WHEN GERTRUDE BELL came to Damascus in 1905, she wrote of the ‘immortal’ view of a ‘great and splendid’ city ‘with its domes and minarets’.1 Beyond lay something more awful: ‘the desert, the desert reaching almost to its gates. And herein is the heart of the whole matter’. The province of Syria, stretching from Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley to Antioch and containing Christians, Jews, and Muslims united only in lethargic struggle against their Turkish masters, kept alive for her a more primeval battle between the elemental forces named in the title of her book, The Desert and the Sown. It was the finality of Bell's narrative – the manifest belief that she had solved a problem of definition – that troubled Edward Said when he turned upon her as an exemplary case in Orientalism....

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