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Gertrude of Arabia : DESERT QUEEN: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally to Lawrence of Arabia. By Janet Wallach (Nan Talese/Doubleday: $27.50, 377 pp.)

November 03, 1996|Helen Winternitz | Helen Winternitz writes often about the Middle East and is the author of "A Season of Stones" (Atlantic Monthly), a nonfiction book about the Palestinians

Gertrude Bell was born in 1868, in those Victorian times when women stayed home. She did not. The scion of a prominent Northumbrian family, she should have, under the guidance of a proper chaperon, found a proper husband and settled down to raise proper upper-class British children. Rather, she took the radical step of going to university at Oxford, winning a first in history but failing in her youthful years to find a husband who could match her sharp tongue and intellect. She traveled around the world, climbed in the Alps--the rougher the mountain, the better--then at the age of 23 visited an uncle at his diplomatic post in Persia and fell in love with the desert.

When she first rode out from Tehran, Bell gloried in the sight of stark mountains and empty land stretching boundlessly on, unfettered and uncluttered. "Miles andmiles of it," she wrote, "with nothing, nothing growing . . . it is a very wonderful thing to see." But the desert did contain, as if in paradox, a culture and politics as lush as any in the world. Bell fell in love also with the Arabs and their ways, born of an ancient history, a tradition of elaborate hospitality, a bounty of intricate art and architecture, great tapestries of tribal intrigues and an exotic unpredictability from the perspective of staid England.

Bell went on to have a brilliant career in the Middle East, as an explorer of the northern and central Arabian deserts, a scholar, archeologist, writer and a colleague of T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia). During World War I, the British government called on her unparalleled knowledge of the desert and its tribes, making her its sole female official in the British intelligence operations in the Arabian region, where she emerged as a major figure in the creation of modern day Iraq. Despite her sizable accomplishments, Bell has been treated as a footnote by historians.

This is corrected in Janet Wallach's exhaustive biography, "Desert Queen," which leaves no doubt about Bell's importance. The author, an American journalist who has reported and written books about the Middle East for the last decade, became fascinated by Bell when she apprehensively traveled to the region for the first time and was buoyed by the precedent set "by the courage of this bold Victorian woman."

The biography is based on extensive archival research, travels in Bell's footsteps, Bell's own voluminous books and correspondence and interviews with those few people still living who knew Bell.

Nevertheless, Wallach fails to fashion an incisive portrait of her subject, one that should have melded the more significant dramas of Bell's life with the political dramas of the time.

The book too often meanders through the minutiae of Bell's Middle Eastern sojourns and daily travails, repeating details without always conveying the larger meanings of the surrounding historical events, leaving the reader at times with the feeling of wandering in a desert sandstorm.

In the end, the reader feels closest to Bell, her wit and bravery and purpose, while perusing the frequent excerpts Wallach wisely supplies from the adventurer's superbly written works.

Bell made six expeditions through various portions of the Arab desert, daring to travel where few Westerners had and defying British authorities when warned that a trek was too dangerous. She evaded Ghazi, the king of Iraq, and the murderous raids of ragtag Bedouin robbers; stopped to study the sites of Mesopotamian ruins; drew maps of uncharted territories; and befriended sheiks. She wrote scholarly books about the then-mysterious Arab world that made her famous back home.

She traveled by camel caravan with an entourage of guards and guides, equipped with every possible provision, including a set of Wedgewood china and a canvas bath, wearing linen riding suits and carrying decorated parasols. Dining in desert tents with Arab potentates, she donned frilly Parisian gowns and flowered hats to complement her striking looks, her reddish hair and blue-green eyes. Her voice was husky from smoking cigarette after cigarette as the men drew on their water-pipes while she discussed with them, in fluent Arabic, political affairs or tribal boundaries.

Bell lived easily in a man's world, but with individual men, with matters of the heart, she loved tragically. She had affairs with several men, only to have her passion shattered again and again by a lover's death, an inextricable marriage, her father's rejection or some other torturous stroke of bad fortune.

Her passion for Mesopotamia, now a part of modern-day Iraq, was her lifelong constant. When the war broke out and Germany's alliance with the Turks threatened Bell's beloved desert lands--which were invaluable to the British government for the petroleum reserves needed to run the navies and machineries of the industrial revolution--she was ecstatic at being able to supply vital information about the Arabian landscape and its tribes.

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