In October 1917, general Stanley Maude proclaimed that the British, who had recently taken Baghdad from the Ottomans during the First World War, came not as occupiers but as liberators. In his memoirs, which two generations of my family are currently translating from Arabic to English, my late grandfather Abdul Jabbar Al Rawi wrote that this initially gave hope to Iraqis that an Arab government could be established in place of Turkish rule. However, as he wrote, the British proved a draconian and unjust authority, and as history has shown repeatedly that no nation has earned its freedom from foreigners without revolution, he joined the Arab Revolt in the Hejaz in Saudi Arabia against the Ottomans, in the belief that it could eventually lead to ultimate independence.
On his way to join the army of Faisal bin Hussein, later King Faisal I of Iraq, my grandfather wrote that he found many Arabs were wary of the revolt, such was the animosity towards the British, who backed it and were promising independence in return. He also wrote that it was already clear in those early days that the revolt had failed to properly galvanise key leaders in the region to its cause and had been unable to deliver an inclusive enough message of its aims, beyond defeating the oppressive Turks.
In the spring of 1920, my grandfather went to Damascus "happily, dreaming to see an independent entity for the Arabs". But, Al Rawi senior wrote, the Arabs missed an opportunity when they failed to unequivocally resist the French in Syria.
“If the government fails … it would be an honour to lose militarily, and gain the appreciation of its people and the other nations, rather than surrender with submissiveness and subjugation, a memory that remains painful and unforgettable,” his memoirs read.
His diaries, which my family is translating painstakingly, provide a fascinating insight into a turbulent time. He lived during some of the most critical periods of history in Iraq and the wider Middle East. His writings shed light on both; how the same mistakes seem to have been repeatedly made over the subsequent decades, and also that there can be a blueprint today for a stable and prosperous region, based on the many values that the people who live here still have in common. From love of language, to the importance of family and faith, to a knack for commerce and trade – Arabs have always been identified by such qualities.
My grandfather also wrote about the courage of his comrades and their honourable behaviour, even in the face of danger. He tells of the profound intelligence of one of his cadet classmates, nicknamed "philosopher" during his time at the Ottoman officers’ school, and the letter he wrote to him during the siege of Kut Al Amara, when a British garrison town 160 kilometres south of Baghdad was besieged for more than four months from the end of 1915, resulting in its eventual fall.
“The canon roars like a wild owl, and the guns scream …like a pigeon with a broken wing flapping out of sheer pain,“ wrote Muhammad Ali Samawah, two days before he was killed in 1916.
Even under duress, Arabs are poets at heart.
General Maude’s remarks in 1917 were to be echoed when a foreign army once again occupied Baghdad in 2003. The US-led invasion freed Iraq of the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. I was there in June and July that year to witness and feel the optimism of what it meant for Iraq and its people’s future. Sadly, I also saw how quickly hope faded as the months wore on, in a sad repeat of a century before.
So, too, my grandfather's writings on the Arab Revolt and in particular, the betrayal of the British, prove heartbreaking to read even a century on, when its protagonists are long gone. The seeds of failure for pan-Arabism were sown before it could be put into practice but men like my grandfather still believed, no matter the obstacles, that it was a cause worth giving everything for.
Today there are Arabs all over the world, not just in large numbers in the Middle East and North Africa. There are also Arabs with a foot in the West, such as myself, who understand that we have a unique culture and spirit but do not necessarily subscribe to the idea of there being a need for an Arab state in the same sense that my grandfather’s generation believed in.
Still, it is enormously comforting that today the idea of what it means to be Arab remains, and perhaps we are ready for a fresh interpretation of what this could mean in 2019. Rather than worry about physical boundaries, or the ebb and flow of governance, we are forging new relationships and even stronger bonds, whether through social media, innovation or technology, wherever we are in the world.
Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National