A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Bone of Contention, Part IV: McMahon's October 24, 1915 Letter to Sharif Hussein: A Few Loose Ends

After a few days' hiatus, I need to provide my promised final installment in my series on the 100th anniversary of the McMahon letter to Sharif Hussein of October 25, 1915. So far, we have already covered the English and Arabic texts themselves in Part I and the decades of debate over meaning that followed in Part II. Part III dealt with the question of who wrote and who translated the disputed letter. Now, a few of the loose ends.

First, it seems important to emphasize that at no point in the letter, or in the entire Hussein-McMahon correspondence, does the word "Palestine" actually appear. Nor do "Jerusalem," "Holy Land," or similar equivalents. Given the whole vilayet dispute over what land McMahon meant to exclude, why couldn't he have been clearer if he, or the London authorities for whom he spoke,  intended to exclude Palestine?

Second, in the subsequent correspondence, Hussein and McMahon (or his Arabists and the Foreign Office) were to bicker back and forth over the question of Lebanon and the Syrian coast, which were understood to be the areas Britain reserved in the interests of its ally, France. During these negotiations the British kept the commitment vague but never explicitly  included Palestine in the excluded territories. Hussein, or his son ‘Abdullah, who may have written his father's letters, never raised the Palestine issue either. Perhaps neither side was thinking about it yet, but that would change.

Third, I want to mention a point raised by a colleague with far more knowledge of Persian than my smattering of basic grammar. As I noted in Part III, Sir Ronald Storrs in his memoirs suggests that at least the earliest correspondence with ‘Abdullah and later with the Sharif was translated by his "little Persian agent," named Ruhi. While he doesn't address the October 24 letter directly, my colleague notes that in Persian, the word velayet, cognate with Arabic wilaya and Turkish vilayet, can have an even more generic and ill-defined application, as in the doctrine of velayat-e faqih. That could be a genuine reason for the confusion, or the whole explanation given by Storrs could be an attempt to excuse a deliberately ingenuous phraseology, but it seems a valid point worthy of consideration.

Finally, there is the thorny question of Lieutenant Muhammad Sharif al-Faruqi. In the discussion of the cases laid out by the Arab and British sides' presentations on the McMahon correspondence to the London Conference in 1939, quoted at length in Part II, the British argued that they had made clear to Faruqi, who, they thought, was authorized to speak for the Sharif, that Palestine was excluded, and that Faruqi had indicated that this would not be a sticking point. To this response, the Arab delegation's response essentially amounted to, "Who's Faruqi?" A century later, it's still not a bad question.

Let's start with who he said he was. He was a lieutenant in the Ottoman Army, only 24 years old, but an aide-de-camp to Fakhri Pasha, Commander of the XII Corps, Fourth Army. He was also by his account a senior official of the Al-‘Ahd (the Covenant) secret society of Arab Ottoman officers based in Damascus, which in turn merged with another Arab nationalist movement, Al-Fatat, which British Intelligence called the Young Arab Society. When Prince Feisal, Sharif Hussein's son, passed through Syria, these groups signed the "Damascus Protocol," promising to support Sharif Hussein under certain conditions.

He claimed to be a direct descendant of the second Caliph, ‘Umar, whose sobriquet was al-Faruq.

In late summer of 1915, Faruqi, who had reportedly been transferred to Constantinople to get him out of his political maneuverings in Damascus, deserted across the British lines at Gallipoli and by September had arrived in Cairo, where he fell in with a group of Syrian and other Arab nationalist including Rashid Rida, ‘Aziz ‘Ali al-Misri, and others. He also came to the attention of British Military Intelligence, led by Gilbert Clayton.

Presumably through the secret societies in Damascus, Faruqi was aware of the earliest rounds of negotiations between the Sharif and the British, and this convinced the British of his bona fides. Faruqi spoke little or no English so translation questions may be in play yet again, but the British certainly came to believe he spoke not only for the Damascus secret societies but directly for the Sharif. He reportedly told the British that 90% of Arab officers in the Ottoman Army were Arab nationalists, that Ibn Saud and other in the Peninsula backed Hussein, etc.

Up to this point the British had been coy in their courting of Sharif Hussein since they doubted he had support outside the Hejaz, but here was a defector claiming the whole Arab world was ready to throw off the Ottoman yoke. There seems little doubt that Faruqi's assurances helped propel the British to make the promises made in the October 24 letter.

Perhaps even worse, it has been suggested that in discussions with Mark Sykes, Faruqi seemed amenable to the outlines of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Though Hussein had not seemingly heard of him, he gave Faruqi a position in 1916 as a negotiator, but both the British and Sharifians grew frustrated and dismissed him in 1917.

Did he ever speak for Hussein? Not at first, and not directly. Was he a complete fraud or, as this article puts it, "one of the greatest impostors in the history of international relations"? Well, he was at least the typical con man telling you what you want to hear.

Wikipedia gives his dates as 1891-1920, without sourcing, but that would make him only 29 when he died. Is it possible that all the legacies of the British multiple pledges in World War I and even Sykes-Picot are the legacy of one man who misrepresented himself and died before he was 30? Or did Faruqi have some real backing for his assertions? Or will we never know?

No comments: