Painting a vivid picture of the Middle East in the early 20th century, Parsons’ book The Commander intricately narrates the life and career of Fawzi al-Qawuqji. Lauded by some as the Arab Garibaldi for his career as a transnational war volunteer, yet simultaneously derided for his cooperation with an Arab elite repeatedly defeated and humiliated by European colonial forces, Qawuqji’s story is expounded in this definitive biography.
Using first-hand accounts and memoirs penned by Qawuqji himself, which were found in his personal archive in Beirut, The Commander tells the human story of an individual whose life was interwoven with monumental events that have gone on to shape the modern Middle East. Perhaps most famous for his role in the 1936 Palestine Revolt, Qawuqji led the Palestinian resistance against the British Mandate in light of their continuing support for Jewish immigration into Palestine. Seen as a definitive moment in Palestinian discourse, Qawuqji and his rebellion have since formed a central tenet of the Palestinian national narrative and its imagery.
Yet Parsons presents a far more complex picture of Qawuqji’s association with Palestine than such simplified narratives allow. For Parsons, Qawuqji was in many ways an accidental hero of the Palestinian cause, often finding himself tied to their struggle by circumstances and geography. In 1936, the Syrian National Bloc declared a general strike against the French Mandate. The nationwide strike that followed in Palestine surprised Qawuqji. Parsons observes that ‘this tells us something important about Qawuqji’s connection with Palestine’: that in this period it was tenuous at best, based on his stationing at Bir Sab’a in the Naqab Desert (modern day Be’er Sheva) as an Ottoman Soldier in WWI and three subsequent visits to Palestine in 1934, 1935 and 1936. Some have speculated that Qawuqji’s image as a rebel leader was actively cultivated by leaders of the Palestine Revolt, to give it ‘the colour of a general Arab movement and extract it from being just a local phenomenon.’
It is insightful observations like these that make Parsons’ narrative so readable, bringing a layered and nuanced perspective to a period of history so often shown simply as a precursor to decades of defeat for the Arab armies. Even in her analysis of Qawuqji’s role in the War of 1948, during which time he led the volunteer forces of Jaysh al-Inqadh (the Arab Liberation Army or ALA), Parsons tries ‘to convey the complexity and detail of what happened.’ This is particularly true of her analysis of the rivalry between Qawuqji and then Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, which led to a bitter battle to lead Jaysh al-Inqadh.
Yet away from the theatre of Palestine, Qawuqji’s lesser-known achievements show a man ‘who spent most of his adult life fighting against both British and French colonialism.’ As an Ottoman soldier fighting against the British advance into Palestine, he vehemently adhered to his dual identity as a member of the Arab nation and loyal Ottoman citizen at a time when these formerly compatible loyalties began to fracture. From his political exile in Germany from 1941 to 1947, he hoped for a German invasion of the Middle East to ‘rid the Middle East of the British and the French.’ As an old-school Pan-Arabist, he clung fervently to his aspirations for a Greater Syria and worked continuously to do away with the artificial borders imposed by colonial rule.
The face of a young bearded man fingering a white cotton shirt as he sits outside his tent, a wide smile spread across his lips and looking directly into the camera, graces the cover of Parson’s book, reminding readers that Qawuqji’s story is not an ancient tale of a long-irrelevant wanderer. Rather, the repercussions of the early 20th century still haunt the modern Middle East. As a key protagonist in these events, but also as a human being endowed with all the flaws, ambitions and reflections of any other, the story of Fawzi al Qawuqji is that of the accidental hero whose actions helped shaped his region.