A measure of greatness

In his massive and exhaustively researched biography of King Faisal I, Ali Allawi paints a detailed portrait of an Arab patriot who sought to unite his people against all the odds, writes James Langton

The Emir Faisal, king of the Helaz, who would become King Faisal I of Iraq, centre, at the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris. Behind him to the right is T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Hulton Archive / Getty Images
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Looking at photographs of Faisal, the first Hashemite king of Iraq, it is all too easy to perceive a mournfulness that fits with a life story in which courage and idealism is crushed by betrayal and failure.

Ali Allawi’s massive biography sets out to rescue Faisal from the dusty drawer of history, where he has been confined for more than half a century. In the Arab world, critics have portrayed him as the tool of western interests who acquiesced to the division of the Ottoman Empire at the expense of a greater nationalist cause and who acknowledged, if not accepted, the Zionist leader Chaim Weizman’s desire for Palestine to become a Jewish homeland.

In the West, if he is remembered at all, Faisal is a romantic figure; a cinematic Arab warrior from Lawrence of Arabia, but distinctly the second lead in David Lean's sprawling version of the war of liberation that freed much of the Arab world from the Turkish yoke.

Allawi has little time for Lawrence, whom he quickly dismisses as a self-promoting showboater whose military achievements have been greatly exaggerated. In Faisal, though, the author, a prominent politician in post-Saddam Iraq and now an academic, has found his true hero.

Restoring Faisal is an exhaustive, if not exhausting, process, resulting in a book that must be close to 300,000 words, not including nearly 80 pages of notes and index. Even the author seems to feel he must justify such a massive enterprise, adding a two-page epilogue to crown his subject “Faisal the Great”.

Is greatness achieved even after 634 pages? Faisal I of Iraq begins with a death in Switzerland; that of Faisal himself, in September 1933, probably a result of heart failure brought on by exhaustion and his heavy smoking (although conspiracists have claimed he was poisoned). The grieving throngs that accompany the cortège through the streets of Baghdad suggest the loss of a true hero.

Spooling back next to Faisal’s childhood in the opening chapter, we enter a world so utterly unfamiliar that just to enter it underlines an immense cultural and political gulf that spans barely a century.

Faisal was the third son of Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, later to proclaim himself king of Hajaz, the Red Sea coastal state that included Jeddah and Mecca and was later lost to Ibn Saud and the much greater monarchy of Saudi Arabia.

Though born in Mecca, the young prince’s influences lay much farther north, in Constantinople, now Istanbul, where he was educated from the age of eight until his early 20s.

With the eruption of the Arab Revolt in 1916, Faisal’s initial instincts were of loyalty to the empire, or at least of reforming it, but he was persuaded to rise up against the Ottomans by T E Lawrence and the British, answering to a higher calling; that of Arab unity.

“The Arabs were Arabs before Moses, Jesus and Mohammed,” Faisal said in a speech in November 1918. “All religions demand that [their followers] follow what is right and enjoin brotherhood on earth. And anyone who sows discord between Muslim, Christian and Jew is not an Arab. I am an Arab before all else.”

If intended as a manifesto, Faisal’s words could better be seen as an epitaph. The speech, at the Arab Club hall in Aleppo, was made after the liberation of the city from Ottoman forces. But Faisal’s pan-Arabist vision, or at least of a single Arab nation from Mecca to Baghdad, was already doomed.

By the end of 1918, Faisal was well aware of what his wartime allies had cooked up. The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 had already sliced and diced the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East between Britain and France.

His reign as king of Syria was pathetically brief. The ideal of a Greater Syria, that encompassed parts of what are now Lebanon and Jordan, lasted barely four months, from March 8 to the end of July 1920. France had already pulled Beirut into its sphere of influence, and with Britain unwilling to damage relations with its European ally, the newly independent nation was effectively doomed.

Resistance to French interference spilt over into bloodshed, with Faisal abandoning his new throne for exile as the Battle of Maysalun saw a crushing defeat for the Syrian forces by the invading French colonial army,

Abandoning the Middle East for Europe, Faisal found himself once again caught up in the politics of empire. Britain, handed the mandate for Mesopotamia, was finding the territory, like many before and after, difficult to control.

Anxious to step away from the heavy cost of occupation in blood and money, the British, with the enthusiastic support of the likes of Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, decided that Faisal was their man.

The king in waiting was initially unwilling to take the throne of Iraq, publicly insisting that it should rightly go to his brother Abdullah (who was instead to found the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan) while in private expressing doubts that his sibling was up to the job.

On June 23, 1921, Faisal arrived in Basra to take up his new throne. It was the first time he had set foot on Iraqi soil and, as Allawi points out, the country was an alphabet soup of politics, religion and race: “Faisal had to deal with this jumble of conflicting views and tendencies, of ethnic, sectarian and social division, an occupied country emerging from centuries of rule by a distant empire and build a political community where none had existed before.” King Faisal I of Iraq stuck at the task for another 12 years, reaching out to the country’s various communities, in particular the Shia but also Jews and Christians, saying in an early speech “I do not want to hear about Muslims, Christians and Jews. For Iraq is a national homeland and there is only one nation here.”

That he succeeded to any extent, even with heavy British military and administrative support, is remarkable. Faisal’s many challenges ranged from oil companies to ayatollahs, both more than ready to undermine his authority but to cut a (very) long story short, he largely succeeded, leading Iraq out of the British Mandate and into the League of Nations in October 1932.

Faisal was by then 49. Within a year he was dead, broken by the strain of keeping it all together. His throne survived a little more than another quarter of century, ending in the savage military coup of July 1958 that saw the slaughter of both King Faisal II and the Crown Prince.

Since then, so much blood and so many bodies have flowed down the Tigris and Euphrates as to largely wash away the memory of Iraq’s brief monarchy.

Why then does Allawi believe Faisal’s reputation deserves not just revival, but anointing with “greatness”?

Faisal’s legacy, he seems to feel, is that what he did achieve was done so in the face of the overwhelming probability of failure, what Allawi calls being able “to swim towards your goal while there is a ball and chain tied to one of your legs”.

Greatness also because of its conspicuous absence in so much of the rest of the Arab world. “In the modern history of the Arabs,” the author concludes, “it would be hard to find an equivalent figure who combined the qualities of leadership and statesmanship with the virtues of moderation, wisdom and essential decency.”