A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Apocryphal Tale of "Winston's Hiccup"

Anyone with an interest in the history of the post-World War I settlement in the Middle East has probably run across the tale of "Winston's hiccup": the legend that the odd, zigzag boundary between Jordan and Saudi Arabia is the result of Winston Churchill's having indulged in his usual extensive brandy consumption before creating the Emirate of Transjordan on a map in 1921. This online New York Times piece retells the tale and, of course, the spoilsport notes that it's apocryphal. (Though not emphasized here, if you think about it, when Transjordan was created the boundary at least partially, would have been between Transjordan, ruled by ‘Abdullah ibn al-Husayn, and the Kingdom of Hejaz, ruled by his father Sharif Hussein. It was the Saudi conquest of the Hejaz in the mid-1920s that made it a sensitive border.) It was later trading off access to Aqaba versus the Wadi Sirhan that created the odd shape.

For those who don't know the story, of course, it's worth a retelling. It's one of those apocryphal tales in history that should have been true, even if it's apocryphal. (Napier should have announced the conquest of Sindh by sending the message "Peccavi" — Latin for "I have sinned" — even though the story was invented by Punch and Napier knew little Latin. The story is too good to stop telling, though. And Ethan Allen must have replied to the British commander at Fort Ticonderoga, when asked in what authority he demanded its surrender, "In the Name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!", even though our other witness, the British commander, remembered the conversation differently.)

It's still hard to look at the map zigzags and say "oh, they traded Aqaba for the Wadi Sirhan." It's still "Winston's hiccup" that will come to mind.

No comments: