Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Gertrude Bell’

Letters from Baghdad

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th April, 2017

Gertrude Bell 1A century ago, the shape of the modern Middle East was formed out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The behind-the-scenes power play by Britain and France that resulted in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement led to the boundaries of their respective zones of influence. But also significant was the work done by the British explorer, archaeologist and spy, Gertrude Bell, who drew the borders of the modern state of Iraq. A contemporary of T. E. Lawrence, with whom she had a friendship spiced by intense personal rivalry, Bell left her mark in more ways than one, including founding the Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad and chivying, not always successfully, the British government to, run its Middle Eastern League of Nations mandates according to her priorities. There have been several books about Gertrude Bell, but none gives such a vivid picture of her as the new documentary film by Sabine Krayenbuhl and Zeva Oelbaum, Letters from Baghdad. Their approach is quite daring, reflecting its subject’s forthright personality, as it largely comprises archive footage that the film-makers found in 25 separate locations, as well as black-and-white photos taken by Bell herself. The streets of Baghdad, Aleppo, Cairo and other places 100 years ago are so successfully brought alive that one is transported back in time, as well as place.

Letters from Baghdad still

The commentary is drawn from the subject’s letters and diaries, supplemented by those of some of the people who encountered her. The actor Tilda Swinton provides Bell’s voice, while other actors impersonate key characters, filmed as if giving live interviews. This is truly history reincarnated before our eyes. The film does not hide the complexities, even difficulties, in Gertrude Bell’s character. She was driven by what she believed to be right, and she could be both churlish and offensive towards those who disagreed with her, or struck her as superficial. She was as brave as any man, and the Arabs treated her respectfully as if she were one, yet she also had a colossal wardrobe of clothes, one reason for T. E. Lawrence’s sneering disapproval. She would not have been an easy woman to have as a friend, but one would have had to admire her energy, even if she herself became increasingly disillusioned with life by the end, dying from an overdose (accidental or otherwise) of sleeping pills. This film does her an immense service, as well as underlining Britain’s role in shaping, for better or for worse, the modern, conflict-riven Middle East. It’s a “must see” for anyone with even the slightest interest in the region, but it should appeal also to anyone who relishes accounts of extraordinary individuals.

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My House in Damascus

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th April, 2014

My House in DamascusBait BaroudiDiana Darke is one of those splendid British Arabists, in the tradition of Gertrude Bell, who combines a passion for Syria and the rest of the Middle East with an admirably Anglo-Saxon cool head, which has enabled her to work for many years as a translator, consultant and writer of Bradt travel guides on the region. Unlike Ms Bell, however, she is not al-Khatun, a Lady of the Court, with one dog-like ear and eye open to pick up on anything that could be of use to the powers that be — despite at one stage in her life being a diplomatic wife. Indeed, it is hard to imagine her hand-in-hand with either William Hague or the family and entourage of President Bashar al-Assad, who is hanging on in there in Damascus while his country proceeds fast down the road to perdition. Such was Diana Darke’s enchantment with the old walled city of Damascus that she day-dreamed of owning one of the Ottoman courtyard houses in its heart, and once that idea had been seeded, it germinated and led to her acquiring Bait Baroudi, and then embarking on a painstaking process of restoration, not to make something pristine and thus suitable for a high-end boutique hotel, but rather as a place of beauty that would wear its heritage with subtle pride, with the aid of some fine pieces of antique stone and artefacts picked up on expeditions round the sellers of the banished contents of disintegrating ancestral homes. Having created this oasis of tranquility — sometimes generously lent out to travelling friends — she then thought of writing a book about the house and its project, but events overtook her. From the moment some teenage idealists in the town of Dera’a wrote anti-government slogans on walls in March 2011, unleashing a crackdown, Syria entered the vortex of the most vicious and unpredictable of all the so-called Arab spring revolutions. 140,000+ dead later, not to mention the millions of refugees and internally displaced, the situation seems as intractable as ever. Diana Darke can no longer visit Syria to spend time in her Arab home, but it now houses its own band of around 30 refugees, including some of those people who had worked with her on the house. So the book she originally envisaged became unviable, unpublishable even, in the current gloomy political climate. And so it transmuted into a really very special volume, My House in Damascus (Haus Publishing, £14.99), which weaves an enchanting tapestry not just of Bait Baroudi, but of Damascus and Greater Syria, drawing on the author’s own youthful studies of Arabic at the old MECAS institute at Shemlan in Lebanon, cleverly threading the weft of her personal story through the warp of Arab culture, past and present, skilfully moving back and forth between the years without losing the reader on the way. The result is a gem that will delight those already familiar with Damascus and be a revelation to those who aren’t. But I suspect all will finish reading it with a sense of deep sadness for the way Syria is being torn apart. Diana Darke determinedly hopes that one day, somehow, it will all turn out all right, and that it will be possible to walk across the hills of the Levant, carefree, before returning home to the gentle charm of Bait Baroudi. I wish I could sincerely believe that she is right.

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