Let­ters From Bagh­dad

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Let­ters From Bagh­dad, 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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.