Gertrude and me is a research project that compares my exploration of the Middle East to that of Gertrude Bell, famed Imperialist.
I’m trying to figure something out…..
I have something I’m committed to creating -as a work of art – that’s churning inside me. I’ve been working on “this” for a long time. Recently, I saw a convergence of many divergent points of my experience, across time and space. that’s when I got really excited. The point of departure is the early 2000’s through the present. And yet with all this time, I’m still not exactly sure what it is.
It’s like putting together one of those massive puzzles with all the tiny pieces, but without the big picture to tell you what it is you’re making.
So I’m starting where I AM, a head full of pieces that I know fit together in a meaningful way, I’m just not quite sure how. My bestie described this space as “an ocean of infinite potentials and possibilities waiting to be explored”.
Gertrude and Me
My initial point of departure for this creative project was to compare my Middle Eastern travels and engagements with those of British Imperialist Gertrude Bell, who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bell was no ordinary adventurer, the knowledge she gained traveling across Arabia was later utilized by the British to create what we know today as the Middle East.
Why tell this story? Because what I discovered 12 years after visiting Iran is that my experiences and hers had an eerie resonance. I believe we shared a particular universal experience, decades apart…a universal colonialist experience that I want to expose so it can be transformed. These dynamics continue to be very much in play, and circulating cultural capital that whitewashes blatant, imperialist frames and presenting it as universal feminism has alot to do with it.
Digging into her story, I was shocked at how much I recognized myself in her…the desire for knowledge, freedom, experience, and adventure. We shared a burning desire to self-actualize, to reach our fullest potentials. We both felt the constraints and limitations that western patriarchy and capitalism put on white women, and set out to break free. We both felt exhilarated at the thought of charting unknown territory. Iran was the first entry for both of us, offered to us by influential men in our lives, as an opportunity to fulfill the self-actualization we couldn’t manifest at home.
In both cases, I do not believe there was any deep connection to the Middle East until it was made for us … perhaps by men who recognized that only the frontier could quench our desires. We are both western women after all and the idea of the frontier lives deep in our psyches. To explore, to conquer, to stake our claims with little concern for how we disrupt the lives of others. Where we differed (beyond class and wealth – Gertrude was crazy rich from her families colonialist industries in England’s colonies – I grew up with little class privilege, but I was able to transcend with the help of white privilege.) Gertrude believed in colonization, she believed her presence and her Imperialism would benefit the people and places she “fell in love with”.
Both of our experiences relied on enduring structures of Imperialism, in fact, that dynamic was key to the freedom to travel, to move relatively freely, and then to “come home” and structure lives around being with and talking about Arabs to Western people. For her, this dynamic was conscious, natural, and right. At the time (around 2005), I was horrified when people thought I was some bougie white supremacist. Now I see it as a weakness…I suppose it is part of what people of color have labeled “white fragility”…this inability to see our true selves and transform it. I also cannot claim to have been naive to the privilege of my position, or not take notice that I, as a comparatively mediocre white lady, was enjoying privileges that more deserving people were denied based on nationality and race.
The Mother of Iraq and The Mother of Omar
Gertrude Bell is known as the mother of Iraq because she helped create it. The knowledge she gained traveling and studying Arabia was put in service of maintaining British soft power when the Ottoman Empire dissolved and “the new middle east” was drawn up by Western Powers.
While I don’t have power like Gertrude Bell, I have an impact through what I create and what I share with the people within my tribe. I continue to interact with, make work about, and talk about the Middle East. I have for more than 10 years and I see no end in sight.
I’m also mother to a Muslim, half-Arab child. And like Bell, my work shifted to Iraq when I started volunteering with Wafaa Bilal’s 168:01, an exhibition and participatory project that is rebuilding the Fine Arts Library at the University of Baghdad.
The point in going back in time, to look at my beginnings and middle, to compare my experiences with Bell’s – and then to move on. To look at Bell is to focus only on what I could become if I am not a conscious creator with life. I’m making connections between the past and the present, between self-actualization and neo-imperialism, between cultural capital and subconscious frameworks that drive our lives, between knowledge and ways of being…all in service of personal and collective transformation. What needs to happen, what needs to be created to shift the Imperialist dynamic that makes it okay to self-actualize at the expense of others?
The process of transformation is harder than I thought; it’s difficult to resist recreating Imperialism because I believe it’s disseminated through our ways of being and creating, from our subconscious minds and our social systems. I believe it’s why we recognize things in theory yet fail to see how they show up in our lived experiences of thought, actions, and speech, and then wonder why we aren’t getting the outcomes we desire.
What I’ve observed is that when we break out of the Imperial frame, then there is an opportunity to create a new story, to shift into a different direction, make a different choice, create another option, or become something totally new. It is possible to transform and transcend. What does it look like? That’s what was really modeled for me “in the Middle East.”
Maybe this is a story about change, changing stories, and transforming (or not) from the colonizer to ?? I suppose that is the question as well….what am I becoming? What am I pulsating toward? Earlier I said that this is like putting together a puzzle with no clear, big picture to guide me. It’s actually been more like putting together a puzzle and when I’m almost finished I realize hey, this isn’t the finished piece, it’s just one more piece of a much larger puzzle!
Let me tell you the catch right now, if its not clear already. I didn’t learn any mystical, life-altering shit there..in the Middle East. It was not an Eat Love Pray experience. Over the years I’ve realized the real gift was creating experiences that allowed me to put a mirror up to who I really am..revealing how I show up, what I create, what is lurking inside my mind.
And so, I still grapple with the question: How do I create EQUITY when my mind has been programmed to create EMPIRE?
There’s just so much…I’ve been doing this for so long. There are a million things to say – which leads me back to how? A photograph? A series of stories? Film?