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Book Review: Faisal I of Iraq

By (February 23, 2014) No Comment

Faisal I of Iraqfaisal i of iraq

by Ali Allawi

Yale University Press, 2014


Ali Allawi, Iraq’s first postwar civilian Minister of Defense in 2004 and its Minister of Finance from 2005 to 2006, was born in Baghdad but left it with his family while he was still a child and received his schooling right where everybody should: on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at MIT and Harvard. His return to Iraq and his service to that country’s trouble-plagued government highlight the actions of a statesman, and as George Montagu, the 2nd Earl of Halifax (who gave his name to a rather nice little city in Nova Scotia) pointed out from bitter experience, the deeds of statesmen are too often written in water. Allawi’s participation in the politics of the modern Middle East is likely the stuff of a footnote.

So it’s pleasingly ironic that Allawi’s new book, Faisal I of Iraq, not only chronicles the life of a titanic Middle Eastern statesman but also secures Allawi himself a measure of immortality; this book is the first comprehensive biography of King Faisal in English, and it’s also the first great biography of 2014 and one of a very small number of truly great biographies written so far in the 21st century. If this is what the seasoning of public service does to scholars, every historian should do a stint as Minister of Defense someplace not entirely safe, whether it’s Baghdad or Beirut or Bayonne.

Despite being born of an aristocratic line of rulers, Faisal famously spent his childhood years among the Bedouin tribesmen. He was one of the leaders of the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in 1916, established the independent state of Syria, attended the infamous Paris Peace Conference as leader of the Arab delegation in 1919, and ruled Iraq for twelve years as king before dying suddenly in 1933. He was present at the creation of much of what we recognize as the Middle East today, but for perhaps the majority of Allawi’s Western readers, Faisal will be familiar for a reason so incongruous as to be almost funny: for a brief time during the Arab Revolt, he was allies with a British Captain named Thomas Lawrence, who went on in 1922 to write one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century, a battle-book called Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The book is full of dramatic set-pieces and action sequences, including the climactic battle of Aqaba – a battle the importance of which to the Arab cause Allawi rightly says cannot be overestimated.

The problem with that set-piece and most of the rest of Seven Pillars of Wisdom is that Lawrence added to the copious notes he took during his time in Arabia very large amounts of fiction and egotism. He stirred the whole combination into a literary masterpiece, but that masterpiece presents certain tricky problems for the biographer of any of the actual flesh-and-blood people involved in the Arab Revolt (most certainly including Lawrence himself, whose biographers have reacted to Seven Pillars in a wide variety of ways, from those who break it open like a pinata to see what goodies will spill out to those who pinch it between two fingers like a shady religious pamphlet they found on a park bench). As Richard Aldington discovered in the vitriolic backlash to his deliciously scathing 1955 biography of the man, there are perils attendant on Lawrence-bashing.

For the relevant passages of Faisal I of Iraq, this prompts Allawi to engage in the time-honored Middle Eastern practice of ma’aareed, the roundabout, the tactful equivocation, the pleasing-of-everyone. It can make for passages in which the barbs are subtle and the apologies hover at the peripheries like solicitous waiters:

The daring capture of Aqaba has been etched into the public consciousness by its association with Thomas Eduard Lawrence and this incident, probably more than any other of his many real and imagined exploits, had secured for him the sobriquet Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence’s war memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in immensely evocative passages, provides a detailed description of the events leading up to the fall of Aqaba. He himself provides himself with a central role, not only in planning and directing the operations that culminated in the capture of Aqaba but also in their conception. Few of his biographers have previously examined or refuted his claims. This is most likely due to their inability or unwillingness to access sources in Arabic, including the recollections and memoirs of the main protagonists of the Arab Revolt. These, however, without necessarily denigrating or diminishing Lawrence’s important role in the Aqaba campaign, provide an altogether different emphasis to the actions of various players.

Translation: in order to write the truth about Faisal, it’s necessary to expose the lies about Lawrence. Allawi has consulted a huge array of primary sources (his pages and pages of close-packed end notes are as full of lively debate as his text proper) in order to uncover the heart and importance of his subject, and even T. E. Lawrence himself – in his letters rather than his memoir – proves helpful here, writing to one correspondent:

“In all Arab minds [Faisal] now stands above the tribes, the tribal sheikhs and tribal jealousies. His is the dignity of the peacemaker and the prestige of the super-imposed authority. He does not take sides or declare in their disputes: he mediates and ensues a settlement.”

The tribes “all love him,” Lawrence offhandedly mentions, and while we’re reading Allawi’s accounts of all the sheer work Faisal had to do, we hope that love was real, and that he felt it. He had allies in his struggle for Iraqi independence and dream of a pan-Arab nation (foremost among them the indomitable Gertrude Bell, whose vivid book Persian Pictures gets a very nice reprint from I. B. Tauris in May), but in Allawi’s narrative, he himself seems indispensable everywhere, constantly faced with nearly impossible conflicting loyalties:

Faisal landed in Iraq precariously poised between the demands of the British and the demands for Iraqi independence. It was a difficult and uncomfortable perch from which to rule Iraq but there was no plausible alternative. If he had been the uncompromising champion of immediate independence, he would have had no chance of achieving power. Britain would simply have vetoed his appointment and that would have been that. If he had turned himself into a British tool, his credibility would have been shattered with the independence party. He had to tread a fine line between these two poles: remaining true to his alliance with Britain without compromising on his goal of independence for Iraq. And this tension, to a greater or lesser extent, would mark his years in Iraq.

There are questions of assessment in any work as ground-breaking as this one, although Allawi is commendably restrained. It’s only in the book’s final pages that he allows himself to ponder a question raised in other scholarly quarters – whether or not Faisal I could also legitimately be known as Faisal the Great. As with so many questions raised throughout the course of the book, the answers in messily connected to the history of Western colonial meddling in the Middle East:

What does greatness mean if your lands are divided and handed over to foreign powers? If your key ally is also the one who has sown the seeds of instability and conflict in your region? But in fact these undeniable realities, when contextualised, add to, rather than diminish, Faisal’s greatness. It requires superhuman strength to be able to swim towards your goal while there is a ball and chain tied to one of your legs. Faisal had to exert enormous effort to struggle even partly free from the constraints imposed on him, and he finally succeeded in doing so, even though his victory was tentative and short-lived.

Those victories might have been tentative and short-lived, but they were all the more illuminating for it, and many of their lessons have been unlearned and re-learned several times in the last ninety years. It’s perhaps too much to hope that the world’s policy-makers will pause in their conflicting certainties long enough to read Faisal I of Iraq, but everybody else should.