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;
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.
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.
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?’