|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
22 - 28 March 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (382)
Poet Ahmed Shawqi's passionate ode to Damascus was written against the backdrop of violence which swept the Druze region in the early 1920's. The French had adopted a strict divide-and-rule policy which they immediately implemented upon receiving a League of Nations-sanctioned mandate over the area in 1920. The result was discontent with the French throughout Syria. The revolt in Syria aroused Egyptian public opinion. For one, the Syrian Congress, founded in Geneva in 1921, chose Cairo as its headquarters. More importantly, the Egyptian nationalist movement could hardly ignore the plight of a people with whom it shared so many cultural and historic bonds. As the violence in Jebel Druze escalated, the newspaper kept its readers abreast with the developments. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* relates what would be dubbed the Great Syrian Revolution
"Our tears cannot be restrained, Oh Damascus!" proclaimed poet Ahmed Shawqi to an audience at Al-Azbakiya Theatre in January 1926 on the occasion of a fund-raising campaign for the victims of the Syrian revolution. The poem from which this verse was taken was published in its entirety in Al-Ahram, not only because it was the creation of the famous "Prince of Poets," but because of the newspaper's deep interest in everything related to the violence and bloodshed in Syria, a concern that undoubtedly stemmed in good part from the Levantine origins of the newspaper's founders.
Al-Ahram's attention was first drawn to Syria in the summer of 1925 following reports of clashes with French authorities in Jebel Druze. The violence was precipitated when a delegation of Druze citizens headed for Damascus with the intention of petitioning the mandate authorities to replace Captain Carbillier, the heavy-handed governor of their province. Before setting out, the Druze had wanted the right to choose their next governor by popular ballot, but they soon realised they would have to make their selection from among the candidates the French authorities proposed. However, hardly had the delegation arrived in the Syrian capital than its 10 members were thrown into prison. As a result, what had initially been a purely local issue flared into a widespread uprising that swept the Druze region to develop into what was later dubbed the Great Syrian Revolution of 1925-1926.
At the time of these events, Jebel Druze was a province of what was known as Greater Syria, which also comprised the predominantly Christian Lebanon, a Syrian republic and the province of Latakiya. These administrative divisions had been drawn up by the French as part of a policy of divide-and-rule which they immediately implemented upon receiving a League of Nations-sanctioned mandate over the area in 1920. Discontent with the French throughout Syria was rife. Secret societies had come into being, the most notorious of which was the Iron Fist, headed by the highly influential Abdel-Rahman Shahbandar, and the Red Hand, founded by Saadallah Al-Jabri. More significant, however, was the creation in June 1925 of the People's Party, whose founders had been instrumental in organising the widespread mass demonstrations against the provocative visit of Lord Balfour to Damascus in April of that year, after having taken part in the inaugural ceremonies of Hebrew University in Palestine.
As the violence in Jebel Druze escalated in August 1925, Al-Ahram kept its readers abreast with the developments. In one edition early that month it reported that many Druze soldiers had deserted the gendarmerie to join the revolutionaries. The mobilisation of Druze forces had initially proved effective, for in a subsequent issue we read of an encounter between 600 French soldiers and a force of some 15,000 Druze in Suweida, following which "hospitals in Damascus became filled with wounded soldiers from Senegal and Madagascar." The newspaper goes on to relate that one injured French soldier confessed that "they lost three airplanes and that the Druze had managed to destroy a lengthy segment of the Der'a-Mismiyeh railroad."
Initially, the French thought that the stick-and-carrot policy would end the Druze rebellion. As they mounted air strikes on Druze targets, the French released a large number of Druze detainees from prisons in Damascus, Deir Al-Zur and Al-Quneitra and transported them by lorry to their mountainous province. That one of those released was Ahmed Al-Atrash, the emir of Jebel Druze, appeared a very conciliatory gesture. And the Druze accepted it as such, releasing in return more than 100 French soldiers.
But if observers had entertained hopes for a reconciliation, French authorities had other ideas on the matter. True to their colonialist attitudes, they felt that to make any concessions to a people under their rule marked the beginning of a path that would lead to further compromises and the end of their colonial presence. A British newspaper assessed the situation as such: "There can be no discussion of peace when what is desired is total acquiescence and submission."
Worse yet for the French, the last week of August brought news of an unexpected rise in casualties and material damage. According to the Daily Mail, the figures far exceeded those that had been officially released. The report stated that recent fighting had claimed more than 2,000 lives, including 24 French officers. In addition, "the insurgents seized 11 desert artillery vehicles and downed several aircraft. Hospitals in Damascus and Beirut have been flooded with the wounded."
The following day's paper offered a glimpse into the nature of the terrain where the battle was being fought and the positions of opposing forces. The Druze, it wrote, were stationed in impenetrable mountain strongholds from where they could thwart any attack from the French who had been forced to send reinforcements to the 3,000-strong force already in the field. The account further indicates that the French had seriously underestimated the tactical shrewdness of their adversaries. One night, Druze forces led a camel caravan, bedecked with lights, over a path high in the mountains. This drew French fire. As the French remained focused on the target, a large Druze force attacked them from the rear, inflicting heavy losses.
As a result of these setbacks, the French were forced to change their command, bringing in General Gamlin to replace General Michaud. The new officers immediately launched a massive assault. Al-Ahram relates the eye-witness account of a Chicago Tribune correspondent of troop movements along the road from Damascus to Ezra'a. He said he saw Moroccan, Tunisian and Madagascan soldiers, and tanks and armoured vehicles rumbling into position in the area surrounding Jebel Druze, as well as more than 30 airplanes dropping bombs on Suweida. Also at the scene was a correspondent for the Daily Mail who reported that the French were in the process of amassing a force of 35,000 in the area and that they were planning to resort to chemical warfare.
The preparations under way for this massive assault forced the Druze to change strategy, and take the uprising beyond their province. Al-Atrash gave an indication of this direction in an interview with a foreign news agency in which he was quoted as saying, "The revolution is no longer local, but has begun to evolve into a general revolution encompassing all of Syria. We no longer simply call for self-rule for the Druze but for the independence of Syria. The French must be prepared to be satisfied with acting only as advisers like the British in Iraq." Al-Atrash's stance resonated powerfully among the rest of the populace. From the Syrian capital the Daily Mail reporter observed, "The people of the city share the opinion that any action undertaken by the Druze in the vicinity of Damascus will be enough to spark a general uprising." The prediction would soon come true.
Before August ended, reports spread of growing anti-French hostility in Damascus following the French air strike against a force of 1,500 Druze which had attempted to seize the city. After having sustained considerable losses, the Druze force retreated into the mountains.
Up to this point Al-Ahram had relied on the reports of foreign news agencies but it now felt the situation had become so serious that it dispatched one of its reporters to Beirut to cover the news. The first report the correspondent filed from the Lebanese capital concerned the public communiqués issued by French authorities in order to discourage Syrians in Damascus from joining forces with the Druze. The first communiqué charged that the Druze assault represented an attempt to "pillage Damascus" and realise their long-cherished dream. "These "thieves of the mountain," it continued, "seek to plunder the wealth of the people of Damascus and hold their lives to ransom." A second statement described a French air assault against "rebels" that had banded together in the village of Al-Adeliya. "Before the Druze horsemen could rally, the planes unleashed upon them a torrent of bombs, taking down both men and horses."
To further intimidate Damascus residents, French authorities staged military manoeuvres in the city's streets. Simultaneously, to quell rumours of an imminent Druze attack, they issued another communiqué stating that French forces had taken all necessary precautions "to safeguard security and well-being," while threatening "severe retribution against anyone who spreads rumours that endanger public security."
Such measures, however, failed to quell the rising revolutionary fervour in Syria, Damascus in particular. According to a British newspaper, mandate authorities had detained several People's Party members on charges of plotting to incite a revolt in the Syrian capital. The newspaper also reported that Shahbandar had vanished and that a cache of arms had been discovered at the home of the Al-Bakri family, one of the oldest and most prominent in Damascus.
News releases also suggested growing solidarity and direct contact between the Druze and the rest of the Syrian populace. One news item relates that following an attack on villages outside Damascus Druze forces "stripped the uniforms off the (Syrian) gendarmes and sent them back to their villages naked." Another said Druze insurgents infiltrated Wadi Al-Ajam "one by one, without drawing attention to themselves, in order to incite the inhabitants of the village to rebel." A third news item announced a women's demonstration in Damascus in support of the Druze revolutionaries.
As the revolutionary tide approached Damascus, the mandate authorities were alarmed, and it could not have been comforting that the political system they had established to keep nationalist fervour in check had begun to fall apart. The cornerstone of this system, the Syrian Union Party, consisting primarily of Syrian employees of the mandate government and a number of prominent pro-French individuals, had been intended to confer popular legitimacy upon the government. However, as the spirit of resistance escalated, the party secretary was obliged to declare that the actions of his party were autonomous from the government.
The evolution of the uprising in Jebel Druze into the Great Syrian Revolution had some of the characteristics of other major nationalist revolutions in the Arab world, notably the Egyptian 1919 Revolution. We find, for example, a number of similar stratagems, one of which was to disrupt communications between the various centres of colonial command, throwing authorities into confusion and enhancing the revolutionaries' chances of a surprise attack. Numerous foreign dispatches to this effect were relayed in Al-Ahram. The Damascus-based Alif Ba', for example, reported that telephone and telegraph lines had been severed between Al-Quneitra, Damascus, Baniyas and Majdal Shams. The Beirut Al-Ahwal described an assault on a military train transporting six armoured vehicles from Ezra'a to Damascus. "As the train approached Al-Kaswa, 12 kilometres south of Damascus, the engineer noticed a pile of rocks on the tracks and was forced to bring the train to a stop. Hardly had the workers begun to remove the rocks than a band of Druze rebels opened fire on them."
As in any revolution, arms and ammunition were vital. These were either smuggled in from abroad or taken as booty following skirmishes with the French forces. One news story tells of a certain Milhem Qasem who had deluded the French into believing that he wanted to join their forces. After obtaining the arms and materiel he wanted, he raced off to join his fellow revolutionaries.
By October 1925 the revolutionary fire kindled by the Druze had erupted all over the country, blazing at its most intense in Hama and Damascus. A report from the Beirut-based Al-'Ahd Al-Jadid, sent to Al-Ahram by its correspondent in the Lebanese capital, relates, "The situation in Hama is the same. A large portion of Suq Al-Tawil and the whole of Suq Al-Dibagha have been set on fire, and rebels have begun to throw kerosene canisters at the military barracks. The government palace, the public administrative bureau and the postal and telegraph authority have all been burnt to the ground." The Lebanese newspaper added that on the night of 4 October a large number of people from the Alawite Mountains infiltrated the city in order to take part in the uprising while "the sound of gunfire remained unabated throughout the night. A temporary government has been set up with a member of the Al-Taifour family as its head."
Within days of the events in Hama trouble was reported in the famed capital of the Ummayad dynasty. French authorities were quick to attribute the rioting that erupted on 19 October to the Druze, a number of whom, they said, had infiltrated the southern quarters of the city and persuaded the residents to join them as they "set up roadblocks in the quarters and set fire to some warehouses and many homes." Al-Ahram goes on to report that the French forces brought the fires at government buildings and military installations under control and subjected rebel quarters to intense tank and artillery bombardment "day and night, causing heavy damage."
The following day, the London Times featured a detailed analysis of the Damascus uprising. The article, which Al-Ahram published, held that what sparked the unrest was the fact that the French authorities had publicly displayed the corpses of 24 rebels as a deterrent. However, the move blew up in their face as rioters laid siege to the Maidan area, the train station, the Hamidiya Market and Al-Azem Palace." It adds, "It is estimated that 1,000, perhaps more, died from artillery fire."
Over the next few weeks, the unrest intensified more than the most pessimistic of French colonial authorities thought possible. The headlines on page six alone of Al-Ahram of 22 November give an indication of the flashpoints as they spread from Damascus to Beirut, Quneitra and Doma. A conflagration of such increasing magnitude was certain to worry parties beyond those immediately involved. The British, above all, feared that flying sparks might set fire to their protectorates in Palestine and Iraq. It is, therefore, not surprising to detect a sense of urgency in the Daily News analysis following a wave of strikes in Palestine. "True, the strikes are directed against the Jews, but they have been officially described as a protest against the horrors being committed in Damascus," the newspaper said. "On this basis we can consider them as another indication of the Palestinian-Syrian movement to topple the protectorate system in the Near East."
The British politician, Mr Spender, voiced similar misgivings in the Westminster Gazette. "The time is past when atrocities would strike fear in the hearts of the Orientals. France will find its mandate a burden that will bring destruction unless it can maintain order by any means apart from warplanes and armoured cars." As though taking its cue from this warning, the Near East urged Britain to create a single protectorate system for Syria and Palestine that would "guarantee a significant degree of independence and self-rule, as is the case in Iraq, thereby safeguarding these countries."
Nor was it surprising that events in Syria should arouse Egyptian public opinion. Not only had the Syrian Congress, founded in Geneva in 1921, chosen Cairo as its headquarters but, more importantly, the Egyptian nationalist movement could hardly ignore the plight of a people with whom it shared so many cultural and historic bonds. Hence, the "eloquent and passionate appeal," as Al-Ahram described it, issued by Saad Zaghlul on 5 November 1925, urging the people of Egypt to help the victims of the popular struggle in Syria.
The following day, a delegation representing the Syrian community in Egypt called upon Zaghlul to express their gratitude for his concern over the Syrian cause. In the meeting, Zaghlul told them, "The misfortune which has befallen the Syrian people is most grave and touches my heart deeply. I believe that every Egyptian shares my sense of profound sorrow and that the money Egypt can offer is the least we can do although, unfortunately, it is the most we can do."
The nationalist leader's appeal met with an immediate and enthusiastic response. Syrian relief committees sprang up throughout the country urging Egyptians "united by tragedy with their brothers in our sister country" to come forward with financial assistance. Perhaps the most active of these was a committee established for this purpose in Alexandria, and one other in the Faculty of Law set up by a student, Ahmed El-Sayed Qasir El-Deil."
The French did not only have to contend with foreign pressure; they also had to worry about their other colonial possessions when reports began to circulate to the effect that the Syrians intended to export their revolution to other regions in the Arab world subjected to French rule. According to the British Express, the leaders of the revolution were "devising ways to wage an intensive campaign against France in all its colonies, and have already sent delegations to Tunisia and Algeria to rally the populations there." In addition, "they have sent a delegation to Mecca, headed by Shahbandar, in the hope of using the city's religious influence against France in all the Islamic countries under its rule." These were ill tidings indeed for France, which "is under a heavy financial burden and is suffering the consequences of the war in Marrakech."
As the disastrous policies of the mandate authorities in Syria came under the harsh criticism in the French press and parliament, Paris decided to effect a change of course. Signalling this was the decision to appoint Henri de Jovenille to replace General Seray as the French high commissioner for Syria.
The selection of a civilian to the position was warmly welcomed by the French press, all the more so since De Jovenille, was a respected member of the journalistic profession, having served as editor-in-chief of Le Matin. Moreover, he had also been a prominent member in the French senate, "participating in the activities of its major committees which earned him the highest respect and admiration for the integrity of his person and his views."
The statements issued by the new high commissioner following his appointment confirmed the general optimism. De Jovenille declared his intention to go to Syria to restore peace. "I will offer the Syrian people the support of France which is considerable. I look forward to that great day when France will tell the League of Nations that we have introduced freedom in Syria and that it now can govern itself. Before that, however, peace must be restored."
Soon afterwards, De Jovenille set off to Damascus. And, indeed, he was soon able to persuade the Syrian leaders to enter into negotiations on several issues: forming a constituent council through direct elections, reaching an agreement regulating French-Syrian relations; establishing a national administration which would earn the trust of the Syrians; and declaring a general amnesty for all who participated in the recent events. The Syrians were easily deceived only to enter a vicious circle of negotiations -- following the example of the Egyptians -- that lasted for some 10 years. It was not until 9 September 1936, that the two sides reached an agreement ending the protectorate and establishing an alliance between them. The treaty, however, did not end the French military presence in Syria. These forces were once again unleashed against Damascus in May 1945, prompting Egypt's greatest composer, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, to put to music the verses Ahmed Shawqi had written 20 years earlier.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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