Ali A. Allawi, Faisal I of Iraq, Yale University Press, pp.672, £30; Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, pp.592, Atlantic Books, £25.
David Lean placed their encounter in the open desert, but Lawrence of Arabia and Feisal first met in the confines of a mud-brick village in the mountains north of Mecca. Their meeting would set Lawrence on a parabolic flight from obscurity to fame and back again, and Feisal on an odyssey that took him, via Paris and Damascus, to Baghdad as Iraq’s first king.
The circumstances were inauspicious. The Arab rebellion launched by Feisal’s father Sharif Hussein had petered out. A Turkish counterattack looked imminent. Lawrence had been sent to find ways to support the Arabs that did not involve sending a British expeditionary force. As Hussein had proved an awkward customer, Lawrence’s further task was to judge which of his four sons Britain might more usefully support. It boiled down to a choice between Feisal and his elder brother Abdullah.
Abdullah was an ebullient bon vivant who liked to show his marksmanship by shooting apples balanced on his servant’s head. Lawrence found Feisal more appealing, a “tall, graceful, vigorous” man whose regal looks reminded him of Richard the Lionheart. But Lawrence equally believed that he could take advantage of Feisal’s indecisiveness. “Information had better come to me for him”, he said of Feisal later, “since I like to make up my mind before he does.” Between them the two men revived the Arabs’ fortunes. Before the war’s end, they had reached Damascus.
Feisal has traditionally been viewed as a weak and nervous man, who owed his fame to Lawrence, and was always beholden to the British. In his biography, Ali A. Allawi, Defence, then Finance Minister in the first post-Saddam-era Iraqi government, argues that this is a caricature. He argues that Feisal was important long before he met Lawrence because of his links with Arab nationalists who were concerned about the Ottomans’ poor record at defending their empire against acquisitive foreign powers. Mining a range of Arabic language memoirs of Feisal’s supporters, he portrays Feisal as an independent-minded strategist whose natural authority – and his intrusive style of kingship later – stemmed from his status as a sharif, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and part of the clan that had ruled Mecca almost continuously for a thousand years.
Allawi’s biography is over-long, but then again it is the first in English since 1933. By contrast, books about Lawrence are published most years. To differentiate the latest, Lawrence in Arabia, Scott Anderson knits Lawrence’s exploits with those of three other contemporaries, who were involved in clandestine work in the same region at the same time. These are a concession-hunting American oil executive named William Yale, a German diplomat, Curt Prüfer, who was trying to stoke the jihad against the British and the Jewish agronomist and Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn.
The book starts well with the wary pre-war encounter between Lawrence and Yale, but later linkages are sometimes strained. At least Yale and Aaronsohn foreshadow later developments; Prüfer is irrelevant. At one point Anderson switches between Lawrence and Prüfer because there may only have been a three-mile gap between them. He portrays Prüfer as Lawrence’s “nemesis”, as if the German were a Moriarty-like villain. The two men never met.
Anderson gets away with it because of the iconoclastic, populist, way in which he writes. Ambassadors, for instance are “then as now ... often a clueless and temporary bunch.” The breezy Mark Sykes, the man who had done a secret deal with France to divide the Middle East, is “a master of the Powerpoint presentation nearly a century before it existed.” They’re fun but also illuminate Anderson’s tendency to mix up the past and present. And this is where he falls into a trap.
The crux of the book is Anderson’s claim that Lawrence decided in early 1917 to reveal the details of Sykes’s deal to Feisal because he was disillusioned by his country’s imperialism. As evidence Anderson quotes from Lawrence’s memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom about an episode in 1915 when Lawrence visited the British frontline in Iraq. Speaking of the men who had accompanied him up the Tigris, Lawrence wrote, “we were casting them by the thousands into the fire to the worst of deaths, not to win the war but that the corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia might be ours.”
Anderson says this sentence is proof of Lawrence’s mindset in 1917. The trouble is, the British government did not grasp the importance of the oil of Mesopotamia until the summer of 1918, and Lawrence almost certainly only wrote it in 1919, as he came to terms with the way in which oil had dissolved Britain’s willingness to support Feisal at the peace conference. The best evidence of Lawrence’s opinions in 1915-1917 is found in the letters he wrote home at that time. These show that he was a convinced imperialist who saw the French as the greatest threat to British dominance of the Middle East. What riled him was that Sykes had offered half that region to a rival.
Allawi does not write with the panache of Anderson, but his judgement of Lawrence’s motives is sounder: “The preservation of British interests and the extension of British power and influence in the Near East were never too far from his [Lawrence’s] mind, even though he pursued them in his own idiosyncratic way.”
For Lawrence had decided that Feisal, with his Syrian contacts, was the best means to thwart France’s Levantine ambitions. His influence on Feisal may not have been as strong as he pretended, but there is no doubt that he managed to convince him that, in their shared suspicion of the French, British and Arab aims were congruent. Feisal asked Lawrence to act as his adviser at the Paris peace conference.
What Feisal overestimated was Lawrence’s ability to influence British politicians. Anderson’s book ends with the private deal struck between Lloyd George and Clemenceau at the end of 1918. In it Clemenceau agreed to accept Britain’s claim to Palestine and Iraq, if he were left with Syria and Lebanon.
Lloyd George tried to go back on this deal, and Allawi continues the story with a blow-by-blow account of the peace conference manoeuvring that left Lawrence so disenchanted with British conduct. In the first stage of their plan to engage the Arabs and Jews as clients in the Middle East, the British forced Feisal to reach agreement with the Zionists’ leader Weizmann. Feisal probably feared losing his British subsidy if he did not do so, but Allawi describes the hostility of the French towards the Arab delegation so vividly that it is easy to imagine why, by contrast, the polite Zionists barely registered as a threat. Both Allawi and Anderson observe that Feisal might performed better at the peace conference had his father equipped him with the incriminating correspondence from the British that had encouraged him to revolt in the first place.
Feisal returned to Syria after the peace conference but was quickly expelled by the French. The British then offered him the crown of their volatile new mandate, Iraq. This was no glamorous opening: as Allawi writes, Baghdad’s unpaved main street supported a small industry of porters who would wade through its mud to carry pedestrians from one side to another.
The sectarian fault-line of the modern state immediately broke open. Although Feisal could claim descent from Imam Hassan, this did not reassure the Shiite population in the south of the country, whose ayatollahs denounced moves to elect a parliament that could ratify a treaty with Britain and a constitution.
Feisal dealt with this by exiling the ayatollahs for a time, allowing the elections to take place. Allawi says that he believed a “modernising Iraq could best be achieved by a strong-willed and determined king, and not by a rabble of argumentative politicians.” He took a close interest in what Mussolini was doing in Italy, and ruled through henchmen. During the debate about whether Iraqi should ratify the treaty, Nuri Said once attended parliament brandishing a grenade. Jafar Askari sent out the police to dragoon politicians to the assembly for the key vote. The ratification of the treaty paved the way for a constitution, and eventually vast oil wealth, once there was international recognition that the former Ottoman province of Mosul was rightfully Iraq’s. All that was absent was unity, as Feisal admitted in a plangent memorandum he wrote as Iraq gained her independence in 1932. His relations with the British were always tense.
Feisal, who subsisted on a diet dominated by eggs, oranges, coffee and cigarettes, died on holiday in Switzerland in 1933. His doctor remembered that the king had rarely mentioned Lawrence. Lawrence on the other hand viewed Feisal with what Allawi skewers as “the pride of the nanny in the blossoming of her favourite ward”.
A death from natural causes was a remarkable achievement in Iraqi politics. This, and his demise before the rise of fascism in the 1930s, assured a relatively untarnished reputation. Lawrence claimed that he had reacted to the news of Feisal’s death with “almost with relief – as one would see enter the harbour a good-looking but not sea-worthy ship, with the barometer falling. He is out of it, intact.”
First published in the Times Literary Supplement, 10 October 2014.
© James Barr 2016