Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Milestones in Syrian History - The Iron Hand Society

When I think of the French mandate period in Syrian history, I usually tend to think either of the doomed defence that the Syrian Defence Minister Yousef al Azmeh mounted at Khan Maysaloon, or the Great Revolt of 1925-27. There were, however, far more attempts at making life uncomfortable for the French High Commission based in Beirut. Apart from the Hanano revolt in Aleppo, there was also an urban resistance that revolved around clandestine organisations which were based in the nationalist urban cities of Syria. One organisation that has captured my imagination is the Iron Hand Society جمعية القبضة الفولاذية which was the brainchild of an amazing Syrian, Dr Abdel Rahman al Shahbandar. Some people called him the Zaghloul of Syria and I'm ashamed to admit I had never heard of the man before, apart from knowing that there is a roundabout named after him in Damascus.

Shahbander was the son of a merchant, born in 1880, and a remarkably intelligent individual. Fortunately for his future ambitions in political agitation and resistance, he married a wealthy wife and this meant he didn't have to worry much about making a living. During Ottoman rule he stirred a bit of trouble, writing a paper which insinuated that the Ottoman presence in Syria was now an occupation, and having some very modern views about the law and personal freedoms. He had to make himself scarce when the Turks, under Jamal Pasha, started hanging Syrian nationalists, and eventually ended up in exile in Cairo. When the French occupied Syria under the guise of the mandate, he was instrumental in agitating and stirring up nationalist sentiment. For that he was sentenced to the island prison of Arwad, which I visited in 2008 and found to be crammed with tourist shops, unremarkable restaurants, and a very quaint and (by modern Syrian standards) non-intimidating prison. There is also a commemorative plaque there which lists his name amongst some of the founding fathers of Syrian republicanism who were also imprisoned there. 

An interesting fact about Shahbandar is his strong friendship with Charles Crane, an American who was sent to find out whether the Syrian people wanted the French mandate or not. His findings, in the King-Crane US Commission of Inquiry report, were conveniently ignored by the great powers, but in terms of political ammunition the report was invaluable for the Arab nationalists. On his second visit to Syria, Charles Crane was hosted by Shahbandar and his presence was used as an excuse by the French to subsequently arrest Shahbandar and several of his Iron Hand co-conspirators. A cheque of $1,000 was found with Shahbandar which was used as 'proof' that he was involved with a foreign conspiracy. It is interesting to contrast US involvement in Syrian affairs before and after the creation of the Israeli state. I dare say it was almost constructive, but that was a long time ago.

The arrest of Shabandar led to protests in Damascus, based around the Ummayad mosque, which numbered in the tens of thousands. One of the protests was led by a line of women who, veiled, approached whilst ullulating towards the Castle of Damascus. The French troops opened fire and about 35 people died that day but from then on the name of the Iron Hand Society was made known and respected. It was now more than just an impressive name. Shahbandar and the other Iron Hand Society members were imprisoned for twenty years on trumped up charges, in spite of the eloquent defence by Syria's eminent lawyer, Faris al-Khuri. In spite of their best efforts, the Iron Hand Society's leadership were forced deeper and deeper underground until they were all either exiled or imprisoned. 

The Society did, however, manage to inspire a spin-off, the Red Hand Society in Aleppo. Sadly, as with most things the Aleppines attempt, it was a poor second best, and they were nowhere near as successful as the Damascene Iron Hand Society.  


Anonymous said...

I think some parallels can be drawn between that era of struggle and this one, although the "enemy" was very different. Also, wouldn't "Folaz" be more accurately translated as Steel and not Iron?

OFF THE WALL said...

A must read, i will link to it on 7ee6an.