Jordan // The eastern desert //

Winston’s hiccup

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Azraq is situated near the crook of the strange angle formed by Jordan’s eastern border with Saudi Arabia, which zigzags here for no apparent reason. The demarcation of this border was the work of Winston Churchill, then British Colonial Secretary, who boasted of having created the new Emirate of Transjordan with a stroke of his pen one Sunday afternoon in 1921. A story grew up that, after a particularly liquid lunch that day, he had hiccuped while attempting to draw the border and – Winston being Winston – had refused to allow it to be redrawn. Thus the zigzag was written into history as Winston’s hiccup.

On closer examination, the truth is rather less engaging: Churchill in fact carefully plotted the zigzag to ensure that the massive Wadi Sirhan – which stretches southeast of Azraq and holds a vital communications highway between Damascus and the Arabian interior – ended up excluded from the territory of the new emirate. Jordan’s resulting “panhandle”, a finger of desert territory extending east from Azraq to the Iraqi border, also had significance: with the French installed dangerously nearby in Syria, it meant that Britain was able to maintain a friendly air corridor between the Mediterranean and India at a time when aircraft were taking an increasingly important role in military and civilian communication. The fact that the new, ruler-straight borders cut arbitrarily across tribal lands in the desert appears not to have troubled the colonial planners.

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