A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bone of Contention: McMahon's October 24, 1915 Letter to Sharif Hussein: Part I: The Text Itself

This coming Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of what is at least arguably the most contentious single text in Modern Middle Eastern History, or at least in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict: Sir Henry McMahon's letter to Sharif Hussein of Mecca dated October 24, 1915.

We have looked at the Hussein-McMahon correspondence previously, here, and here. On August 30, 1915, Hussein had written McMahon again, this time rather insistently asking for assurances about the borders within which Britain was prepared to recognize an independent Arab state, an issue on which McMahon had been evasive in the earlier exchange. On October 24, 1915, McMahon (British High Commissioner in Egypt), replied. Superficially, at least, his response seemed to reassure Hussein, but the specific exceptions listed by McMahon would haunt Anglo-Arab relations down through the birth of Israel. At the core lay a fundamental question: did the October 24 letter include or exclude Palestine from the area of the proposed Arab state? If it included Palestine, how to reconcile that with the subsequent Balfour Declaration about a Jewish National Home in Palestine and the Sykes-Picot agreement with France? As many clever titles about "Twice-Promised Land" or "Much-Promised Land" have implied, did the British promise Palestine to the Arabs, the Jews, and themselves? This, I suppose, could be called the "perfidious Albion" interpretation.

Or did one hand not know what the other was doing, given all the conflicting British authorities? Or was it a case of bad translation in which the Arabic and English texts didn't match? Or did the British deliberately keep the language ambiguous?

The issue was debated time and again in the various British White Papers and studies on Palestine between 1922 and 1939, and famously in George Antonius' 1938 pioneering Arab nationalist work The Arab Awakening, which I imagine many readers of this blog had to read in school.

This post will be in several parts because even after a century there are still disputed questions:
  1. Who wrote the disputed language? It certainly wasn't McMahon, who was an India hand. Mark Sykes, Ronald Storrs, Gilbert Clayton, and even T.E. Lawrence have been mentioned by various historians. It may have been a composite of the Intelligence Section in Cairo, soon to be the nucleus of the famous Arab Bureau.
  2. Who translated the original English into the Arabic sent to Hussein?
  3. Did McMahon understand the same thing that London intended about the pledge?
  4. Was it perfidious Albion, incompetence, confusion, or what that led to decades of argument over the wording?
  5. And finally, in our present hopefully post-Imperialist age (Niall Ferguson notwithstanding), what right did Great Britain have to promise the land to anybody at all, themselves, the French, the Hashemites of Mecca, or the Zionist movement,  as opposed to its actual inhabitants?
Before we address these issues, we need the text in front of us. Here is the official English text of the letter minus the flowery opening and closing salutations:
I have received your letter of the 29th Shawal, 1333, with much pleasure and your expressions of friendliness and sincerity have given me the greatest satisfaction.
I regret that you should have received from my last letter the impression that I regarded the question of the limits and boundaries with coldness and hesitation; such was not the case, but it appeared to me that the time had not yet come when that question could be discussed in a conclusive manner.
I have realised, however, from your last letter that you regard this question as one of vital and urgent importance. I have, therefore, lost no time in informing the Government of Great Britain of the contents of your letter, and it is with great pleasure that I communicate to you on their behalf the following statement, which I am confident you will receive with satisfaction:-
The two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab, and should be excluded from the limits demanded.
With the above modification, and without prejudice of our existing treaties with Arab chiefs, we accept those limits.
As for those regions lying within those frontiers wherein Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interest of her ally, France, I am empowered in the name of the Government of Great Britain to give the following assurances and make the following reply to your letter:-
1. Subject to the above modifications, Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca.
2. Great Britain will guarantee the Holy Places against all external aggression and will recognise their inviolability.
3. When the situation admits, Great Britain will give to the Arabs her advice and will assist them to establish what may appear to be the most suitable forms of government in those various territories.
4. On the other hand, it is understood that the Arabs have decided to seek the advice and guidance of Great Britain only, and that such European advisers and officials as may be required for the formation of a sound form of administration will be British.
5. With regard to the vilayets of Bagdad and Basra, the Arabs will recognise that the established position and interests of Great Britain necessitate special administrative arrangements in order to secure these territories from foreign aggression, to promote the welfare of the local populations and to safeguard our mutual economic interests.
I am convinced that this declaration will assure you beyond all possible doubt of the sympathy of Great Britain towards the aspirations of her friends the Arabs and will result in a firm and lasting alliance, the immediate results of which will be the expulsion of the Turks from the Arab countries and the freeing of the Arab peoples from the Turkish yoke, which for so many years has pressed heavily upon them.
I have confined myself in this letter to the more vital and important questions, and if there are any other matters dealt with in your letter which I have omitted to mention, we may discuss them at some convenient date in the future.
It was with very great relief and satisfaction that I heard of the safe arrival of the Holy Carpet and the accompanying offerings which, thanks to the clearness of your directions and the excellence of your arrangements, were landed without trouble or mishap in spite of the dangers and difficulties occasioned by the present sad war. May God soon bring a lasting peace and freedom to all peoples!
I am sending this letter by the hand of your trusted and excellent messenger, Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Arif Ibn Uraifan, and he will inform you of the various matters of interest, but of less vital importance, which I have not mentioned in this letter.
(Signed) A. H. McMAHON.

Now to the trouble-making part. McMahon, or whoever wrote the letter he signed, does not define the borders of the independent Arab state: instead it defined some are excluded from Sharif Hussein's claims:
The two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab, and should be excluded from the limits demanded.
With the above modification, and without prejudice of our existing treaties with Arab chiefs, we accept those limits.
Subsequently, it notes that France also has claims in some of these regions. But what does "portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo" actually mean? It seems on the surface, in English, to exclude Lebanon, not Palestine. But the Arabic is different:

إن ولايتي مرسين واسكندرونة وأجزاء من بلاد الشام الواقعة في الجهة الغربية لولايات دمشق الشام وحمص وحماة وحلب لا يمكن أن يقال أنها عربية محضة. وعليه يجب أن تستثنى من الحدود المطلوبة

مع هذا التعديل وبدون تعرض للمعاهدات المعقودة بيننا وبين بعض رؤساء العرب نحن نقبل تلك الحدود

The term "districts" in English has been translated as ولايات , wilayat, basically "provinces," singular wilaya, Turkish vilayet. But there was no Turkish Vilayet of Damascus, or Homs, or Hama; only Vilayets of Syria and of Aleppo and Beirut (See Map Below). Britain would later claim they meant west of the entire Vilayet of Syria, but that isn't what the text says. The discrepancy, deliberate, inadvertent, or a consequence of poor translation choices, would prove to be a ticking time bomb.

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