This is not a history of victors. Fawzi al-Qawuqji (d. 1976), “itinerant anticolonial rebel” (80) of the late Ottoman and colonial Middle East, was born into a lower-middle-class Ottoman military family in Tripoli, Lebanon, and buried in an undistinguished grave there. Laila Parsons’s thoughtful and empathic study of Qawuqji’s professional life gives us much to consider about that iconic “transnational fighter” (250) of the colonial Arab world, not least his own important omissions from his career itinerary. Qawuqji was in many ways a tragic figure, always a bit out of step with his times. His unremarkable beginnings and intense ambitions mirror those of the iconic postcolonial Arab officer-statesmen, the most famous being Egypt’s Jamal ʿAbd al-Nasir, Anwar Sadat, and Syria’s Hafiz al-Asad. Yet Qawuqji was born decades before those figures (the early 1890s), too early to celebrate the full realization of Arab independence (ca. 1952–1962), and too late to enjoy the fruits of his training in the Ottoman imperial service. Unlike those more timely revolutionaries, Qawuqji lived out his final decades in relative obscurity, dependent on the charity of admirers. Qawuqji was a devoted Greater Syria nationalist who felt most at ease mapping out battle strategies against opponents of Arab political unity, whether colonial rulers, Zionists, or even rival Arab leaders such as the Palestinian Hajj Amin al-Husayni, for whom Qawuqji reserved a special animosity. Parsons’s careful reconstruction of the political circumstances surrounding Qawuqji’s dramatic life conveys a picture of an idealistic and opportunistic soldier-for-hire who was perpetually late to the table, seeming to always join campaigns just before their doom or turn toward failure. Qawuqji was also born in Lebanon, the wrong base from which to realize his fullest ambitions. Though he led rebellions and coups, rallied defenses, and trained armies in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia, Qawuqji lacked a firm social base in any of these places, where the main political action of his generation transpired. Qawuqji had a common touch, and a taste for rural and bedouin life. His popular roots, Parsons argues, contributed to his uneasy relationship with the Arab elite who either gave political and financial support to his many military campaigns against British and French rule in the region or, like Husayni, obstructed his endeavors. From Qawuqji’s experiences as a military specialist in rural and bedouin affairs, he took away the conviction that rallying the bedouin tribes was the key to achieving Arab independence from colonial powers. Here he misread matters—while the prevalence of tribal and bedouin groups was a characteristic of autonomous polities in the Middle East (e.g., central Arabia [Najd] and northern Yemen), it was not the cause of that autonomy. The tribes were sovereigns of the deserts and countryside, areas for which the governing classes of urban colonial officers and Arab elites cared little, except as obstacles to their efficient rule. We might recall here that the 1920s Rif rebellion of rural northern Morocco, which served as a major inspiration for Qawuqji’s own campaigns in the Mashriq, failed in part because the religious scholars of Fez refused to endorse it. Parsons’s attention to Qawuqji’s transnational itinerancy is part of a modest global turn in modern Middle Eastern and Islamic history (see, for example, Liat Kozma, Cyrus Schayegh, and Avner Wishnitzer, eds., A Global Middle East: Mobility, Materiality and Culture in the Modern Age, 1880–1940 ; Seema Alavi, Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire ; Engseng Ho, The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean ). Yet a dominant if somewhat less pronounced theme of Parsons’s volume is the tension between two emergent and rival nationalisms: Qawuqji’s Greater Syrian nationalism, with its emphasis on Arab unity; and, his great rival Hajj Amin al-Husayni’s Palestinian nationalism, with its emphasis on Palestinian Arab independence. Qawuqji loathed Husayni, who emerges as an unsympathetic character in Parsons’s volume. Here is Qawuqji, in retrospective notes on a May 1948 personal letter from Husayni: “His Eminence [i.e., Husayni] accuses me of spying for the benefit of the English and the French in collusion with the Jews. Then he comes to me in this letter saying all this stuff [about my great national deeds] … Where is the truth in all of this? Is it in the spying or in the great national deeds? He is not truthful. There is hypocrisy in his letter” (239, insertions mine). The rivalry between these two major Arab personalities of the early twentieth century, Parsons demonstrates, was one of the many factors that impeded unified Arab efforts against the Zionists in the 1948 war. Qawuqji’s primary theater of action, and the implicit focal point of Parsons’s biography, was Palestine. Though Qawuqji was often scapegoated as a key member of the consortium of Arab leaders whose incapacities precipitated the loss of Palestine in 1948, Parsons provides us with a more measured and convincing view of his role in that failed campaign. Qawuqji’s greatest error of judgment, she concludes, may have been agreeing to lead a poorly supplied and supported all-Arab army into Palestine in the first place (250). Qawuqji’s silence on two of the key episodes in his life—his involvement in the 1941 pro-Nazi officers’ coup in Iraq, and his sojourn in Nazi Germany (1941–1947)—cause Parsons to treat them sparingly in her book. Qawuqji’s rivalry with the Mufti (as Husayni was known) had a material influence on his fortunes in Germany, to which he was airlifted after being shot by British forces in an ambush in the western Iraqi desert. Recruited along with other anticolonial Arab nationalists to aid the Nazis in their propaganda efforts in the Middle East, Qawuqji was soon eclipsed in Nazi favor by the ambitious and, we are left to infer, relatively less scrupulous Mufti. Qawuqji’s silence in his memoirs about this period derives most likely from a double ignominy, namely, his attempt to become one of the Nazis’ leading men in the Middle East, and his failure to achieve that dubious distinction. Parsons deserves praise for foregrounding local Arabic sources and telling Qawuqji’s story from his own perspective. Reliance solely on colonial archives, she informs us, would render the events of Qawuqji’s life “only … a shadow play” (74). The author has elsewhere reflected on the problem of writing narrative histories of the Middle East with respect to their alleged service to Orientalist dramaturgy (“Some Thoughts on Biography and the Historiography of the Twentieth-Century Arab World,” Journal of the Canadian Historical Association 21, no. 2 : 5–20). She resolves that concern here with her minimalist approach, which hews closely to Qawuqji’s soldiering career as documented in his memoirs and personal library. Qawuqji’s story signifies the closing of an important chapter in Arab political history, which witnessed the fading of the old Ottoman and colonial worlds and the rise of bold new promises and identity assertions. The disappointments and achievements of the subsequent, postcolonial era must be left for others’ stories, though Parsons, through her choice of subject and method, shows a route for future scholars in that effort. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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