Remaking the Middle East: Faisal and Lawrence of Arabia

By Amir-Hussein RadjyApril 3, 2015

Faisal I of Iraq by Ali A. Allawi

RETURNING CAREWORN, gaunt, and sickly from his last trip to Iraq in early September 1933, King Faisal spent his last days receiving an endless stream of well-wishers at his peaceful riverside hotel in Switzerland. The Alpine air hardly lightened the mood among the visiting Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinian leaders conferring with the Iraqi king about their common struggle to shake off foreign colonial rule. Many nationalists pinned their hopes on Faisal, the conquering hero of the Arab Revolt — the desert uprising against the Ottomans during World War I — and the ruler of the briefly-lived Syrian kingdom in the postwar years. A dozen years after the French banished him from Damascus and the British installed him as the first king of Iraq, Faisal still plotted with his followers, over limitless coffee and cigarettes, dreams of reunifying the Arab Middle East.

Generations later, most in Iraq either dismiss Faisal as a British stooge, or have forgotten him altogether. At the time of his death however, he was one of the most widely respected leaders in the Arab world. Overawing scenes of public grief met his coffin’s passage through Palestine and burial in Iraq, where a doleful one-fifth of the male population flooded Baghdad’s streets, mourning the king who had overseen the country’s independence from the United Kingdom only the year before. Faisal’s death, it was believed at the time, brought to an end the quixotic hope for unifying the Levant and Iraq into one “Arab” nation.

Ali Allawi’s new biography, Faisal I of Iraq, delivers a spectacularly urgent message at a time when Syria and Iraq are again riven by war, and the Islamic State blusters about sweeping away colonial borders. Allawi describes Faisal, a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, as a staunchly secular leader whose liberalism and high-minded tolerance contrasts with the violent sectarianism tearing apart his former kingdoms today. Tracing the prince’s failed quest for Arab unity, his biography sheds light on the conflicts that have roiled the Middle East since the Arab Spring: obstreperous religious leaders, blundering imperial powers, and the unending search for a viable political identity in a region still reeling from the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution.

Faisal’s first biographer in English, Allawi comes from a Shia family imbued with memories of old, monarchical Baghdad, and traces of his personal experience both enrich and intrude upon his history of Faisal in Iraq. The author, who held cabinet positions in both the American-appointed Interim Iraq Governing Council in 2003 and the following Iraqi Transitional Government until 2006, clearly empathizes with Faisal’s position as a ruler steering his country between the extremes of bloody chaos and subservience to a foreign power. Where others see merciless cunning and self-serving duplicity in Faisal’s dealings with the British and Iraq’s myriad political factions, Allawi sees a prince driven by the highest patriotic ideals, whose political barterings proved his determination to avoid both bloodshed and a repeat of the Syrian debacle.


Like his friend T. E. Lawrence, the British officer often credited with the Arab Revolt’s success (more on that later), Faisal was an enigma even to his closest political allies. Both men were obliged by circumstance to play different roles, hiding their true intentions from those around them, and even from each other. Their friendship, unforgettably portrayed by Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness in David Lean’s award-winning 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, was at the heart of an unlikely, difficult, and bitterly-ended alliance between Arab nationalists and the British during World War I.

For too long Lawrence has overshadowed his Arab friend, receiving pride of place in a library’s worth of books featuring the dashing desert hero (the English one, that is) and glorying in the intrigues of Sykes, Picot, and other imperial adventurers like Gertrude Bell. These widely read books almost entirely avoid Arabic sources, relying on British Foreign Office records including David Fromkin’s classic A Peace to End All Peace (1989) and 2013’s critically acclaimed Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson. They do little to enhance our understanding of Arab history, distorting the way journalists see the region and collectively presenting an argument echoing the religious extremists who blame everything on the European-dictated postwar settlement. Along with Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac’s popular Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East (2008), they encourage the mistaken belief that Syria and Iraq are nothing more than the shipwrecked relics of imperial folly, inspiring “rueful wonder” as one prominent historian put it.

Drawing on a wealth of memoirs and letters that present a starkly different image of Faisal from the traditional one of an ineffectual daydreamer, Allawi portrays the prince as a deeply admired leader who, undaunted by repeated setbacks, strove to build an independent, unified Arab state on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Rehabilitating Faisal as a founding father in Arab nationalism, Allawi’s history reminds us that the countries he ruled, despite the king’s own frustrations, fulfilled some significant part of Arab nationalist designs formed during the war. At the inception, Syria and Iraq were no more “fake” than Turkey or Israel; Faisal’s kingdoms made as much historical sense as Atatürk’s republic or the Zionist homeland, and even a good deal more.

For Lawrence enthusiasts, Allawi’s book unveils a considerably less heroic role for the Englishman in the Arab Revolt, heavily embellished in Lawrence’s own spellbinding account of the desert uprising in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Months before the English officer found the “armed prophet” who could “set the desert on fire,” Faisal had proven himself as the revolt’s leader, outdoing his two older brothers in bravery and initiative following his father’s launching of the revolt in the spring of 1916. Militarily speaking, Lawrence wasn’t even as important as other English officers posted with Faisal’s army, who provided indispensable technical know-how in explosives and mining.

Allawi credits Faisal for bringing together the desert tribes almost singlehandedly, risking his own life to overcome their blood feuds and uniting them in a cause greater than plunder, probably for the first time since the conquests of early Islam. Returning to the Hijaz after visiting Damascus, where Faisal’s contacts with newly emergent nationalist societies placed him at the center of a growing movement, the young prince (and clearly not Lawrence) was the keystone in the pathbreaking anti-Ottoman coalition that made Bedu desert chiefs allies with Levantine city elites, people hardly accustomed to thinking of themselves as sharing any common “Arab” culture, let alone national cause.

Allawi throws into doubt Lawrence’s role in the capture of Aqaba, normally regarded as his most important exploit. The fall of the Red Sea port opened the way into Syria for the rebel army and their British allies, almost guaranteeing the Arab Revolt’s success. Anderson, his most recent biographer, fully credits the Englishman for both planning and leading the tactically brilliant storming of the port by land — surprising the Ottoman garrison which thought no army could cross the surrounding desert.

“How did a painfully shy Oxford archeologist without a single day of military training,” Anderson asks in awe of T. E. Lawrence, “become the battlefield commander of a foreign revolutionary army?” The answer — possibly — is that he did not. Faisal’s letters to his father, normally containing full reports on his army’s activities, make no reference to Lawrence in connection with the battle of Aqaba, and the commanding Arab officer, in a letter detailing the town’s capture, mentions Lawrence only once as accompanying a party that reconnoitered outlying positions before the final assault. Anderson, drawing exclusively on English sources, never mentions the incredible discrepancy with the Arabic. Allawi doesn’t attempt to reconcile them fully, though he clearly favors the latter when he delivers his judgment on Aqaba:

It was the beginning of the legend of Lawrence of Arabia, the artful embellishment of a mainly true narrative of heroism and derring-do, and rendered in stirring prose, in the full knowledge that the other actors, overwhelmingly Arab, were in no position to contradict or correct the story.

Unlike another Iraqi historian who accused Lawrence of “hysterical mendacity,” Allawi is quietly restrained in his critique on the legendary Englishman. Relying on the accounts of the Syrian officer Subhi al-‘Umari, he concludes that Lawrence had no role in organizing or leading the assault, only joining as an explosives expert after pleading with Faisal for some part in the operation.

Allawi’s Faisal emerges as a keen strategist and early champion of redirecting his forces to take Aqaba, despite British demands that the Arabs stay put in the Hijaz. “Faisal and his father were determined,” observes Allawi, “that the revolt move into its Syrian phase as the spearhead and catalyst for an independent Arab state.” Probably Faisal was aware of French designs on Syria (which Lawrence very likely had revealed to him) and wanted to plant his flag in Damascus before anyone else, including the British. The young prince and his officers, later called the Sharifians and among their generation’s most prominent nationalists, even pursued secret talks with the Ottomans, their erstwhile enemies, about a separate peace giving the Arabs self-rule. Far from guileless, they feared being used as the cat’s paw in Britain’s ruthless war against the Kaiser’s Muslim ally.

When Faisal triumphantly rode into Damascus on October 3, 1918, the Arabs already knew about British and French plans to divide and rule the Levant and Iraq. Scrambling to establish control over Syria and Lebanon before French troops arrived, an assembly of notables in the city declared an Arab government under Faisal’s authority, launching an exhilarating, if finally doomed, experiment in self-rule. Allawi gives an engrossing and blow-by-blow account of these heady years, not dismissing out of hand the Arab government as a hopelessly delusional exercise, but placing it within the context of the ruin and suffering left behind by the Ottoman collapse. (A quarter of the Levant’s population died from disease and starvation.)

Almost unspoken of today, Faisal’s Damascus kingdom looms as one of the great, almost-possible counterfactuals of history — though Allawi refrains from speculating what would have happened had Faisal and Lawrence, in their frenetic attempts at the Paris peace conference in the spring of 1919, succeeded in gaining Allied support for the “Arab cause.” The British never honored their wartime promise to support an independent kingdom stretching from Jerusalem to Baghdad, but decided to divide the spoils of victory with the French, implementing the secretly signed Sykes–Picot Agreement.

In Europe, Lawrence was Faisal’s virtual shadow, acting as his advisor, confidante, and personal translator. Allawi doesn’t believe the Englishman always served his friend with honesty, suggesting that Lawrence guided the prince into the terrible error of signing a document that appeared to provide Arab support for a Jewish Palestine. Lawrence, an artisan of half-truths, likely provided purposefully misleading translations in the meetings held between Faisal and Chaim Weizmann, head of the British Zionist Federation and later first president of Israel, glossing over the (very substantial) differences between the two sides and staging a reconciliation between Arab and Zionist interests. At best, it was a clumsy attempt to save British honor from the awful embarrassment of its conflicting wartime commitments in the Hussein–McMahon Correspondence, which included Palestine in the Arab kingdom, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Such persistent double-dealing on Lawrence’s part shows the speciousness of Anderson’s claim that the British, having knowingly deceived their Arab allies, held to a unique sense of honor and English “fair play.” Although he openly condemned the Sykes–Picot Agreement, Lawrence never ceased informing on Faisal to his British superiors; his many intrigues were really meant to save imperial policy from its own confusions and blunders, as well as keep the French out of the Middle East, a primary desire shared by the Prime Minister Lloyd George and other top officials. Lawrence was an imperialist, conceiving along essentially racist lines Britain’s mission in the Middle East.

The French traduced Faisal as a British puppet, and many historians since, including Fromkin, write as if the Hashemite prince enjoyed a bare minimum of support in Syria. That’s where Allawi’s revisionist history strikes hardest and most successfully. Invited to defend the Arab cause at the Paris peace conference’s opening session, the prince declared before the assembled heads of government that he had come to Paris only to “demand the complete independence and undivided unity of the Arab lands that were detached from the rule of Turkey.” This was a clear and quiet rebuke to his British friends, given that Lawrence, who was at the assembly, had pushed him to specifically exclude Palestine and Lebanon from his demands. On his return to Syria, massive crowds hailed Faisal the undisputed leader of the independence movement, making the depths of his popular legitimacy so clear that the prince’s French liaison telegraphed his superiors in Paris, begging them to change policies.


Faisal’s Arab kingdom met a dismal and inglorious end at the battle of Maysalun, where French colonial troops decisively crushed, in a matter of hours, a ragtag Arab force — deposing Faisal and taking Damascus only four months after the Syria Congress had boldly declared the country’s formal independence. In the intervening period, Faisal’s moderation, and his government’s last-minute willingness to compromise with France, had lost him the support of radical and many moderate nationalists.

Arab memoirs of Faisal and his Syrian kingdom are palpably written with nostalgia, perhaps because Syria only went from bad to worse under the French who, buffeted by successive rebellions, ended by openly opining for the Bedu chieftain. (Faisal’s sobriquet in the French press.) A greater Syria with Faisal at its head would have had considerably higher chances at successful nation building than the lesser, brutally ruled French mandate, repeatedly divided and cobbled back together by its colonial administration during the 1920s, and permanently cut off from Beirut and Jerusalem.

The real mark against Faisal, more so than his passing fantasy of allying with the Zionists against Europe’s imperialists, was his acceptance of the Iraqi crown in 1921 from the British, leaving his older brother Abdullah to reign over the truncated territory of Jordan. (Against the odds, today’s last Hashemite power in the Middle East.) The British, for all their apparent power as kingmakers, scrambled to keep up with facts on the ground, finding Iraq far easier to conquer than govern. They scrapped plans for Iraq’s direct rule after the 1920 rebellion, which the British ruthlessly suppressed at the cost of some 10,000 Iraqi lives. Once in Baghdad, Faisal worked tirelessly to establish his own political independence, so successfully that the British High Commissioner in Iraq bluntly threatened, barely three years after his coronation, to depose the king.

Faisal understood the overwhelming obstacles facing a new Iraq, recording his innermost thoughts in a breathtakingly candid memorandum written the year before his death and delivered to the country’s leading politicians. Known as al-Mudhakara, he denounced the Sunni ruling caste’s oppression of the marginalized Shia, and “the huge differences between the sects that is exploited by evil-doers”:

In this regard and with sadness, I have to say that it is my belief there is no Iraqi people inside Iraq. There are only diverse groups with no patriotic sentiments. They are filled with superstitious and false religious traditions. There are no common grounds between them. They easily accept rumors and are prone to chaos, prepared always to revolt against any government. It is our responsibility to form out of this mass one people that we would then guide, train and educate.

The memo fatefully stressed the need for a strong army, based on national conscription, ready to put down two uprisings at once within the country. It’s prophetic in the way it lays out everything that could, and did, go wrong in Iraqi history. Faisal’s memo also reminds us that Syria and Iraq represented not only colonial borders, but the interests of the old Ottoman elite who, overwhelmingly Sunni and Arabic speaking, largely stood for a brand of nationalism that had a feet of clay in countries of startling ethnic diversity.

Faisal rarely mentioned Lawrence in his later years, referring to him occasionally as the meskin (the poor soul), suggesting his sympathy, and wariness, for the Englishman’s troubled nature. “For so long he was only my duckling,” gloated Lawrence in a private letter, “and I crow secretly with delight when he gets another inch forward on his road […] Feisal owed me Damascus first of all, and Baghdad second; and between those stages most of his education in kingcraft and affairs.” By the end of Allawi’s monumental biography, we appreciate how exaggerated Lawrence’s claims on the Arab prince were, though the author notes that, for all the dissimulation that marked their relationship, the two remained genuine friends.

Even those who blame Faisal for his failings — especially in his dealings with the Zionists and the British — should reckon with his outstanding importance in Arab history, if for no other reason because Faisal, more than any leader in today’s bitterly divided Arab world, inspired a patriotism based on tolerance and fraternity. He didn’t rely on religion to justify his, or any group’s, claim to power — which is precisely why his figure looms largest at the moment when the remnants of his kingdom are splintering apart.


Amir-Hussein Radjy is a writer and journalist in Cairo.

LARB Contributor

Amir-Hussein Radjy is a writer and journalist in Cairo.


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