janet wallach   Spies in the Desert  
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  I can instantly recall an image of Lawrence of Arabia. His white robes flapping in the sun, he draws them around his body and wraps a kafeeyah around his head. His small figure so clean and so dazzling white, he stands like a pillar of purity in the shifting sands. Lawrence the blond-haired, blue-eyed desert warrior representing good against evil. Lawrence the iconoclast; so great he became an icon. But did his deeds justify the legend?

Lowell Thomas's Lawrence of Arabia tells of a man larger than life. But not even brilliant T.E. Lawrence could have been so heroic, as he himself acknowledged. Tormented by the portrait Thomas had painted, Lawrence yearned to debunk the myth. But, he confessed to his colleague and ally Gertrude Bell, he was caught in his own self-promotion. If he told the truth he would diminish himself; if he supported Thomas's story, the lies would only grow larger. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he intertwined truth and fiction, weaving them into his own yarn.

Gertrude Bell, a recognized writer, archaeologist and spy, and the only female Political Officer in the British forces during World War 1, recoiled at the hype and hyperbole. Begging her family to refuse all requests for interviews, she kept her own profile low. A true intelligence agent, she camouflaged her role, hiding behind her paperwork in Baghdad, while Lawrence rode his camel across the desert to fame.

Yet it was the brilliant and bold Miss Bell, traveling on her own in 1914, with a caravan of 20 camels and trunks filled with books, rifles, petticoats and fine china, who provided much of the information for Lawrence's glory. It was she, with her red hair and piercing green eyes, who just before the start of the First World War, defied the British and the Turks and joumeyed through Arabia. Envisioning British support for an Arab Revolt against the Turks, she sought out the great sheiks of the desert and assessed which ones would be England's friends and which would be its foes. It was she who told Lawrence about the Howietat, the fighting group that helped him in his race toward Aqaba. And it was she who knew where the water wells sprang and where the railroad tracks lay, vital information for Lawrence to sabotage the communications lines of the Turks. Lawrence the soldier was indebted to Miss Bell the intrepid traveler. Yet after the British defeated the Turks in Damascus, Lawrence retreated to England. Gertrude Bell stayed on in the East. But their paths would cross again.

To the disdain of British officials at the Paris Peace Conference, Lawrence arrived uninvited and, still wearing his headcloth, shepherded the Emir Faisal, the real leader of the Arab Revolt. Gertrude Bell came at the behest of her Government, charged with the task of explaining the Arab remains of the Ottoman Empire to the European delegates. Two years later Lawrence and Bell were invited by Winston Churchill to attend the Cairo Conference; they worked together persuading Churchill to choose Faisal as the putative King of Iraq. But it was Gertrude Bell (the only woman among 39 men) who drew the lines in the sand. marking the borders of the newborn country. At the end of the conference Lawrence returned to England, only to disappear. Gertrude Bell returned to Baghdad, determined to help Faisal succeed on his throne. How well she did! Newspapers around the world hailed her as the 'Uncrowned Queen of Iraq' and recognized her as a key player in the creation of the modern Middle East.

Gertrude Bell, the Englishwoman who dressed in feathery hats, flowery dresses and fur coats in the middle of the desert, was indeed a remarkable figure. A female surrounded by chauvinistic men, she was respected by British and Arabs alike and felt at home in both worlds, whether marching into the tents of sheiks or meeting with foreign ministers, swallowing sheep's eyes or sipping her afternoon tea. The Bedouin called her a "daughter of the desert." The British honored her as a Commander of the British Empire. Today she is the Desert Queen, an icon of adventurers and a role model for all who seek to make their mark on history.
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Copyright © 1997 Janet Wallach.

Photo credit: Jerry Bauer