3: The Arabs plead for Freedom: Emir Faisal, Colonel Lawrence, and Gertrude Bell - The Desert Queen
<< 2: Russians: Reds, Whites, and Pinks || 4: The Zionists and Ben Israel >>
Paris, January 21, 1919
When the Arabs presented their case and the Emir Faisal,(1)
Colonel Lawrence, and General Nouri Pasha came before the Big Four, they were certainly
the most resplendent figures that had ever entered the Quai d'Orsay. Dark and subtle, but
with a voice attuned to the great open spaces, Faisal talked right out in meeting and
glowered down upon the prime ministers of the Great Powers who sat uneasily at his feet.
Clearly he came not as a suppliant but to demand the rights of his people and the
observance of solemn agreements which, as the emergency was over, some were inclined to
forget. Lawrence was his interpreter and he further emphasized the emphatic words of the
"The aim of the Arab nationalist movement," insisted Faisal, "is to
unite the Arabs eventually into one nation. We believe that our ideal of Arab unity in
Asia is justified beyond need of argument. If argument is required, we would point to the
general principles accepted by the Allies when the United States joined them, to our
splendid past, to the tenacity with which our race has for six hundred years resisted
Turkish attempts to absorb us, and in a lesser degree to what we tried our best to do in
this war as one of the Allies.
"My father has a privileged place among Arabs as the head of their greatest family
and as Sherif of Mecca. He is convinced of the ultimate triumph of the ideal of unity, if
no attempt is made now to thwart it or to hinder it by dividing the area as spoils of war
among the Great Powers.
"I came to Europe on behalf of my father and the Arabs of Asia to say that they
are expecting the powers at the Conference not to attach undue importance to superficial
differences of condition among us and not to consider them only from the low ground of
existing European material interests and supposed spheres of influence. They expect the
Powers to think of them as one potential people, jealous of their language and liberty,
and they ask that no step be taken inconsistent with the prospect of an eventual union of
these areas under one sovereign government."
These words, in the light of subsequent events and the habit of loud-speaking which
prevails in the world today, do not sound arrogant or even assertive, but they were so
regarded at the time when the Western Powers were flushed with victory and the Khaki
election campaign of Lloyd George in England with its promise to "hang the
Kaiser" and to exact the uttermost farthing in war indemnities had rolled up such
tremendous majorities. And it was further thought that the Emir s challenge would quicken
controversies which had better be allowed to slumber for a season. So I was asked by one
of the Big Four to suggest to Lawrence a change in the tactics rather than in the strategy
of his campaign. Might he not soften the impact of some of Faisal s words that were giving
offence in influential quarters? Would it not be wise for him to follow the precedent of
Professor Manroux, the official interpreter at the plenary sessions of the Conference, who
smoothed out so many rough places in the impassioned appeals of the nationalistic
"I see the point and I have the greatest respect for this gentleman,"
answered Lawrence. "Perhaps he is right; but I cannot follow his suggestion. You see,
I am an interpreter, I merely translate. The Emir is speaking for the horsemen who carried
the Arab flag across the great desert from the holy city of Mecca to the holy city of
Jerusalem and to Damascus beyond. He is speaking for the thousands who died in that long
struggle. He is the bearer of their last words. He cannot alter them. I cannot soften
February 2, 1919
I have at least one notable advantage over the distinguished delegates to the
Conference; over one and all of them without, I believe, a single exception. I enjoyed a
slight acquaintance with Lawrence of Arabia before he became the romantic figure of the
war in the East. This happy chance came to me in this wise.
Hastening back from the Philippines in February, 1915 I embarked at Hong Kong on the
Blue Funnel freighter Perseus. I was enticed to this step by the assurance of
friends that this fast cargo boat would reach Europe several days before the French mail
steamer that was leaving at about the same time. This assurance the Perseus lived
up to until an untoward incident developed in Suez which for some hours threatened to
defeat our plans.
The Perseus was bound for Liverpool with a burden of much needed tin from
Banka in the Dutch East Indies, but en route she was to call at Genoa (Italy was on the
verge but as yet had not entered the war) and there unload two thousand tons of sesame
seed. To me this huge item of cargo smacked of The Arabian Nights, but the sight
of it on the ship s manifest excited other and very suspicious thoughts in the minds of
the British shipping controller at Suez. Might nor this strange stuff reach the Germans
through the Italian port, as undoubtedly so much contraband was doing? and might not those
diabolically clever Germans use it in the manufacture of some new and terrible explosive?
This suspicion held us up and promised to greatly delay my arrival. The captain had an
even more substantial grievance, as his bonus for the hazardous trip depended entirely
upon the date of his arrival in England. The manifest revealed that the seed was consigned
to the syndicate of Lucca Olive Oil, producers, and frantic telegrams went forward to them
asking for explanations. Unfortunately these appeals had to take their turn after the
official and war news cables with which the wires were burdened, so it was natural that a
delay should occur. Indeed, twenty-four hours elapsed before the syndicate "came
clean" with a very damaging confession to them although it released us. Their frank
if reluctant admission was that this year's crop of olives around Lucca had been a
complete failure and so as not to disappoint their customers the syndicate was bringing
the sesame seed from western China "because it is the best substitute for our
world-famed product." The explanation concluded with a touching appeal, "Do not
delay the ship, the olive-oil cupboard of Europe is bare and our customers are thirsting
During the hours of delay a young English archaeologist by the name of Lawrence came
aboard and advised us as to the best method to protect with sandbags the bridge and the
ship's engines, for at the time the Germans and Turks were within shooting range of the
canal. He was serving as a subordinate officer of the Arab bureau of the Egyptian
government awaiting the arrival of a little steamer which was to rake him down the coast
to Akaba. He brightened the long hours with his information as to how things were going in
the Middle East; he was helpful in expediting our departure when the word of explanation
came and waved his bon voyage to us as we started to enter the canal that was no
joy ride in those days. It was due to this chance meeting and to the fact that, as he
said, my name smacked of Derbyshire, that Lawrence came to call within a few hours of his
arrival in Paris (January 19) and wrote for me his first account of the great march of the
Arabs from Hejaz to Damascus.
January 23, 1919
Lawrence gave me the pleasure of a long visit on Tuesday and filed with me a précis
of the Arab demands. He then asked of me what he called a favor which I was only too glad
to grant. It seems that his hand-written account of his campaign in Arabia, the triumphal
march from Medinah to Damascus that he gave me several days ago, was the first he had
written; that Hankey, Secretary of the British Empire delegation, wanted a copy for his
files. I let him have it and got it back in twenty-four hours, a very precious possession.
Lawrence asked me to read the memorandum he had brought with him, to make suggestions,
and then to accompany him to Faisal for further questioning. It was not a bad statement,
shorter and clearer than many with which we are deluged, but in my talk with the Emir this
afternoon I think he put his case in a better light.
"To begin with," said Faisal, "I hope you will try to disabuse the minds
of many of our Allies that we Arabs are an uncivilized people. I venture to point out that
much of our culture has been incorporated into the civilization of the Western World. Not
a few of the achievements of our learned men are indeed regarded by some as its principal
ornaments. It is true that a few of our tribes were submerged in the days of the great
migrations, but the people of Hejaz, my father's kingdom, successfully maintained their
independence when, in the fifteenth century, many Christian nations were compelled to bow
down before the invaders from Central Asia.
"Coming to the present day, it should not be forgotten that we, together with the
Macedonian Turks and the Albanians, had a large share in the overthrow of Abdul Hamid, the
Red Sultan. [See Chapter XII.] On that happy day, throughout the Arab lands, committees
were formed with the purpose of obtaining the right of self-government which the new
constitution guaranteed. But the men of union and progress did not fulfill their promises.
Syria and all the Arab lands were deprived of the modicum of freedom they had enjoyed even
under the Old Turks, and the promised charter of self-government that became a scrap of
paper. Despite the most cruel persecution we persisted in our agitation, and with the
Great War came our opportunity. When the Allies declared that they were fighting for
justice against force, for liberty against tyranny, we made common cause with them because
our ideals and our objectives were the same. We went into the struggle under the banner of
the King, my father, and I had the honor to command his gallant troops who contributed
substantially to the victory.
"And here is a point I wish to emphasize. It seems to be generally forgotten. We
of the Hejaz were not a submerged people. We had been independent for centuries. Ours was
a unique position in the Arab world, but we entered the war to liberate our less fortunate
race brothers and it should not be overlooked we entered the war, like America, when the
prospect of victory was far from promising. We had the very poorest equipment to wage
modern warfare, and the first campaign resulted in the devastation of many of our lands
and in the destruction of not a few of our cities. The Turks committed unspeakable
atrocities upon our civilian populations, notably at Aouali and in the valley of Yambou.
The Turks respected neither the laws of man nor of God and they never will when they have
the upper hand. Incredible as it seems they did not even hesitate to despoil and desecrate
the Tomb of the Prophet. The horrors of Belgium pale before what happened in Syria. Dr.
Bliss of the American college in Beyrouth is here to tell you all about it. It is a
conservative estimate, which he will confirm, that counting those who were hanged, those
who died before a firing squad, and those who did not survive the deportations to
Anatolia, more than three hundred and fifty thousand Syrians perished. In Irak and in
Mesopotamia, in the battles of Hilla and at Karbala, at least thirty thousand more fell.
"We swept the Turks out of Hejaz; everywhere they were routed except at Medina.
There, despite their artillery, of which we had none, we held them and then with our
mobile columns swept north to redeem Syria. With aid and succor now in sight, the Syrians
rushed to our camp at Akaba and, aided by Allenby and his gallant men, English and French,
we liberated Syria.
"This, in brief, is a statement of the military aid we brought to the Allied
cause. But there is another contribution which should not be overlooked. The wily and
unscrupulous Turks had declared a Holy War against Christendom and that was a dangerous
weapon. It might have exerted a disturbing influence upon the course of the campaign;
indeed, it might have proved disastrous to our cause. Misled, the Moslems of India and in
other lands might have joined up with the Turks but for the fact that we, the most ancient
of the Moslem peoples and the Guardians of the Tomb, remained steadfast. Our allegiance to
the West demonstrated that this was not a war against our religion but a war to safeguard
it, and so the Holy War cry of the Turks came to nothing.
"It is upon these real achievements and the justice of our cause that we base our
moderate demands today. The mere recognition of the independence of the Hejaz would be a
mockery of such outstanding services. Hejaz is and always has been independent. We entered
the war, I repeat, nor to improve our own position but to liberate our brothers in blood
and in religion who have been throughout the centuries less fortunate. Above all else we
did not enter the war to have our brothers and their lands apportioned among the Allies,
although, of course, we recognize that this new servitude would be quite different from
the yoke of the Turks.
"We are not asking for a favored position but merely for justice and the
fulfillment of solemn promises. Those who say that we should be discriminated against
because we, the Arabs, are a wild, unruly people incapable of self-government and nor
entitled to benefit by the Wilson doctrine of self-determination, should not be listened
to. I am confident that even the least fortunate of our race are as able to assume this
task as were the Greeks and the Serbs and the Bulgars but a few decades ago. When
liberated, they too had been deprived of the rights of free men for centuries. They knew
no more about self-government, in the Western meaning of the word, than we today, and yet
they have maintained their independence, and at least two of these little nations have
contributed materially to our common victory.
"We demand our rights and a recognition of these facts. Our lands should not be
regarded as war booty by the conquerors. Our provinces should nor be allocated to this or
to that power. We have paid a heavy price for our liberty but we are not exhausted. We are
ready to fight on, and I cannot believe that the great rulers here assembled will treat us
as did our former oppressors. I think they will act from higher, nobler motives, but if
not they should remember how badly it has turned out for our former oppressors."
It was a good fighting talk and I liked it. Through it all Nouri Pasha hovered in the
background, now and again coming forward to check up on some of Lawrence's interpretations
of the Emir s words. He accompanied me to the door and said quite sadly, "When are we
going to have our talk about the Barbs and the noble steeds of the Arab strain?" I
admitted, sadly too, that the outlook was not promIsing. "At the Conference only
two-footed animals are being trotted out." Then he said, "I abhor mechanized
warfare," and so we horse lovers parted in sadness. The day of the centaurs is over,
although cavalrymen will not admit it.
On January 24 Emir Faisal sent me the following memorandum setting forth the
aspirations of his people and the purpose of his presence in Paris. Lawrence brought it,
and several days later, together with Gertrude Bell who had now arrived, coming directly
from Bagdad, we went over it very carefully. Some changes were made as a result of our
consultation and in appreciation of the "local" political situation that was
developing. This was a wise course to pursue, I think, but personally I prefer the Arab
platform in its original form, which follows:
The country from a line Alexandretta-Persia southward to the Indian Ocean is inhabited
by "Arabs," by which we mean people of closely related Semitic stocks, all
speaking the one language, Arabic. The non-Arabic-speaking elements in this area do nor, I
believe, exceed one per cent of the whole.
The aim of the Arab nationalist movements (of which my father became the leader in war
after combined appeals from the Syrian and Mesopotamian branches reached him) is to unite
the Arabs eventually into one nation. As an old member of the Syrian Committee I commanded
the Syrian revolt and had under me Syrians, Mesopotamians, and Arabians.
We believe that Syria, an agricultural and industrial area thickly peopled with
sedentary classes, is sufficiently advanced politically to manage her own internal
affairs. We feel also that foreign technical advice and help will be a most valuable
factor in our national growth. We are willing to pay for this help in cash, but we cannot
sacrifice for it any part of the freedom we have just won for ourselves by force of arms.
Jezireh and Irak are two large provinces with only three civilized towns separated by
large wastes thinly peopled by seminomadic tribes. The world wishes to exploit Mesopotamia
rapidly, and we therefore believe that the system of government there will have to he
buttressed by the men and material resources of a great foreign power. We ask, however,
that the government be Arab in principle and spirit, the selective rather than the
elective principle being necessarily followed in the backward and long-neglected districts
until time makes the broader basis possible. The main duty of the Arab government there
would be to oversee the educational processes, which are to advance the nomad tribes to
the moral level of the people of the towns.
The Hejaz is mainly a tribal area, and the government will remain as in the past suited
to patriarchal conditions. We appreciate these better than Europe and propose therefore to
retain our complete independence there.
The Yemen and Nejd are not likely to submit their cases to the Peace Conference. They
look after themselves and adjust their own relations with the Hejaz and elsewhere.
In Palestine the enormous majority of the people are Arabs. The Jews are very close to
the Arabs in blood, and there is no conflict of character between the two races. In
principles we are absolutely at one. Nevertheless the Arabs cannot risk assuming the
responsibility of holding level the scales in the clash of races and religions that have
in this one province so often involved the world in difficulties and wars. They would wish
for the effective superposition of a great trustee, so long as a representative local
administration commended itself by actively promoting the material prosperity of the
In discussing our provinces in detail I do not lay claim to superior competence. The
Powers will I hope find better means to give fuller effect to the aims of our national
movement. In our opinion, if our independence be conceded and our local competence
established, the natural influences of race, language, and interest will soon draw us
together into one people, but for this the Great Powers will have to ensure us open
internal frontiers, common railways and telegraphs, and uniform systems of education. To
achieve this they must lay aside all thought of individual profits and their old
jealousies. In a word, we ask you not to force your whole civilization upon us but to help
us to pick out what serves us from your experience. In return we can offer you little but
gratitude and peace.
February 6, 1919
After long delay, Faisal and Lawrence were received today by the President. He told
House he was struck by the Emir s noble bearing; but the Arabs are greatly disappointed.
Evidently the President was reserved and most certainly noncommittal. Lawrence tells me
that the long-delayed interview was a formal conference rather than an exchange of views.
"We merely established a ceremonial contact, and that to the Arabs is a great
Sir Mark Sykes was one of the strangest and most perplexing figures at the Conference.
He was co-author of the Sykes-Picot agreement or protocol, which gave to the French much
that Lawrence and Allenby had promised to the Arabs. [1920. The Sykes-Picot agreement was
drawn up in 1916 for the purpose of harmonizing the conflicting claims of France and
Britain to spheres of influence in the Middle East. It subdivided the Arab area and gave
Syria to the French. British preponderance in Irak and in Transjordania was recognized.
Palestine was given a special status but it was not very clearly drawn. While there are
many contested points, in the main the agreement determines the political situation today
and is thought by many to be responsible for the existing confusion.]
You get the measure of the man when I tell you that even after this slip Sykes was by
no means unpopular with the Arabs. As a matter of fact they held him in high esteem with
the reservation, however, that "he hez make one big mistake, but Sir Sykes he work it
out all right." And the Armenians and the Zionists also worshipped him. There was no
mistake about this; "Sir Sykes" had the gift of popuIarity.
Sykes was born, like Robinson Crusoe, in Yorkshire, I should say about forty years ago,
the only son of a Tory squire with large estates and with other resources which made him
quite indifferent to the output of his fields and farms. The squire was a great traveler
in our-of-the-way places and on these travels he was generally accompanied by his boy, who
seems to have escaped the servitudes of regular and methodical schooling. When the boy was
but ten, Father Sykes and son spent a winter with the Druses of the Lebanon, and then the
youngster was handed over to some Jesuit fathers who had started a school at Monte Carlo
of all places in the world! Later he was transferred to Brussels and from there to Weimar.
He arrived in due course at Cambridge with considerable knowledge of the world and more
than a smattering of four or five languages, but his tutors were unanimous in expressing
the opinion that he would never be able to stand the varsity examinations that awaited
him, not even the "Little Go," which boys from the public schools took in their
stride. "But I was saved this disgrace," explained Sykes. "The blessed Boer
war came and I joined up."
In many ways Sykes was a companion piece to Lawrence, though the former had fought his
way to prominence under the handicap of great wealth and the footsteps of the latter had
always been dogged by poverty. They were in disagreement on many questions and
particularly as to the panacea for the turbulent Arab world, and Lawrence once in my
presence was quite emphatic in his words of rebuke. But Sykes was quite unruffled.
"Let us approach the question in a broad-minded way," he said. "Of course I
admit I do not always approve of the stand I have taken on a number of subjects or the
things I have done in a whole-hearted way. The results of my efforts are often
discouraging, but I do insist that my intentions have always been of the best."
As Lawrence admitted, you could nor be angry for long with a man who talked like this.
But the situation had to he clarified, and this could only be done by bringing Sykes to
book to find out how much of his recent activities were backed by instructions and how
much was due to his (as many thought) over-heated imagination.
Speaking for himself, and not for the British Foreign Office of which, however, he was
the titular head, Balfour admitted frequently that the Arabs had gotten us all into a
"jolly mess, but I have told Sykes to be here on the ninth and he will make
everything clear. You see, gentlemen, he knows those Arab lands just as I know
Aberdeenshire or, say, Kent."
February 11, 1919
I was very much on hand when the morning of the ninth dawned on which the pro-Arab and
the pro-Sykes-Picot forces were to meet each other face to face before the Council of Ten
in the famous Clock Room. In fact I committed what would have been an indiscretion had I
been a person of any importance. I went to the field of battle with Lawrence and there I
joined Faisal and Nouri who were flanked by handsome young aides arrayed in robes and
tunics of many colors, all of them with flashing, hungry eyes like the hawks of the
desert. I could not refrain from saying, "Sir Mark must be a brave man to face that
phalanx," and Lawrence answered quietly, "He is a brave man and, worse luck, a
There was a great shuffling of papers and then Balfour mumbled to the serviceable
Hankey, "I think we ll put Sykes on now. What?"
"Have just had a message: Sykes has a bad cold. Can't talk."
"Dear, dear. How provoking. I had so hoped we would get on with this business
today. Tell him it will go over until the eleventh but he must not fail us then. I suppose
we shall have to take up the next item on the agenda. What s that? Oh, yes, those islands
in the Baltic. I never can remember their names.
The Arab contingent filed out. They were inclined to think that Sykes was playing
possum, but nor so Lawrence. "If Sykes admits he's sick I fear he's ill," he
On the eleventh we all assembled again. Balfour was as usual quite a little late in
arriving; blushing like a bride and with profuse apologies he said to his colleagues of
the Ten: "Now we ll get on with it. I ll put Sykes on the stand immediately. Hankey,
where is Sykes?"
"His servant has just brought me sad news," said Hankey in a low voice.
"Sykes is dead. He died this morning at daybreak - septic pneumonia following on
"Dear, dear," muttered Balfour. "It seems as though we shall never get
on with this problem. And now, Hankey, what is the next item on the agenda? And do please
see to it that I get the proper papers and that the important paragraphs are flagged. I so
hate wading through interminable documents..."
Faisal was a generous foe. Sykes' coffin was returned to Yorkshire covered with a
carpet of rare flowers which the Emir placed on it with his own Sheriffian hand. There
were services in Aleppo and in Jerusalem for the soldier who had been withdrawn from the
fray so suddenly, and in many other places where his motives were held in higher esteem
than were the resulting policies.
February 12, 1919
The postponed meeting which took place one day later was not only interesting because
of the confrontation of the Arab sheiks with their former champions, of short memories,
but because it gave us an opportunity to fathom Mr. Balfour's extremely shallow knowledge
of at least one of the secret treaties which has so frequently figured in international
discussions and even in the debates of our own Senate.
Through Colonel Lawrence, Emir Faisal, in language that was but thinly veiled if it can
be said it was veiled at all, pointed out the duplicity with which the Arab world had been
treated by the Great Powers. He read the original agreements between King Hussein, Lord
Kitchener, and General McMahon that brought the Arabs into the war. He dwelt with emphasis
on the promises His Majesty s Government had made to the Syrian Covenanters on June 11,
"And now we are told," he shouted, "that none of these promises can be
fulfilled because of the Sykes-Picot pact, an agreement to divide many of the Arab lands
between France and England, negotiated months before, in May, 1916. We are told,"
continued Faisal, with a biting irony which he made no attempt to restrain, "that
this secret arrangement cancels the promises that were made to us openly before all the
[The date of this secret treaty should be carefully noted. It was signed and sealed
eleven months before the day on which, it is asserted by the opposition senators in
Washington, that Mr. Balfour standing in the White House and pleading with President
Wilson an opportunity to unburden his soul and tell the world about the secret misdeeds of
Old World diplomacy. And yet in February, 1919, he, Balfour, showed his ignorance of at
least one of them and not the least important one. Certainly Mr. Balfour's bearing and
attitude at the meeting gives no support to the senatorial indictment.]
It was plain that Mr. Balfour was bewildered and that he only recalled the existence of
the Sykes - Picot document in a vague and general way. "That's the treaty that gives
Mosul to the french," said one of the bright young men who sat at his elbow. He at
least had read some part of the agreement that distributed the lands of the Middle East.
"How extraordinary," commented Mr. Balfour. But unlike his daring chief,
Lloyd George, Balfour, minister of foreign affairs, was not inclined to dive into
"troubled waters" unless his theologians and geographers were standing by or
within hailing distance.
Baffled he may have been, but certainly he was not flustered. As cool as an icicle,
Balfour now announced: "Owing to the tragic death of our expert, the review of these
complicated negotiations, so generally misunderstood, will have to go over to another
day." And so it was ordered, to the relief of many who recognized that Anglo-Saxon
diplomacy was in for an unhappy hour. The subsequent proceedings were, wisely, carried out
[1923. As long as Balfour was minister of foreign affairs they never "got on"
with the Arab problem. Four years later when he had been succeeded by Lord Curzon, who
took advice from Winston Churchill and from Lawrence, what appeared to be a fair if
temporary settlement was achieved through long negotiations in Cairo and Bagdad.]
February 26, 1919
Emir Faisal has moved from his apartment in the Continental and is more at his ease in
a small private hotel he has leased on the Avenue du Bois. At his request I call
frequently, about twice a week. Like everyone else he wants something. First and foremost,
he wants President Wilson to assume the mandate over Syria and then to appoint him as his
lieutenant and deputy. When last week under instructions I told him that there is little
or no prospect of this, he piped down with the more modest request to have an American
army officer attached to his Mission. I have passed this on to the Colonel and he has sent
it on to General Pershing with his approval. Certainly a competent soldier should be
selected, at least to accompany the Emir when he visits the battlefields on March 10;
otherwise I fear that the important participation of the American army in the Allied
victory will escape notice.
In the privacy of his home, which with a few draperies and rugs has transformed into
something like a nomad s tent, Faisal presents quite a different figure from the one he
cuts when, flanked by Lawrence and Nouri Pasha, he addresses and at times browbeats the
assembled prime ministers and their advisers on Middle Eastern affairs in the Clock Room
at the Quai d'Orsay. There, with his rakish turban, his gallant gold-embroidered coat, his
very visible scimiter, and his bejeweled revolver (by no means concealed), he looks what
he doubtless is a son of Mars, Oriental version.
But in his home, under what seems to be a canopy of silk and embroidered velvet, he
presents a very different and as it seems to me a more sympathetic figure. He wears a
black tunic and tight-fitting black trousers. In his hand there is always a chain of
beads, a sort of rosary. He counts them constantly as though to be certain they are all
there. He is frequently lavish in his praise of the American teacher, the elder Doctor
Bliss who founded the college at Beyrouth. "I worship him," he says, "as
all Arabs do because he was a sage and a prophet. It was he who foretold the future of our
race, and it was he who by educating our boys made that future possible. In my army there
were some who had been educated by the French fathers and a few by the English doctors,
but those who had studied at the American college in Beyrouth were the most reliable and
Yesterday Doctor Bliss the younger, the son of the founder of the great school, came in
while I was with the Emir and we put him through the third degree politely, of course. But
the younger Bliss is wary. He would like to see America take over the mandate for Syria,
but he knows the Senate will never consent even if the President does. Perhaps he thinks
it unwise to waste time discussing the question, and he simply said: "I am a bookman,
an educationalist, not a statesman. Not even a politician," he adds with a wry smile.
"The President has asked me for my opinion and I have given it. I have urged him to
send a commission of trained administrators to Syria to confer with the people, to find
out exactly what they want, and then to decide what it would be just, and also wise, to
give them now." The President is not given to enthusiastic personal appraisements,
but he has a high opinion of Faisal. Last Monday in my hearing he said: "Listening to
the Emir I think to hear the voice of liberty, a strange and, I fear, a stray voice,
coming from Asia." How I wish I could pass this on to the Arabs they are so downcast.
But I have no right to do it; most certainly it was said in confidence.
Faisal with his picturesque flankers and adjutants is at once the charm and the mystery
of the Conference. He can speak French quite well when he wants to and he explodes with
laughter when he tells that he, too, has had parliamentary experience:
"It happened in this way. When Abdul Hamid was dethroned, the Committee of
Progress that took over issued a call for an assembly, and I was summoned to
Constantinople to represent the Hejaz. I worked over my speech, saluting the new freedom,
for a month but they would never permit me to deliver it. They kept me under polite
arrest, but it was arrest all the same, and it lasted for two years. Then I escaped to the
desert; but as I traveled light I did not take my speech with me. It is lost
The French are highly indignant over the favor shown Faisal, generally, and the high
esteem in which he is held by the President and the American delegates. Hardly a day
passes that "under-cover" men, closely allied to and doubtless subsidized by
Paris bankers and concession-seeking syndicates, do not put in appearance and take up much
of our time in denouncing the Emir as an adventurer who counts for nothing in the Arab
world. "He counts indeed for less than nothing," they insist, "because the
noble Arabs know that he is in the pay of English landgrabbers who have formed companies,
later to be chartered, which will, under the guise of religion, take over the Arab lands
and suck them dry as they have the rest of the world."
Some day, perhaps, we shall know the truth about all these things, but that day has not
dawned yet. In the meantime the French and the British are fully occupied in
"interpreting" the innumerable contradictory treaties they made with Arab tribes
and factions during the fighting years.
February 27, 1919
Today Lawrence and Gertrude Bell (the "Desert Queen") lunched with me. It was
not a gay affair, for we each had a tale of woe to tell. Lawrence, like all paladins, is
high strung and has his moments of deep discouragement, and this was one of them. But,
even so, in this his hour of depression he did not break out with the angry recriminations
against those responsible for the mess in the Arab world, so frequently reported in the
press as his views.
"As for myself," he said, "I would like to retire to a little cottage,
say in Somerset, and write a book about the rise and fall of the Abbasid Caliphate. It
would abound in topical references and I would probably starve to death while doing it,
just as so many other more deserving men are starving today."
I admitted that I too wished to retire from the splendor of the Crillon, turn my back
on the living world, and, under the guidance of Boissier, confer with Cicero and his
friends and, with the charming Gaston as cicerone, explore the ruins of what was once the
"glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome."
Miss Bell was disgusted with the French and also, for the moment at least, with her
faint-hearted countrymen. Nothing was being done for the Arabs. Even the visiting
commission was hanging fire.
"Of course these people are shortsighted and almost incredibly stupid," she
insisted, "but I shall fight on."
She certainly did, and a few days later she wrote me the letter of thanks and
encouragement which I am glad to insert. It reads:
Dear Major BonsaI:
I send you a brief note on the Commission [to Syria].
I think it much to be regretted that the Question cannot he settled here without
such prolonged delay & I am inclined to believe that with the threat of a Commission
hanging over them, the French might prove less intransigeant & that a satisfactory
accommodation between them and the Syrian Nationalists could be reached.
As you know it would be possible to give them a free hand in Beyrout & the
I am sending you also an account of our self-determination enquiries in
Mesopotamia. If you have time to glance through it you will notice that the salient
characteristic of my people is that they have no settled conviction as to what they want.
Their one wish is that they should be given time to make up their minds. No Commission, I
feel convinced, will be in a better, or indeed in as advantageous a position for finding
our their real opinion as we were, for the Oriental does not speak freely to people whom
he does not know. And the net result is that there is no real opinion.
Thank you so much for your help and sympathy.
The above letter is part of the official correspondence of the Paris Peace Conference.
February 28, 1919
The Arabs had many friends at the Conference, but none more unswerving in allegiance to
their just cause than this honest, gray-eyed, North Country English girl. In a sense, as
is so often the case, her letter, if read without due attention to the circumstances
existing at the time it was written, is misleading. She did not mean to say that the Arabs
did not know what they wanted; they wanted an independent state and they did not want the
French to stay in Syria. But as between a mandate by Britain, with her special imperial
interests in the Near and Middle East, and that of far-away America, they were in doubt,
and no one knew it better than Gertrude Bell. Britain had special interests which at any
moment might seem vital, and if America received the mandate, she was so far away that she
might forget all about her distant wards. Gertrude had studied the problem quite closely
and, not entirely without reason, she was inclined to think that our legislators in
Washington often forgot their responsibility for our wards in the Philippines.
March 29, 1919
This afternoon Faisal and Lawrence came for what is probably a farewell call, as the
Emir says he expects to return to Syria in a few days. Faisal was more self-contained,
certainly less obstreperous, than he was the day he stormed and thundered before the
Council of Ten. He read to House the protocol of the promises the British made to his
father, King Hussein, on October 24, 1915. Clearly it promised recognition of Arab
independence, outside of Bagdad and Basra, if the Arabs joined up with the Allies. Then he
read the Sykes-Picot agreement of May, 1916, providing for a very different and a very
definite partition of the Arab lands. Of course these contradictory promises were made
under the stress of a disturbing military situation, but all the same no white man could
listen to them without deep regret.
"Now it seems I shall have to return to my people empty-handed, and I am at a loss
to explain why. I have come to ask you again what chance is there of America taking a
mandate over our country and our people? In this way the danger of the present friction
between England and France that may result in war would be avoided and my people would
feel assured of ultimate independence."
House said that he could not make any definite promises. The President was interested
and would use his good offices toward a favorable solution, but the Arab lands were far
from the American sphere and acceptance of responsibility in Asia would be quite a
departure from American tradition. Suddenly Faisal's face, hitherto so placid, became
distorted and the long-covered fires blazed into view. "We Arabs would rather die
than accept the supremacy of the French although it be sugar-coated as a mandate subject
to the control of the League."
When Lawrence had quieted him down Faisal put another equally awkward question:
"What will America do to save what is left of Armenia?"
House could only answer that the question was under advisement and study; that "if
the advice and consent of the Senate could be secured, the President would accept a
mandate over those unfortunate people."
House then said the President had determined to send a commission to Syria to
investigate and report back. "What do you think of it?"
"I think well of it," answered Faisal, "but the French will leave
nothing undone in the way of hampering the work of the commission. The American
commissioners will have to be sturdy fellows."
[A few days later, President Wilson nominated Dr. King of Oberlin College and Charles
R. Crane, a well-known sympathizer in the Arab cause, as the American members of what he
thought was to be an international commission. The French declined to nominate a member
and the British failed to do so. In the following summer the Americans visited most of the
disturbed Arab provinces and reported that a French mandate was unacceptable to the people
and would result in war. Little attention was paid to the report in America and it was
ignored in Europe. Recognizing that all the war promises had become dead letters, a few
months later Faisal made the best bargain he could with Clemenceau. He was given Damascus
and the interior of Syria, but in April, 1920, the Supreme War Council, without authority,
it seemed to many, gave to France a mandate over Syria, whereupon the Clemenceau - Faisal
agreement was torn up by M. MiIlerand. "Inshallah! I shall remain in Damascus,"
declared Faisal, and it is a fact that it required the heavy artillery of Generals Gouraud
and Sarrail to blow him out of the oldest living city in the world.]
April 29, 1919
Ten days ago the Syrian kettle came to a boil again. The commission shows more and more
reluctance to "shove off." House told Clemenceau that the delay was scandalous
and that he must intervene. "It is a scandal, I agree," answered Clemenceau;
"Lloyd George on all fours has crawled away from the position he took up so valiantly
three months ago; but what have I to do with this mediaeval matter? What has the Tiger to
do with a politique des Curés [church polity]?"
Hoping for a settlement or at least light on the problem, House brought about a meeting
between Clemenceau and Faisal, escorted by Lawrence, in the Presidence (the Tiger's lair -
really the Ministry of the Interior).
"We must have the French flag over Damascus," shouted the Tiger before his
visitors were seated. "No," answered Faisal, for once in a loud voice.
"I insist we must have the French flag over Damascus," roared the Tiger.
"Never," answered Faisal with eyes flashing, and the inter-view came to an end
without the usual formalities.
A few days after his disappointing interview with the Tiger, Faisal left for Rome where
he is reported to be coquetting with the Pope in regard to the French Protectorate over
the Catholics in the Near East. Curiously enough it is the radical and godless Boulevard
sheets which are most indignant over this reported course of action - or lack of it.
Charming Lawrence came in to thank us for our good offices which, it must be confessed,
have achieved anything but substantial results. He admitted that personally he was in a
quandary. With relief and satisfaction he was more than ready to abandon the political
world and return to his first love, archaeology. "But," he lamented, here is the
rub. Syria is the most promising land to dig in; but there I m compromised by the stand I
have taken, and if I go there now there will be a row. So I shall return to Oxford and
vegetate - worse luck!"
Before he left me, Lawrence dropped a bit of information which is more enlightening as
to the Arab problem than many volumes of Blue Books or White Papers. "The main
trouble is," he said, "there have been too many cooks out there and between them
they have certainly spoiled the broth. From the beginning of the war and down to the
present time, the Intelligence section of the Indian government has been paying the
Wahabite Emir (Ibn Saud) one thousand pounds a month to make war on King Hussein of Mecca,
our ally; and at the same time our War Office has been paying Hussein about the same sum
to harass the Wahabites [that is, the Saudi Arabs, now top dogs in the Arab world]. I
wonder if the French are prepared to continue these subsidies? It really doesn't make much
difference; in any case there will be hell to pay, and that will continue until we get
together and honor our war-time pledges. Mind you, I don t say we have deceived them
intentionally, but we have reached the same result by not letting our right hand know what
the left hand was doing."
[Three years later I saw Lawrence for the last time. "I have fought a dog fight in
Downing Street for three years," he explained, "and justice has been done as far
as it is possible at this late day." I thought he had done wonders. He had at least
brought two Arab kingdoms into being and he had made many Englishmen and a few Frenchmen
blushame. "What the outcome will be of course I do not know," were the last
words I heard from the lips of this paladin, "but I am determined it shall never be
said that I drew profit from the part I played in the war or the transactions that
followed upon it. I have declined to enter the colonial or any other service. I would
rather starve - and probably shall."]
1. Emir Faisal, third son of Sherif Hussein, was commander-in-chief
of the Arab forces which, with the help of T. E. Lawrence, so materially contributed to
English General Allenby s victories in the Near East. He was later (1920) proclaimed King
<< 2: Russians: Reds, Whites, and Pinks || 4: The Zionists and Ben Israel >>