The Arab Revolt: A Century On …

The Arab Revolt: A Century On …

by Neil Faulkner

As the call to prayer from the minaret of the Great Mosque died away at dawn on 10 June 1916, a single shot rang out across the holy city of Mecca. It had been fired by the Sherif Hussein himself, a descendant of the Prophet and the ruler of the Hijaz region of western Arabia.

It was the signal to his followers that the long-rumoured insurrection against 400 years of Ottoman Turkish rule had begun. The Revolt would last two years and carry an Arab tribal army all the way to Damascus.

But unlike their 7th century forebears – who managed to topple the Sassanid Persian and Byzantine Greek empires by their own unaided efforts – the Sherifian rebels of the early 20th century were dependent upon a flow of British gold, guns, and grain. They fought as junior allies of a European imperial power.

When Hussein hoisted the rebel flag over his residence on the morning of 10 June, he acted on a promise. A six-month exchange of letters – the ‘McMahon Correspondence’ – had yielded a British promise to support the creation of an independent Arab state spanning the Middle East. The promise was never meant to be kept. At the same time, the British were negotiating a deal with their French and Russian allies to carve up the region between themselves: the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

The consequences are dizzying. Between 1918 and 1921, lines were drawn across the Middle East to create the states we know today as Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. At first they were imperial colonies, ruled by either foreign viceroys or puppet princes. Later they became independent states; but the borders endured, the machinations of Great War imperialism fossilised in the barbed wire, lookout towers, and machine-guns of today’s frontiers.

That this is so – that the damage done a century ago to the integrity of Arabism is yet to be undone – is the result of a succession of Western politico-military interventions in the years since. The aim is always the same: to prevent Arab unity, keep the region divided, foster local rivalry and sectarianism, and frustrate any project that might transform the Arabs into a political force capable of resisting imperialism.

Any would-be regional hegemon is demonised and attacked. Nasser was the target in 1956 (with a British and French invasion of Egypt in alliance with Israel). Iran was the target in 1980 (with a flow of Western arms to Iraq to sustain an eight-year war that claimed a million lives). Saddam was the target in 1991 and again in 2003 (with two US-led wars, responsible for another million dead).

So it goes on: a continuing succession of interventions to prop up a 1918-21 ‘settlement’ based on lines in the sand and sectarian strife. A ‘settlement’ aptly described by David Fromkin as ‘a peace to end all peace’. For that is the reality: the region has been at war with itself for a century – invariably with the great powers hovering in the shadows, backing this dictator or that militia, and sometimes emerging into the sunlight, guns blazing.

T E Lawrence was torn apart by the Great Betrayal. He became ‘continually and bitterly ashamed’. He considered himself a ‘conspirator’, a ‘fraud’, and a ‘trickster’. The damage to his psyche was deep and permanent.

Lawrence’s tragedy was to be vulnerable, conscience-ridden, and too clear-sighted. He was his own Cassandra, and his mind became a psychic prism for the accumulated contradictions of the Arab Revolt, until finally it was shattered by their intensity, and his personality imploded into a black hole of neurotic self-scrutiny and suicidal self-hate.

The desert war was the hinge on which Lawrence’s life turned, because, for him, it involved the dissolution of a romantic myth into a lived experience of murder, greed, and betrayal. He entered Arabia in the autumn of 1916 full of ambition, enthusiasm, and zest for life; he left Syria in the autumn of 1918 with his mind darkened and destabilised. Thus he became a metaphor for a regional crisis that began in his own time, but has now lasted a century.

The ghost of Lawrence still haunts the Middle East.

Neil Faulkner was a freelance academic archaeologist and historian and editor of Military History Monthly. A research fellow at the University of Bristol, he co-directed the Great Arab Revolt Project in Jordan (2006-14).


Also of interest

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A panoramic, provocative account of the clash between British imperialism and Arab jihadism in Africa between 1870 and 1920.

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Simon Sebag Montefiore, BBC History Magazine ‘Books of the Year’

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