Palestine’s “scallywag leader of incredible cunning”

The Commander: Fawzi al-Qawuqji and the Fight for Arab Independence, 1914-1948, Laila Parsons, Hill and Wang (2016).

On 22 February 1947 a flight departed from Paris with a couple – named in their Syrian passports as Mr. and Mde. Kaouski Fouazzi – and some officials of the Jewish Agency. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the respective parties thought the flight was destined for different locations: the Fouazzis believed it was heading directly for Cairo; the Zionist delegation that it was en route to Lod, Palestine, before continuing to Cairo.

Negotiations with the pilot on the part of the latter group caused the flight to land first in Lod. It forced the man traveling as Fouazzi – a bullet lodged in his head from a previous assassination attempt, a survivor of the Russian invasion of Berlin and a recent escapee from Germany – to hide his terror from his young German wife.

The British were still in control of Palestine in 1947 and a Palestinian working for the British army was sent onto the plane to look for Fawzi al-Qawuqji, a man referred to in British intelligence reports as a “scallywag leader of incredible cunning.” Upon inspecting the passengers, including the fair Fouazzi couple, however, the British agent determined there to be no Arab nationalist on board of that name.

The plane took more than an hour to refuel before it departed, but it was not before the lights of Cairo appeared below him that Fouazzi, the very al-Qawuqji so sought by the British, allowed himself the luxury of relief.

As is recounted in Laila Parson’s new biography, The Commander: Fawzi al-Qawuqji and the Fight for Arab Independence, 1914-1948, al-Qawuqji was wanted by both the British and French colonial authorities (the latter being, according to British intelligence, “quite desirous of hanging him”).

He was considered by some to have been an Arab Garibaldi, but was maligned by others, including Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini , as a British spy. The British later conjectured that he was actually spying for the Russians. Fawzi al-Qawuqji, in other words, was a figure who provoked strong feelings.

Four decades of fighting

Charming, intelligent, wily and strong-willed, al-Qawuqji’s military career spanned more than four decades and made even Che Guevara appear a little slack. He started as a young officer in the Ottoman army fighting the British in the First World War, where he won an Iron Cross. He went on to help lead a massive uprising against the French in Syria, and assist the Palestinian revolution of 1936 against the British (The Arab Revolt) before he was forced out of Palestine.

His departure was engineered by the Mufti’s people, according to al-Qawuqji himself. Parsons records a note scribbled by him: “There is no doubt that the Mufti wanted us to leave, pressured as he was by the British.” From Palestine, al-Qawuqji crossed the Jordan River with Palestinian rebel leaders to Transjordan. He stayed there until Emir Abdullah, later the first king of Jordan, returned and forced him out of the country.

The British at this point apparently “wanted him out of Jordan so badly that they were almost willing to escort him to Iraq.” Al-Qawuqji managed to get Abdullah to agree that a unit of the Transjordanian army travel with him to the Iraqi border so British forces would not attack him.

By the time al-Qawuqji reached Iraq, the British were probably wishing they had attacked him. Certainly, he wasted no time gathering support to launch an insurrection against British rule in Iraq. A 1941 British memorandum notes that al-Qawuqji was proving himself to be “a greater force than had been anticipated,” as he threatened the infrastructure of the Iraq Petroleum Company.

Just days after the memo was written, al-Qawuqji’s convoy was bombed by the British air force. Al-Qawuqji was seriously wounded and was flown to a hospital in Aleppo and then to Berlin, where 19 bullets and fragments of metal from the car he was traveling in were removed from his body. The surgeon left one bullet in his head, fearful that removing it would cause brain damage.

With a subject so inspiring and provocative, The Commander never fails to interest. This is a fascinating biography and Parsons chose well not only in selecting a subject who authored a memoir and wrote many letters and diaries, but one who wrote so well. Many of the passages of al-Qawuqji’s writing, for example those describing Berlin at the end of the war, are written with clarity and sensitivity. Parsons’ own writing style is similarly light and pacy, as persuasive as it is measured.

A timely addition

The Commander is a book as much for the lay reader as for the historian of Palestine. It can be read cover to cover as a well-told story of an adventurous life, with battles fought and visions formed and lost. But it is also an invaluable reference tool.

The portrait of al-Qawuqji is a timely addition to a growing body of positive narratives of 20th century Arab heroism as well as a clear-eyed assessment as to how those narratives were deliberately distorted by Western commentators – from historians to photographers (the fifth chapter’s comparison of photos of Arab and Jewish soldiers in 1948 is stunning in this respect).

A comparison between al-Qawuqji and the Mufti is inevitable, particularly given their connections to Nazi Germany. “One could argue that the Mufti’s active and enthusiastic support of Nazi ideology has done more to discredit the Palestinian cause than any other actions by a Palestinian nationalist,” Parsons writes. In contrast, she adds, al-Qawuqji, “by ridiculing the Mufti … attempt[ed] to distance himself from the stigma of those years in Berlin.”

The book is not a comfortable read for those who believe in the Mufti’s leadership of the Palestinian cause during the most critical juncture in Palestinian history, and al-Qawuqji’s loathing of Haj Amin al-Husseini is clear in the notes left by him, describing him at one point as “a danger to everyone and universally disliked.”

Most important, from a Palestinian perspective, are the sections on the 1936 revolution and the 1948 war. Both cast a critical light on the actions of the Mufti, as do the revelations regarding the freezing out of al-Qawuqji that occurred in Berlin.

Prior to and during the 1948 war, al-Qawuqji is shown to have been given preferential treatment by other Arab leaders over the Mufti, most notably at the October 1947 Conference in Aley, Lebanon, which he, and not the Mufti, was invited to attend (the Mufti was compelled to show up uninvited, frustrated at the lack of Palestinian participation).

Parsons is clear when it came to 1948: the Arabs generally were up against significant forces, referring to the work of Palestinian historian Aref al-Aref’s finding that “the Jewish Agency in Palestine was ready to field at least 20,000 well-trained and well-armed troops, with many more in reserve. In addition, the Zionists had well-developed lines of communications and were recruiting volunteers and receiving other forms of financial and logistical support from Europe and America.”

A British diplomat gleefully records that “Qawuqji is completely at odds with the Mufti [which] therefore suggests the possibility of two independent and mutually antipathetic Arab guerrilla gangs in Palestine when the situation deteriorates.”

Parsons is careful, however, to explain that the rivalry between the Mufti and al-Qawuqji is not the main explanation for the Arab failure to defeat the Zionists. The tendency to lay blame on that division stems from the Arab side being so traumatized by the outcome of the war.

In the final chapter of the book, Parsons attempts to “convey the complexity and detail of what happened between them, while at the same time not downplaying the negative political and military effects of their relationship. By this is meant, in particular, the negative effects for the Palestinians, who suffered most because of the Arab defeat.”

Well-researched, presenting and analyzing many sources on this essential period of Arab history which were not previously available in English, The Commander is a lively read that is not short of depth nor contemporary importance.

Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer. Her debut novel, Out of It, was published by Bloomsbury (2012).