Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dinner with Faysal

On this day ninety years ago, after a Monday of committee work of various kinds, several members of the Wilson's "Inquiry" (consisting of "experts" who were scholars, bankers, or lawyers for the most part) had dinner with Emir Faysal, son of the "King" of Mecca, along with Lieutenant-Colonel T. E. Lawrence. Faysal, of course, had led the "revolt in the desert" with the assistance of T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"). He is the individual represented in David Lean's gigantic film, Lawrence of Arabia by Sir Alec Guinness. Faysal was at the Conference with some specific goals in mind, apart from simply representing his father, Husayn, the Sharif of Mecca. In a "correspondence" from late 1915 and early 1916, Husayn and the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry MacMahon, MacMahon made some promises to Husayn in order to nudge him to greater efforts in revolting against the Ottoman Empire (of which the Hejaz region of western Arabia was a part). MacMahon stated that if the Arabs revolted (and of course assuming that the Allied side won) the British would look favorably on an independent Arab state. Various other promises implied that the Husayn, a descendant of the Prophet, would be the ruler of such a state. The "revolt in the desert" came to pass, and was successful in helping the British Army to drive the Turkish forces from Arabia, Palestine, and Syria. Yet as we'll discuss later, for numerous reasons, Faysal would have great difficult in getting these promises fulfilled.

Yet at the optimistic opening of the conference, the urbane
Faysal was in rare form. James T. Shotwell, one of the American experts (a well-connected Columbia University historian), later described the dinner. In his conference journal, he recorded the following impressions of the great Arab statesman: "His face was one of the most attractive I have ever seen, beautifully shaped, with clear, dark eyes that struck us all as being those of a man who, although he has been facing constant danger for many years, retains an irresistible sense of humor. He carries a golden dagger in his girdle, which is woven of gold thread, and when someone remarked on it said that the Parisians said he was only half civilized because he carried a dagger--but their officers carry swords! This descendant of Mohammed was cracking jokes all evening, even in the midst of his most serious argument for the Arab cause. When he was asked what his right title was, he said that the Western Powers were imagining that they had conferred a favor on his father by calling him king; but his father was only amazed at their impertinence, seeing that a man who was the descendant of the Prophet and Sherif of Mecca bore so proud a title that it could not matter to him whether men called him, in addition, King, Emperor, President, or Donkey. His ancestors had been Sherifs of Mecca for 900 years, and no other title in the world compared in splendor." (See Shotwell, At The Paris Peace Conference)

(In the photo of Faysal and his entourage at the Conference, T. E. Lawrence is seen to the immediate right of Faysal.)

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