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The National Government of Moab (Jordan, 1920-1)

The National Government of Moab (Jordan, 1920-1), Sir Alec Seath Kirkbride, A Crackle of Thorns- Experiences in the Middle East, J. Murray, London 1956.

Chapter 3- The National Government of Moab (Jordan, 1920-1)

The Late King Hussein of the Hejaz was a direct descendant of the Prophet of Islam and was the head of the Dhawi Aun section of the Hashmite family. The family took its name from that distinguished member of the Kureish tribe, Hashem, who was the uncle of the Prophet and the progenitor of the Hashimites. From the time that the Ottoman Turks established their rule over the Holy Places of Islam in the Hejaz, it was the habit of the Sultan to appoint as Amir of Mecca a member of the ‘Sherifs’ who descended from the Prophet. The Turks, with their usual flair for dividing and ruling, gave the appointments alternately to different branches of that very large family, in the hope that they could secure loyalty to themselves by playing the members of one branch off against the members of other branches. As will be seen, the idea did not always succeed, because in 1916, when he was Amir of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali and his four sons led an Arab national movement into rebellion against the Turks with the support of the Allied Powers. The goal of the revolt was to secure independence of the Arab territories which had hitherto formed pat of the Ottoman Empire.

King Hussein’s original vision was that of an Arab Empire with himself at its head, but this was, clearly, not a project capable of realization immediately after the end of the First World War, so he and his son agreed that Ali, the eldest, should succeed their father as king of the Hejaz; that Abdullah, the second, should be King of Iraq and that Faisal, the third, should be King of Syria. Zeid, the fourth son, was not interested in kingships and was, at his own request, left out of the division of the spoils-to-be. At the end of the fighting in 1918 Faisal found himself at Damascus and proclaimed himself King of Syria a few months later, thereby carrying out his part of the family program. The father became King of Hejaz with the Amir Ali as his Heir Apparent, and because the future of Iraq was still uncertain, the Amir Abdullah became his father’s Minister for Foreign Affairs in the hope that his kingdom would come into being in the meanwhile. The plan, however, soon broke down, because Faisal could not come to terms with the French, who had ambitions in Syria, and he was ejected from his new kingdom by a French army in July, 1920. Instead of going home to Hejaz a defeated man, Faisal shrewdly when to the Peace Conference at Paris, from which he emerged after various maneuvers as the candidate for the throne of Iraq who had the backing of His Majesty’s Government. He succeeded in winning the support of the Iraqis and was crowned King of Baghdad in October, 1921.

When Faisal became the chosen candidate for the throne of Iraq the Amir Abdullah was, not unnaturally furious, but there was not much that he could do about it as he was out of the picture internationally and had failed to establish any degree of contact with the Iraqi politicians who alone could have given him the means of achieving his ambition.

While all this was going on, a mandate over Palestine, a geographical term which included Transjordan also, was granted to Great Britain in July, 1920. At the time of the issue of this mandate His Majesty’s Government were too busy setting up a civil administration in Palestine proper, west of the river Jordan, to be bothered about the remote and undeveloped areas which lay to the east of the river and which were intended to serve as a reserve of land for use in the resettlement of Arabs once the National Home for the Jews in Palestine, which they were pledged to support, became an accomplished fact. There was no intention at that stage of forming the territory east of the river Jordan into an independent Arab state.

A small number of Arabic-speaking British officers were therefore sent to the various centers east of the Jordan with the task of setting up local autonomous administrations and of running the country with these as best they might. They were told that it would be a waste of time their asking for assistance in the form of money or troops, but that any expert advice available would be placed at their disposal. It was the old problem of making bricks without straw. I had spent some months at Kerak during King Faisal’s short-lived kingdom and I was now detailed to return there. It was the most southern of these ad hoc administrative centers and populated by the wildest tribesmen in the country who had never been subdued completely by the Ottoman Government. I liked Kerak and I liked its people. The place had many advantages from my point of view. No motor-road, no telephone or telegraph and no other British- I was, in fact, truly my own master. The modern town was sited within the walls of the magnificent crusader fortress of Crac du Desert, where Renaud de Châtillon earned his fame or, according to Arab historians, his infamy. From the old citadel, which stood a thousand meters above sea-level, there was a breathtaking view over the wild mountains down to the Dead Sea in its trough, and then again mountains further west crowned by Jerusalem, of which the windows gleaming in the sunlight could be seen early in the morning by the naked eye. As amusements I had riding, shooting and exploring the interior of old fortifications, which were a warren of passages and dungeons.

The people were hardly spoilt then by the mimicry of Western dress and customs which later became fashionable in the Arab world. Even the Christian tribes, who had retained their faith since the Arab conquest ousted the Byzantines, lived the semi-nomadic life of their Moslem fellows. I have heard Mass in a beduin tent on more than one occasion. My wardrobe was kept mended and my house kept clean by the Nuns of the Sisters of the Rosary, themselves all Arabs, who used to invade my residence while I was at the office and goad my two menservants to activity and fury.

The tribal elders were pleased to see me back and tickled at the novel idea of governing themselves. We decided to call the new administration the ‘National Government of Moab’ and to form a Council of Elders who would, in fact, be the cabinet. The Council was formed without serious difficulty as there were twelve sheikhs whose claims to membership were indisputable. There was trouble, however, when it came to choosing the president or chairman, and none of the twelve would agree to one of themselves achieving this eminence. After some agitated sessions, the headless council came to the conclusion that I should be the President. I thanked them warmly for this sign of their confidence, explained that I could not accept because my functions were advisory and asked them to try again.

After further discussion the Council came to see me, looking dignified and impressive in their long robes and colorful headdress. After everyone had shaken hands and sat down, the spokesman turned to me and said, ‘Peace be unto you.’ To which I replied, ‘And unto you, peace.’ He then said, ‘We have come to seek your guidance in the matter of the appointment of a head of the council. We find it difficult to settle the choice without assistance.’

I answered, ‘I have already told you that my role here is to advise you when possible. I shall, of course, be delighted to do so in the present instance.’

The old sheikh bowed his head and said, ‘Thank you indeed. We know that we can depend on your wisdom and your unbiased judgement. Would you be good enough to choose the president amongst us.’

Myself, ‘You must excuse me. I value your friendship greatly and it is clear that if I make the choice, eleven of you are going to be angry with me.’ Subdued chuckles from round the room. ‘You should yourselves elect your head, or, if that is difficult, I suggest you draw lots for the post.’

The sheikh went on to say, ‘May we take it that anyone who is elected by ourselves will be acceptable to you?’

Myself, without thinking, ‘Yes, always provided that he is someone who is capable of doing the work.’

The sheikh, triumphantly, ‘Well, you are hereby elected unanimously! We can think of no one more capable than yourself.’ Applause and laughter from everyone else.

After that, I surrendered and became head of a more or less independent republic.

The new administration started without funds and there was every sign that it would remain in that condition. The local leaders did not share the view that acceptance of self-government implied acceptance of self-taxation. On the contrary, they felt that, having escaped from the rapacious clutches of the Turks and then the Damascenes, no one would be required to pay taxes. My remark that in those circumstances no one would get any salary, pained them, but left their determination to avoid taxation unshakeable. I had, of course, to reject the suggestion that the ever-generous British might provide funds to meet essential expenditure.

When the Council became too depressed over the financial situation, we used to bring out a 5” howitzer, of Victorian vintage according to the V.R. on its barrel, which had been left behind by the Arab Army in 1918, and fire off live rounds into the sky. This exercise never failed to restore the morale of the Council, but one had occasionally to deal with irate shepherds when the shells failed to detonate in the clouds according to order and fell on some adjacent hillside.

However, something better than a howitzer came to alleviate the crisis. It was a British concession hunter who offered a thousand pounds for a concession to exploit the mineral resources of the country. I resisted the idea in Council and told the applicant in private that any concession issued by the present administration would probably be worthless. The concession hunter refused to be discouraged and the Council became mutinous. The latter argued that it was flying in the face of a beneficent Providence to refuse a thousand pounds which our visitor was anxious to pay for apiece of worthless paper; it was no business of ours to protect him from his folly if the concession was indeed valueless! The council also inquired pertinently as to who, or what, was better qualified to issue concession than themselves? Eventually I gave way and the concession was issued. In due course there were reverberations on its subject in the Colonial Office, but by that time the issuing government had ceased to exist and I refused to admit that I had been responsible for their actions. The National Government was not without its international disputes. The northern boundary was in question with the next autonomous administration which was siting at Amman and to which my younger brother was the British adviser. The two Councils commenced an acrimonious correspondence on the subject, accompanied at the same time by a series of messages between my brother and myself which consisted only of references to passages in the Old Testament. There are some hard sayings to be found in that part of the Bible on the subject of Ammon (Amman) and Moab and Edom (Kerak), but I felt that, on the whole, my part came off worst in the exchange. I never found a counter of equal offensiveness to the passage in Psalms 60.8 to the effect that ‘Moab is my wash-pot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe.’ Only those who have lived amongst Arabs can appreciate how great are these two insults.

There was also the affair of the postage stamps. Having no stamps of our own, the National Government asked the Palestine postal authorities if a supply of Palestine stamps could be made available for use in Moab. Their answer was a firm negative, so we proceeded to manufacture stamps by ruling off blank sheets of white paper into squares and stamping each division with the National Seal. Cut up with a pair of scissors and gummed at the back, the new stamps might be said to be crude but serviceable. The Palestine Government rewarded this initiative by announcing that it could not recognize the new stamps and any letters franked by these would be treated as though they were unstamped. We replied that reciprocal treatment would be accorded in Moab to letters bearing Palestinian stamps. After some ineffective fulminations the Palestine Government climbed down and set us the supply of stamps which we had asked for in the first place.

Apart from the impossibility of collecting taxes, our internal troubles were connected almost entirely with inter-tribal raiding. There was, it is true, a police force of about fifty men, but as they only received their pay several months in arrears they could not be blamed for being reluctant to risk their skins in endeavoring to stop a practice which was regarded popularly as something akin to sport. I became involved, quite inadvertently, in one of the tribal feuds by arriving with five mounted policeman at a tribal camp after dark where we arranged to accept hospitality for the night.

Another tribe, with which our hosts were at war had decided to indulge in a form of attack in common use, that is to creep up to effective range of the tents under the cover of night and to fire into the camp at first light. The objectives being to inflict casualties and to make off with any animals which might break loose and stampede in the confusion. We learnt afterwards that the attackers were not aware of our arrival after dark, otherwise the attempt would have been postponed. The policemen and I were still asleep in the guest half of the sheikh’s tent when bullets whistled through above us and shouts from the men from the ‘Brave ones’ to turn out and fight, with screams from the women to the children to lie down, awakened us abruptly. As guests, we were in duty bound to support the cause of our hosts- moreover, when a camp is attacked in this manner, it was the custom for the armed men to run clear of the tents before returning the fire, so as to give the attackers no excuse for firing into the tents where the woman and children lay flat on the ground. We therefore jumped straight out of our bedding, seized our rifles and joined the tribesmen who had opened fire on both flanks. The attack was not pressed, probably because it was soon realized that there were more rifles in the camp than had been expected. As the attackers withdrew towards their mounts, which has been left in a depression to their rear, we ran forward, firing as we went, until we could see the assailants galloping away over the hills to the east. I then discovered that I was incapable of walking a step further. When the alarm had been given, I had not waited to put on my boots, and I had run in my socks over several hundred meters of very stony going without feeling any discomfort for so long as the excitement lasted. Once, however the shooting was over, I found my socks in ribbons and my feet bleeding, and far too sore to walk upon. I was brought back to camp on a horse, the only human casualty of the affray, as far as we could ascertain.

Other fights were not quite so bloodless, however, and although we managed to keep the raiding within fairly reasonable bounds, according to local standards, there were quite a number of fatalities during the nine months of the National Government’s existence.

In January, 1921, news came of the arrival of Ma’an, which was still part of the Hejaz at that time, of the Amir Abdullah at the head of a force of nearly two thousand men. When his hopes of becoming King of Iraq faded, the Amir Abdullah had resigned from the post of Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Hejaz and, while he had accepted the rank of Field-Marshal from his father, this empty consolation had failed to heal his injured feelings. He had proceeded to recruit a private army and had announced, on arrival at Ma’an, that he proposed to expel the French forces from Syria and to take over that kingdom on his own account. Having told the world of his plans, which involved the armed invasion of territory which was under British Mandate, the Amir sat back and waited to see what His Britannic Majesty’s Government would do. As the weeks passed and his Majesty’s Government pursued a policy of masterful inaction, it became apparent that the Amir really did intend to advance northwards. As my territory was the first part of mandated area which he would reach, I sent a dispatch by special messenger to the High Commissioner in Jerusalem asking for instructions as to what I should do if and when the advance took place. I pointed out that there were fifty policemen who might resist if ordered to do so; this gave alternative lines of action, (a) to try and oppose the advance or (b) to meet the Amir hat in hand and to say, “Sir, welcome to Transjordan!’ The third possibility of abandoning Kerak and retreating to Jerusalem seemed to be pointless as to exclude itself.

The reply from Jerusalem arrived a fortnight later and consisted of the remarkable unhelpful statement that ‘it was considered most unlikely that the Amir Abdullah would advance into territory which was under British control. Full stop.’ The day after the delivery of this letter my informants reported that the Amir was on the move and would enter my area the following day.

I decided that the hat-in-hand policy was obviously the one to be adopted, so I rode off with the other members of the Council and met the Amir at the nearest station on the Hejaz Railway, up which the invaders were advancing. The Amir was most charming, specially when he realized that we did not propose to make any trouble. It was typical for him that he should have his little joke on this, our first meeting. When we were ushered into the presence, I introduced myself and presented my colleagues individually. After anxious inquiries about each other’s health from both sides, I announced that we have come to welcome His Highness officially to the territory under our control.

The Amir beamed and replied, “Thank you, thank you. I come here with the friendliest sentiments towards the people of this country, whom I regard as my brothers, and towards Great Britain, by whose side we fought to liberate the beloved homeland from its oppressors. Murmurs of applause from everyone.

His Highness then turned to me an said, ‘Am I correct in assuming that you are here to welcome me on behalf of the Government Great Britain?’

Myself, ‘Hum, Well, as a matter of fact, I came with my colleagues here to meet Your Highness as the Council of the National Government of Moab. I expect that His Majesty’s Government will send a representative, in due course, who is more senior than myself.’

The Amir with intense charm, ‘I could not wish to be welcomed by anyone more acceptable than yourself, who fought recently in the army commanded by my brother Faisal. I trust that you will remain to give me your support and advice in the difficult days which are to come. By the way, has the National of Government of Moab ever been recognized internationally?’

After expressing deep appreciation of the Amir’s kindness as regards myself, I went on to say, ‘As regards the local Government, I went on to say, ‘As regards the local Government, I am not quite sure of its international status. I feel, however, that the question is largely of an academic nature now that Your Highness is here. He leant forward and said, ‘Ah, I was sure that we understood each other!”

So the National Government of Moab passed away quite painlessly, as did the other autonomous administrations in the north, and the Amir Abdullah set up a central administration at Amman with which to govern the Amirate of Transjordan, and ultimately, the Hashmite kingdom of the Jordan, as it is known today. A few months after the changeover I was released from military service and became a member of the Colonial Administrative Service. My first civil appointment was to a post in the Secretariat of the High Commissioner in Jerusalem, where I was destined to work for the next six years.

The Amir Abdullah actually took over control of the whole country in March, 1921, and it was not until the following July that His Majesty’s Government decided to follow its usual policy of accepting a fait accompli and announced that they were prepared to recognize the Amir Abdullah’s rule over that part of the mandated territory which lay east of the river Jordan, provided (a) he recognized the validity of the mandate in question and (b) renounced his avowed intention of attempting to conquer Syria. Being well content with the way matters had fallen out, the Amir accepted both conditions without argument. Whether his bellicose intentions towards Syria had ever existed was a moot point.

In due course, the remarkable discovery was made that the clauses of the mandate relating to the establishment of a National Home for the Jews had never been intended to apply to the mandated territory east of the river.

In later years, when Jordan proved the staunchness of its friendship during the bad years of the Second World War, politicians in Great Britain took credit for the way in which they dealt with the country’s future during its earliest days.

My own feelings on the subject of the short-lived National Government were expressed admirably by one of my erstwhile colleagues on its Council who, twenty years later, remarked, ‘It was fun!’

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