How One Extraordinary Woman—and her powerful empathy—Shaped the Modern Middle East

In September of 1921, Gertrude Bell received an urgent message. It was from  King Faisal—the first ruler of modern Iraq—who had been appointed ruler of Mesopotamia, now Iraq, only a few weeks earlier on August 23. Bell, who had been the principal architect of the British government’s reconstitution of Iraq after World War I, had been one of Faisal’s key advisors in the two years leading up to his British-backed coronation as king. Now, he began to rely more than ever on her clear advice and sound, objective judgment.

After dinner, Faisal invited Bell into the garden at the center of his palace. The stocky, handsome king took a sip of thick, black Turkish coffee, and began confiding his deepest fears and doubts. He addressed her as Khatun—meaning Important Lady, or one who keeps an open eye and ear for the benefit of the state. Speaking in Arabic—a language that Bell mastered years earlier during her long sojourns in the deserts of the Middle East—he asked her advice on a variety of topics. How could he best win the loyalty of the disparate tribes within Iraq’s new borders? Could Bell suggest how to establish the kinds of personal relationships he needed with the Bedouin leaders? How should he deal with his new British masters?

Bell listened intently, watching his body language, his eyes. Faisal trusted her totally. He knew that no other man or woman in all the Middle East—including the famous T. E. Lawrence—understood the pulse of the country, and the sentiments of the various leaders, as Bell did. He felt that she had only his interests at heart and that she would be totally objective in her opinions and advice. Most importantly, he sensed that Bell understood him—the difficult balancing act he had to maintain as the third son in a dynastic family, his reluctance to assume power, his need to act first as an Arab and second as a client of the British. Soon, Faisal was requesting weekly meetings with her to discuss everything from affairs of state to his family relations. She became his closest and most important advisor until her death five years later.

King Faisal was not the only person who sought out Gertrude Bell’s advice and counsel. Dozens of other Arab and British leaders of varying rank, including Winston Churchill, regularly met with her—in some cases continually over a period of 20 years—to discuss wide-ranging political and economic topics. Because of her expertise in Arab politics and culture, Bell was invited to join the British Foreign Service and later to become an advisor to the British government on Middle East affairs. Her paper “Self Determination in Mesopotamia” won her an invitation to the Paris peace conference of 1919. In it she offered advice on how to govern the region in the years following World War I.

Gertrude Bell’s keen intellect, thirst for knowledge, self-assurance, and personal conviction were all qualities that contributed to her success. It was her deeply developed empathy, however, that set her apart. After winning highest honors—a “first”—in history and graduating from Oxford in 1889 (one of the first women to do so), Bell traveled throughout North Africa and the Middle East where she developed a deep empathy for the Arabs and Bedouins. A student of their desert cultures, she became fluent in Arabic and four other languages. Over time, she cultivated an uncanny ability to read the intentions and moods of the Arab leaders she dealt with. Bell understood the workings of other peoples’ minds, and it was this capability that allowed her to develop her deep understanding of both Western and Arabic culture.

Bell, in short, had mastered the major foundations of empathy, and this was at the core of her extraordinary accomplishments. She had an abiding interest in people, humility, and a learning attitude. She was a superb listener, whether conversing with heads of state or local tribesmen. To become the trusted advisor of King Faisal—and a confidante of many other Arab leaders—was a remarkable feat for any foreigner, especially a woman, in the Middle East of the early 1900s.

Ask yourself these three questions:

    • Are you deeply curious about others? Does it show in your day-to-day behavior?
    • Do you have a humility that leads you to feel you can learn something from practically everyone?
    • Are you a consistent, attentive, deep listener?

Click here to download and take my brief, 10-point listening self assessment. You’ll find it revealing!

Note: This scene is described in Janet Wallach, Desert Queen (New York: Nan A. Talese, 1996), p. 326.

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