The Firanj Are Coming—Again

Arnold J. Toynbee, a British delegate at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference, records an anecdote about the annoyance caused there by the flamboyant personal diplomacy of T. E. Lawrence. Though a British subject, Lawrence was a member of the Hashimi delegation of the Hijaz, wore Arab military uniform, and promoted Arab—or at least Hashimi—interests. The French already resented the British, since Britain had recently taken Mosul from under their noses, and Lawrence’s actions did nothing to diminish French resentment. Finally the British, wanting no further difficulties with either Lawrence or the French, ordered Lawrence to report to French premier Georges Clemenceau for a dressingdown:

The command from Clemenceau arrived, Lawrence obeyed it, and the engagement was soon over. ‘‘You know, Colonel Lawrence,’’ said Clemenceau as his opening gambit, ‘‘that France has been interested in Syria ever since the Crusades.’’ ‘‘Yes,’’ Lawrence answered, ‘‘but the Syrians won the Crusades, and they have never forgotten that.’’

Clemenceau was wrong about the continuous interest of France in Syria since the late eleventh century, and Lawrence was only half right about Syrian memory. The Syrians (and other Arabs, Kurds, and Turks) had indeed ‘‘won’’ the Crusades, but they had long since forgotten their victory and had only come to consider it in a particular context in the two generations before Lawrence. How did they (and Europeans) remember the Crusades, and what have others done with that interpretation?

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