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.
Without doubt this particular copy informed British officialdom; this copy originally belonged to the British War Office Library. The oval stamp of the “WAR OFFICE LIBRARY” dated “17 MAY 1921” appears on the upper right corner of the title page. Below, at the title page center, is ink stamped: “MINISTRY OF DEFENCE | LIBRARY SERVICES | WITHDRAWN”. A printed label affixed to the front pastedown reads “BOOKS of the War Office Library are | to be issued only to officers and officials of | the War Office. | They are not to be removed from the | vicinity of London, and are to be held ready | for immediate return when required. | W5310-HP7511 2000 3/20 HWV(M967) K1467”. Over-stamped at an angle atop the printed label is “MINISTRY OF DEFENCE | LIBRARY SERVICES | WITHDRAWN”.
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… 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 plus, sound and complete, showing some inevitable, but not excessive, age and wear. In addition to the stamps and label detailed above, the spine is printed in white with the War Office cataloguing designation “S908(567)”. The green cloth binding is otherwise quite good, unfaded with only modest wear to extremities. The contents remain complete, clean, and firmly attached, a bit age-toned but with no spotting. A cosmetic split to the front endpapers does not affect binding integrity, nor does exposure of the binding cords within at the gutters.
By her mid-twenties Gertrude Bell developed an 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. Item #006696