Our heads smack against the inside roof of the black 4×4 Land Rover like kernels of popcorn. We scream so loudly that when I glance sideways to see my husband’s face it’s purple. The setting sun and our perilous speed make it impossible to know if it’s just the light or if he’s having a heart attack. I breath deeply to slow my pulse just in case we need to make the hospital our next stop!
This is the start of my Arabian adventure – giant sprays of white sand swooshing underneath the tires. It is terrifying and exhilarating, and not what I expected when I asked the hotel concierge about Bedouins and a desert tour. I pictured a less dramatic tour retracing the history and lifestyle of ancient desert caravans.
But I should know better. In Dubai, people expect the unexpected and this tour is grand like the Palace Hotel we’re staying at in downtown Dubai. The Palace is surrounded by lush gardens and spectacular views of the Dubai fountain, nestled in front of Dubai’s world renown shopping complex. Visitors inhale exotic floral scents as they enter the lobby and feast on jewel-colored interiors.
Our tour of the desert started when guides arrived in luxury all-terrain vehicles to chauffeur five parties of six people to the desert conservation area less than an hour from the city center of Dubai. The promise of a falcon demonstration and tented campground dinner with music and festivities under the setting sun was a dream come true for me. I had been to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) once before but it had been to Abu Dhabi, one of the seven UAE states that definitely felt culturally more conservative than Dubai.
My desire to see the desert stemmed from memories sitting with my father and watching American spaghetti westerns and the Oscar winning Lawrence of Arabia movie. Long flowing robes and headscarves were as foreign as my grasp of British colonial history and the state of the Arab world during the First World War.
So when Werner Herzog’s “The Queen of the Desert” was released early in 2017, I felt that same allure watching Nicole Kidman play the female version of Lawrence of Arabia in her portrayal of Gertrude Bell. I remembered highlights of my touristy Dubai desert adventure as I watched Kidman’s performance; of course, my experience paled in comparison to the 30 years Bell spent roaming vast desert lands in the Middle East.
Born into 1868 Victorian England, Gertrude Bell’s education was unusual. She was the first woman to graduate Oxford with a degree in modern history and her personality was considered “too academic” to attract marriage offers, despite her family’s significant wealth. So when her father encouraged her to visit her uncle, a diplomat stationed in Iran in 1892, Bell fell in love with the Middle East. The wanted to make a life for herself writing and documenting her desert travels so she taught herself how to speak Persian and Arabic. Bell’s archeological and academic interests became a love affair that lasted a lifetime.
During this time Britain was struggling to maintain its Imperial Rule and Bell’s knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and her travels throughout present-day regions, that include Palestine, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq, became a valuable asset to the government. Bell helped to stop the expansion of the Turkish Empire with her knowledge and the unorthodox relationships she had forged roaming freely and meeting with Sheiks and Bedouin communities. Her geopolitical knowledge of borders surrounding Iraq and Jordan were critical in helping the British negotiate diplomatic settlements at the end of World War I.
There’s a scene in the “Desert Queen” where Kidman poses for a picture with Winston Churchill, just as Bell did at the 1921 Conference in Cairo, Egypt. She was the only woman delegate in the group and were it not for her trusted relationship with the Arabs, Churchill’s diplomatic efforts and relations with these Arab countries would likely have turned out quite differently.
Obviously much has changed since Bell’s time and her legacy helping to build the Museum of Antiquities in Iraq and her preservation of desert history. Her passing in 1926 marked the end of her adventures long before the United States bombed her beloved Baghdad in 2003. Camels that once transported Bedouin tribes and foreigners like Bell who rode through the desert are now used in other ways, like camel racing for sport. Mechanical robots have replaced traditional child jockeys who used to ride on top (thanks to protective United Nations child labor laws) and robotic whips are used to lead a camel to victory while a lead truck races alongside the camel.
Riding a camel in Dubai was as thrilling as I thought it would be after our stomach churning Land Rover drive dropped us at the Desert Conservation Reserve. It was daunting to mount a camel, as they are huge animals who need to bow the front of their bodies so low in order for you to straddle their bumps. You then have to trust your body to lean way back in order for the camel to uncurl its long front legs allowing it to stand. But my nerves were buoyed by the smells of roasted meats, spicy scents and thick coffee smells permeating our campsite; a stark contrast to Bell’s lifestyle, where her desert survival depended on the hospitality of Arab tribes visited and personal rations of food and water needed to survive the grueling desert conditions.
Seated in tented areas and regaled with stories about the nomadic existence, I learned about the Arab’s falcon traditions. Professional falconers demonstrated the hawking skills of these majestic birds of prey used for scouting and hunting food, until a sudden sand storm had our group running back to the cars for cover. It’s not unusual for this to happen and the sands are like shards of glass that sting your face and fill your eyes and nose.
I can still taste the grit between my teeth as we reach the campsite replete with portable bathrooms, until I think of the whirling belly dancers who entertained us and the magnificent dining feast at this final stop. Tucked in the starry heavens overhead was a sky filled with centuries of history that will forever beckon me back. I can remember standing out in the open air and walking back to the car thinking about my infinitesimal place in the world and the deep connection I felt to the desert.
Bell’s legacy as a gentlewoman of the desert – a Khatun in the Arab culture – is wrapped in that same dark sky that I see when I look up at the night wherever I am. It’s a place where her legacy as a queen of the desert lives forever.
Bell wrote a series of letters collected into a number of publications that I hope to read one day. They can be found in the New York City Public Library or one of the many libraries around the world that house copies of these letters. Her words in the preface of one book, “Amurath to Amurath”, remind us of our place in the world: “We wither away but they wane not, the stars that above us rise; the mountains remain after us, and the strong towers when we are gone.”
Note: You can read more about Gertrude Bell in, Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia