The women behind Sykes-Picot

Jane Digby, Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark had lives as illustrious as their male counterparts in the Middle East.

    Sir Percy Cox and famed adventurer and explorer Gertrude Bell speaking with an Arab leader during a visit to Mesopotamia [Getty]
    Sir Percy Cox and famed adventurer and explorer Gertrude Bell speaking with an Arab leader during a visit to Mesopotamia [Getty]

    British diplomat Mark Sykes and French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot garnered most of the attention in the retrospective commentaries published around May 16, the 100-year anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Treaty.

    Other pieces referred to their contemporaries, such as the British agent T E Lawrence, who led the Arab Revolt during World War I, or the influential oil broker Calouste Gulbenkian.

    These Europeans sought to shape the Middle East, yet for every discussion of a European man who engaged in this endeavour, there is also a story of a European woman who both made this region, and was made by the region.

    Jane Digby, Gertrude Bell, or Freya Stark, just to name a few women, led lives as illustrious as their male counterparts in the Middle East.

    Sykes-Picot: Lines in the Sand - Al Jazeera World

    In terms of popular historical memory, we remember European men in the Middle East, such as archaeologists, spies, and diplomats concocting surreptitious treaties, but have forgotten the women who also engaged in such activities.

    Jane Digby

    The life of Jane Digby resembles that of Lord Byron, as they both flouted social conventions of their time.

    Byron, remembered as the debauched, flamboyant, amorous, Romantic-era poet, travelled to the Ottoman Empire in 1809.

    Today, he would be considered a foreign fighter on par with those leaving from Europe to fight in the current Syrian civil war. In 1824, he died in an Ottoman civil war, fighting on behalf of Greeks seeking independence.

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    Around the time of Byron's death, Digby was coming-of-age in Britain. She has been remembered for her love affairs, having had four husbands, and a variety of lovers, including a Greek general who fought in the war of independence that Byron died in.

    Today [Lord Byron] would be considered a foreign fighter on par with those leaving from Europe to fight in the current Syrian civil war.


    In 1853 she arrived in Damascus, travelling to the ancient city of Palmyra. Digby's journey was daunting given the risk of disease and attack from other Bedouins.

    She was accompanied by Medjuel el-Mezrab, a sheikh from one of the smaller tribes of the Aniza confederation, who she eventually married.

    She learned Arabic, lived half of the year in nomadic tents in the desert, and the other half in her palatial home in Damascus, spending the rest of her life in Syria with her husband until her death 28 years later.

    Gertrude Bell

    In light of the Sykes-Picot treaty, attention has been given to T E Lawrence and his interaction with the future king of Iraq, Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein of the Arab Revolt.

    However, it was a woman, Gertrude Bell, referred to known as the "khatun" or "queen", who was more instrumental in Faisal's career. It was this queen who was a kingmaker in Iraq, lobbying for King Faisal to rule, then becoming his personal adviser.

    English archaeologist and traveller Gertrude Bell [1868-1926] [Getty] 

    While Lawrence is memorialised, Bell had an equally illustrious career as an explorer and spy. Bell completed her studies in history at Oxford with honours.

    During World War I, like Lawrence, she worked for the Arab Bureau out of Egypt and then in Iraq. She would go on to establish Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad.

    In some respects, she is remembered along the lines of Sykes and Picot, Europeans who drew up the borders of the region.

    In the words of the late journalist, Anthony Shadid: "Here, the new Iraq looks like the old one, imbued with politics that might be familiar to Gertrude Bell, the British diplomat and adventurer who drew the country's borders after World War I."

    Even Nicole Kidman, who plays Bell in the film Queen of the Desert described her along these lines: "She basically defined the borders between Iraq and Jordan that exist today, borders that she negotiated between Churchill and different Arab leaders."

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    Ironically, the most infamous border drawer, Mark Sykes, was not fond of Bell, calling her a "conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rump wagging, blethering ass".

    Portrait of the British explorer and writer Freya Stark [1893-1993], dressed in the traditional costume of the Hadramaut region of Yemen [Getty]

    Freya Stark

    In terms of World War II spies, Laszlo Almasy will be remembered in popular historical memory as the inspiration for the main character in the film, The English Patient.

    In fact, he was a Hungarian spy who actively aided Nazi Germany in Libya and in their campaign to take Egypt. It was a female British agent, Freya Stark, who tried to prevent Egypt from falling into German hands.

    Stark's journeys to the Middle East began in 1927, when she travelled to Beirut, making her way to Baghdad, in the Mandate of Iraq, and by 1931 western Iran, reaching the long-fabled mountain fortress of the Assassins in the Elburz mountains.

    In 1935, she travelled to the Hadhramaut in today's Yemen. Few Western travellers, never mind women, had gone into these parts of Iran or Yemen, risking the dangers of not so much bandits, but the environment and water-borne diseases.

    Like Digby and Bell, she was fluent in Arabic, a talent that served her well during the Second World War in the British Ministry of Information.

    She worked in Aden in southern Yemen, producing Arabic news broadcasts to counter Axis propaganda, and travelled to northern Yemen to meet with its ruler, the Imam, as a one-woman propaganda team to keep the kingdom neutral during the War.

    In Egypt, she contributed to the Ikhwan al Hurriya (Brotherhood of Freedom), a propaganda network to persuade Arabs to rally behind the Allies, particularly as the Axis military were massing near El Alamein. 

    Her expeditions continued after the War, and her last, in in her old age, was to Afghanistan. She died in 1993 at 100 years old.

    Their legacies

    The feats of these three women were noteworthy given that they not only navigated patriarchal societies in the Middle East, but also Britain. Digby and Bell found freedom in the Middle East, escaping rigid Victorian social conventions. 

    Today, Digby would be horrified to witness the fate of Palmyra under ISIL control. Bell would be dismayed to see the museum she founded, sacked and looted after 2003, or the damage ISIL inflicted upon the ancient site of Hatra in Iraq, which she visited in 1911.

    She would probably be more upset about the damage ISIL inflicted to Iraq's human heritage, particularly among the Yezidis, whom she had visited in 1905. Freya Stark probably could have never envisioned a group like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula establishing a presence in the Hadhramaut in Yemen, or the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

    In the cases of Bell and Stark, these two women were agents of imperialism, perpetuating British colonial control over the Middle East. Yet this article is a lament of sorts, for many of the places these women travelled and meticulously documented, would be unrecognisable to them today, all for the worse.

    Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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