Belated Book Report

I saw Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations sitting on the bookshelf and decided I’d take another shot at posting about it. Here’s my previous and not very informative post.

First off, this one line threw me for a loop, and I couldn’t help but hold it against the book. It is mind-bogglingly wrongheaded and hard to recover from. And it occurs in the preface.

She was not a feminist; she had no need or wish for special treatment.

I trust everyone can see what’s wrong with that.

And oh, she was not a feminist, just an independent woman educated way, way beyond what a woman could expect at that time, who hobnobbed with the entirely male rulers of the Arab tribes and also, by the way, climbed mountains, but whatever. And oh, she had no need for special treatment, but she was the granddaughter of a man the author describes as “the Bill Gates of his day.” Surely if she’d been born in an alley to a tubercular, illiterate prostitute who promptly died she’d have achieved all the exact same things she achieved, because she was just so smart and talented and her grandfather’s obscene wealth played no part in her success. Right.

Then we are treated to what seems like many hundreds of pages about mountain climbing. I have always thought that there was no such thing as a boring subject, and that an enthusiastic speaker could make any subject interesting. After having read (most of) this book as well as Three Cups of Tea, I now know that there is a boring subject: mountain climbing. And you’d expect it to be interesting, too.

I confess that I didn’t finish the book. But actually, now that a lot of time has passed, I think I’m ready to read the rest. After all, she was instrumental in the creation of the modern state of Iraq. And she was not a fan of Zionism.

Lord Arthur James Balfour, Lloyd George’s languid Foreign Secretary, had issued a Declaration in November 1917 that the British government aproved “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” As Gertrude, thinking of the Sykes-Picot treaty and all the trouble that had caused, wrote in a letter to Sir Gilbert Clayton, former head of the Arab Bureau in Cairo: “Mr. Balfour’s Zionist pronouncement I regard with the deepest mistrust–if only people at home would not make pronouncements how much easier it would be for those on the spot!”

When the first draft of the Declaration had been put to the Cabinet, Sir Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India…mounted a vehement opposition despite being Jewish himself, stating that Zionism was a “mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom.” Was his own loyalty, he demanded, to be to Palestine? And what would be the repercussions for the rights of Jews living in other countries? Many Jewish leaders in the West believed that to offer Palestine to the Jews would be a disservice to Jewry, moreover, the Jews already settled in Palestine anticipated, and dreaded, the trouble that Zionism was about to cause. In support of his argument, Montagu had read out to the Cabinet a strongly argued letter from Gertrude, whose persuasive words had resulted in the rephrasing of the document. She was angered by the tendency of the Zionists and the statesmen at the Conference to talk as if Palestine was empty of people; and she could see that Arabs and Jews could not live peaceably side by side.

Well, of course they can, and they have many times in places throughout history, but the ethnic cleansing aspect is probably what she was thinking of when she wrote this.

In Jan 1918 she wrote:

Palestine for the Jews has always seemed to us to be an impossible proposition. I don’t believe it can be carried out–personally I don’t want it to be carried out, and I’ve said so on every possible occasion…to gratify Jewish sentiment you would have to override every conceivable political consideration, including the wishes of the large majority of the population.

Okay, I’ve convinced myself to read the rest of the book. I guess when I left off it was just about to get interesting.

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Filed under arab, arabian, arabist, books

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