Iraq’s obsession with Faisal II reflects its hunger for a lost era

Many Iraqis today mourn the end of its monarchy, a gilded age in their imaginations. But the country that King Faisal II ruled over was not the lavish world of culture and modernity that many remember, writes Faisal Al Yafai

When Iraqi army officers summoned the royal family into the courtyard of the Qasr Al Rihab palace in Baghdad in 1958, they believed they were ushering in a new era of freedom for Iraq. By murdering the last king of Iraq, Faisal II, and his relatives, they hoped to end British control over their country.

Instead, they ushered in a tumultuous republic, one that lurched from crisis to coup, until the arrival of a 42-year old Baathist thug called Saddam Hussein managed to consolidate power.

Since then, the July 14th Revolution has been celebrated as a national holiday, but, even before the overthrow of Saddam, Iraqis often hearkened back to the “golden age” of the monarchy.

Spend enough time among the exiles in London – that educated generation that had to flee the brutal Arab republics of Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and Syria – and it is clear that nostalgia for the past is rampant not merely among them but also among their children, few of whom remember the period.

Even today, young Iraqis – of a particular class, admittedly – still yearn for a period they know only through history and memory, a time before overt political repression and before religion had such a hold in the public arena. For them, Faisal II and the monarchical period represents a country they could easily imagine living in, an era far different from today’s Iraq.

I’ve often wondered about the love some Iraqis have for the monarchy – a monarchy, after all, that was imposed on them by the British, and whose royal family came from the coastal cities of western Arabia. But there is a reason, wrapped in the romance of a gilded age, why Iraqis yearn for those years – and it has to do with Iraq’s role in the world.

When Iraqis speak of the monarchy, they are, in general, talking of the period just after the Second World War until the death of Faisal II in 1958.

Although the romantic figurehead of the monarchial era was King Faisal I, Iraq’s first king, by this period he had gone and the throne had passed to his grandson, Faisal II. This was a period of increased prosperity, aided by oil revenues and marked by rapid industrialisation.

It is perhaps natural that Iraqis would view those years through rose-tinted glasses. Historical accounts of the period recall it as a cultured, outward-facing country, self-confident in its place in the world, less crowded than Cairo, more cosmopolitan than Damascus.

Yet this rapid increase in privilege and wealth was not widely shared. By the 1950s, the majority of Iraqis lived in or near the cities; the idealised life of the village was fading, a vision best-remembered in music and art. The cities of Iraq, in particular Baghdad, were swelling with new arrivals.

The accounts of Baghdad at that period – a world of garden parties, lavish villas, cars and passenger planes – was the world of an elite. Most Iraqis did not live like that. Indeed, even in social terms, the urban poor were reverting to older ways.

Young Iraqis today love the photographs of clean-shaven men in suits and beautifully-dressed women without veils, chiefly because it marks such a contrast to the religiosity of today. But even then, the secularism of Iraq was that of the upper- and middle-classes. Those who had recently left the village for the city often sought comfort in religion.

Those who remember the monarchy fondly are, therefore, also forgetting parts of Iraq’s history. They recall the life of the merchant class, the fruits of those who owned the factories but not the lives of those who worked in them.

More than that, though, the nostalgia is tinged with sadness for something else, an ephemeral feeling that the affairs of Iraq mattered beyond its borders.

Iraq during the monarchy had a place in the world, a leading role in the affairs of the region. Nothing better illustrates this than the Baghdad Pact, the “Arab Nato” centred in Iraq that stretched from Turkey in the west to Pakistan in the east.

One can see this yearning for an Iraqi role in the world in the biography of King Faisal I by Ali Allawi, a former Iraqi minister of finance after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Faisal I of Iraq is interesting not merely because of the historical detail Allawi provides, but because it speaks of a period when the affairs of Iraq mattered in the capitals of the Middle East and Europe. Today, it is what happens on Iraq’s streets rather than in its corridors of power that most concerns foreign leaders.

To some degree that is also what happened during the republican years, especially after Saddam Hussein came to power. Like the man, the country frequently threw its weight around, waging war on larger neighbours like Iran and smaller ones like Kuwait. Rather than a country to be admired, Saddam strove to make Iraq a country to be feared.

Hence the nostalgia for a better age. Iraq during the monarchy wasn’t a backwater of war. It was a country that mattered, the heir to a great civilisation, with something that could be called a national mission. It is this belief – ephemeral perhaps, rarely stated – that animates the desires of Iraqis to remember Faisal II.

If Iraqis today look back to the monarchy, it is only because they have to go so far into the past before they can look forward to a future.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai