Lukitz, a research fellow at Hebrew University's Truman Institute, weaves together a masterful biography of Gertrude Bell, one of the most controversial Western figures in Iraqi history and one of the modern Middle East's most remarkable figures. Well written with flowing narrative and richly sourced to Bell's own letters and other archival documents, A Quest in the Middle East traces Bell's life from her childhood in Northumbria to her role as Britain's second most famous Orientalist after T.E. Lawrence.
Bell was a renaissance woman, an archaeologist, scholar, and diplomat, and is rightfully credited with being the mother of modern Iraq. She was a woman of contradictions: While she sought to dispel British romanticism with the East, her writing reflects the same tendency. And while she pioneered new ground for women in a man's world, she longed to enjoy the more feminine possibilities she left behind. As the only female British political officer when she landed in Iraq in 1919, life was not easy. The British politician and diplomatic advisor Sir Mark Sykes called her a "flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump-wagging, blathering ass." But such treatment made her more effective. Lukitz observes, "The fact that she was a woman and not a pretty one, nourished Gertrude's initial ambition to concentrate in political matters." Her knowledge and success made her an equal player in the rarified world of British diplomacy.
Lukitz humanizes Bell, discussing her support for suffrage, her friendships, and failed romance, often in Bell's own words via excerpts from letters. Lukitz weaves Bell's experience and intellectual development into a broader historical narrative. For today's policymakers, though, the real substance of A Quest in the Middle East will be the recounting of Bell's experience in Iraq during World War I and its aftermath. Her discussions about Iraqi society, tribes, and politics will have special relevance today, as coalition forces remain mired in Iraq. Historians and general readers will also enjoy Bell's commentary on issues ranging from the Balfour Declaration (she opposed it) to which Arab family she thought the British should install on the Iraqi throne.