Desert Queen, by Janet Wallach

This book holds the balance between an informational, historical, romantic, and suspenseful story so effortlessly that you forget that it is a biography. Now, I rarely read biographies — I can’t even remember the last time I read one — but if they read anything like this one, I need to start making it a more common occurrence. The book chronicles the life of Miss Gertrude Bell, a fiercely intelligent and unabashedly gutsy Englishwoman who “explored, mapped, and excavated the world of the Arabs.” She lived in tents, crossed the desert on camel back with Bedouins, negotiated talks between dangerous warlords, got captured as a prisoner in the process, but also left time to update her wardrobe with the latest fashions from Europe. She basically drew the borders for Iraq and Jordan and helped nurture the governmental foundations of those two countries in the 1920s. The National Museum of Iraq, known in her time as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, was formed due to her love of archaeology and passion for Iraqi culture and history. It houses artifacts of one of the earliest known civilizations in the world — the Mesopotamian culture and Babylonian Empire — and while the museum was looted during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it reopened this year after much refurbishment.

I chose to highlight just a couple out of her many and impressive achievements, but I think they give you a taste for the adventure, passion and influence Bell brought into the world. The story is so skillfully written, that it’s hard to believe that Wallach so seamlessly connected Bell’s life by little more than her letters and diary entries. Of course, as a voracious writer who was acutely aware that her words were recording history as it happened, Bell had left behind thousands of pages of material, but nevertheless, it was no simple undertaking for Wallach to flawlessly meld such a rich and tangled history into this unified book. I highly recommend you to read about this marvelous lady who is now my personal icon. I share so much in common with her: our love of languages, history, Sumerian archaeology, fashion, and we even have the same birthday! *Sigh* Of course, I have yet to create the political framework of a country or head a national library — but there’s still time while I’m alive!

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