«He [the Oriental] is as we are»

Gertrude Bell's Geography of Arabic Culture in "The Desert and the Sown"


  • Paola Partenza

Parole chiave:

Gertrude Bell, Travelers, Mediterranean, Arabic culture, the Desert


 The Desert and the Sown, an early Twentieth Century English travel account written by Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), writer and archaeologist, has long been esteemed as a source of inspiration for scholars who were working on travels and travellers in the Mediterranean. Bell was a multifaceted figure «she wrote extensively on the ancient cultures of the region, and documented the daily experience of her travels as a prolific letter writer». She began The Desert and the Sown in the early 1900s and published it after she returned to Great Britain in 1907. Her greatest wish was «to write not so much a book of travel as an account of the people whom [she] met or who accompanied [her] on [her] way, and to show what the world is like in which they live and how it appears to them».

In the Preface, Bell delineates both the content and the scope of the book. The work appears as a largely narrated commentary, although it almost gives the idea of moments of being of a prose which combines real experience and emotions. It is noticeable both for the author’s view, and for its being the result of evidences of other social realities — while showing due respect for otherness and cultural differences. One of the most striking features of The Desert and the Sown is its tendency to emphasize ideas, customs and social behaviours of different peoples. It appears as really one of the texts written in Great Britain to accurately investigate the organization of Arabic communities the author met.

While The Desert and the Sown has been effectively studied from a variety of standpoints — in terms of feminist approach or interaction between cultures— little notice has been given to the emotional quality of the work. This is a characteristic which progressively emerges from the words and situations the author accurately accentuates to make readers comprehend the depth of peoples’ soul. Furthermore, the author’s account highlights her own perception of the world she knew. Although, she herself recognises that emotions affect judgements and, consequently, her own criticism and/or appreciation of people’s values and beliefs.

With her «seeing eyes» Bell’s work is full of empathy and sharing, «she learned to speak the languages of the people she loved with a feeling for all the nuances and subtleties, and her Arabs loved her». In other words «she has developed a new art of travel» and of perceiving Arabic culture «mixing the archaeological with the human in perfect proportion».

This essay explores the emotional quality of The Desert and the Sown, in terms of cultural comparison and empathic relationships. It is, perhaps, in this dialectic that lies one of the most significant keys for Bell’s work. It seems to follow a careful method according to which the author conceptualizes her own experience as a form of ritualization of travel based, primarily, on three fundamental actions: traveling, sharing, participating. These aspects may be thought altogether as a single process which contributes to a redefinition of the author’s self and emotive participation in that experience, it shows what Antonio R. Damasio would define as «the connection between emotion and consciousness». By virtues of these properties, moving to the East becomes a means through which Bell aspires to reach significant reactions as forms of response to the Arabic world as it is narrated. Therefore, by providing concrete and cogent personal experiences of the naturalness of the peoples she met, she suggests that the meaning shaping her travels lies beyond her own inventiveness and of those involved in the account.

Her written project aims at raising the awareness and knowledge of  traditions and customs of a country «parts of [which] have been visited but seldom, and described only in works that are costly and often difficult to obtain» (Preface p. x). Bell’s expands her portrayal and provides a definition: virtues and hospitality characterize most of the people she met and, specifically, they offered her «a clue to their relations with one another» (Ivi, p. xi). It is mostly a human dimension she aspires to delineate together with a detailed representation of daily life, customs, law and traditions. She links her activity as an archaeologist — whose evidences are useful to the investigation on the evolution of populations —to that of the writer who attempts to profoundly penetrate the soul of those people so distant and, likewise, so close to us.

Bell directly constructs the physiognomy of micro-collectivities (in Ortega y Gasset’s canonized expression) —castes, sects and tribes —which reflect the attitudes of the people (in Palestine and  Syria) within a defined form of social and political organization and that may ensure equality and the respect of «the law of its own» (Ivi, p. x). In other words, her written record is a representation, she delineates a reliable map of men, places and facts, enriched by «photographic materials» and impressions. And by employing different linguistic hues, that we might consider halfway between scientific and poetic language, Bell succeeded in captivating her reader by telling a story instead of overwhelming him with information.

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Come citare

Partenza, P. (2022). «He [the Oriental] is as we are»: Gertrude Bell’s Geography of Arabic Culture in "The Desert and the Sown". Ticontre. Teoria Testo Traduzione, (16). Recuperato da https://teseo.unitn.it/ticontre/article/view/1734