Sediments — 1917 | February 2015

By Adam Kleinman

“He does it better than you, General. But then, of course, he is ‘almost’ an Arab.”

Sometimes, it is hard to suspend disbelief. Consider how Sir Alec Guinness delivered the above line in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962): as an Englishman dressed as an Arab. The comment was sarcastic, but the audience’s smirk could not have been the goal.

Although Guinness was soon to be knighted in real life, the historic character he played, Prince Faisal (1885–1933), was once styled as the king of Syria, and later as king of Iraq. However, when the film was set, these countries did not yet exist—their lands were part of the Ottoman Empire, and Faisal and his people, the Arabs, were subordinate to the Turks. In any case, Guinness’s redress is meant to implicate the bad faith of his former military colleague, the British solider T.E. Lawrence. After co-leading an Arab revolt for self-determination, Faisal’s allies at the time, the British and French Empires, would later usurp control of the territories gained in battle from the Ottoman enemy. The mechanisms of such, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a clandestine deal between the UK and France delineating how the Arab provinces would be divided, is presented as a mini-history gloss just after Faisal’s filmic taunt. And yet, the world might never have known about these hidden geopolitical plays had it not been for another real-world partner who had a change of faith.

At the time of the Sykes-Picot negotiations in early 1916, few suspected that the Russian Empire was at its dusk. In any case, the Brits and the French had shared their plans with their World War I ally; however, by the time of the Russian Revolution all bets were off. Possibly as a way to shame their capitalist former partners, the Bolsheviks leaked the plans of the Sykes-Picot and other such agreements on 23 November 1917 in the Soviet newspapers Pravda [Truth] and Izvestia [Reports]. By the next morning, “the British were embarrassed, the Arabs dismayed, and the Turks delighted.”[ref]Peter Mansfield, The British Empire Magazine, no. 75 (1973).[/ref]

At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, another secret plot boiled.

By 1917, the German Empire sought a new way to break the back of their British enemy; the means: to use unrestricted submarine warfare so as to sink supply ships and the British war effort with them. Although the United States was not yet in the war, ‘neutral’ American ships furnished the UK with raw materials, ammunition, food, and other provisions. As such, these ships soon became German submarine targets. Knowing that such actions would most probably bring the United States into war against Germany, foreign secretary of the German Empire, Arthur Zimmermann, send a telegram to Mexico. Known as the Zimmermann Telegram, the minister proposed that the Mexicans should join with the Germans and take up arms against the United States. In return for opening up a new front that would tip the balance toward a global victory, the Germans promised that control of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas would be the Mexican people’s reward. Embroiled in a revolution itself, Mexico rejected the offer, but news of the deal soon reached the American populace after British forces intercepted the coded dispatch by hacking telegraph cables and leaked the contents to the United States. American reaction to the message was strongly negative, and public opinion was swayed toward military confrontation with Germany.

These and related events caused the United States to be weary of information, and more specifically espionage. Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917 just as the Untied States entered the war. Although this act was intended to prosecute military treason, it was—and still is—generally marshaled to prosecute American radicals, such as in the case of Emma Goldman’s rights to free speech. While the events above might sound distant, the very same Espionage Act has played a recurrent theme in global politics as it has been used to silence and punish whistle blowers from Daniel Ellsberg, to Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. Likewise, the so-called Islamic State (IS) has cited the colonial legacy of the Sykes-Picot as a call to arms today.

This section of Sediments will tease out the long geopolitical cast of World War I on today’s reality.

Sediments — 1917
The Geopolitics of the Virgin Mary
Mariana Silva, Pedro Neves Marques
Sediments — 1971
Adam Kleinman
Sediments — 1995
Adam Kleinman, Orit Gat