A painting, a landscape, a chance conversation; the inspiration for writing stories can come from many different sources.
In a recent interview, the playwright Hannah Khalil explained how a photograph of Gertrude Bell, in the National Portrait Gallery, prompted her to write ‘A Museum in Baghdad,’ the play currently showing at the Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon.
Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was a linguist, archaeologist, explorer and woman ahead of her time. She was responsible for drawing up the boundary lines of what became Iraq (previously known as Mesopotamia). She also founded a national museum of antiquities in Baghdad. This play follows her story in 1926, and the parallel story of Ghalia Hussein, who returns to Iraq from exile in 2006, to re-establish the museum after it has been looted following the 2003 invasion.
In Khalil’s own words this play is a ‘brilliant place to explore notions of colonialism and belonging.’ It also inspired me to read around subjects of which I knew embarrassingly little.
Bell was the first woman to get a degree in Modern History from Oxford University and was a key diplomatic figure in Middle Eastern politics. Sixteen volumes of her diaries, including approximately sixteen hundred letters to her parents, have been transcribed and posted on the web by Newcastle University (www.gerty.ncl.ac.uk) and these, together with photographs, form a fascinating archive. They delve into tribal politics and give insight into the life of a remarkable woman who was deemed too ‘Oxfordy’ to be marriage material, but who demonstrated impressive tenacity and fortitude.
Shortly after seeing the play I went to see the film ‘Official Secrets,’ the spy drama starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith and Ralph Fiennes. This is the true story about the GCHQ whistle-blower, Katharine Gun, who leaked a secret memo about the illegalities of going to war with Iraq in 2003. It was interesting to reflect on Iraqi history from another perspective and also a reminder to me that, often, the most interesting stories are inspired by real-life events.