Ilham Makdisi (IM): What made you write “The Commander: Fawzi Al-Qawuqji and the Fight for Arab Independence 1914-1948”?
Laila Parsons (LP): My first book project, The Druze Between Palestine and Israel, 1947-49, focused on the cooperation between members of the Palestinian Druze community and the Israeli army during the 1948 War. T65hat book was squarely located in the ‘New History’ of the 1990s, and as such it was critical of the founding myths of the Israeli state. But in spite of the important work of the New Historians, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that most of the New Histories focussed mainly on British or Israeli actors (albeit critically), rather than on the Arab officers and soldiers who fought in 1948. And most of the New History, including my own book on the Palestinian Druze in 1948, relied almost entirely on English and Hebrew sources. As a consequence, the New Historians often imported the colonial tropes embedded in the Israeli and British archives and reproduced them in their historical narratives, particularly when it came to narrating the motivations of Arab military figures.
During my research on this first book, I had come across Fawzi al-Qawuqji, but only in passing. He served as Field Commander of Jaysh al-Inqadh, the volunteer army recruited by the Arab League and sent to fight in Palestine during 1948. The English and Hebrew sources variously represented him as a buffoon, a bandit, an evil mastermind, and so on. At that time Qawuqji was not a focus of my interest, but I do remember being struck by how intensely malevolent the authors of the colonial sources were in their attitudes towards him. In the early 2000s, after my first book was published, and when I was casting about trying to decide on a second book project, I knew that I wanted to remain with 1948. I had worked for so long to learn the contours of the war, and I wanted to build on that knowledge. At the same time, I felt the need to break away from the approach of the New Historians. My goal was now to tell a story about 1948 from Arab perspectives–I mean a story that is underpinned by Arabic sources and which casts Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, and Iraqi actors as the main protagonists.
Fawzi al-Qawuqji loomed large as one of these protagonists, and I began to do some preliminary research on him, just as a way of getting started. Then fate intervened and–completely through chance–I met Qawuqji’s granddaughter, Dwan Kaoukji through a mutual aquaintance. That meeting led to my being in contact with Qawuqji’s son, Ossama El-Kaoukji, who generously shared with me his father’s collection of private papers. The papers were kept in six cardboard boxes in the back of a closet in Qawuqji’s old apartment in Verdun, Beirut. I immersed myself in this archive, and deliberately let it frame my historical questions. What I found there was much more than just material about 1948. The archive led me to the late Ottoman period, when Qawuqji started his military career in the Ottoman Army; to Syria and the revolt of 1925-1927; to the Hejaz, where he spent several years training Ibn Sa‘ud’s army; to Iraq in the late 1930s and early 1940s; to Berlin during most of World War II; and finally to Palestine in 1948. Years of further research involved numerous visits to other archives, including those in Damascus, Istanbul, Beirut, Jerusalem, Exeter, Berlin, London, Nantes, and Paris. Finally, I felt ready to write a story about 1948 that did not locate itself within the frame of ‘The Arab-Israeli Conflict’, but which instead revolved around the struggle of Qawuqji and others like him to rid the Mashriq of colonial occupation, a struggle that began during World War I.
IM: Which particular topics does the book address, and what was your approach in exploring these topics?
LP: The book is meant to be a detailed narrative history. So at one level it can be read as a story–I hope an absorbing story–that follows Qawuqji through some of the key moments of the first half of the 20th-Century Mashriq: World War I and the Ottoman Army’s fight against British and French invasion and occupation; the Syrian struggle against the French in the mid-1920’s; Ibn Sa‘ud’s support for rebels from all over the Mashriq; Iraq’s emergence as a center of pan-Arab resistance; Germany’s role in the Arab effort to oppose British and French colonialism; and most importantly, the central place that Palestine occupied in the struggle for Arab independence. The last (and longest) chapter of the book shows how everything that Qawuqji had done in his professional life as a soldier culminated in the war for Palestine in 1948. But at the same time I try my best to avoid letting the Arab defeat in 1948 darken all that came before.
The book is a narrative history, as I said, but it also makes contributions to scholarship on particular historiographical questions. Specialists will detect how–through my structuring of the narrative itself–the book engages with some of the pressing debates in the field. My account of Qawuqji’s role in the Syrian revolt, for example, bolsters the view of some historians that Syria in the early and mid 1920’s is better understood through the lens of Ottoman continuity than through the lens of the Syrian state. Another example is my account of Qawuqji’s role in the process that led to the decision to send Arab armies into Palestine in 1948. My narrative undermines a dominant scholarly view of 1948, one that emphasizes division and incompetence on the Arab side. I try instead to present a more complex picture, in which courage, tenacity, and meticulous planning lie alongside tactical blunders, competitions between leaders, and misapprehensions about the capabilities of the Jewish army. My narrative of 1948 also lays bare the fundamental injustice of the situation that the Palestinians found themselves in. I do this by extracting 1948 from the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and placing it instead in the history of British colonialism in Palestine and Britain’s support – sometimes grudging support – of a European settler colony there, support that enabled this colony to grow sufficiently strong that it succeeded in conquering Palestinian land in 1948 in the wake of the British withdrawal.
The narrative is also structured in such a way that the reader can see how the sources work together to underpin the story. I draw primarily on Arabic sources in order to lay out the base narrative, with colonial sources filling in gaps here and there, and also to show how distant and uninformed the colonial bureaucrats and officers were when it came to understanding what was actually unfolding on the Arab side. I also draw attention to Qawuqji’s later annotations of his own private papers – jottings, really – in order to remind the reader that even the protagonist’s own archive cannot be treated as transparent. Before a scholar like me first looks through it, the archive has already been organized and in a sense pre-interpreted, all with a view to shaping how history will be written. I treat Qawuqji’s published memoirs with equal skepticism, and sometimes my narrative departs dramatically from that of the memoirs, and I show how the memoirs constitute an attempt to inscribe the past in particular ways. In the end, my main goal was to do all of this without ruining a good story. I wanted to write a detailed, contextualized, narrative history that was firmly undergirded by a wide range of sources and given visual texture by forty-one images interspersed throughout the text. I really did not want to just string together a series of discourse critiques or text analyses.
IM: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LP: The book has already been out for one year in the U.S. -- trade publisher Hill and Wang/Farrar Straus and Giroux in New York published it in August 2016. It came out in the UK with Saqi Books in February 2017. It is intended to be a “crossover” book, that is, one that can reach both a mainstream audience and an academic audience. I tried my best to write it so that it was accessible to a non-specialist audience, and I avoided obfuscating academic terminology. My hope was that the mainstream reader would be able to read it simply as a good story about one man’s life and career, but one through which she could also learn about the Arab struggle for independence from colonial rule in the wake of World War I. The narrative’s Qawuqji-eyed view puts non-specialist readers in a position where they can see and feel the overwhelming brute power of colonial rule, with its grim machinery of mass arrests and collective punishment. The book has already received several good reviews in mainstream outlets in English, including The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, Haaretz (English), The Electronic Intifada, and The National. It won the 2017 Distinguished Book Award of the Society for Military History and was just recently awarded the 2017 Palestine Book Award. In addition, the book has been the topic of long feature articles in the mainstream Arabic press including Al-Sharq al-Awsat and Al-Quds al-‘Arabi. So I do feel optimistic that my hope of reaching a non-academic audience is being fulfilled.
When it comes to the academic reader, I hope that scholars in my field will be able to suspend their distrust of narrative history – i.e., as being naïve, or too positivist – and see the important role that it can play alongside other genres of history writing. The book can also work in a classroom setting, as a way to draw undergraduate students into the human complexity of this crucial period in the history of the Middle East – and to help them dislocate themselves from their own perspectives and place themselves inside the worldview of an Arab fighter who never gave up the struggle to free Arab lands from colonial occupation.
IM: What other projects you working on now?
LP: I want to keep focused on the same timespan, from World War 1 to 1948. When you work on a particular period for long enough, you gain a kind of instinctive awareness of its contours: the subtle shifts that take place after certain key historical moments, and the generational tensions between the historical actors. But now I have become more interested in the history of politics and negotiations than in military resistance. I always wanted to excavate the political, diplomatic and especially bureaucratic barriers that the Palestinian leadership had to overcome, whenever they grappled with the British colonial government during the Mandate. As anyone who has read the full text of the Mandate knows well, the terms of the Mandate gave the Zionist movement significant advantages from the start; and yet Palestinian leaders were expected to participate in political negotiations as if this structural imbalance did not exist.
My focus now is on the proceedings of the Peel Commission in late 1936 and early 1937. The Peel Commission was the first British governmental body to abandon the idea of a single state in Mandate Palestine, and instead to recommend partition into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. (At the time, one commissioner referred to this as “the surgical cut”.) I am particularly interested in exploring the rules and procedures of the Peel Commission, and spent the last year reading through the extremely detailed files relating to the commission’s proceedings, contained in the National Archives in London. My goal is to understand how Palestinian leaders ended up being excluded from procedural discussions that often had political implications, that is, implications beyond the mere mechanics of how the commissioners went about their business. From my initial review of the documents, it seems increasingly clear that the commission was never a space of real political possibility for the Palestinians.
I have also started to read the Arabic sources relating to Palestinian participation in the commission so that I can understand how decisions were shaped on the Palestinian side. These Arabic sources describe in detail the internal debates over whether Palestinians should engage with the Peel Commission or boycott it, debates that showed how clearly Palestinian leaders understood the political risks entailed by choosing either alternative. While keeping my eye fixed on the structural imbalance that narrowed the range of options open to the Palestinian leaders at this time, I want to ask some difficult historiographical questions as well. For example, how can we narrate the history of what in retrospect could appear to be tactical mistakes on the part of Palestinian political leaders, without feeding into the facile and odious discourse of the Palestinians’ “missed opportunities”? I also want to draw from my research on Qawuqji’s role in the Palestine Revolt of 1936-39, in order to show exactly how the realm of politics and the realm of armed resistance were intertwined at this time – how political and military leaders viewed each other cautiously, sometimes working together but also treating each other with a kind of anxious wariness. I have already started to give talks on this new project, and hope to publish my first article on it this coming academic year.