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Paris, 1920


The treaty was signed in the Exhibition Room,

overseen by Marie Antoinette’s

dinner service. Like porcelain owls’ eyes,

they were witnesses of the delegates’ harsh

geometry, the fretwork jigsaw of desk

wallahs – Ottoman Mesopotamia

become modern Syria and Iraq.


Gertrude Bell was one of the delegates:

daughter of a philanthropic iron master;

Oxford graduate like T.E. Lawrence;

cartographer, mountaineer, linguist;

archaeologist, administrator,

public servant; Arabist, Al-Khatun,

‘Queen of the Desert’; poet, fluent

in Farsee, translator of Hafiz;

confidante of seraglios, anti-

Suffragist; anti-Zionist, maker

of the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.


London, 1915


Between postings, lobbying powerful men,

as always, to let her be useful,

she continued her letters to ‘Dick’,

Charles Doughty-Wylie, career diplomat

and soldier, the unrequited, married

love of her life – eclectic letters

of Whitehall gossip, geo-political

tactics, romantic longing, and sorrow

for the Great War’s slaughters. Her last letter

was never finished. She had learned

of his death in action at Gallipoli.


Baghdad, 1926


She died from an overdose of sleeping pills.

There was no evidence of suicide.

King Faisal, the monarch she had made and whom

she was finding ‘difficult’ of late,

watched, from the shade of his private balcony,

the coffin carried through the dust to the thump

and blare of the garrison’s brass band.

He could see the Tigris beyond the graveyard.

His grandson’s disfigured body would be hung

from a lamp post near the square where Saddam’s

prodigious statue would be toppled with ropes.


‘To steadfastness and patience, friend, ask not
If Hafiz keep–
Patience and steadfastness I have forgot,
And where is sleep?’







© Copyright David Selzer
1 Response
  • Catherine Reynolds
    August 30, 2018

    Having read your poem, so evocative of Edwardian gentility, the horrors of war and the diplomacy borne of a cultivated mind and oriental culture I was intrigued to read further about Gertrude Bell. I had a distinct gap in my knowledge of this place and this period and knew nothing of her upbringing, education and outstanding accomplishments. A polymath and a woman of both heart and mind. She must have dazzled her contemporaries. Thank you for such a beautiful poem and for educating me in the process. One of your many gifts.

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