A nod to belle of ‘Baghdad’

The doc ‘Let­ters From Baghdad’ re­veals the desert ad­ven­tures of Gertrude Bell.

Los Angeles Times - - AT THE MOVIES - By Jef­frey Fleish­man jef­frey.fleish­man @la­times.com

She roamed across deserts, load­ing camels with evening gowns and cut­lery, slip­ping through an­cient ru­ins like a spy and find­ing her­self the lone woman at the cen­ter of a strug­gle that de­fined the bor­ders and pol­i­tics of a Mid­dle East that has re­fused to be tamed by West­ern pow­ers.

Gertrude Bell was hero­ine, ar­chae­ol­o­gist, fem­i­nist and map-maker. She spoke Per­sian and Ara­bic, was the con­fi­dant of a king and was fa­mously un­lucky in love. The daugh­ter of a Bri­tish in­dus­tri­al­ist, her wan­der­ings through Syria and Iraq in the early 1900s were as vi­tal to de­ci­pher­ing the re­gion as those of her more cel­e­brated male coun­ter­part T.E. Lawrence, bet­ter known as Lawrence of Ara­bia.

A new film, “Let­ters from Baghdad,” ex­plores the com­plex­i­ties of a char­ac­ter who was at once grace­ful and ar­ro­gant, eru­dite and earthen. The doc­u­men­tary is based on let­ters and com­mu­niqués — Tilda Swin­ton is the voice of Bell — that fol­low her from the aris­toc­racy and driz­zle of York­shire, Eng­land, to the scoured, arid ex­panses of tribes­men, Be­douins and sheikhs. Bell called the Mid­dle East “my sec­ond na­tive coun­try.”

In­sights from her years of travel helped shape the bound­aries of Iraq af­ter World War I and the fall of the Ot­toman Em­pire. That Iraq, with its un­easy bal­ance of Kurds, Sun­nis and Shi­ites, has con­founded the West for decades, in­clud­ing two Amer­i­can-led wars, and the rise of ISIS, which to­day threat­ens sta­bil­ity from Cairo to Da­m­as­cus to Dubai. Bell was prophetic on the con­flict­ing al­le­giances and dan­gers of West­ern in­ter­ven­tion in lands that were rooted in clan cus­toms and knew lit­tle of democ­racy.

“We don’t know ex­actly what we in­tend to be in this coun­try. We rushed into this busi­ness with our usual dis­re­gard for a com­pre­hen­sive pol­i­tics scheme,” she said of the Bri­tish oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq in the early 1920s. “Can you per­suade peo­ple to take your side when you’re not sure if in the end whether you’ll be there to take theirs?”

Such sen­ti­ments have echoed through hun­dreds of thou­sands of deaths and tril­lions of dol­lars in dam­age, weapons and other costs since the U.S. in­vaded Iraq in 2003. But “Let­ters from Baghdad” takes us on a jour­ney be­fore all that. Di­rected by Zeva Oel­baum and Sabine Krayen­buhl the film el­e­gantly un­folds as if some­one had peeked in­side a steer­age trunk and thumbed through the brit­tle pages of scrap­books show­ing sail­boats on the Euphrates and hi­ero­glyph­ics in the moonlight.

“I have cut the thread,” Bell wrote as she van­ished once again into the desert. “You will find me a sav­age for I’ve seen and heard strange things and they color the mind.”

The only woman diplo­mat at the 1919 Paris Peace Con­fer­ence, Bell was a cu­rios­ity in a po­lit­i­cal world dom­i­nated by men. The Ot­toman Em­pire marked her as a spy; some of her Bri­tish col­leagues viewed her with sus­pi­cion and grudg­ing ad­mi­ra­tion. Lawrence said of her: “A won­der­ful per­son, not very much like a woman, you know. … She was born too gifted per­haps.” A Bri­tish news­pa­per head­line said Bell “Ex­plored in the Mid­dle East ‘Like a Man.’”

She looks out from blackand-white pho­to­graphs and film footage as priv­i­leged and rest­less; sharp nose, thin lips, pearls and cloche hats. She once hired 17 camels and trav­eled 1,500 miles. Her love life was just as ar­du­ous. A fi­ancé in Tehran died of ill­ness and a mar­ried lieu­tenant colonel she adored was killed in the bat­tle of Gal­lipoli. And even­tu­ally, even in the land she was most in­ti­mate with, her in­flu­ence waned among one­time friend King Faisal and of­fi­cials dis­patched by the Bri­tish for­eign of­fice.

“Let­ters from Baghdad” reaf­firms Bell’s legacy as piv­otal in the West’s un­der­stand­ing of the Mid­dle East. It is a vivid, if sober, coun­ter­bal­ance to Werner Her­zog’s poorly re­viewed “Queen of the Desert,” star­ring Ni­cole Kid­man as Bell. In an age of a re­booted “Won­der Woman,” Bell is the real thing, in­trepid, fierce and smart.

A writer and ar­chae­ol­o­gist, re­spected by sheikhs, Bell helped found the Na­tional Mu­seum of Iraq (ran­sacked and looted dur­ing the war in 2003). She strug­gled with “black de­pres­sion” and re­port­edly died of an over­dose of sleep­ing pills in 1926, at the age of 57. She left be­hind the con­tours of a new na­tion and at least, as one friend put it, “25 pairs of ex­pen­sive shoes.”

Gertrude Bell Ar­chive, New­cas­tle Univer­sity

GERTRUDE BELL and com­pany in the Egyptian desert in a scene from “Let­ters From Baghdad.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.