I have long thought that Gertrude Bell’s life would make an amazing film. Not only did she tread a path that few women had in her time but she also was another Westerner who fell in love with the East. In the ways of the British Empire, she was in love with a part of the world that the British controlled and aware that there was a conflict in admiring the people who were subjugated to British rule. No matter how benevolent the rule was, it was rule nevertheless.
The documentary has Tilda Swinton reading extracts from her letters, usually to those ‘back home’ while archive footage and photographs of Bell are shown on-screen. That we never see Tilda Swinton ‘as’ Gertrude Bell is a wise move since the photographic image of her is not affected. Other people feature, people who knew her well, such as T. E. Lawrence, but these people are played by actors and we see them in black and white addressing the camera. Bell’s non- presence is all the more powerful because of this technique.
The story of the young woman who gained a First in History and who then turned East is a wonderful one. Her knowledge of the people and places of the Middle East made her a key figure in the peace conference following the First World War. Her role in setting up a country called Iraq before serving the government there in the field of archaeology illustrates well the way women were treated and viewed. In many cases, she was referred to as a ‘right hand man’. She understood she did not fit in when the social occasions were put on, organised as they were for the men and their wives. She was not really accepted in either group.
The film is in black and white throughout making the archive footage stand out. It is a very good introduction to the life of an amazing woman. ‘Letters from Baghdad’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I avoid sentimental books and films at all costs and I have to say I thought this film might fall into that category telling, as it does, the story of a young man from difficult circumstances who finds glory in a talent competition. Hany Abu-Assad’s film ‘The Idol’ won me over, though, and at the end, when I saw real news footage that I remember seeing on Channel 4 News in Britain, I knew this was a film for my hinterland.
The film tells the true story of Mohammed Assaf from Gaza whose biggest asset is his singing voice. The first half of the film shows the Muhammed as a boy with his sister and friends. Their dream is to form a band and buy the musical instruments to make this happen. Various schemes go wrong but the determination of the children is clear to see. They find a niche when his voice is in big demand as a wedding singer. But, when his sister Nour becomes ill and needs a new kidney, we see the desperate situation of the population in Gaza. Muhammed is close to his sister and cannot contemplate life without her.
As we move into the second part of the film, Mohammed is now a young man driving a taxi to fund his university studies. His singing has not died away completely but there is less joy in it for him until he meets an old friend who used to have dialysis alongside his sister many years ago. She encourages him to sing for her and something in him awakens. An aborted attempt to sing by internet for a television show reminds us of the policies that keep many Palestinians trapped in Gaza.
The journey to ‘Arab Idol’ where the real Mohammed Assaf made his name begins with a need to get beyond his trapped location. Friends and family help and in a series of incidents which bring him good fortune he finds himself appearing on the programme. This is the only part of the film that seemed too good to be true but, by this stage, I was ready to accept that he needed the breaks.
The film ends with documentary footage from around the world as his story interested foreign news programmes. It is an inspiring story of a boy from Gaza who travels to Egypt to take part in a talent show on television and who wins. Scenes of joy around the Gaza strip and Palestine are shown from news footage; there is no need to recreate this part fo the story.
‘The Idol’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I am attracted to history books that take a look at little considered aspects of the past or which take an unusual angle when exploring an area which has been frequently explored in the past. Maya Jasanoff’s book is an exploration of the British Empire through a study of the empire builders who collected artefacts, treasures and icons from India and Egypt.
The Europeans, mostly British, who plundered the lands they stumbled into were often marginal figures rather than great leaders. Some remain obscure but others achieved fame partly because they were great collectors. Then again, some accumulated cultural artefacts as part of their general wealth gathering while others became interested in the culture they discovered while taking it over.
Britain, particularly London, benefited from the growing interest in collecting and museums, such as the British Museum remain well stocked as a result. Initially, many of the items went to the East India Company’s own museum in the City of London before being taken into the collections of the emerging national museums. In some cases, such as the case of the family of Clive of India, the collections became family heirlooms to be added to by succeeding generations of empire builders.
This is a fascinating book. The British Empire does not emerge with any great credit but neither does France under Napoleon, which was equally ready to stamp all over the countries of others, despite the country having shaken off a monarchy and aristocracy.
The link between Egypt and India was one that had not occurred to me before but a glance on a map shows how strategically important it was to maintain a route to India from Britain. Egypt, or rather France’s ambition there, stood in the way.
I am, of course, one of the people who spends so much time in the British Museum feeling grateful that I have access to so many of the riches of the world. This book serves to remind people like me that not all riches were freely given.
‘Edge of Empire’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?