Saturday, December 18, 2010

HC's comments on George Antonius's The Arab Awakening

George Antonius was born in 1891, a Lebanese Christian, educated at Cambridge, and worked in the British Administration in Cairo during WW1, moved to Palestine only in 1921, but was wholly absorbed in the Arab cause, of which Palestine was the flashpoint. His book appeared in 1938 in Britain and 39 in the US. It is probably the first reliable account in English (or any European
language) of modern Arab nationalism, going back to the mid-19th c, and most of all, of the betrayal of the Arabs by the British in WW1.

The Arabs were very brave in their revolt against the Turks and their
military contribution was invaluable. The Turks repressed the
revolutionary plotters in Damascus and Beirut ruthlessly, rounding up
and torturing and hanging dozens of patriots. A Turkish-German force
sent to the Arabian peninsula forced the Sharif of Mecca's hand before
his preparations were complete, but he proceeded on his own
initiative, summoned British help and took the area of Mecca and Jidda
to start. This timely move kept enemy forces out of Arabia, relieving
a threat to the British base at Aden, and to British colonies in East
Africa, and bottled up a Turkish garrison of 14,000 in Medina almost
until the end of the war. In fact as the Arabs took Aqaba, threatened
Ma'an and harassed the Hejaz railway, they were engaging more Turks
than the British under Murray in Sinai and Palestine.

The British betrayal started during the war, with Sykes-Picot and then
the Balfour Decl. Interestingly, Antonious says that Sykes came to his
senses about the enormity of the betrayal of his secret diplomacy, and
died from the great influenza epidemic, in Paris, as he was
arguing with the British delegation to the Versailles conf. In late
1917 the Sharif and Arab notables in Cairo sought reassurance from the
Brits that their wartime promise of independence still held, as the
Bolsheviks had released the Sykes-Picot text, to which imperial Russia
was a party, which they found in the czarist archives, and Balfour was
of course publicized in Nov. They received such assurances
categorically; Allenby was just starting his Palestine campaign and
the Arabs were his right flank.

The betrayal culminated in the San Remo protocol of 1920, which
dismembered Syria and awarded the Mandates to Britain and France, and
also incorporated the Balfour Decl. Antonious writes very eloquently:

"The decisions taken at San Remo were made public on the 5th of May,
and their promulgation gave birth to a new sentiment in the Arab
world--contempt for the powers of the West. It was not only the
denial of the two cherished goals of independence and unity that
provoked the revulsion of feeling, but also, and more profoundly, the
breach of faith. The distinction is an important one: it foreshadows
the subsequent transition from disappointment to despair,.and in it
lies the key to the upheavals that followed. In the eyes of the Arabs,
the San Remo decisions were a betrayal, and the fact that they
violated a compact sealed in blood made the betrayal more hateful and

The Sharif released the texts of his correspondence with McMahon,
British High Commissioner in Cairo, in Arabic, and Antonius studied
and collated them for his book. He argued convincingly that they did
not exclude Palestine from the area promised to Sharif Husain, which
had been debated in British politics since the early 1920s, and
Britain finally released the correspondence in 1939. Antonius
interviewed Sharif Husain before he died, and many important Arab
participants, incl Husains's sons. The last part of his last chapter
is about Palestine, written in 1938, and he clearly sees the danger to
the Arab position, writes most strongly about the Arab claim to the
country, and also grants the Jews rights on liberal democratic, but emphatically not national terms. The importance of Antonius and hiswork is attested by a 2001 biography by Susan Silsby Boyle, "The Betrayal of Palestine".

It gets better; there's an illuminating account of Lawrence. He did not invent the Aqaba campaign as claimed in his book (and featured in the movie). The idea arose from Auda of the Howeitat (the Anthony Quinn character in the film) and was approved by Faisal, before Lawrence was told. He went along, but not as leader or strategist or adviser, only as a British
observer. The Arabs needed no lessons in such warfare from Lawrence; crossing deserts to make daring raids was exactly their strength.

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