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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Commander

Fawzi al-Qawuqji and the Fight for Arab Independence 1914-1948

Laila Parsons

Hill and Wang





An Arab cadet in Istanbul—Posting in Mosul—From the Iraqi front to the Palestinian front—Reconnaissance and the Iron Cross—German officers and Jamal Pasha—The Arab Revolt—Retreat and famine

“I opened my eyes to the world and found myself in the Ottoman military school system.” This sentence opens Fawzi al-Qawuqji’s memoirs. Childhood games with his brothers, Qadri, Zafir, Yumni, and Bahjat, and his sisters, Fawziyya and Badriyya, in the alley outside his home; the smells of his mother’s cooking; visits to the family’s orchard of orange and lemon trees; glimpses of the small religious college where his great-grandfather the scholar Abu al-Muhassin al-Qawuqji used to teach; eating special sweets with his father on a trip to Libya: none of these memories is mentioned in his self-narrative. He saw himself as the product of Ottoman military education.

This was understandable. Qawuqji’s father, ʿAbd al-Majid al-Qawuqji, had served in the Ottoman Army, as did some of Qawuqji’s brothers, including his younger brother Yumni, with whom Qawuqji was particularly close. ʿAbd al-Majid and his wife, Fatima al-Rifaʿi, raised their children in a simple house on a small alley in the Attarin district of the Arab port city of Tripoli, in today’s Lebanon. They did not have the means to send their sons to the elite Ottoman civil school system. That system was reserved for the children of landowners or important merchant families. The military school system was free, and families with little income saw it as a practical way to ensure that their sons were educated and provided with a profession. The Qawuqjis were typical of military families in the late-nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire: neither wealthy nor poor, they were part of a respectable lower-middle-class Arab Sunni community in Tripoli.


Qawuqji underwent officer training at the War College in Istanbul in the early 1900s. The Ottoman government had introduced the new military school system decades earlier, in the mid-nineteenth century. By the early 1900s thousands of boys from all over the Ottoman Empire had attended their local military school for free, and a select few, like Qawuqji, went on to train as officers in the War College itself. The military schools were expanded by the Ottoman sultan Abdul Hamid II, who saw them as a crucial element in his plan to modernize the institutions of the Ottoman state. In the 1890s, during a state visit to Washington, D.C., Sultan Abdul Hamid presented the American government with a gift, a series of albums containing photographs of the Ottoman Empire. The albums highlighted the Ottoman government’s modernization drive, with photographs of new hospitals, factories, mines, harbors, railway stations, and government buildings. The albums also contained hundreds of photographs of the military schools. Some were exterior shots of the school buildings, which were nearly all neoclassical in style. Others showed cadets at drill practice on the training grounds of the schools, officer instructors in their classrooms, and dining tables laid for dinner (figure 1).

The military schools depicted in the albums ranged across the Ottoman Empire, from Istanbul itself, to Van in eastern Anatolia, to Damascus and Baghdad in the Arab provinces of the empire, all the way to Sanʿa in Yemen. The War College in Istanbul took pride of place. Another photograph (figure 2) shows officers and cadets gathered in front of the War College in the early 1890s. Taken by a photographer from Istanbul’s Abdullah Frères Studio, it captures the self-confidence that these men felt about their future in the Ottoman Army.

For Qawuqji and the other cadets, daily life in the War College was highly regimented. He spent his nights on a raised bed in a long gallery with dozens of other boys, listening to the horns of steamships moving slowly up the Bosphorus just half a mile from the windows of his dormitory. In the mornings he washed and dressed himself in his formal cadet’s uniform, stiff wool trousers and a frock coat with a high collar. At mealtimes he ate with the other cadets in a vast dining room, on raised tables laid with separate plates and knives and forks. Meals were simple—stewed beans, mutton, rice—except during Ramadan, when special dishes were prepared and Ramadan sweets were handed out. His days were punctuated by the rhythm of daily prayers in the mosque that sat inside the walls of the college. But he spent most of his waking hours sitting at a wooden desk, facing a blackboard, and learning the standard military curriculum, taught either by a staff officer or by a religious scholar (ʿalim). His classes were conducted mainly in Ottoman Turkish and included oratory, theology and ethics, military theory, and history, as well as German and French.

Paintings of military heroes lined the walls of his classroom: a picture of Mehmet the Conqueror, the Ottoman sultan who captured Constantinople from the Byzantine Empire in 1453, hung next to portraits of Napoleon and Bismarck. Each classroom also had an official military map showing the Ottoman Empire stretching from the Balkans in the northwest to Mesopotamia in the east, to Egypt, Sudan, and the Arabian Peninsula in the south. The great metropolis of Istanbul, home of the War College itself, lay at the center of these maps. Often the maps did not reflect the true extent of Ottoman territorial control. Much of the Balkans was lost by the end of the nineteenth century, and Egypt was now ruled by the British, who pushed every day against the borders of the empire. Many cadets knew that the cartographic representation in their classroom differed from the reality on the ground, where the Ottoman Empire was increasingly besieged by French and British assaults. Some maps also included the empire’s new communications infrastructure then under construction, particularly the telegraph and the railway that by the early 1900s could take you from Istanbul to Ankara and Konya in central Anatolia and all the way to Damascus. Four hundred miles of new line pushed south from Damascus toward the holy cities of the Hijaz, and a branch line connected Damascus and Haifa.

Cavalry practice took Qawuqji outside the classroom into the hills just outside the city. Young cadets normally trained with decades-old Mauser rifles from Germany, although they were not allowed to use live ammunition. The few Ottoman cadets sent off to Germany came back with stories of different training practices. Everything in Germany was elaborately and precisely organized, and German cadets trained in battle scenarios using the latest model of the Mauser loaded with live ammunition. German cadets also ate good food in ornate dining rooms, wore uniforms made of fine cloth, and danced with pretty girls in elegant ballrooms.

The Ottoman cadets’ sense that emulating such European practices put them in the vanguard deepened as they moved through their days sleeping on raised beds, eating at raised tables, and studying German and French at raised desks set in rows. These experiences set the cadets apart from most other Ottoman subjects. Other aspects of Qawuqji’s daily life remained familiar from his childhood in Tripoli: the food he ate, the prayers he attended, and the classes he took in theology and ethics, grounded in the rich traditions of Islamic learning.

The stone neoclassical building of the War College stood on a hill overlooking the Bosphorus. The barracks of Tashkishla, which served as the city’s garrison, lay to the south of the college. Abdul Hamid’s walled palace lay to the north, and the cadets could see the older palaces and gardens of Dolmabahce and Chiragan on the shore of the Bosphorus below. The bars and restaurants of the European district of Beyoglu were within walking distance, as was the harbor area of Galata (figure 3), whose side streets were famous for their beer halls and brothels worked by Christian prostitutes.

Cadets often sneaked out for a night on the town, avoiding detection by one of the college monitors lest they lose points on the sections of their report cards labeled “Moral Conduct.” The cadets moved past public buildings built in the same neoclassical style and with the same dressed stone as the college itself: the railway station at Haydarpasha, the customs office at the port where the steamships docked, and Abdul Hamid’s new municipal buildings. This gave them a sense of the empire’s new direction.

The cadets at the War College were almost all Sunni Muslims, from every province of the Ottoman Empire. In his memoirs Qawuqji speaks of his Arab, Turkish, Albanian, and Circassian peers, all of them looking up to the Ottoman sultan as their leader. They shared a firm sense of being part of a new class of Ottoman soldiers who would spend their professional lives in the Ottoman Army. But social hierarchy did exist. In some cases the teachers treated the Turkish-speaking cadets from Istanbul and Anatolia with greater respect than the Arabic-speaking cadets from the Arab provinces of the empire. Although Qawuqji does not mention it in his memoirs, he complained in later years that certain cadets were served better food than he was. When he asked why, he was told that it was because they were Turks and he was an Arab.

During 1908 and 1909 Qawuqji’s vague sense of social difference started to connect with the turbulent politics in Istanbul. In 1908 the constitutionalists, the so-called Young Turks, took power from Abdul Hamid II, who was committed to reforming the infrastructure but not the principle of the direct rule of the sultan. The Young Turks were a group of progressive medical students and military cadets. Their movement stemmed from previous reform-minded groups, which had been driven underground after Abdul Hamid abolished the new Ottoman constitution in 1878. They wanted to replace the system of absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy. Many of them also rejected the Ottoman character of the empire, focusing instead on the use of specifically Turkish symbols to build a new Turkish-centered nationalism.

Qawuqji was startled that some of his teachers heralded the overthrowing of Abdul Hamid as the beginning of a new era:

I was getting on with the business of going from class to class when suddenly one day an officer came rushing in, all agitated, and shouting, “The army of freedom has entered Istanbul and freedom and justice and equality and fraternity are declared in the State!” I laughed to myself and wondered: What is the army of freedom? And what happens when it enters Istanbul? And what does freedom mean? Was it lost and have we suddenly found it? The officer kept talking at us in this way, and we listened to him as if we were listening to a lecture on Arabic literature given in Chinese by a Chinese professor.

Political events crashed through the walls of the college into Qawuqji’s world. By his own account, he now began to see differences between Arabs and Turks. After 1908 Qawuqji started hearing of the formation of secret Arab organizations. He noticed that the Turkish students seemed to feel connected to one another through what he calls a new bond. This new bond differed from the older, looser connection that the Turkish students had previously felt to other Ottoman subjects. To illustrate his point, Qawuqji tells the story of a fight between a group of Turkish soldiers and a group of Arab soldiers:

I heard one of them saying with great enthusiasm and seriousness, “I am Turkish,” and the other replying immediately with pride, “I am Arab,” and the Arab students rushed to support their colleague. And it was as if this moment of truth, which was released into the skies above the War College, had put an end to the bond that had tied us to the Ottoman state. From that moment we began to feel that we had an independent Arab nation and that behind it were a community and a history and a time-honored glory.

Political identities are not formed overnight. This young Arab cadet had many years of bloody fighting ahead of him defending the Ottoman Empire against British and French invaders. Even after the end of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman state, Qawuqji nurtured the connections and broad networks that he had inherited as an Ottoman cadet and officer. But the fight that broke out in the college between Arab and Turkish cadets in the wake of the Young Turks’ revolution of 1908 was still a pivotal event in Qawuqji’s life. The most worrying question he now asked himself was whether professional success in the Ottoman Army would depend on merit or on being an Arab or a Turk. This doubt about his promotions unsettled his mind as he struggled with more immediate issues, such as his place in the yearly ranking of cadets, the state of his moral report card, and worries about where his first posting would be once he graduated from the War College in 1912.


It was the custom of the Ottoman Army at that time to assign some of the War College’s graduating officers to a particular corps by the drawing of lots. Qawuqji drew a corps stationed in Mosul in 1912, as did his close friend from the War College, Ahmad Mukhtar al-Tarabulsi. The normal route from Istanbul to Mosul was southeast through Aleppo and Dayr al-Zur. The two friends decided to go a different way. They went by boat from Istanbul to Samsun, on the northern coast of Anatolia, and then traveled by wagon due south to Diyar Bakr. From Diyar Bakr they floated down the Tigris all the way to Mosul, paddling a raft made of goatskins that were stretched and filled with air (kalak). The journey took fifty-three days, forty-one from Istanbul to Diyar Bakr and twelve on the river between Diyar Bakr and Mosul.

Qawuqji describes this trip in some detail, and the way he narrates it, his journey from Istanbul to Mosul symbolizes his transition from Ottomanism to Arabism. He tells how he and Tarabulsi decided to take this alternative route across Anatolia because they wanted to acquaint themselves with the traditions of the Anatolian Turks and to compare them with the traditions of the Arabs through whose lands they would pass as they moved south down the Tigris toward Mosul. Qawuqji encountered different groups of people along the way and realized with increasing clarity that there were substantial differences between the Turkish- and Arabic-speaking peoples. As they floated south down the Tigris, and the rocky hills of central Anatolia gave way to the grasslands of the rolling countryside north of Mosul, the people living on the banks of the river rushing out to greet them spoke Arabic, not Turkish:

The sights of Anatolia and its houses passed by us in a uniform way, until we got back onto the raft again and it took us southward with the flow of the Tigris. We found ourselves in a new world: the Arab tribes (qabaʾil) living on the banks of the river provided us with what we needed and gave to us the fruits of their lands. They would sing to us and recite poetry, poetry of war and poetry of the nation, songs and poems that stirred our spirits. For this was our language, heard in so many different dialects, and this was a shared feeling. These Arab customs showed them in every way to be part of our nation.

The romantic image of Arab tribesmen shouting out greetings from the banks of the Tigris, welcoming the two young officers with bountiful offerings and songs of war and nation, seems to spring less from a personal account of an experience of travel than from Qawuqji’s later desire to render a public story of Arab nationalism. A major component of Qawuqji’s brand of nationalism is the notion that the tribes represent the essence of the Arab nation. This does not mean that we must be skeptical of Qawuqji’s claim that he really experienced a feeling of kinship when he heard the people on the banks of the river speaking Arabic rather than Turkish and when he saw that their customs were more akin to his own than to those of the Turkish villagers he had encountered earlier. And yet one suspects that this young man, who had spent his early childhood in an urban environment in the port city of Tripoli and his young adulthood in the War College in Istanbul, where he was taught in Turkish and surrounded by fellow cadets who came from every corner of the Ottoman Empire, probably had more prosaic encounters with the tribes on the banks of the Tigris than his lyrical description implies. Where is Qawuqji’s anxiety that the rains might swell the waters of the Tigris to such a degree that it would be dangerous to continue? Where is his preoccupation with ensuring that they had enough food to last the rest of the journey? Where are his growing feelings of intimacy with his friend, who shared the grueling journey with him for over forty days? These stories are absent. The nationalistic narrative of 1912 that Qawuqji tells as a 1970s memoirist is much more important to him than what would have seemed to him like trivial details. Qawuqji journeyed through the lands of the Ottoman Empire when it was a borderless patchwork of different linguistic and religious communities. But the journey also took place at a time when the Ottoman polity was beginning to reconfigure itself along national lines. For example, 1912 was smack in the middle of the Balkan wars of independence from the Ottoman state. From the vantage point of the 1970s, 1912 stood out as a moment when the Arab nation was emerging toward its natural fulfillment. Since the late nineteenth century a handful of Arab subjects of the Ottoman Empire, mainly intellectuals and military officers, had articulated the new idea of Arabism, which emphasized the differences between Turkish and Arab cultural and political identities and promoted the Arabic language over Ottoman Turkish, the language of the state. Popular support for the idea of Arabism, though still restricted to a minority of Arabs, grew after 1908 as a response to the Young Turks and their focus on a Turkish-centered Ottoman identity. Some Ottoman Arabs formed small secret societies like al-Fatat (The Youth) and al-ʿAhd (The Covenant), whose members discussed the possibility of Arab autonomy within the structure of the Ottoman Empire. To the Qawuqji of the 1970s, mindful of half a century of Arab nationalism’s bitter disappointments, the tribes rushing out to greet him and the Arabness they represented were a glimpse back to a future now lost.

Qawuqji’s destination, the city of Mosul, straddled the banks of the Tigris about 250 miles northwest of Baghdad. Then the capital of the Ottoman vilayet of Mosul, the city had a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, and Turkomans. Under the Ottoman Empire it served as an important center of trade because of its strategic location on the caravan route linking India and Persia with the Mediterranean. The main market in Mosul lay inside the eight gated thick stone city walls. It was known for its metalwork, spices, leatherwork, and luxury goods. Mosul was famous for its mosques—particularly the mosque of Nabi Younis—as well as for the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh. The city had famously fertile soil; one of its epithets was The Green (al-Khadraʾ).

Qawuqji also states in his memoirs that following the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924, Mosul became the “the city that the late Rashid Rida had suggested as the center of the new Islamic caliphate because it was encircled by the borders of the neighboring Islamic lands, such as Turkey, Iran, and Syria.” The institution of the caliphate originated in the seventh century and emerged as an Islamic system of governance that designated the caliph the leader of all Muslims. During the Ottoman period, which lasted from the early sixteenth century to the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the Ottoman sultan also designated himself as caliph and nominal head of all Muslims. Many Muslim Arab nationalists mourned the end of the caliphate in 1924, and efforts to restore it were part of the struggle for Arab independence from British and French colonialism in the post-Ottoman period. Like Qawuqji, Rashid Rida, the early-twentieth-century journalist, Muslim reformer, and Arab nationalist, was from Tripoli. Like Rida, Qawuqji saw no contradiction between the revival of the caliphate and Arab nationalism. Both were aspects of the same anticolonial effort. As was the case with many others of his era, Qawuqji does not fit squarely into either category: secular nationalist on the one hand, or Islamic revivalist on the other. For him, the restoration of the true Arab caliphate and the promotion of the tribes as the essence of the Arab nation were part of the same project. Arab nationalism meant different things to different people. For many, particularly Arab Christians and other minorities, Arab nationalism was a modern secular ideology, which promoted the Arabic language and Arab cultural heritage. Most Christians and even some Muslims were not particularly drawn to an Arab nationalist rhetoric that employed Islamic themes. For many others, particularly for Sunni Muslims like Qawuqji, Islam was integral to their understanding of Arab nationalism; they felt comfortable with, and inspired by, Islamic symbols.

The tribes as the essence of Arabness is a central theme of Qawuqji’s depiction of his evolution from Ottoman man to Arab man. He traces his dawning awareness of Arab identity to his days in the War College and the fact that the Turkish officers around him started to identify themselves not as subjects of the Ottoman Empire but as belonging to Turan, as the heirs of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. As Qawuqji tells it, the Arabs had to respond by articulating how they too were not Ottomans but Arabs: “The particularism of the Turks increased over time, and their assertion of their links to the Turan intensified just as our desire to locate the spring of our Arabness intensified. And we had to search for an ancestry to connect to and be proud of so that whenever the Turks said, ‘We are Turanids,’ we would say, ‘And we are Qahtanid.’”

According to Qawuqji’s genealogy of Arabness, the Qahtan, a pre-Islamic southern Arabian tribe, are cast as the original Arabs. They are juxtaposed with the ʿAdnan, a northern tribe that is said to have been Arabized at a later period. The term “Qahtan” enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the early days of Arab nationalism. The soldier-nationalist ʿAziz ʿAli al-Masri, who also studied at the War College in Istanbul, founded a group called al-Qahtaniyya in 1909 with a view to promoting the creation of an autonomous Arab enclave within a kingdom over which the Turkish sultan would be sovereign. In 1914 al-Qahtaniyya became al-ʿAhd (The Covenant), the secret club of Arab officers in the Ottoman Army mentioned above, and Qawuqji joined it during his time in Mosul. But Qawuqji’s preoccupation with the differences between Arabs and Turks was not the only thing on his mind as he struggled to establish himself as a junior officer in the Mosul garrison.

The citadel and the parade ground were in the northern part of the city. This is where the governor had his offices and where Qawuqji went for drills and other official garrison business. Like other officers, he was billeted outside the citadel area and lived in a house in one of the neighborhoods near the banks of the Tigris. At the top of the photograph of Mosul (figure 4), taken a few years after Qawuqji’s time there, the Tigris winds southward.

Qawuqji’s neighborhood (mahalla) provided him with the daily needs of life. It had a public bathhouse and a weekly market, and it was structured around a mosque complex that, in addition to serving as a place for public prayer and the celebration of religious holidays, provided a small hospital and school. Qawuqji had the choice of drawing water directly from the Tigris or paying a few piasters for a weekly delivery of water by mule. The officers’ pay was often in arrears, and sometimes they depended on the goodwill of their neighbors for food and other amenities.

Among its many responsibilities, the Mosul garrison was tasked with collecting taxes. Troops fanned out into the countryside around Mosul to force reluctant tribesmen to pay up. The garrison’s role in tax collecting was a local effect of the centralization and modernization drive undertaken by the Ottoman state in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was also a way for officers to cope with the problem of late salary payments. Once they collected taxes from the tribes, they could skim a little off the top, often to send home to their wives and children. This was common practice in garrison towns across the empire that were close to large tribal federations. The tribes were notorious for not paying their taxes, and local governors often had to call in the army to enforce tax collection in tribal areas.

The troops were also called on to settle disputes between tribes and to prevent tribal raiding, which had gone on for centuries as part of a complex system of social and economic checks and balances in tribal society. The various arms of the Ottoman state made increasing efforts to control this raiding. The need was particularly acute when raiding affected local merchants, who—in the eyes of the local governor, responsible to Istanbul—represented the mainstay of the region’s taxpayers. In the four years before Qawuqji arrived in Mosul, the Shammar and Dulaym tribes stole thousands of goats that were owned by merchants from Aleppo and Mosul and were pastured by the settled village communities along the banks of the Tigris. The Ottoman governor received complaints not only from aggrieved merchants but also from tribal shaykhs demanding the freedom to pursue traditional practices that were crucial to their economic independence. Both merchants and tribes practiced animal husbandry, a key component of the Mosul economy, and this led to sometimes destructive competition between the two constituencies.

Soon after Qawuqji’s arrival the commander of his battalion, Asad Bey, called him into his office in the citadel. Asad Bey explained that two units of the garrison had been sent to the summer grazing pastures of the Shammar tribe, in order to force it to pay the taxes that it owed. Not only did the Shammar refuse to comply, but they were causing havoc in the grazing area of the Jubur tribe. Asad Bey dispatched Qawuqji with twenty-five cavalry soldiers to extract the taxes from the Shammar and at the same time protect the grazing lands of the Jubur. This was Qawuqji’s first big responsibility after graduating from the War College. The shopkeepers of Mosul were thus treated to the spectacle of a troop of Ottoman cavalrymen, riding out of the walled city across the old stone bridge and disappearing north toward the grazing lands of the Jubur.

Qawuqji and his troops forced Shammar tribesmen to pay their taxes and to return the goods that they had stolen from the Jubur, and his narrative follows a pattern that repeats itself throughout his memoirs: he pulled off an unexpected feat by taking imaginative risks. In this case he tricked the shaykh of the Shammar into believing that he was surrounded by an entire battalion of Ottoman soldiers who would capture and kill the whole tribe unless he returned the stolen goods. Qawuqji’s gamble paid off, but it landed him in trouble with his commanding officer. As rumors of Qawuqji’s success against the Shammar spread, other tribes in the area asked him to settle their raiding disputes, and as a result, he stayed away from the garrison for long stretches.

Apart from his army duties and his reconciliation efforts among the tribes, Qawuqji actively participated in a secret society of Arab army officers who met regularly to discuss the threat posed to Arabs by the increasing Turkification of the Ottoman bureaucracy, including the officer corps of the army, in the wake of the 1908 revolt. One night in Mosul a stranger came to Qawuqji’s billet on the banks of the Tigris. The stranger whispered that if Qawuqji really believed in his nation, he would get up and follow him without asking why. He then blindfolded Qawuqji and led him through the night to another house. When they arrived, the man removed the blindfold, and there before Qawuqji was a group of men sitting around a table upon which lay a copy of the Quran, a sword, and a pistol. They asked him to swear in front of the group that he would commit himself to working toward the freedom of the Arabs, and he duly did. The blindfold was put back on, and Qawuqji was led back home.

In spite of his dramatic initiation, Qawuqji felt skeptical about the effectiveness of these groups. His doubts became particularly acute after the dissolution of a plan to send him to the Arabian Peninsula to garner support there for the Arab nationalist cause. Hearing news from Istanbul of the Young Turks’ increasing hold on power, Qawuqji worried that the group he had joined was just talk and no action:

It dawned on me that the organization of our group was not like the organization of the Turkish Committee of Union and Progress, which was planning and putting things into effect. Meanwhile we were perfecting our plans, and talking, and not doing anything. I asked myself: Are we less capable than the Turks? Or are the Turks braver than we are? Or are we just dreamers and the Turks doers? And all this in spite of the fact that Arabs are intellectually superior to Turks? And the answer came to me that this is what will be revealed in the long days ahead.

Competition with Turkish fellow officers was not restricted to politics. One thread that runs through Qawuqji’s account of his Mosul days is his attraction to a beautiful young Arab woman who lived in one of the houses in his neighborhood. Both he and some Turkish officers billeted nearby vied for her attention as she walked through the alleys to go to market. Qawuqji was convinced that he had a better chance than the Turkish officers because like her, he was an Arab and was therefore better acquainted with the style of courtship that she was used to. After returning from Mosul from his time with the tribes, he sensed that his reputation in his neighborhood had soared, particularly because of his being able to get the Shammar to pay their taxes. This caused him to imagine that he might have, in his words, “found favor with her.” So he wrote her a letter. Unfortunately his attempt to woo her was horribly bungled. At the same time he wrote to her he also wrote to his father in Tripoli. But he put the wrong letter in the envelope and ended up receiving an angry reprimand from his father by return post: What was he doing spending all his time running after women? He had not raised a son with such morals! Qawuqji was shocked and hurt by his father’s response, but soon afterward he received a letter from his mother, telling him that young men were going off to fight on various fronts. Even his father, she told him, in spite of his age, had left to fight on the Erzurum front. It was 1914, and the Ottoman Empire had joined Germany in the war against Britain and France. Qawuqji’s mother hoped for glory for him in the days ahead.

For Qawuqji, World War I did not begin with Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo, or with the negotiations and alliances between the Ottoman state and imperial Germany or with the passage through the Dardanelles of the SMS Goeben and the SMS Breslau. It began in the late fall of 1914 with the British invasion of Iraq and their occupation of Basra and al-Qurna. Five hundred miles southeast of Mosul, Basra lay on the banks of the Shatt al-ʿArab. Fed by the Tigris and the Euphrates, which came together just a few miles north of Basra at the small river town of al-Qurna, the Shatt al-ʿArab is a broad waterway that flows into the Persian Gulf and today marks the boundary between Iraq and Iran.

In early November 1914, following a heavy bombardment by the Royal Navy, British troops landed at an old fort on the Fao Peninsula, just south of Basra. From there they pushed the Turkish defenses back until they captured Basra on November 21. The main goal of the British campaign was to protect British oil interests in the Persian Gulf. To that end they pushed farther up the Shatt al-ʿArab in order to secure the oil works near al-Qurna. After several battles with the Turkish Thirty-eighth Infantry Division, the British seized control of al-Qurna itself by the second week of December.


In early January 1915 the Ottoman Army sent Qawuqji from Mosul to al-Qurna in command of a small cavalry unit. Qawuqji’s unit was itself part of Sulayman Askeri Pasha’s Thirty-eighth Infantry Division, tasked with defending the mouth of the Euphrates from British advance. Qawuqji was wounded defending a line that ran along an irrigation canal in the Ruta region northeast of the town. Sulayman Askeri Pasha (who later committed suicide because of his failure to defend al-Qurna) was also wounded. Both he and Qawuqji were part of a convoy of casualties making their way approximately three hundred miles north to the hospitals of Baghdad. For Qawuqji the battle for al-Qurna marked the beginning of four years of fighting against the British conquest of Ottoman Arab lands. He watched soldiers of the British and Australian armies invade and conquer al-Qurna in southern Iraq, Bir Sabʿa in the desert in southern Palestine, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Baysan, and finally Damascus. This struggle against the British march through the Ottoman Middle East was the story of World War I for Qawuqji and thousands of other Ottoman Arab soldiers. Of course the better-known story about Arabs in World War I is that of the pro-British Arab Revolt of 1916, helped by the British officer T. E. Lawrence. But in military terms the Arab Revolt was a sideshow. Far more Arab soldiers in fact fought on the Ottoman side, resisting British advances.

After recovering in Baghdad from the wounds he received in the battle of al-Qurna, Qawuqji was ordered to rejoin his unit, which by this time had moved to the Gaza–Bir Sabʿa line that was holding back the British advance from Egypt into southern Palestine. Defending Bir Sabʿa was not Qawuqji’s first choice. He managed to get himself discharged from the hospital on the basis of his rejoining his unit but instead headed toward Mount Lebanon and arrived eventually at Jamal Pasha’s headquarters in Jounieh, a coastal town just north of Beirut. Jamal Pasha was the Turkish Ottoman commander in overall charge of operations in the Levant. Once there Qawuqji asked to be attached to a cavalry unit that would defend Jounieh in the event of a British or French assault on the port. Jounieh was only a day’s ride from his hometown of Tripoli, and it was also attractive to Qawuqji because of his involvement with a group of politically active Ottoman Arab officers based near Beirut. One of Jamal Pasha’s preoccupations during this early period of the war was to preempt the clustering of politicized Arab officers in individual military units. He wanted them spread out across the various fronts, where they would be less likely to crystallize into anything that might thwart Ottoman objectives. Qawuqji, who was known to be politicized by this time, was thus denied his request to join the cavalry unit to defend Jounieh. He was dispatched instead to rejoin his unit in the small desert town of Bir Sabʿa in southern Palestine.

Qawuqji took some time to get to Bir Sabʿa. In the Middle East of 1915, trains sometimes took days to show up and, once they appeared, only crept along temporary tracks that had been laid in a hurry for army mobilization. Soldiers often spent days in the cities of transit—Istanbul, Jerusalem, Aleppo, Damascus—waiting for trains to take them on the next legs of their journeys. In 1915 there were also very few spur lines, so much of the travel inland was done on horseback across rough country or by horse and wagon on dirt tracks. These delays provided an opportunity for Qawuqji to stay for a while with friends in a village near Nablus and to meet up in Jerusalem with a woman who had joined him from Beirut. In Jerusalem he also socialized with a group of German officers staying at the same hotel. This was the first of Qawuqji’s encounters with German officers during the war. He was struck by how much less supercilious they were toward him than the Turkish officers he had dealt with. His overriding memory of those few days in Jerusalem was of being treated by the German officers as if he were one of them.

Qawuqji finally arrived in Bir Sabʿa in early March 1916. Bir Sabʿa was the end of the Ottoman line of defense that began in the city of Gaza, thirty miles to the west on the coast of the Mediterranean. Bir Sabʿa was a small town of just a few hundred people; its buildings, including a police station, had been planned according to a small grid drawn up for the Ottoman state by architects in the late nineteenth century (figure 5).

The town was designed to serve primarily as a garrison to control the Bedouin tribes of the Naqab (Negev) Desert of southern Palestine. In late 1915 a small railway station had been built there to serve the spur line, which was an essential supply line to Ottoman troops stationed at the last outpost of the Gaza–Bir Sabʿa defenses. Here is how Qawuqji, who had spent most of his life in the bustling cities of Tripoli, Istanbul, and Mosul, describes the town: “Bir Sabʿa was a pit surrounded on all sides except the north by sand dunes and arid uninhabited desert, except for the few places that had freshwater wells and were where the tribes came to water their livestock. It was constantly exposed to sand storms, which sometimes filled the sky and covered the tents so that they came to resemble a momentary sand hill made by the wind.”

Presenting his papers to his commanding officer, along with a profuse apology for his tardiness, Qawuqji began his posting to Bir Sabʿa. It remained his base until the British army pushed him and his comrades north to Jerusalem in the fall of 1917.


Apart from maintaining the trenches and guarding supply lines, there was not much to do at the Bir Sabʿa end of the line except to wait for the much-talked-about British attack. Reconnaissance operations were the surest route to glory; these were how you earned the respect of your fellow officers and your troops. From the moment he arrived in Bir Sabʿa, Qawuqji pestered his commanding officer to be allowed to take a small cavalry unit out on a reconnaissance mission. When his commanding officer finally relented, Qawuqji’s ignorance of this new terrain and of reconnaissance tactics in general soon became evident. He headed straight into a British ambush and returned with some of his cavalrymen killed and others wounded. But with time his reconnaissance skills improved, and he became famous in the Bir Sabʿa military camp for his tactics. After one particularly successful foray he was awarded the Ottoman Medal of War. Qawuqji’s aptitude for risky adventures, which had served him so well in forcing the Shammar to pay their taxes during his prewar posting in Mosul, features prominently in his narrative of his wartime experiences.

Qawuqji’s exploits were also recognized with another medal, the German Iron Cross. The photograph of him in his Ottoman Army uniform (figure 6) shows his medals. The top of his Iron Cross is visible on the left of the row of medals.

In late October 1917 the British-Australian assault on the Gaza–Bir Sabʿa line hit the Ottoman Army hard and pushed Qawuqji and his unit north toward Jerusalem and Ramallah. Nestled in the Judean Hills due north of Jerusalem, the small village of Nabi Samuel was regarded by the Ottoman general staff as the key to Jerusalem’s defense: whoever had control of Nabi Samuel commanded an important road into Jerusalem and a strategic high point overlooking the city. Nabi Samuel changed hands many times over the course of the battle for Jerusalem and eventually ended up under British control. This in turn led to General Edmund Allenby’s capture of the city. During one of the Ottoman counterassaults on Nabi Samuel, Qawuqji was appointed the liaison between the German and Turkish units involved in the attack.

That particular autumn the Judean Hills were treacherous terrain. Torrents of rain had made the rock-strewn ground slippery, and there were few paths between the small villages. Horses could not be ridden but had to be led in single file, so that to reach Nabi Samuel, most of the men in Qawuqji’s unit, some with no shoes or just cloth tied to their feet, had to walk over miles of rough wet ground. The German unit that was attached to Qawuqji’s led the attack. It began in the early evening, and by nightfall they had managed to take control of sections of Nabi Samuel from the British, so that part of the village was in their hands and part was in enemy hands. The positions of the combatants were so close that it was impossible to put up barbed wire to demarcate their positions. The commander of the German unit decided that the wisest course was to withdraw that night under the cover of darkness. But Qawuqji had fought hard to take the parts of the town that they held, and he persuaded the German commander to let him take some men and advance on the British positions. At one in the morning on the night of December 6, 1917, Qawuqji roused his men, and they all drank tea with some rum mixed in. They then crept over the village’s ruined walls, which had been shelled the previous day by Turkish artillery.

We threw all the hand grenades that we had so that the sound of them tore through the silence. Then we struck like lightning at the British lines, and the voices of the German soldiers were raised in a loud “Hurrah.” The bayonets did their work, and it was not long before the British troops left alive were defeated and withdrew from this area of the front on the enemy’s right flank. Then we started in with rifles and light artillery, and quickly the entire enemy line of the village fell.

Qawuqji subsequently received the Iron Cross for his role in this attack, even though the British retook the village the following day. General Allenby entered Jerusalem on December 11, 1917 (figure 7). In Qawuqji’s words, it was “the most important political event of that year.”

The British capture of Jerusalem sealed the British army’s conquest of Palestine. Only five weeks earlier the British government had issued the Balfour Declaration, in which Palestine was promised as a “national home for the Jews.” European Jews committed to Zionism had lobbied for many years to secure British support for their project of settling Jews in Palestine. In 1917, at the moment of the British conquest, Jews made up 11 percent of the population of Palestine. Some of them were from religious communities that had lived there for generations. Others were recently arrived Europeans, committed to the political goal of settling in the area of the Middle East that they regarded as the ancient kingdom of Israel, the original home of the Jews. The remaining 89 percent of the population were Palestinian Arabs. Many Palestinians were farmers and lived in the thousands of villages scattered across Palestine. But there was also a significant urban population living in Palestinian cities and towns like Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Nablus, Nazareth, and Safad. The Balfour Declaration would have remained just words on a piece of paper without the British military occupation of Palestine, which was to last thirty-one years. Qawuqji watched the British conquest unfold with his own eyes. He had probably not even heard of the Balfour Declaration, remote as it was from the realities of his life in the war. But in March 1948, after a long career spent fighting against British and French colonialism all over the Middle East, he was to return to the Judean Hills above Jerusalem in order to lead the fight in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.


Several weeks after the fall of Jerusalem, with his unit based in Ramallah, just north of Jerusalem, Qawuqji met the German general Otto Liman von Sanders. Germany was allied with the Ottoman Empire, and following Allenby’s victory, von Sanders had taken control of the Ottoman Army in Palestine, replacing his predecessor, Erich von Falkenhayn. Von Sanders directed the overall Ottoman campaign in Palestine and the Sinai. This placed him above Jamal Pasha in the chain of command. Frustrated by the state of German-Ottoman reconnaissance, which was mostly limited to sporadic sorties by the Albatross airplanes of the small German air force there, von Sanders ordered Qawuqji to infiltrate British lines and bring back a report on their maneuvers, weapons stockpiles, and lines of supply. This Qawuqji did, slipping behind the lines at night, hiding throughout the day on top of a small wooded hill, and noting down British movements. Reconnaisance missions such as these were part of a pattern of special tasks that Qawuqji undertook for German officers during the war. Von Sanders was the most famous of these officers, but the closest relationship that Qawuqji formed was with von Leyser, with whom he worked closely in the early days of the Bir Sabʿa campaign. Von Leyser was a German cavalry officer who had been appointed to organize the lines of the military encampment between Bir Sabʿa, the trenches, and the old fort of al-Nakhil. Qawuqji’s commanding officer, Asad Bey, assigned him to serve as a special assistant to von Leyser. Qawuqji remembered some German from his days in the War College in Istanbul, but through his dealings with von Leyser and with other German soldiers connected to von Leyser, his German quickly became quite good. Qawuqji’s special relationship to von Leyser also freed him from his normal duties, and this in turn enabled him to try to reestablish contact with old friends among the group of Arab army officers whom Jamal Pasha had dispersed all over the empire. Qawuqji even succeeded in using his influence with von Leyser to arrange for some of these friends to be transferred to the Bir Sabʿa front.

When Jamal Pasha made a much-publicized visit to the Palestine front in 1916, he stopped at Bir Sabʿa to inspect the troops. Von Leyser accompanied him on the inspection, and Qawuqji served as a translator between von Leyser and Jamal Pasha. When Jamal Pasha realized that there were quite a few Arab officers in the inspection line, he became increasingly agitated. A series of awkward conversations between Jamal Pasha and Qawuqji followed. They ended with Jamal Pasha’s storming off the parade ground and insisting on talking privately to von Leyser and Qawuqji. In one of the German medical tents nearby, Qawuqji and Jamal Pasha had a long and angry conversation in Turkish, during which Jamal Pasha accused him of being a pro-Arab agitator. When Qawuqji explained to von Leyser that the conversation between him and Jamal Pasha had nothing to do with the troops or the state of the military preparations at Bir Sabʿa but was focused instead on “Syrian politics,” von Leyser was so furious that he stormed out of the tent. For von Leyser, Jamal Pasha’s suspicions about the loyalty of Arab officers were a dangerous distraction from the joint Ottoman-German goal of winning the war.

After Jamal Pasha left to inspect troops elsewhere on the Palestine front, Qawuqji worried about the repercussions for him and the other Arab officers at Bir Sabʿa. He knew that a concentration of Arab officers under German rather than Turkish command would preoccupy Jamal Pasha’s mind, given his anxieties about Arab loyalty to the Ottoman state. What made this all the more tense was Jamal Pasha’s execution of Arab anti-Ottoman activists in Damascus earlier that summer. Photographs of these executions were published in the Arabic press, and this in turn led to strained relations between Arab and Turkish officers in the Ottoman Army. One blurred photograph (figure 8) shows the corpses of the Arab nationalists hanging on a scaffold while Ottoman officers stand by.

Soon after Jamal Pasha’s inspection, and to hardly anyone’s surprise, he issued an order to disperse the Arab officers at Bir Sabʿa to other fronts. The incident on the parade ground among Qawuqji, von Leyser, and Jamal Pasha marked the beginning of a series of events that culminated in Qawuqji’s arrest for crimes against the Ottoman state and von Leyser’s maneuvers to free him from military detention and return him to the front. Qawuqji’s persecution as an Arab officer in the Ottoman Army brought him closer to von Leyser and other German soldiers and reinforced the feeling he had experienced in the hotel in Jerusalem on the way to Bir Sabʿa: that he could trust the German officers and that they treated him as one of their own. His connection to von Leyser made him an object of suspicion among the Turkish officers, particularly as relations between the Germans and the Ottomans deteriorated after the war had turned in favor of the entente. By the summer of 1916 the Ottoman government had become concerned that some Ottoman subjects were switching sides. The year before, the government had designated the entire Ottoman Armenian population in eastern Anatolia a potential fifth column and begun the deportation of those Armenians, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Arab subjects of the Ottoman Empire were generally regarded as loyal to the Ottoman side and not targeted to the same degree as Armenians had been. But Arab defections to the entente, although small in number, were symbolically important. In June 1916 the pro-British Arab Revolt broke out in the Hijaz. Jamal Pasha’s draconian tactics in the Levant, including his execution of the Arab nationalists in Damascus in the summer of 1916, further alienated the Ottoman Empire’s Arab subjects. In this climate, given the growing uncertainty among Ottoman Turkish officers about the loyalty of non-Turks, Arab officers such as Qawuqji came to be the focus of intense suspicion. The truth remains that Qawuqji stayed loyal to the Ottoman Army until the end of the war, despite his resentment toward some Turkish Ottoman officers who had treated him badly.

One experience that bonded Qawuqji to von Leyser was their common misfortune to have been in a train crash between Bir Sabʿa and Jerusalem. Von Leyser had been summoned to Istanbul to receive new orders to assume command of another unit. To Qawuqji’s delight, von Leyser requested that he accompany him; here was a chance to get out of Bir Sabʿa and back to civilization, at least for a while. But Qawuqji had also just received new orders, to present himself at a military court in Jerusalem, with no details concerning the charge. They boarded the train together at Bir Sabʿa. The engine was pulling one passenger car, containing von Leyser, Qawuqji, and forty other soldiers, and several cars filled with artillery shells. The train moved quickly, and as it started to climb toward Jerusalem, it approached a series of bends where the track was being repaired. The workmen had not cleaned up properly, and some tools had been left on the line. Although red flags were put up, these were too far from those points on the track where the men had been working, and the driver missed the warning. Von Leyser, standing at the window staring at the desert hills, suddenly called out to Qawuqji and jumped from the train. Before Qawuqji had a chance to think, he was thrown into the air and heard a massive crack as two of the carriages carrying shells rolled over. Qawuqji lay covered in dust, waiting for the shells to explode. When he felt it was safe, he crawled over to von Leyser. The rest of the German soldiers were trapped in the overturned car. After a few hours a wagon came by and took them back to Bir Sabʿa. The German soldiers were only lightly wounded, but the driver and engineer had been killed.

In the following weeks Qawuqji, accused of disregarding the laws of the Ottoman state, appeared in court. Both Qawuqji and von Leyser knew that this charge arose from Jamal Pasha’s visit to Bir Sabʿa, where the Ottoman general felt threatened by the presence of so many Arab officers in one unit and became suspicious of Qawuqji’s special relationship with a German officer. Von Leyser used his influence with the Ottoman authorities to protect Qawuqji from these charges. Among Qawuqji’s private papers is a letter that von Leyser wrote for him in mid-1917, testifying to his loyal service in the Ottoman Army:

Syria 18/5/17

This is to confirm that First Lieutenant Fawzi Bey served with me in his capacity as companion and aide from 1/3/16 until 12/5/17. I can testify to the fact that he offered outstanding service to his country during this period and distinguished himself with unusual energy and experience … [H]e is of good character and intelligent and perceptive, and he has perfected the German language in a few months in a way that has amazed everyone. I am recommending this young 23-year-old cavalry officer to future commanders with pride and honor, certain that he will be of indispensable service to the Ottoman state …

Signed: Von Leyser

Commander of Battle Formation, Sinai Front

Cavalry Officer, the State of Germany

Qawuqji’s friendship with von Leyser and other German officers only deepened when von Leyser refused to abandon him, despite the insistence of Turkish officers that Qawuqji be condemned as an Arab traitor against the Ottoman state.


Like hundreds of other Arab officers in the Ottoman Army during World War I, Qawuqji did not join the pro-British Arab Revolt that originated in 1916 in the Hijaz and that has been made famous by the involvement of the British officer T. E. Lawrence. In fact very few Arab officers from the eastern Arab provinces of the empire (today Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, and Iraq) joined the revolt. Many who joined, such as Jaʿfar Pasha al-ʿAskari and Salah al-Din al-Sabbagh, did so only after having been taken prisoner by the British. The ranks of the Arab Revolt were filled with tribesmen from the Arabian Peninsula, led by Amir (Prince) Faysal, the son of Husayn bin ʿAli, the sharif of Mecca. Husayn bin ʿAli had agreed to throw in his lot with the British in exchange for their promise that he and his sons would become leaders of an independent Arab state following the defeat of the Ottomans. But these tribesmen felt little connection to the tens of thousands of Ottoman Arab soldiers who hailed from villages and towns in the eastern Arab provinces. It is true that as the British pushed the Ottoman Army out of Palestine and advanced on Damascus, some Arab soldiers deserted the Ottoman Army and joined the Arab Revolt. Qawuqji did not join but clearly felt the need to explain his reasons. In a long passage in his memoirs, he explains that he viewed the Arab Revolt as an expression of British and French interests and that the specific objective of the British was to gain support for Allenby’s push to Damascus, not to secure Arab independence from Ottoman rule. He saw “Lawrence’s Arabs” as just another colonial unit of the British army, much like the Indians, Australians, or Canadians. Qawuqji’s feelings are understandable. In 1916 and 1917 it would have seemed like an enormous step for an Ottoman career officer, who had been trained from childhood to think of his future in terms of advancement in the Ottoman Army, to walk away and join a bunch of desert tribesmen who for one reason or another had thrown in their lot with the British.

In October 1917 both morale and supplies were low in the Bir Sabʿa trenches, and British and Australian attacks grew more frequent. As Qawuqji woke up one morning, Bir Sabʿa filled with the dust of enemy cavalry, just beyond the reach of the Ottoman guns. Asad Bey asked Qawuqji to take a small number of men out to find out what was going on. Qawuqji took just two men to a small hill. As they started to ascend, two soldiers from the Australian Light Horse Brigade popped up from behind the brow of the hill and pointed their rifles at them. Qawuqji immediately raised his hands as if in surrender and shouted, “We are Arabs.” He did this so that the Australian soldiers would think that he was an Arab soldier fleeing the Ottoman Army to join them. As they were being led into the Australian camp, they moved slowly behind the two Australians and then jumped on their horses and galloped as fast as they could down the hill and back behind the Turkish lines, where they were able to provide Asad Bey with some details of the Australian position. Qawuqji’s loyalty to the Ottoman Army when desertions of Arab soldiers were becoming more frequent is a sign of how firm Qawuqji’s link to the Ottoman state seemed at the time.


At the end of October 1917, following the final British attack on Bir Sabʿa, Qawuqji’s unit began its long retreat across Palestine and Syria, first to Jerusalem (where he’d won the Iron Cross fighting at Nabi Samuel), then to Ramallah, to Baysan in the Galilee, to Darʿa, Kiswa, Damascus, al-Rabwa, Majdal ʿAnjar, and Riyaq, and finally to Homs. There he was given permission to leave the disintegrating Ottoman Army and journey home across the Lebanese mountains to Tripoli. Qawuqji witnessed the devastation that four years of war had brought to the population:

Death had taken over every patch of land, so that these luminous Arab lands had become a grave for the living, with no sound and no movement. The people were no longer interested in news of the war or who was winning but rather were focused on the immediate needs of their next hour. No one was able to find out about the necessities of life, which were usually brought to them by the harvest. And it wasn’t much better at the front. Famine covered everything.

The starvation afflicting both the Ottoman Army and the local population was made even more painful by the comparison with the British army, which was well-supplied. British soldiers were fed and clothed and wore leather shoes, unlike the bare feet and rags of the ordinary Ottoman soldiers. At dusk Qawuqji could see the British soldiers playing football far away in their camp, while soldiers in his camp were frantically digging trenches in an attempt to defend the towns they kept falling back from.

In late September 1918 Qawuqji’s unit was ordered to retreat from Baysan, where they were still resisting Allenby’s advance, to Darʿa in Syria, as part of a last-ditch effort to defend Damascus. Qawuqji’s commander received orders not to attack the enemy and to proceed to Darʿa as quickly as possible. While they were camped on the east side of the Jordan River, just south of Baysan, Qawuqji heard about a small group of Turkish Seventh Army officers who had been cut off by the British advance and were in danger of being taken prisoner. Commanding the Seventh Army was Mustafa Kemal, hero of Gallipoli and later known as Ataturk, the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey. Qawuqji rushed to his commanding officer and requested permission to rescue the group of Turkish officers. Because the unit had clear orders to proceed to Darʿa as quickly as possible and not to engage the enemy, his request was turned down. He then went straight to the commander of the infantry, Rida Bey, who agreed to shell the British while Qawuqji sent two small companies across the Jordan to bring back the besieged officers. When one of the companies returned with the officers, it emerged that Mustafa Kemal was among them. Hearing of Qawuqji’s role, Mustafa Kemal went to thank him. Qawuqji recorded his words in his memoirs: “You have not only saved the leaders of the Ottoman Army, but you have saved the honor of the army. In fact your actions should be a model for all officers.”

Qawuqji’s unit reached Damascus in late September 1918, just a few days before the arrival of the British and their allies from the Arab Revolt. Mustafa Kemal and some German officers commandeered as their headquarters the Victoria Hotel, which lay just to the west of the Hijaz railway station. Qawuqji was billeted in a smaller hotel nearby. Walking around the city for the first time in many years, he was shocked by its state: “I was wandering around the city that years of war had cut me off from, and I felt something unnatural in its spirit. People were full of anxiety, and the streets were clogged with soldiers who knew nothing about the fate of their units or what lay ahead. Anarchy ruled everywhere.”

Shortly after arriving, Qawuqji went to the public bath (hammam) to wash and shave. While there, he heard shooting and people shouting. Rushing back to his hotel, Qawuqji saw soldiers frantically tearing off their military uniforms and racing toward the railway station. The British army and its Arab allies were in the outskirts of Damascus. The British military map (figure 9) shows the assault on Damascus on September 30, 1918.

Qawuqji ran down to the railway station, but it was so packed with soldiers trying to leave Damascus that it looked, in his words, “like a slice of watermelon in the desert covered with flies.” Realizing that it was hopeless to leave by rail, he made his way back toward the barracks of Marja. In Marja Square he watched the flag of the Arab Revolt raised as speakers called on the people of Damascus to welcome Amir Faysal and the Arab Army as the new leaders of Syria. Hoping to join one of the Ottoman columns retreating toward Aleppo, Qawuqji then walked north. He ended up in Majdal ʿAnjar, a town in the eastern Biqaʿ Valley a few miles northwest of Damascus. Majdal ʿAnjar was full of Ottoman soldiers all trying to get home. German officers blocked them, insisting that they defend Majdal ʿAnjar against the British advance. Some had camped in the pass at the entrance to the town. Qawuqji tried to warn one of the German officers that the British were very close and that the troops should be allowed to disperse, but it was too late. British planes flew low over the troops and fired on them with machine guns. Qawuqji had never seen an aerial attack of this intensity before, and he was horrified by the devastation it wrought. He never forgot the image of soldiers running to hide in the trees of a nearby orchard and being mowed down from the air, the orchard filling with dead and wounded men.

Qawuqji ran northward away from the orchard and with the surviving troops staggered into the small town of Riyaq. It was in chaos. The townspeople, desperate after years of famine, were stealing from the army’s own scant supplies. Qawuqji sat amid the mayhem on a crate of champagne that had been abandoned by some German officers. In his memoirs he says that he felt as if he were sitting on one of the last pillars of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. He started to wonder what the future held for the Arabs. Would the British make good on their promise to give the Arabs independence in return for the support they had shown in the Arab Revolt? Qawuqji dug into the crate of champagne and drank down a whole bottle, banishing thoughts of the future from his mind. A few days later he was in Homs, where Mustafa Kemal was headquartered in the railway station, organizing the retreat of the Ottoman Army.

I went to him. Restlessness and pain showed in his face and in his movements and he said: “So it is over. Our fate is in the hands of our enemies. Each man must do what he can to save what he can. I hope one day that the Arabs achieve a free state in which they can play a new role, and if you hear one day of things going on in Anatolia and you are not doing anything important in your country, come to us.”

Qawuqji’s story of his final encounter with Mustafa Kemal comes after his many vivid accounts of the collapse of the Ottoman military and civil infrastructure. This encounter is presented as the meeting of two battle-worn soldiers, burdened with the responsibility of salvaging the Turkish and Arab nations. In fact the establishment of the new republic of Turkey was still five years away, and the independence of most of the ex-Ottoman Arab provinces had to wait until the mid-1940s. The end of the Ottoman Empire did not happen neatly in a single moment. Qawuqji’s story of his conversation with Mustafa Kemal in Homs is another example of the way Qawuqji’s 1970s memoirs project backward, seeking to locate the origin of the division between the fate of Turkish Anatolia and that of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

A few days later Mustafa Kemal went north to Aleppo, where he remained while the Treaty of Mudros was signed on October 30, 1918. The signatories agreed that hostilities would end at noon the following day. Turkey was required to open the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus to Allied warships and its forts to military occupation. It was also required to demobilize its army, release all prisoners of war, and evacuate its rule in the Arab provinces, the majority of which were already under Allied control. Qawuqji left Homs and headed west, homeward to Tripoli. He arrived just in time to see British troops move in and take over his birthplace.


Copyright © 2016 by Laila Parsons