[Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] SUITORS AND SUPPLIANTS


The Arabs plead for Freedom:
Emir Faisal, Colonel Lawrence, and Gertrude Bell - The Desert Queen

Paris, January 21, 1919

When the Arabs presented their case and the Emir Faisal,[7] 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 desert king.

"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 speakers?

"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 them."

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 for it."

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 country.

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 sorrow."

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 stubborn one.

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 said.

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 will get on with it. I will 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 flu."

"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, 1918.

"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 world."

[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 quite privately.

[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 efficient."

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 forever."

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 Lebanon.

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.

Yours sincerely,


Major Bonsal,

American Delegation.

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 blush for shame. "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."]

 [Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] SUITORS AND SUPPLIANTS