x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Baghdad cemetery provides window into Iraq's past

Seeking out the resting place of one of the major British influencers on the Middle East reveals much about the present, too.

It took us an hour and a half to reach the British civil cemetery in Baghdad, but when we finally found Gertrude Bell's grave it made our journey - through security checkpoints and scorching heat - worthwhile.

Ever since the political turbulence that followed the overthrow of King Faisal II in 1958, access to the cemetery has been restricted and the site itself suffers from neglect.

Ali Mansur, whose family have looked after the cemetery since 1930, unlocked the gates to let us inside.

He said: "Miss Bell hasn't been forgotten", pointing to the shrubs and flowers that surround her grave, which is marked with the inscription: "Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, Oriental Secretary to the High Commissioner for Iraq. Died in Baghdad, 12th July 1926."

Gertrude Bell was born in Washington, County Durham, England. She studied history at Oxford and then travelled to Europe and Persia before making her way to the Middle East. She learnt Arabic, took part in archaeological digs and was later hired as an agent for the British intelligence in Cairo.

Perhaps, most of all, she fell in love with Iraq.

In one of her letters, dated September 11, 1921 she wrote: "Have I ever told you what the river is like on a hot summer night? At dusk the mist hangs in long white bands over the water; the twilight fades and the lights of the town shine out on either bank, with the river, dark and smooth and full of mysterious reflections, like a road of triumph through the mist."

Nicknamed "Khatun" (or "Lady of the Court"), she delivered the most consequential moves of her career when she installed the pro-British Faisal I as the first monarch of Iraq and by drawing the boundaries of the new state that included Baghdad, Mosul and Basra - acts that had far-reaching effects on the political landscape.

Today, as violence rips through Iraq, amid a power struggle and sectarian crisis, her words reverberate like echoes from the past.

In a letter addressed to her father and dated October 3, 1920, she wrote: "The Shia problem is probably the most formidable in this country. We were discussing it last night at an extremely interesting dinner party in my house … Abdul Majid said: 'What are you going to do if the chief mujtahid, whose voice is the voice of God, issues a fatwah that no Shia is to sit in the Legislative Assembly … or when a law is being debated, suppose the mujtahid cuts in with a fatwah that it's against canon law and must be rejected, irrespective of other considerations?'

"Imagine the Pope exercising real temporal authority in Italy and obstructing the Govt at every turn, and you have the position. I don't for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis, in spite of their numerical inferiority; otherwise you will have a mujtahid-run, theocratic state, which is the very devil."

Baghdad's graveyard is like a time capsule that offers a glimpse of Iraq's troubled colonial past.

Next to Bell's grave is the tomb of George A Bust, who was born in 1898 and died in 1990, and brought British expertise to Iraq's flour mills.

"His wife is Iraqi and Muslim and way into her 90s but she still comes by and visits his grave every now and then," says Ali. "She usually needs people to help support her while she stands and prays for him."

I thought to myself, how strange that Iraqis in the neighbourhood had no idea that one of the most influential women in the country's history was buried only a few metres away from where they stood.

On the way to the cemetery, few people in the vicinity knew of its whereabouts.

As we got closer to the location, we were stopped by checkpoint officials who said we were in the wrong location and that there were no British people buried here. It was a wonder that we found it at all.

But Ali insists: "We take care of the 'Khatun', we haven't forgotten her and we do make sure to look after her."

In a letter to her father dated September 11, 1921, it seemed that she knew she had made her mark in history: "As we rode back through the gardens of the Karradah suburb, where all the people know me and salute me as I pass, (Iraq's prime minister) Nuri al-Said said, 'One of the reasons you stand out so is because you're a woman. There's only one Khatun ... For a hundred years they'll talk of the Khatun riding by'."

I think they very likely will.

 

halsayegh@thenational.ae