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Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of…

Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser…

by Janet Wallach

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I read this book because I was interested in the history of the Middle East prior to World War II. I knew the borders were changed by the British after WWI, and I was curious about what things were like there before that happened. My librarian recommended this book because Gertrude Bell was instrumental in the changes that were instituted. I learned what I wanted to know, but found it a slog. Yes, it was important to know her background and how she came to be on a first name basis with many of the key figures in the Arab world, and how she became a central figure in the British offices in Cairo and Baghdad. And yes, she was a remarkable woman for her time. But I was more interested in the area than I was in her and it took most of the book to get to what I wanted to know. Well written and researched. ( )
  Eye_Gee | May 8, 2017 |
Gertrude Bell was an extraordinary woman for any time, but especially for the time in which she lived....the Victorian Era of England, through WWI, to 1924.

Born into a wealthy industrialist family in northwest England in late mid 19th century, her mother died in childbirth when Gertrude was just three. As a young child she formed an unusually close bond with her father which was to last all her life. The family's wealth and social connections provided her with an unusual education for a woman of her time. It also supported her extensive travel through the Middle East, and for mountain climbing expeditions in Switzerland as a young woman.

These travels, her acquisition of Arabic languages, and knowledge of the customs and mores of the desert people made her valuable to the British Government as they tried to sort out how to deal with Iraq as a consequence of the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the close of WWI.

It's a fascinating story and proof that truth is often more engaging than fiction. ( )
  tangledthread | Feb 28, 2017 |
This sumptuously detailed account of the life of Gertrude Bell is must-reading for those interested in Middle Eastern history or any reader looking for an extraordinarily captivating biography. For the uninitiated in the life of Bell, the milestones of her life such as being one of the first female graduates from Oxford, working as an archeologist/sociologist, and finally an architect of the country of Iraq is quite extraordinary to read and take in. Wallach's level of research through what must have been scores of letters shows itself in the richly detailed prose that honestly reads like a great romantic adventure novel. Bell's story with both its triumphs and sadly all too many heartaches makes for some very compelling reading and Wallach's style pilot's the reader's emotions as well as that of any writer working in fiction. Stocked with many insights and facts about the creation of the modern Middle East, most striking in light of today's turmoil is Bell's reasoning for including the Kurds in the creation of Iraq. This book goes along way to shedding light on the origins of much of the sectionalism that is rife there today. It also makes one wonder if Iraq was ever met to be at all. ( )
  Humberto.Ferre | Sep 28, 2016 |
If you’ve never heard of Gertrude Bell, do yourself a favor and check out Janet Wallach’s “Desert Queen” (Anchor Books, 2005). This book depicts the life and journeys of a woman who was the best-known traveler of the Middle East and Arabia in the years before World War I. Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy and respectable English family, yet, despite her “proper” upbringing, she thought nothing of roving throughout the Middle East surrounded by Arab men. Never a suffragist, she nevertheless became the first female officer for British military intelligence, and, after World War I, she was considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire. ( )
  svetlanagrobman | Mar 2, 2015 |
This is simply an amazing book. I say this for two reasons: Gertrude Bell was a conflicted and complex woman, intelligent yet bound by Victorian mores, and because I now understand much more about what’s going on in the Middle East.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana

Nothing much has changed in the Middle East, and after reading this book, one could not expect anything different than what’s occurred. Gertrude Bell would weep hot tears if she were magically transported to Baghdad today.

1920s Middle East + technology + Israel = 2015 Middle East. Oversimplification, but all things I hear about and read about in the news are foreshadowed in this book.

*spoilers about her life below*

Gertrude Bell’s amazing life came about by accident because she didn’t get married in the three requisite “Seasons” to find a husband. She was articulate, intellectually precocious, dominant, and these traits weren’t conducive to finding a Victorian husband. She traveled, became interested in the Middle East, and did things to occupy her. She was very, very good at these things and learned Arabic, the power relationships in the Middle East, the personalities, and what was happening. However, she always wanted a husband and children. Even after child-bearing age, she always wanted a husband and her last romance, with Ken Cornwallis in her mid-50s, was the proof of this.

Her other love was her father, Hugh Bell. She bowed to his decrees and lived off his wealth much, if not all, of her life. The one thing I absolutely cannot understand is why, when he refused his permission for her to marry Henry Cadogan, this didn’t cause a break in their relationship. She accepted it.

The other thing she wanted was to be a Person. Someone of consequence, respected for her achievements as a man would be, someone respected. From the many quotes from her letters, Janet Wallach portrays this yearning. Sometimes it’s accomplished, othertimes she’s bewailing “not being a Person.”

In the end she had neither. Unmarried, a spinster who may or may not ever consummated a physical relationship with a man, and marginalized in the Middle East by the very government who gave her autonomy and power during the late 1910s and early 1920s.

The book ends on the sad note of the 30-foot tall statue of Faisal and the undusted bust of Gertrude Bell on a forgotten shelf in the Iraq Museum. ( )
3 vote karenmarie | Feb 15, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385495757, Paperback)

A biography of the woman who, indirectly, was the catalyst for many of the troubles in the Middle East, including the Gulf War. In 1918, Gertrude Bell drew the region's proposed boundaries on a piece of tracing paper. Her qualifications for doing so were her extensive travel, her fluency in both Persian and Arabic, and her relationships with sheiks and tribal and religious leaders. She also possessed an ability to understand the subtle and indirect politeness of the culture, something many of her colonialist comrades were oblivious to. As a self-made statesman her sex was an asset, enabling her to bypass the ladder of protocol and dive into the business of building an Empire.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:26 -0400)

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Turning away from the privileged world of the "eminent Victorians," Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) explored, mapped, and excavated the world of the Arabs. Recruited by British intelligence during World War I, she played a crucial role in obtaining the loyalty of Arab leaders, and her connections and information provided the brains to match T. E. Lawrence's brawn. After the war, she played a major role in creating the modern Middle East and was, at the time, considered the most powerful woman in the British Empire. In this biography, Janet Wallach shows us the woman behind these achievements - a woman whose passion and defiant independence were at odds wit the confined and custom-bound England she left behind. Too long eclipsed by Lawrence, Gertrude Bell emerges at last in her own right as a vital player on the stage of modern history, and as a woman whose life was both a heartbreaking story and a grand adventure.… (more)

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