Letters From Baghdad
The sentiment that the world’s electronic connectedness has made it effectively smaller might have a parallel when it comes to history and film. a documentary from directors Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum about the English archaeologist and diplomat Gertrude Bell, gives us a peek into the Middle East of a century ago, and as commentary from Bell’s personal correspondence is breathed into our ears in a voice-over by Tilda Swinton, one can almost feel the ribbon of time contracting, drawing the past closer to the present moment and binding our era to Bell’s.
In 1888, Bell earned highest honors in modern history at Oxford, at a time when there were few women at the university and they were restricted from graduating. A stint visiting an uncle who was posted in Tehran introduced her to the love of her life: the people and places of the Middle East. “You will find in the East a wider tolerance born of greater diversity,” she mused in one of many letters excerpted here. “If my family were not in England I would have no wish to return.” She studied Arabic and set off on expeditions into the desert, mapping wells and archaeological sites and taking thousands of photographs.
What began as a fascination with the literature, history, and geography of the Middle East led to a career in British military intelligence during the First World War. The British encouraged the Arabs to rise up against the Turks during the war and took over the administration of Iraq (then known as Mesopotamia) afterward. In a turn that is depressingly familiar to 21st-century audiences, conflicting regional and international interests culminated in disarray and violence. Bell lobbied for the establishment of an independent Arab state with an Arab leader, but even the language she used to describe that lofty goal has a dark undercurrent: “If only we could manage to install a native head of state.”
The producers of have done the world a great service in the course of preparing the documentary. To find moving images to accompany Bell’s words, they spent years combing through film that lay in storage in institutions across Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East, and the footage they found of the places she lived and worked was restored and digitally preserved. It looks amazing, conveying the shimmering splendor of early 20th-century Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo and capturing the daily lives of their inhabitants.
Bell died in 1926 as the result of a drug overdose that may have been intentional. Though the problems that she and her government wrestled with in what is now Iraq have proved damnably persistent, the place she knew and loved, which we are privileged to glimpse thanks to the archival footage here, seems forever lost. — Jeff Acker