Recently I was given Desert Queen, a biography of a puzzling and compelling woman.
All her life Gertrude Bell opposed the vote for women, yet during her relatively short lifetime (1868-1926) she engaged in more daring adventures — and effected more political change — than perhaps any woman before or since.
In this biography, Gertrude Bell — the Newcastle-born daughter of a wealthy industrialist — emerges as daring yes, yet also touchingly unsure of herself as a “Person”. Perhaps to counter this, she became masterfully proficient in Middle Eastern languages, and so skilled in the courtesies essential to meeting with the powerful desert figures of the time (whether Sunni, Shiite or Kurd), that as she sat sipping coffee in their desert tents or city palaces, she was able to serve her own country both as diplomat and spy — and yet retain their trust and friendship.
Thanks to her many solitary trips into the then-uncharted desert — solitary save for her guides and the camp-bearers who each night unpacked her crates of china and crystal and set up her canvas bath — she became so knowledgeable about the vast borderless territories of Mesopotamia and Arabia, and the tribal powers that held shifting sway, that ultimately, at the close of WWI, it was she who (for better or worse) drew the borders of what would become the modern country of Iraq.
It was Bell’s passion for archaeology, too, that brought into being the stunning (and since devastatingly looted) archaeological museum in Baghdad, now the National Museum of Iraq.
Beyond the study of a remarkable woman, The Desert Queen is a lesson both in the ethos of those times, and in the flawed and fascinating machinations that went into carving the modern countries of the Middle East out of the crumbling Ottoman Empire after the First World War.
Desert Queen, by Janet Wallach, ISBN 1-4000-9619-7
As a sad footnote: On March 18, 2011, The New York Times ran the obituary of Dr. Danny George, the esteemed Iraqi archaeologist who attempted to stop that post invasion looting in 2003, and subsequently led in recovering thousands of stolen artifacts. Dr. George dies of a heart attack in Toronto, on Friday March 11, at the age of 60.
For link to story click here:
Some novels that stood out for me, new — or re-read — last year: (and I realize that “lost” is the leitmotif here):
The Sky is Falling by Caroline Adderson: lost ideals so juicily described; The Ghost Brush by Katherine Govier: a “lost” painter brought to life, and a rich detailed evocation of Edo era Japan; The Age of Waterlilies by Theresa Kishkan: as with so much of Kishkan’s work, a vivid recreation of lost places on the map of British Columbia, and lost ways of thinking, too; Restoration by Rose Tremain (again!): giving us a marvelously flawed lost character who yet, at the end, does achieve a personal “restoration”; and No Great Mischief Alistair MacLeod (re-read every few years!) which resonates like a glorious heart-breaking symphony.
Some books I have read more recently and admired:
The Beauty of Humanity Movement, by Camilla Gibb, which paints a picture of the post-liberation struggles of Vietnam that is both searing and, yes, endearing, thanks to the humanity of so many of the characters.
City of Thieves, by David Benioff. Set during the siege of Leningrad — a tale dire and funny, savage and humane. A page-turner I found nearly impossible to put down. Though I must give a note of warning. It contains one scene of Nazi brutality so awful that another member of my family stopped reading it then and there. My advice, though, is to continue to the end and, perhaps as I do, you will cherish it as a fine and remarkable work.
Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada. This is one that I had to put down, as I was finding it too sad and scary. Set in Nazi Germany. The story of family protest and the consequences. But I am about to pick it up again.
Also on the go: Going Dutch, How England Plundered Holland’s Glory, by Lisa Jardine.
And, as a break from the “larger” lessons of history, Nothing Right, stories by Antonya Nelson. Maybe “nothing right” but (speaking of lessons) at the same time, “nothing small”.