Basrah: Printed by E. G. Pearson at the Times Press, Bombay, and published by the Superintendent, Government Press, Basrah, 1917. First edition. Hardcover. The Arab of Mesopotamia was published in Basrah in 1917 to inform British imperial considerations in the Middle East during and after the First World War. The author, Gertrude Lowthian Bell (1868-1926) was the intriguing and influential adventurer, scholar, writer, and diplomat who, like her contemporary T. E. “Lawrence of Arabia”, did much to frame and shape the Middle East during and after the First World War.
The Arab of Mesopotamia was published as a small, clothbound, 202-page volume. A brief Preface presents the contents as “… essays on subjects relating to Mesopotamia, written during 1916 by persons with special knowledge… many of those whom the fortune of war has brought to these regions would be glad to have the opportunity of obtaining them in a convenient and permanent form.” Pages 101-202 titled “Asiatic Turkey” are specifically attributed to Bell’s authorship, identified in Bell’s Preface as “written at the request of the War Office during June and July, 1917.” Subsequent debate indicates that the entirety of the volume was authored by Bell, including the 10 essays spanning pages 1-100.
Copies do not tend to weather well. The workmanlike green cloth binding is prone to wear and toning, the binding itself often splits at the gutters, and the contents are on cheap stock prone to both brittleness and heavy toning. Condition of this copy is good, sound, complete, original and unrestored, but nonetheless showing some age and wear. The green cloth binding is intact, the front cover gilt bright, but the cloth is mottled and scuffed. The contents are modestly age-toned, as inevitable, but show no spotting or previous ownership marks. The binding remains firmly attached but tender, a split at the Preface having sundered two of four binding cords and exposed the intact mull beneath.
Raised amid industrialist family wealth, Gertrude Bell lost her mother at age three, increasing a “sense of independence and self-reliance” perhaps already inherent to the “physically restless and intellectually gifted” child. By her mid-twenties the unmarried Bell discovered intellectual and emotional fascination with the Middle East. “Outstanding literary and linguistic skills” coupled with “determination, bravery, physical strength, and endurance” invigorated contributions to travel literature, translation, archaeology, and architecture, eventually evolving into engagement in the region’s socio-political currents. By the First World War, Bell became “a voluntary agent of Britain’s interests in the Middle East” and assumed her defining role – as “a woman trying to break one of the most challenging barriers of her time: the physical conquest of the desert and the decoding of the moral and ethical code of its inhabitants.” (ODNB)
The Arab of Mesopotamia speaks to Bell’s influence in shaping the post-WWI structure of the Middle East, particularly the foundation of Iraq. After joining the Cairo Arab Bureau in 1916, Bell was annexed to the military intelligence department in Basrah. Her articles for Hogarth’s Arabian Report and the famous Arab Bulletin ranked among “the best sources of information on the events in the Middle East during the war.” When the Turks lost Baghdad in early 1917, Bell engaged in Mesopotamia’s civil administration. She became oriental secretary under the British high commissioner when an Arab provisional government was established in Baghdad in late 1920, a post she held until her death in 1926 from a sleeping pill overdose. Bell influenced decisions at the March 1921 Cairo conference of British Middle East officials, and “played a significant role in securing the throne for Feisal ibn Hussein” later that year “and in preparing the electoral law that provided the king and the British high commissioner with the authority to administer the country…”. Item #005919