of the British.
But in one respect, Bell badly mis-stepped in the arrangements she fought for. The region of Iraq is essentially three highly distinct zones. The northernmost zone is dominated by the Kurds, a Sunni Muslim ethnic group whose population is spread across modern Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, with the strongest concentration being in northern Iraq. The middle zone is dominated by Sunni Arabs, who share a religious sect with the Kurds but who are ethnically distinct from them (the Arabs are a Semitic people, while the Kurds see themselves as Medes, a branch of the Persian peoples). The southern zone is dominated by Shiite Arabs, ethnically the same people as the Sunni Arabs but belonging to a rival sect of Islam. In other words, Iraq is like a slice of Neapolitan ice cream where the three flavors dislike and distrust each other and would all rather be in their own sundaes. Oh, and the hot fudge on top of that sundae is oil.
The British didn’t want to have to deal with three separate states producing the oil they wanted, so they wanted all three states to be one country. Bell considered the Kurds to be too turbulent and unreliable to govern an independent state, so including Kurdistan in Iraq made some sense to her. Perhaps even more fatefully, most of Bell’s contacts in the Arab world were Sunnis like the Hashemites. Although she had spent some time in Shiite Persia, she never really made any close contacts with Shiite leaders in southern Iraq. As a result, she saw the Middle East very much through the Sunni lens and she trusted the Sunni Arabs far more than the Shiite Arabs. The British authorities seem have had little comprehension of the difference between the two sects and Bell doesn’t seem to have done very much to correct their ignorance (or failed in her efforts, perhaps). In her view, it made sense for the Sunni Arab middle zone of Iraq to control the Shiite Arab south and she accepted the idea that they would also control the Sunni Kurdish north. So the Iraq that she helped create gave most of the political power to the Sunni Arabs, who were numerically the smallest of three groups.
Although many people consider Bell a shrewd diplomat, she badly misjudged the situation on this issue. Lawrence seems to have seen things more clearly. He once said “That Irak [sic] state is a fine monument; even if it only lasts a few more years, as I often fear and sometimes hope. It seems such a very doubtful benefit—government—to give a people who have long done without.” Leaving aside the rather condescending view of Arab self-governance, Lawrence seems to have sensed that Bell’s Iraq was something of a Frankenstein monster that would probably not last very long.
And the predictable gradually happened. The Hashemite monarchy of Iraq was overthrown in 1958 (after having been briefly deposed and reinstated by British intervention in 1941) by the Ba’athist party. The Ba’athists eventually gave rise to Saddam Hussein, a brutal thug who courted his Sunni Arab base by aggressively persecuting and subordinating both the Kurds and the Shiites. Hussein, of course, was overthrown by the American invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush, and the country has been struggling to hold itself together ever since, because the US wants it to stay one country while the Kurds want to separate and the Shiite Arabs long to punish the Sunni Arabs for what the Ba’athists did to them. As a result the Sunni Arabs don’t trust the majority Shiites, and that’s turned into fertile recruiting grounds for Wahhabist groups like Al-Qaeda and Daesh (commonly known as ISIS or the so-called Islamic State).
It would be unfair to lay all of that at Bell’s door, but political violence between these three groups was certainly a predictable consequence of forcing them into the same state together. Bell was a remarkable woman, but she wasn’t able to truly escape the colonial mindset and recognize that these three people needed to make their own choices and not simply have the British impose a choice on them. The British government was heavily dependent on her understanding of the region when it was making that decision, and she allowed her personal relationships with Sunni leaders to blind her to the dynamics of the situation she was helping to create.
So while we can celebrate her as a bold woman who accomplished a lot in an era when women were often kept from accomplishing much at all, and while we can acknowledge that she powerfully shaped the Middle East as it exists today, we also have to admit that she made a disastrous set of choices that are partly responsible for the violence and instability of the region to this day.
Queen of the Desert
Now that you have some idea who Gertrude Bell was, let’s get on to Herzog’s film, which he wrote as well as directed. The first thing I have to say is that it’s one of the most accurate films I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly the most accurate biopic I’ve reviewed. Virtually every incident and major development in the film is grounded in fact, so far as I can see, or a reasonable extrapolation of fact. The film fiddles a few chronological issues, but not in ways that drastically change things. For example, she’s shown already being the Oriental Secretary in Cairo around 1915, when in fact she didn’t get that office until after she arrived in Baghdad in 1917. She is shown meeting Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) at Petra rather than Carchemish, presumably because Petra is a more impressive site to film at than Carchemish. Small points like that I can generally overlook because they don’t seriously affect how we understand the events of Bell’s life.
In a really nice touch, the film quotes her letters, diary, and poetry repeatedly, and even goes so far as to have Sir Mark Sykes say about her, “Confound the silly chattering windbag of conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blethering ass!”, which is actually a quote from a letter he wrote. So it’s clear that Herzog took real pains to be accurate. My hat’s off to Herzog in that respect.
And yet I just can’t help but think that he got everything wrong.
Kidman’s Bell is very much a Herzogian protagonist in the sense that she’s an individual pursuing her own goals despite what the world thinks of her and despite the obstacles she encounters, none of which are honestly that big. With the exception of her father’s refusal to allow her to marry Henry Cadogan (James Franco), a minor British diplomat who commits suicide as a result, every problem she encounters she effectively surmounts by the end of the next scene, leaving very little dramatic tension in the film. (As a side note, Kidman’s performance is quite good, although it’s a bit jarring to see a woman in her 50s playing a woman in her 20s for the first third of the film, the same way it is jarring to see Harrison Ford playing action roles in his mid 60s. As a result, I never once forgot I was watching an actress at work. But with a performer of Kidman’s skill, that’s not always a bad thing.)
Herzog builds the film around two failed and unconsummated love affairs, with Cadogan, whom she can’t marry because he’s badly in debt, and with Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damien Lewis), whom she can’t marry because he’s trapped in an unhappy marriage with a woman who is threatening to commit suicide if he leaves her. To escape his bind, he enlists when the War comes and probably intentionally gets himself killed at Gallipoli (which might be a bit of a distortion, but it’s speculation by the character who tells Bell of his death). To find solace from Cadogan’s death, she turns to exploring Syria, and to find solace from Doughty-Wylie’s death, she seems to focus on getting thrones for the Hashemite princes. So the film essentially uses her failed relationships as an explanation for why she becomes an explorer, which seems both to oversimplify and distort Bell’s wanderlust. She was an explorer because she wanted to explore and learn, not because she was a sad spinster.
And at the same time, although the film accurately captures major moments in her travels, it utterly fails to convey a sense of who this woman was, why she traveled, and what people made of her. On two separate occasions, she is captured, first by Druze tribesmen in Lebanon and then by Arab tribesmen in Arabia. But in the very next scene, the tribal chieftain is so charmed by her that he lets her go, and at no point is it clear what they find so charming about her. It’s not a failure in Kidman’s performance. It’s just that Herzog can’t convey either what Bell found so compelling about Arab society or what Arab leaders found so interesting about her. Her ability to learn about Arab culture and build relationships with Arab leaders is never explored in anything but the most superficial way, merely taken as a given, the same way that her remarkable gift for languages is condensed to a single scene in which Cadogan gives her a lesson in reading Farsi and a later comment that her Arabic pronunciation is very good. So the movie just sort of hand-waves what ought to have been a core part of her story.
Most frustratingly for me, the film focuses on the superficial story of her wanderings and almost entirely leaves out the complex political issues that Bell became so deeply involved while she was stationed in Cairo and Baghdad. She meanders around the Middle East, has men fall in love with her (or fall in like with her, in Lawrence’s case), charms Arab leaders, and get sad when Cadogan and Doughty-Wylie die. The end. There are two scenes of British leaders debating what to do with the Middle East, but the deliberations can be mostly summarized as “we’ll let the French have Syria and Lebanon, and good riddance”. The actual issues aren’t explained at all, and it’s never very clear why Bell’s contribution matters, because she’s not even in those scenes. Then right at the end, she tells Faisal and Abdullah (both of whom are seen for the first time in this scene without any real exploration of who they are) that they will both be rulers. She gets on a camel and rides off into the desert as they watch and marvel at this prediction, and we get an epilogue text. It kind of feels like a movie about Teddy Roosevelt where they forget to mention that he became president. Bell deserves a movie like Fitzcarraldo, not Queen of the Desert.
You might be forgiven for leaving this movie with absolutely no idea that she basically drew the map for the region the United States has been entangled with since the 1990s, because if you don’t come into the movie knowing it, the movie will never tell you. Herzog got all the facts right but told the wrong story and told it surprisingly poorly.
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Want to Know More?
If you want to read up on Bell, you might try Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations. Or read her own words in A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of Gertrude Bell. It’s the basis for the PBS documentary.