[inset_left]By Ali A. AllawiYale University Press, 672 pagesNew Haven, London, 2014[/inset_left]In Baghdad a while back, a conversation with friends turned to the question of who could be regarded as the best leader of Iraq since its emergence as a new state in the 1920s. It was obvious that everyone found it hard to suggest even one name; the adjective “best” could hardly fit any of the eight men who ruled Iraq until 2003. Then someone suggested Faisal I—the first monarch of the new Iraq’s history—inspiring some consensus, although none was able to spell out why he should be chosen.
Ali Allawi’s new biography Faisal I of Iraq is designed to answer that question and, perhaps, to even go further by suggesting that Faisal deserves the title of “The Great.” In fact, Allawi describes Faisal as ‘the Arab Simón Bolívar.’
According to Allawi, “In the modern history of the Arabs it would be hard to find an equivalent figure that combined the qualities of leadership and statesmanship with the virtues of moderation, wisdom and essential decency.”
Allawi goes further by insisting that “realistic, purposeful and constructive Arab nationalism died with Faisal,” to be replaced with “strident, volatile, angry nationalism,” presumably of Nasserist or Ba’athist persuasion.
Allawi is clearly smitten by his idealized image of Faisal. However, he is enough of a serious scholar not to turn Faisal’s biography into a 672-page-long love letter to the object of his adoration. This is why, regardless of Alawi’s romantic vision, this biography is the best researched and documented work on Faisal this reviewer has seen.
Allawi bases the legitimacy of Faisal’s claim to leadership, not only of Iraq but of an undefined “Great Arab Nation,” on a number of factors.
The first is Faisal’s genealogy, traced back to the Prophet Muhammad through his grandson, Hasan. However, neither the Prophet nor his descendants claimed the right to rule with reference to their family tree. In fact, Hasan resisted attempts at forcing him to claim the Caliphate and made a deal with Muawiyah, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. In historic terms, it was only in 1827 when Muhammad Ali Pasha, Egypt’s Ottoman viceroy, installed Muhammad bin Aun as the Sharif of Mecca and launched the dynasty to which Faisal belonged.
The whole thing was an accident of history. Accidents of history were to play a role in shaping other aspects of Faisal’s life. Because of family feuds and intrigues in the Ottoman court, Faisal spent a good part of his childhood and youth in Istanbul, where he was educated by European, Turkish and Armenian tutors, learning several languages including French, Turkish and Persian. Far from developing as the typical Arab, Faisal became a cosmopolitan youth at home in a variety of cultures.
The next accident of history came when in 1917, when the British adventurer-cum-intelligence agent, T.E. Lawrence, decided that Faisal alone among the four sons of Sharif Hussein of Mecca could be marketed as the public face of an “Arab Revolt” he was planning against the Ottomans.
Lawrence found the eldest son Ali “moody and unreliable.” The second son, Abdullah, appeared too full of himself to be controlled by Lawrence. He had a habit of putting apples on the heads of his slaves and then shooting the fruit to provoke laughter from spectators. The last son, Zayd, from a Turkish mother, had no interest in Arabs anyway and was focused on making as much money out of the British as he could. That left Faisal.
The trouble was that Faisal was not really a “man of the desert.” Even when travelling with his army in desert areas he insisted on having modern furniture and cutlery brought along. Always anxious to look smart, he ordered his clothes from Rome, Paris and London.
Worse still, Faisal was not a warrior and abhorred the shedding of blood. At one point, having heard that a Turkish force was moving towards his position on a tiny Red Sea port, Faisal sought refuge in a British warship until the crisis was over.
Nor was Faisal easily marketable as leader of an Islamic “jihad.” Although he performed his religious duties, Faisal was attracted to humanist ideas. He was a lifelong admirer of the French anti-religious writer Anatole France, whom he later met when he was king.
But the biggest accident came when, having been driven out by the French as a flash-in-the-pan “King of Syria,” the British decided to install him as King of Iraq, the new state they had carved out of Mesopotamia. Even that decision had come after much hesitation. Initially, the British wanted to create two states in Mesopotamia, one in the north under Zayd and another in the south under Abdullah. After some bickering they toyed with the idea of turning the new Iraq into a republic. Winston Churchill, the colonial secretary, insisted on a monarchy, vetoing the republic idea. But that was not the end of the story. Different segments of the British establishment had different candidates for king of Iraq. These included Abdul-Rahman Al-Gilani, the Naqib of Baghdad; the Aga Khan, a great-grandson of Persia’s Fatah-Ali Shah; Sheikh Khaza’al, governor of the Port of Muhammarah in southwest Iran; and the Ottoman Prince Burhan Al-Din. In the end, thanks to an energetic campaign by Lawrence and his allies, including Sir Percy Sykes, Faisal emerged as winner of the Iraqi throne.
Faisal must have felt happy to end up with something. But he never warmed to Iraq and, as Allawi shows, his heart remained in Syria. Until the end of his life he was campaigning, plotting and praying for a return to Damascus. At one point he even tried to promote a merger of Iraq and Syria under his kingship. Faisal’s obsession with Syria may have been rooted in his love of the sea and dislike of the desert. He was a child of Tihamah, the Arab Peninsula’s coastline on the Red Sea, and had grown up in Ottoman palaces on the Marmara Sea. In virtually landlocked Iraq, he felt boxed in. (Iraq has a small coastline of 47 miles on the Gulf.)
Unable to warm to Iraq, Faisal tried to promote pan-Arabism, surrounding himself with a cast of characters from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. At one point he even made outlandish claims such as this: “The Arabs were Arabs before Moses and Jesus and Muhammad. We are Arabs before all else.” However, he never took time to define “the Arab” of his imagination.
What was sure was that the label did not fit the Iraqis. He wrote: “The Turks departed, and we are now as children. We have no government, no army, and no education system. The huge majority of our people have no understanding of patriotism or freedom or the meaning of independence.”
Compared to other Arab countries, Iraq was in an even worse position, he claimed. Faisal wrote that Iraq “lacks the essentials of a cohesive social unit, namely a people united by common ethnicity, set of beliefs and religion.”
He also wrote: “It is my belief that there is no Iraqi people. There are only diverse groups with no patriotic sentiments. They are filled with superstitions and false religious traditions. There is no common ground among them.”
The absurdity of such a view is all too apparent. How could Iraqis have “patriotic sentiments” when their monarch, appointed by a European colonial power, denied their very existence? And what would they think when their king made a habit of calling in the British Royal Air Force to fly over tribal areas to terrorize the tribes into obedience?
Before becoming king, Faisal had never visited Mesopotamia even as a tourist and knew almost nothing of Iraq. During his reign he spent little time travelling in his kingdom. In fact, he spent more time on foreign visits and holidays in Europe than in Iraq. He knew Interlaken in Switzerland better than he knew Basra. He died in Berne, not in Baghdad.
Faisal’s reign was dotted with tensions, including tribal revolts, urban protest movements and, at one point, even the first-ever general strike in Middle Eastern history. It is to Faisal’s credit that he often managed to negotiate a peaceful end, restraining the oppressive tendencies of his aides, especially the formidable Prime Minister Nuri Al-Sa’id Pasha and Interior Minister Muzahim Al-Pachachi.
Towards the end of his life, as the dream of regaining the Syrian throne receded, Faisal tried to provide a roadmap for Iraq. This came in the form of an eight-page memo sent to the movers and shakers in the ruling establishment. Allawi makes too much of that memo. However, on close reading this is a hodgepodge of nostalgia and desiderata. He suggests reviving the Ottoman system of millet by giving Iraqi provinces (the liwa) greater autonomy. He also urges the creation of an army strong enough to fight two insurrections at the same time. Interestingly, he does not suggest how to prevent insurrections from happening.
Allawi dexterously depicts Faisal’s diplomatic efforts during the peace negotiations in Paris and, later, the end of the British mandate on Iraq and the country’s admission as a member of the League of Nations. Faisal's other achievements include the forging of good relations with Iraq's neighbors, especially Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Sadly, the first major event in independent Iraq was the massacre on Faisal's orders of Assyrians by the newly created army. After a brief hesitation, he decided to use force against the protesters and claimed that the rebellious Assyrians were not Iraqis but "invaders" from Turkey and Iran. Apparently, he did not know that Mesopotamia had been the heart of the Assyrian–Chaldean Empire for over 1,000 years. By standards set by other, later Arab leaders, including Saddam Hussein and the Assads (both father and son) the massacre of the Assyrians was on small scale, claiming the lives of 341 men, women and children.
Thanks to the easy flow of his narrative, Allawi offers us both a work of historical scholarship and an enjoyable read. This book is full of anecdotes that shed light on the personage and his entourage. One anecdote I especially liked was when Faisal and Abdullah, always engaged in sibling rivalry, almost came to blows about who was the greatest Persian poet. Abdullah preferred Saadi; Faisal insisted on Hafez.
A man who appreciates Hafez cannot be bad. But “Great”? That is another story.