‘Letters from Baghdad’ Shows Iraq Through Eyes of British Spy Who Shaped It

“Letters from Baghdad,” a documentary on Gertrude Bell, the British writer, explorer, spy and political officer who helped shape modern Iraq, had its first screening in the country on Monday, drawing loud applause from an audience of academics, diplomats, journalists and others.

The documentary shows hitherto unseen footage of Iraq as it was being pulled together into a new state a century ago, with a script taken entirely from Bell’s letters and official documents and read by British actress Tilda Swinton.

It also throws some light on Iraq’s current challenges as it emerges from a war with Islamic State militants and seeks to reconcile its Shi’ite majority with its Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

Mustafa Salim, an Iraqi journalist at the Washington Post Bureau in Baghdad, gave the documentary a thumbs up after the showing at the National Theater in Baghdad.

“It’s a wonderful movie. But as an Iraqi viewer I would have liked it to go deeper into the political and historical aspects and the decisive influence she had in creating the Iraqi state,” he said, referring to the fact that parts of the documentary focused mainly on Bell’s private life.

The theater was hushed throughout the screening, with little or no texting on phones — a sign of a healthily absorbed audience in modern-day Iraq.

“The Iraqi viewer will be immersed in a visual experience of a common past and walk away with a sense of a culturally very diverse and vibrant Baghdad in the early 1900s,” Sabine Krayenbuehl, co-director of the film with Zeva Oelbaum, said before the screening.

Released in 2016, “Letters from Baghdad” was selected for the BFI London film festival and won the audience award at the Beirut International Film Festival.

Its screenings in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq have been organized by the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and coincide with the 150th anniversary of Bell’s birth.

It explains the key decisions made by Bell as a political officer in the British colonial administration ruling Iraq after World War One. Among these were the decision to include Sunni-majority Mosul and Kurdish areas in the north into the Iraqi state being pulled together by the British, and choosing Faisal bin Hussein from the Arabian Sunni Hashemite dynasty as king.

Bell drew up Iraq’s borders based on her knowledge of the local populations she encountered as an explorer, when the Arabian Peninsula and Mespotamia were still under Turkish Ottoman control.

One picture shows her with T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia,” and Winston Churchill near the Great Pyramids of Egypt.

The film also shows scenes of daily life in Baghdad, including families and personalities from its thriving Jewish community.

“Gertrude Bell was a champion of diversity, she loved the different culture she came upon. Iraq during her time was very diverse and Baghdad was a very vibrant city. We feel this is a message that is very important today,” Oelbaum said.

Bell, who died in 1926 and was buried in the city, also founded the Museum of Baghdad to showcase and preserve the Sumerian and Babylonian heritage of Mespotamia.

The museum was plundered during the 2003 U.S.- and British-led-invasion which ousted Saddam Hussein and brought Iraq’s Shi’ites to power.

Baghdad has changed drastically since Bell’s time, as concrete buildings and roads replaced most of its traditional sand brick houses and their typical wooden verandas known as “shanashil.”

“We drove through the streets, we were looking at some of the older parts, seeing some of these old houses are falling apart. I think watching this movie gives an enthusiasm to want to restore and want to protect,” Krayenbuehl said.

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