Hollywood is doing a biopic of Gertrude Bell – but Britain seems happy for her to be brushed from history

Move over, Lawrence of Arabia. Half a century after the epic biopic starring Peter O’Toole, Hollywood is about to turn its attention to Gertrude Bell, the British adventurer and diplomat who was his female equivalent. Just like him, she wandered Mesopotamia at the turn of the century, befriending the sheikhs and tribes of the desert. Then, when World War One broke out, she too played a vital in organising the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks.

Gertrude Bell’s exploits, as depicted in an illustration from ‘Look and Learn’ magazine

If her name doesn’t ring a bell – excuse the pun – be reassured. Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman, is not some politically correct attempt to big up some minor female character.

This was a lady who rode around on camelback with a pistol tucked in her petticoats, and who was such a challenge to her male colleagues that one of them branded her “a “flat-chested, man-woman”. She quite literally put Iraq on the map, helping draw up its borders after WWI, and also set up the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, the one that was looted of many of its antiquities after the US-led invasion in 2003.

The museum even used to have a bust of her, along with a plaque that said: “Gertrude Bell, whose memory the Arabs will ever hold in affection.” There isn’t one like that about Tony Blair.

Gertrude Bell outside her desert home, aged 41

So Queen of the Desert should have plenty of scope for being a good movie: Indiana Jones meets Two Guns for Sister Sarah, with a bit of Downtown Abbey thrown in. Yet while Hollywood is busy giving Gertrude the red carpet treatment, Britain seems be looking the other way.

I discovered this while working on a piece about Bell for the Sunday Telegraph, pegged partly on the Iraqi National Museum’s plans to finally reopen to the public. Having recovered around half of the 15,000 or so artefacts that went missing during the looting, it hopes to have its first visitors again sometime later this Spring.

As such, I wondered whether Britain had made any pleas for the reinstatement of the bust and the plaque, which have been missing since well before the looting. After all, since 2003, the British Museum has played a major role in helping its Iraqi counterpart get back on its feet and relocate its missing treasures. Perhaps, I wondered, the bust might even be unveiled at the museum’s planned re-opening?

Alas, no such luck. The British Museum told me it was aware of no plans for the bust to be reinstated and has made no such request. Likewise, nor has the main British organisation for archaeology in Iraq,  despite being called The British Institute for the Study of Iraq (Gertrude Bell Memorial).

A spokeswoman for the institute, which includes various former diplomats and archaeologists, told me that that they couldn’t comment as any “public statement” would need to be approved by all 12 members of their voluntary council. Fair enough, I suppose. Although you might expect that an organisation with the words “Gertrude Bell Memorial” in the title might have had a line on this already. They, have, after all, had ten years to think about it.

The reality, of course, is that behind this wall of apparent indifference lies serious political sensitivities. Toby Dodge, one of our best-informed Iraqi academics, points out that any request to get the plaque and bust reinstated would have to be approved by the Iraqi government, whose prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, has little affection for Britain. And given our past history in Iraq, both recent and not-so-recent, our cultural institutions might feel awkward in requesting that the Baghdad museum pay due homage to a colonial benefactor.

Lady in a man’s world: Bell (second row, second from left) at the Cairo Conference in 1921, along with Winston Churchill (first row, fourth from left) and TE Lawrence (second row, fourth from left)

“I’d be amazed if they put a bust of Bell again,” says Dr Dodge. “Maliki loathes the British for letting militias run amok in Basra, and Bell helped set up the borders that caused a lot of the problems in modern day Iraq. She is a controversial figure, and I am not sure that any one wants to be seen to suggesting that the Iraqis celebrate an imperial Brit.”

Dodge is right in many ways. The borders Bell helped draw up have indeed proved disastrous, cordoning into one country an uneasy mix of Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, who are still at each others’ throats a century on.  But Iraqis do remember Bell more fondly than many of her fellow colonials. For one thing, she spoke Arabic properly and  took genuine interest in their culture. And for another, she was a passionate campaigner for Arab independence.

Opening of the old Baghdad Museum building in 1926. The plaque is a memorial to Gertrude Bell, British archaeologist and first director of the museum, “whose memory the Arabs will ever hold in reverence and affection / [She] created this Museum in 1923
But in many ways, the rights and wrongs of her character are besides the point. The fact is that as the founder of the Iraqi museum, Bell’s plaque and bust arguably deserve to be restored there as much as any of the other missing artefacts. And yet the British museum, which has done much to get the place back up and running, does not seem bothered that there will nothing there to remember the old girl by when the museum finally reopens.

Yes, of course, there are more important things to worry about in Iraq right now than a bust and a plaque. But it is perhaps a sign of our times that on certain controversies, even institutions whose job is to preserve the past seem happier just to forget.

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