Winston’s Hiccup: The Strange Case of the Jordan-Saudi Arabia Border

In a previous post this year, I expressed annoyance at New Year Resolutionists. But here’s some truth: this year, I have a New Year Resolution too, and it’s more annoying than most, because it is snobby and slightly pretentious. This year, I’ve resolved to read an average of a book a week. Of course, I’m nowhere close to this average right now – January is practically over, and I’ve only begun my third book for the year. But it’s a good book, and this is not a race. So I’m reading it like I always do – slowly, leisurely, paying complete attention to the selection of every word, the turn of every phrase, and the artistry of each sentence. Obviously, I don’t like to be disturbed.

Obviously, Boyfriend understands that.

However, obviously – given his utterly overpowering fascination with the world – he has a very difficult time not making conversation. Like the other day, as I was reading Hillel Halkin’s A Strange Death, a book about which the only thing Boyfriend knew is that it is set in Israel in the 1970s.

“So… is it about the Jewish-Arab conflict?” Boyfriend asked.

“No.” I continued to read.

“Hmm. Is it about Palestine?”

“No.”

“Is it about the 1973 war?”

“No.”

“Is it about Jerusalem?”

“No.”

Boyfriend wandered off at this point, and pottered about the kitchen for a while. I was sinking right back into the depths of the book, when he returned with a snack.

“So, speaking of Jerusalem…”

We weren’t speaking of Jerusalem. 

“Did you know that even though the entire country of Jordan lies between Saudi Arabia and Israel/Palestine, there is a point in Saudi Arabia that’s just a hundred miles from Jerusalem? It’s because of Winston’s Hiccup… you know, the line Winston Churchill drew dividing Saudi Arabia and Trans-Jordan.”

The borders of Jordan have an interesting shape. Depending on whether you’re the kind of person who sees sailboats and lamb chops and gazelles in cloud formations, or merely tufts of cotton wool, you might describe it as an oddly deflated pacman balloon, or the profile of a long-snouted dog laughing out loud, or a hand puppet that’s in the middle of a sentence. Or, you know, just an oddly shaped country with a big angle cut into its eastern border.

It is this angle, the tip of which is a mere seventy miles from the Jordanian capital of Amman, that is popularly known as Winston’s Hiccup. Why? Because Winston Churchill had the two qualities that make for a great story when they come together – the arrogance typical of colonizers, and the penchant to neatly put away a drink or two. Or eleven.

Soon after World War I, Winston Churchill was made Britain’s State Secretary for the Colonies. One of the highlights of his tenure is the drawing of borders in the Arab world in 1921, and the definition of the British Mandate of Trans-Jordan. According to Churchill, he accomplished this with the mere “stroke of a pen, one Sunday afternoon in Cairo.” According to everyone else, this stroke of a pen was performed immediately after Churchill partook of what is politely and respectfully referred to as a “liquid lunch.” Of course, since  I’m neither polite nor respectful, I’m going to go ahead and state things a bit more clearly: Winston Churchill was drunk. Smashed. Soaking in alcohol. And as the crazy and legendary nights of our wild youth have taught us, the higher your inebriation, the greater the urgency you feel of doing all the most important things in your life right at that moment. Well, that, and you hiccup.

It was thus that Winston Churchill sat at his desk one afternoon in Cairo, determined to draw lines on the map before him, and define the British mandate of Trans-Jordan once and for all. He took a pen – I imagine the spirits sloshing in his stomach may have led him to spend a while trying to figure out how to use it – and started to draw a line beginning at the border with Syria and Iraq, coming down to the Gulf of Aqaba. But just as his pen moved along the Wadi Sirhan area, where Trans-Jordan would border with Saudi Arabia, the Mother-Goddess of Hiccups punched through his gut, and the pen slipped to create an angle pushing dangerously close to Amman.

I imagine he passed out after that. And when he came to, he was too embarrassed and arrogant to admit what had happened, so he let the border be for all of eternity. Winston’s Hiccup, the great gaping mouth of the Kingdom of Jordan.

"Winston's Hiccup:" A Broadway Production by the World Renowned Cat Actor's Guild.

“Winston’s Hiccup:” A Broadway Production by the World Renowned Cat Actor’s Guild.

It’s a great story, and I know we all want so badly for it to be true. But it isn’t. Or we can’t be sure, at any rate, because it is entirely apocryphal.

From the point of view of historians, here’s what actually likely happened: when Winston Churchill drew the massive thorn in Trans-Jordan’s side, he knew exactly what he was doing. The wounds of WW I were still fresh, and the major world powers (a.k.a. European nations), nowhere near trusting one another, were desperate to find new allies and maintain the few strategic advantages they had remaining. Not including the Wadi Sirhan in the newly formed Trans-Jordanian Emirate was a part of Britain’s plan, because the area held a very important communications highway between Damascus and the Arab world. Also, Britain needed that little finger of Trans-Jordan going all the way up to Iraq, because the French were seated in Syria – far too close for comfort, given the unfavorable dynamic of their relationship at the time. Having a clear corridor to Iraq ensured the British had unbroken airspace between the Mediterranean sea and the Persian Gulf, which was crucial to the empire at the time. Over the years, even after the British Mandate of Trans-Jordan became the Kingdom of Jordan, and the country swapped more than two thousand square miles of land with Saudi Arabia, the slice Winston Churchill cut into Jordan remains.

I accept the historian’s version of this story – it is more likely to be true. But just because Churchill drew his lines this way on purpose, doesn’t mean the part about the liquid lunch is false. As Churchill himself famously said, “I maybe drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be an oddly-shaped country.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

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