King Lear of Transjordan

December 27, 2003 12:00 AMBy Tamim al-Barghouti

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When there is colonial encounter, there are natives who believe in the colonial promise; this is an attempt to remind every contemporary King Lear with his predecessors.

One of the most interesting, complex and important characters in modern Arab history is King Abdullah I, the founder of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The old king caused a lot of controversy during his life as well as after his death. To some, he was a martyr, to others he was just the opposite. In both cases not enough attention was paid to the king’s complex character and to his tragic fate.

Abdullah’s father, Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who fought alongside the British against the Ottomans hoping that he would be rewarded with a united Arab kingdom, walked into a British tarp arguably without knowing it was a trap. Abdullah, on the other hand was made to walk into the British trap painfully knowing it for what it was. After the French drove Abdullah’s brother Faisal out of Syria, Abdullah called upon Syrian patriots to rise against the French occupation. He marched from Hijaz toward Damascus with the declared goal of liberating Syria from the French. When he reached the city of Maan, which was then the border between Hijaz and Greater Syria, the British declared that they did not back Abdullah’s moves, and that they would not allow any anti-French activities in the British occupied territories. Abdullah was then summoned to Jerusalem, where he met with Winston Churchill, who is reported to have promised the Arabian prince that if he managed to keep Transjordan in order for six month, the British would attempt to convince the French of appointing Abdullah as king of Syria under their mandate. Instead of waging the guerrilla war on the Jordanian-Syrian borders, stopping all anti-French guerrilla activities in the area became Abdullah’s means to claim the throne of Damascus!

Of course the six months became 30 years, and the king knew that the British promises where void of meaning. In the mid-1920 she witnessed how the British let his father’s kingdom in Hijaz collapse under the attacks of the Saudis. He witnessed how his stateless father was not even allowed to stay with either of his two sons. Abdullah himself was under continuous British pressure; in 1924 as he was returning to Transjordan from a pilgrimage in Hijaz, John Philby, the British representative in Jordan, met him in Aqaba, the new border between Hijaz and Jordan, and handed him an ultimatum stating that if Abdullah did not crack down on “Syrian terrorists” who still conducted attacks against the French, he would not be allowed to proceed to his princedom’s capital. Abdullah agreed.

With the limited resources of his princedom, and with overwhelming British might, Abdullah could not think of military confrontation with the colonial power. Nevertheless he was the brother of the king of Iraq, the son of the king of Hijaz, with a claim of Syria and Arabia. So, he never gave up trying to use his skills of negotiation to propose projects of unity, either with Iraq or with Palestine, to the British. His acceptance of the partition plan proposed by Lord Peal’s Royal Commission in 1937, which was the first British suggestion to divide Palestine between Arabs and Jews, came in that framework. He also proposed to become king of Palestine and Transjordan in return of accepting the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine, his understanding of “a national home” being an autonomous Jewish community within his kingdom. Some sources report that he increasingly interfered in Iraqi affairs after Faisal’s death. Indeed, he even legitimized his last action of annexing the West Bank in the context of Arab unity.

But precisely because Abdullah had a claim to Syria, Arabia, Iraq and Palestine the colonial power always had suspicions that he might take action against their interest to achieve these ambitions. No matter how many guarantees he was giving to the colonial power, his ambition was, natural, expected, obvious and, therefore, self-destructive. Exactly because of being ambitious and exactly because of expressing these ambitions to the colonial powers, measures were taken to prevent him from achieving his hopes. Like many other figures in national liberation movements in the Arab world at the time, the illusion that reconciliation between native and colonial interest was possible determined Abdullah’s entrapment in a cycle of hope and frustration. Even the relatively small trophy he got, the West Bank, was soon taken back, though after his death.

Abdullah’s life proves, again, the impossibility of accommodating colonial and native agendas. The late king has been portrayed by many Arabs, British and even Israelis as the Arab ruler who was the most cooperative to colonial powers ever. While this might be true for the first half of the 20th century, a closer look at the second half would force us to qualify that statement. The king’s legacy became generalized toward the end of the century. Abdullah I now falls into a whole category of rulers including Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Bashir Gemayel of Lebanon, any leader of occupied Iraq today and, may be, even Yasser Arafat of Palestine. One could even argue that, to various degrees, there is an Abdullah in each and every Arab leader today. Those Oriental versions of King Lear are all tragic characters who genuinely believed that cooperation with the colonial power can achieve something, yet they were betrayed by no other than the colonial powers they so much believed in.

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