VIP Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell (b. July 14, 1868- July 12, 1926)

Pictured here with Winston Churchill on her right and T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. "Lawrence of Arabia") on her left, Gertrude Bell was a mountaineer and a self-styled diplomat, later a spy, who was instrumental in drawing the current boarders of Iraq and established the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.

A spirited and brilliant child whose grandfather was a railroad magnate, Bell earned a college degree in history with honors in only two years and became a serious student of Arabic. She fell in love with a young officer who read her Hafiz, the Sufi poet, but her parents refused to allow them to marry. She never did marry (but she published a translation of Hafiz.)

Coached by an uncle who was the British Minister in Tehran, Bell took many adventurous quests through Arabia, meeting shieks who treated her like a visiting queen. The 1997 film The English Patient makes a reference to a Bell map, incorrectly identifying her as a man.

Gertrude Bell; Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006) says of Bell, "Her Arabic had become good enough for her to discuss desert politics with notables she met long the way. She began to take her turn with the narghileh that was passed around as they talked, the bubble-pipe in which tobacco, marijuana, or opium was smoked. She did not enjoy it at first, as she was at pains to tell her parents, but gradually acquired the habit."

In one letter to her parents, dated April 22, 1900, Bell wrote, "They gave me odd (and nasty) things to eat and a narghileh to smoke, which I hated, but to my relief found that with the best of good will I couldn't keep it alight, so that I didn't have much of it."

On January 23, 1903, she wrote, "Here's another tale: after Lord Curzon had been up he said to the Governor of the Frontier Province: 'Tell me quite frankly whether you had to take any special precautions for my visit?' 'Special precautions!' he said 'There are 2000 men at this moment lying by the heel in gaol without a scrap of evidence against them. We took up every man who we suspected and upon whom we could lay hands - every opium smoker, every hashshish eater, every fanatic in the town and the district. They'll be let out tomorrow.' 'Isn't it a little illegal?' said the Protector of the Native."

On February 6, 1914, she recounted this legend: "There were three men, one drank arak [a distilled alcoholic drink], the other wine and the third hashish. And when they rose to go out of the house they looked at the door. And the Father of arak said, 'It is great as the door of a khan, we can never open it.' The Father of wine said, 'It is open and the flood of a river is flowing through, we cannot pass.' But the Father of hashish said, 'Then we must climb the wall. And he climbed the wall and dropped into the street.'"

Later in life, Bell wrote, "Some day I hope the East will be strong again and develop its own civilization, not imitate ours, and then perhaps it will teach us a few things we once learnt from it and have now forgotten, to our great loss." Facing old age with little income, and possibly cancer, Bell died of an overdose of diallylbarbituric acid (aka allobarbital or Dial) two days before her fifty-eighth birthday.

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