For Their Own Good, Of Course

The Maps Room was unrecognizable. Desks and tables had been pushed aside for a large Oriental carpet encircled with richly brocaded cushions. Smoke rose from the hookah bowl and mingled with the fog of tobacco hanging from the ceiling.  I made out Sykes sitting on a cushion. He saw me and extended a hand.

“Be a good chap and help me up, Frankie” he said. “My leg’s fallen asleep.” I tugged him to his feet. He nodded thanks. “Abdullah is gone now? And the others?”

“We sent them off with fanfare and presents, as we planned. But Mark,” I said, “The prince has a thousand conditions. Ancestral homelands, tribal fiefdoms, historical territories. All vital to his people’s acceptance.”

“Of course,” he smiled.  He limped to the map table and lay a yardstick across it. “Now, let us draw a line from this “e” in Acre to the last “k” in Kirkuk.”

What Pegman Saw


Historical note:  

Mark Sykes, representing the British government, and Francois Georges-Picot, from the French government, met in 1916 to divide the territory of the fallen Ottoman Empire.

Sykes and Picot were quintessential aristocrats experienced in colonial administration, and thus endowed with the unshakable certainty of white European superiority.  Though both had lived in the Middle East for years, they believed the Arabs incapable of self-governance. To further the colonial ends of Britain and France, they used a yardstick and a map to divide the colonial territories. Straight lines make for simple borders.

Thus a map drawn by two white men divided land that had been under Ottoman rule since the 16th Century into new countries. Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine would be governed by the British,  while Syria and Lebanon were under French control. 

These negotiations were conducted in secret and broke the promises made to Arabs by both countries that they would be granted independence if they rebelled against the Ottomans. Naturally, the newly created borders did not correspond  in any way to the actual sectarian, tribal, or ethnic distinctions of the region.

A hasty agreement negotiated in the most brutal year of World War One casts a shadow over the region to this day. While Sykes-Picot’s straight lines provided major advantages to Britain and France in the first half of the twentieth century and to the United States in the second, they created enormous  suffering and death for the millions who live within them.


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