Book: Gertrude Bell’s Persian Pictures

Persian Pictures
by Gertrude Bell 

(1894, 1928 & in 2014 by I.B. Tauris)

All the earth is seamed with roads, and all the sea is furrowed with the tracks of ships, and over all the roads and all the waters a continuous stream of people passes up and down travelling, as they say, for their pleasure. What is it, I wonder, that they go out for to see?

Throughout an impressive career that encompassed writing, travelling, political administration and diplomacy, archaeology and espionage, Gertrude Bell travelled extensively throughout Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Arabia. 

Bell’s traveling career divides roughly into three periods – tourist, student and scholarly/political.  This trip falls within the first, some time before the most famous part of her career when she was helping to shape British policy in the Middle East and Iraq as a contemporary of TE Lawrence.

Bell made this journey to Persia in her mid-20s following her studies at Oxford.  Her uncle, Sir Franck Lascelles, had recently been appointed British minister in Tehran and Bell accompanied her aunt to visit him in 1892.   

After this trip to Persia, Bell’s focus shifted to the Arab world and later to what became the Hashemite kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq in the period following the First World War.

 

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Gertrude Bell in Egypt with Churchill, TE Lawrence and others

The basis of Persian Pictures were the letters that Bell sent home during her trip.  The book was originally published anonymously and was not published again and under Bell’s name until 1928, two years after her death.  

Persian Pictures is, as expected, a series of sketches each covering different topics.

Tehran street life is described in rich detail with wry observations and her thoughts about the bazaar could be true of many others (“though little of really beautiful or precious is to be found, the thronging of Oriental life is in itself an endless source of delight“).

There is a visit to a Persian princess, camping with nomads in wild mountains, an inspection of the dazzling jewel laden objects in the Shah’s treasury and also a rest stop at a caravanserai on a journey to the Caspian Sea, where the loaves of bread for sale were thin flaps and resembled “flour mixed in equal parts with sand and fashioned into the semblance of brown paper”.  Bell and her companions are invited to join a stranger for lunch and so are spared the unappetising bread and ride away having experienced the hospitality and courtesy of the East.

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In another episode, spending the night on a stranger’s floor Bell describes the traveller’s delight of sleeping in unexpected places and of experiencing shared humanity in the simple and basic things.  Throughout, Bell tries to get beneath the surface to uncover Persia’s secrets and closely observes the characters and manners of the people she meets including at a religious festival and in response to an outbreak of cholera.  

Persian Pictures is a short book but full of evocative and tantalising depictions of aspects of a country that has long since changed.  Poetic at times, Persian Pictures is rich in quotable descriptive passages and thoughts about the experience of travel, including an excellent section on the art of bargaining with merchants and another about travel companions and the true pleasure and purpose of travel.  

Bell is joyful and exuberant in Persian Pictures.  Like a rebirth, flowers bloom with just a little water from dead desert landscapes and, from the silent, extinct world of some ancient ruins, overnight rain brings forth the freshness of damp earth and desert flowers in the morning sun (“For us the wide plain and limitless world, for us the beauty and the freshness of the morning, for us youth and the joy of living!”

The sketches in Persian Pictures give a very real sense of someone who is in thrall to the intoxicating pleasure of travel and who is being seduced by the sights and sounds of the place they are in despite all the challenges and differences.  You know, reading Persian Pictures, that Gertrude Bell will be heading east again as soon as she can. 

We cling regretfully to the close, but the beginning is what is worth having the beginning with all its freshness, all its enthusiasm, all its unexpected charm, Hercules for strength, Atlanta for speed, Gabriel for fair promise. Say what you will, the end is sad. Do not linger over the possibilities to which (all unfulfilled) it sets a term, but remember the glorious energy which spurred you forward at first, and which lies ready to spring forth anew. 
Persian Pictures is available at Gutenberg.org or at the Internet Archive:

There is a renewed interest in Bell and her life. This is possibly due to the two wars in Iraq and also the re-shaping of the political landscape in much of the Middle East.   In 2015, Werner Herzog’s biopic of Bell’s life starring Nicole Kidman, Damian Lewis and Robert Pattinson was released and Bell has also been the subject of several biographies in recent years:

Article: Passport to Persia

Picnicking is taken very seriously in Iran and occurs at all times of day or night, and in any location.

Inspiring take on travelling in Iran from Bex Hughes in Suitcase magazine

Steering clear of a politicised account depicting Iran as a closed country, this article portrays a modern and progressive Iran where change is in the air, women are tour guides and their fashion habits are pushing the boundaries of what is permitted.  

A small but ever-growing sector of Iran’s workforce is female, and women consistently make up around 60 per cent of the country’s annual university intake. They may not have it easy, but Iranian women are educated, increasingly independent and slowly gaining prominence in the public space. 

Rather than a negative perspective, Hughes concentrates on the many reactions to social repression in Iran and how a shift may be taking place.  

Alongside the beautiful mosques and archaeological heritage are the “impenetrable jumble of concrete high-rises and traffic clogged highways” of Tehran.  A city of “mad energy”, Hughes describes its vibrant art scene, fashion boutiques and a youthful population keen to shrug off Iran’s recent conservative past.  Illicit use of social media is extensive, Western media and culture are widely known, couples meet in coffee shops and trendy restaurants and nose jobs are common.  What is more, the people are warm and picnicking is practically a national obsession. 

Although for citizens of some countries Iran may still be relatively difficult to enter, Iran is changing and seems ready to shatter preconceptions.  

The article is published in SUITCASE 13 along with a gallery of photos from Tehran-based artist, Shirin Aliabadi, called the ‘Miss Hybrid Series’ and which focuses on the fashion trends of young Iranian women:

More photos of Iran from Alexander Fritz can be found on SUITCASE’s website. 

Book: Richard Halliburton, The Flying Carpet

The Flying Carpet
by Richard Halliburton

Published by Tauris Parke Paperbacks (2012); First published 1933

“Wings! With a winged ship, I could still be a vagabond, but a vagabond
with the clouds for my province, as well as the continents.”

Born in 1900 and a graduate of Princeton, Halliburton’s life might have followed a more conventional path were it not for his insatiable desire for excitement and adventure.

Running off to travel in England and France while at Princeton, Halliburton wrote to his father making it clear that he did not intend to return his life to “an even tenor”, writing to his father:

“I hate that expression and as far as I am able I intend to avoid that condition. When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way uneven then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making my life as conglomerate and vivid as possible…. And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain and thrills—any emotion that any human ever had—and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed”

Halliburton graduated from Princeton in 1921 and was true to his word.  Idolising youthful heroes such as Byron, TE Lawrence, George Mallory, Rupert Brooke, Halliburton set out to create a life of adventure for himself.  On the strength of his daring, his good looks, journalism and tireless theatrical lecturing, Halliburton became a celebrity with best selling books like Royal Road to Romance and The Glorious Adventure (also available for free, here), recounting his journeys around the world during the 1920s and adhering to his simple philosophy:

Let those who wish have their respectability, I wanted freedom, freedom to indulge in whatever caprice struck my fancy, freedom to search in the farthermost corners of the earth for the beautiful, the joyous and the romantic.

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After losing a fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Halliburton had to scrape the money together for his next adventure, flying around the world in a two seater, open cockpit Stearman biplane which he christened The Flying Carpet and wrote about in the eponymous book.

Halliburton could not fly, so enlisted experienced pilot Moye Stephens to fly the plane offering him no wage but unlimited expenses. After shipping the Flying Carpet to England, the pair embarked on a 40,000 mile journey taking in Saharan Africa,, Europe, the Middle East, India and South East Asia, before putting the Flying Carpet back on a ship to sail for San Francisco. (Read more about the journey here and here.)

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Their trip was daring and pioneering.  Lindbergh had only made his solo flight across the Atlantic a few years earlier.  They had no support. Shell Oil had kindly given them the location of an oil tank in the Sahara at which they could refuel although finding it meant following tyre tracks across the desert.  The journey had plenty of romance; they met maharajahs and took princes and princesses up in the Flying Carpet in Iraq and Persia.  They met a stranded German aviatrix, Elly Beinhorn who joined them, swapped the Flying Carpet’s wheels for floats in south east Asia and met headhunters in Borneo. They flew past the Taj Mahal and took the first aerial photos of Mount Everest and gave aerobatic displays on their way round.  

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It is a dizzying journey and Halliburton’s breathless style matches it. By the fourth page they have crossed America, sailed across the Atlantic and have flown south from England across France and Spain to Gibraltar.   It is apparent that they landed and visited many more places than are described, places like Rangoon barely registering a mention.  It was only four years since Lindbergh had become the first person ever to be in New York one day and in Paris on the next; this was a new way of seeing the old world just before it changed.  It is hard not to feel Halliburton’s excitement and be swept along by his enthusiasm.  

Halliburton is no poet like that other famous flying writer, Antoine St Exupery and his style is not necessarily fashionable.  Susan Sontag noted in her 2001 essay Homage to Halliburton (published in her 2002 collection, Where the Stress Falls):

Enthusiasm for travel may not be expressed so giddily today, but I’m sure that the seeking of what is strange or beautiful, or both, remains just as pleasurable and addictive

For Sontag, Halliburton’s books were some of the most important of her life, fusing the idea of being a traveller and a writer as she recalled how his books,

described for me an idea of pure happiness.  And of successful volition.  You have something in mind.  You imagine it. You prepare for it. You voyage toward it. Then you see it. And there is no disappointment; indeed, it may even be more captivating than you imagined. 

Like many of his youthful heroes, Halliburton died young.  He had embarked on another adventure in March 1939, sailing a Chinese junk across the Pacific Ocean.  He went missing and was pronounced dead in October of that year.

Although not written in a literary style, Tahir Shah points out in his foreword that “great travel writing is all about evoking an atmosphere of adventure” and Halliburton certainly does that with his undiminished enthusiasm for seeking the world’s wonders and conveying his genuine delight at what he is doing.