As Elizabeth Monroe put it quite succinctly in her Britain's Moment in the Middle East 1914-1956:
As to Palestine, it is galling to think how easily McMahon could have devised some form of words intimating to the Sharif how several faiths held that land in reverence, and that there must be multilateral agreement about it.But he didn't. The odd ""portions of Syria lying to the West of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo" exclusion is unclear about areas to the west of areas south of Damascus, given the ambiguity of the terms districts/wilayat, as we have discussed.
The ambiguity may have been intentional, a result of poor translation, or something else. Some historians, beginning with Emile Marmorstein, have even suggested that the choice of "Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo" is derived from a phrase in Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a book many educated britons might know at the time but one not likely in Sharif Hussein's library. T.E. Lawrence's biographer Jeremy Wilson attributes the phrase to Lawrence, but Lawrence knew Gibbon well. Still, adding Amman, Maan, or Aqaba to the list would have clarified that Palestine was excluded though none of those towns (in 1915) were of significant size to rank with Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo.
This blog is not going to solve one of the historical mysteries of the past century in the Middle East of course. But in trying to discern the reasons for the confusion, two questions come to mind: who actually wrote the text of the October 24 letter, and who actually translated it into Arabic?
Who wrote the October 24 letter, and the Hussein-McMahon correspondence in general? Of course, the letter carries the signature of the High Commissioner for Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon.It is known that a draft was shared with Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary in London. McMahon took responsibility for the letter, but it is unlikely he was the primary writer.
|McMahon (Seven Pillars)|
We have previously looked at the confusing welter of overlapping political and military authorities in Egypt alone, even if we exclude the rival Government of India and the Cabinet in London.
The late Elie Kedourie and other historians have assumed that the likeliest candidate for the primary author is McMahon's "Oriental Secretary," that is, his chief Arab/Turkish specialist, Ronald Storrs. Storrs was unquestionably the key player in the opening rounds of feelers to Sharif Hussein and his sons before the outbreak of the Arab Revolt, and specifically says that he wrote some of the earlier overture messages to Hussein's son ‘Abdullah. In his Memoirs of Sir Ronald Storrs (the US edition is titled Orientations), he speaks in rather general terms of the ambiguities in the correspondence in ways that imply he was closely involved, and blames translation issues and a lack of knowledge of what London an India were doing:
Much play has been made by Arab and other critics with ambiguities, mutually incompatible undertakings, and "betrayals"; without entire justification but not without cause. Our Arabic correspondence with Mecca was prepared by Ruhi [elsewhere referred to as "my little Persian agent"], a fair though not a profound Arabist (and a better agent than scholar); and checked, often under high pressure, by myself. I had no Deputy, Staff or office, so that during my absence on mission the work was carried on (better perhaps) by others, but the continuity was lost. Husain's letters on the other hand were written in an obscure and tortuous prose in which the purity of the Hejaz Arabic was overlaid and tainted with Turkish idioms and syntax. Until Mark Sykes appeared in Cairo in 1916 we had but the slightest and vaguest information about the Sykes-Picot negotiations for the tripartite division of non-Turkish Turkey between France, Russia and England, later nullified (and divulged) by the fall of Russia; and there was far too little realization of Indian operations in Iraq and of Indian encouragement of Ibn Sa'ud. So far as we were concerned it seemed to be nobody's business to harmonize the various views and policies of the Foreign Office, the India Office, the Admiralty, the War Office, the Government of India and the Residency in Egypt. The Revolt, when it began, entailed the co-operation of at least three Military Commanders: the G.O.C.'s of Egypt, Iraq and Aden. After the withdrawal from Gallipoli the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, merged with the Egyptian, became the Egyptian Expeditionary Force under which, gathering up these threads with those of the Naval G.O.C. and the Sudan Government, was constituted the Arab Bureau, directed by D. G. Hogarth, of which T. E. Lawrence was a member.While he neither asserts sole authorship nor specifically speaks of the October 24, 1915, letter Storrs clearly makes clear he was deeply involved. The mention of the Syrian towns has been ascribed to many hands, even Mark Sykes, who was not in Cairo (and note Storrs says Ciro was unaware of the Sykes-Picot talks).
All these men, and the whole Intelligence Section, likely had input, but the likeliest scenario would seem to be that Storrs wrote most of the correspondence, subject to approval by McMahon and Grey.
But what about the translation, which was to cause so much confusion? To repeat the Storrs quote I cited above:
Our Arabic correspondence with Mecca was prepared by Ruhi [elsewhere referred to as "my little Persian agent"], a fair though not a profound Arabist (and a better agent than scholar); and checked, often under high pressure, by myself. I had no Deputy, Staff or office, so that during my absence on mission the work was carried on (better perhaps) by others, but the continuity was lost.Storrs does not apply these remarks specifically to the letter in question, but it is his explanation for the subsequent confusion. Are we to believe that based in Cairo, then as now the largest Arabic-speaking city, in a critical negotiation with an Arab leader, translations were done by a "little Persian agent" who was "a fair though not a profound Arabist," and "checked, often under high pressure, by myself." Are we really to assume no native speaker of Arabic was consulted, merely a Persian and an English Arabist?
I'm not a specialist on Storrs or the period, and it's not clear this is intended to apply to the Hussein-McMahon letters, though the introductory lines appear to imply just that;
Much play has been made by Arab and other critics with ambiguities, mutually incompatible undertakings, and "betrayals"; without entire justification but not without cause."Ambiguities, mutually incompatible undertakings, and 'betrayals'" certainly seems to suggest he's talking about the October 24 letter and its controversy. "Ruhi," the "Persian agent" was (presumably) not a native Arabic speaker. This seems to be the only statement I can find on how the translation came about, and it sounds like an after-the-fact excuse. If I'm missing something, please post it in the comments and I'll note it here.
Part IV will look some of the loose ends of the story.