Bell of the Desert

Written by Alan Gold
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1888, 20-year-old Gertrude Bell is presented to Queen Victoria. She is intrigued by Gertrude and invites her to tea! Gertrude is introduced to the Middle East two years later during visits to her uncle, a British diplomat, in Bucharest and later in Teheran. There Gertrude falls in love with the Third Secretary, who proposes to her. Since he’s far below her family’s financial status, her father withholds his consent. Gertrude returns home brokenhearted.

Gertrude travels extensively, learns Arabic, publishes several books, and becomes an expert on Middle East affairs. She meets T.E. Lawrence, who impresses her with his knowledge of Arabia. At the start of WWI, she is appointed to the Arab Bureau in Cairo and proposes a scheme to unite the various Arab tribes to fight on the British side against the Ottomans. When some issues develop between the Cairo Bureau and Viceroy Hardinge on the use of the British Indian Army Expeditionary force in the Middle East, Gertrude is sent to Delhi to mediate. That force captures Basra, and Gertrude is sent there. However, the army runs into difficulty at Kut-al-Amara: Turks surround thousands of British soldiers. Since reinforcements cannot be sent in time, the generals, in desperation, consider a political solution and ask Gertrude and Lawrence to assist.

While this is a historical novel, Gold has done a brilliant job in setting up the plot and in covering both the Arab and Western points of view. Readers will hasten to learn whether Gertrude and Lawrence will be successful in their mission. And will Gertrude’s dream of uniting the Arab tribes to fight on the British side come true? Also, what happens at the end of WWI? The obstacles and jeers that Gertrude faced from the chauvinistic officers of that era, and her appropriate responses, are shown vividly. A superb account of a historical woman.