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The Commander

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

Laila Parsons

Hill and Wang

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ISBN10: 0374537089
ISBN13: 9780374537081

Trade Paperback

316 Pages



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Recipient of the Society for Military History's
2017 Distinguished Book Award

Revered by some as the Arab Garibaldi, maligned by others as an intriguer and opportunist, Fawzi al-Qawuqji manned the ramparts of Arab history for four decades. As a young officer in the Ottoman Army, he fought the British in World War I and won an Iron Cross. In the 1920s, he mastered the art of insurgency and helped lead a massive uprising against the French authorities in Syria. A decade later, he reappeared in Palestine, where he helped direct the Arab Revolt of 1936. When an effort to overthrow the British rulers of Iraq failed, he moved to Germany, where he spent much of World War II battling his fellow exile, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who had accused him of being a British spy. In 1947, Qawuqji made a daring escape from Allied-occupied Berlin, and sought once again to shape his region’s history. In his most famous role, he would command the Arab Liberation Army in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.

In this well-crafted, definitive biography, Laila Parsons tells Qawuqji’s dramatic story and sets it in the full context of his turbulent times. Following Israel’s decisive victory, Qawuqji was widely faulted as a poor leader with possibly dubious motives. The Commander shows us that the truth was more complex: although he doubtless made some strategic mistakes, he never gave up fighting for Arab independence and unity, even as those ideals were undermined by powers inside and outside the Arab world. In Qawuqji’s life story we find the origins of today’s turmoil in the Arab Middle East.


Praise for The Commander

"In the nineteen-thirties, Fawzi al-Qawuqji, who had led insurgencies against the French in Syria and the British in Palestine, became known in the West as a new Saladin, waging a holy war. According to this diligently researched biography, the reality was not as sensational. Although he achieved only meagre success on the battlefield, his Arab-nationalist rhetoric made him a populist icon. But Parsons is too ready to exculpate Qawuqji, whose men looted and extorted their fellow-Arabs, and punished entire villages that they deemed traitorous. She perceptively notes, however, that his writings 'contain a trace of bitterness toward the very people that he was in Palestine to fight for.'”—The New Yorker

"In this mesmerizing look at Arab military leader Fawzi al-Qawuqji, Parsons fashions an unconventional biography of a divisive figure in the early 20th-century struggle for Arab sovereignty . . . The narrative is taut and fluid. Gliding along seamlessly, with a whole world unfurling like a carpet, al-Qawuqji emerges from these pages as an enigmatic, complex figure worthy of sustained scholarly attention."Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Parsons conveys the epic sweep of [al-Qawuqji's] life and his importance to Arab history . . . The effect . . . is to dismantle various myths and misinterpretations that have developed around the period . . . In addition to a much-needed biography of al-Qawuqji, the author provides a history of the heyday and collapse of Arab nationalism . . . [The Commander is] a remarkably evenhanded biography of an important player in Arab history that doubles as a crucial scholarly reinterpretation of the rise and fall of Arab nationalism."Kirkus Reviews

"Parsons captures Qawuqji as quixotic and charismatic, if at times desperate and reckless, and brings to the fore his relentless pursuit of a greater Arab state, despite sometimes insurmountable opposition from colonial powers, religious and ethnic groups, and other rebel leaders . . . In light of ongoing political upheaval in the Middle East, Parsons's coverage of this key figure and formative period is especially relevant."—Sarah Grant, Booklist

"An outstanding book that tells the history of the Middle East from the First World War to the 1948 Palestine War through the life of one of the most influential Arabs of the twentieth century. Fawzi al-Qawuqji should be a household name for his role in the Arab world’s failed struggles against European imperialism and Zionism. In this fascinating political biography, Laila Parsons restores Qawuqji to his rightful place and has produced one of the most important new works in modern Middle Eastern history."—Eugene Rogan, author of The Arabsand The Fall of the Ottomans

"There has never been a better, more vivid retelling of the struggles, hopes, and bitter disappointments of the Arab East after the end of the Ottoman Empire than Laila Parsons’s The Commander. After nearly a century, readers can finally see the post-Ottoman world through the eyes of those who fought mightily to shape it. The book is a triumph of the historian’s craft."—Michael Provence, University of California, San Diego

"The Commander vividly brings to life the historical landscape of the twentieth-century Arab world. Putting Arab perspectives front and center, Laila Parsons convincingly tells the story of the betrayal of the struggle for Arab independence between 1914 and 1948. This book is an important and long-overdue antidote to the orientalist fantasy of Lawrence of Arabia."—Ussama Makdisi, Rice University

"With great skill and impressive scholarship, Laila Parsons uses the extraordinary career of Fawzi al-Qawuqji as a prism through which to understand the tumultuous history of the eastern Arab world in the first half of the twentieth century. In a well-paced and lucid account, she succeeds admirably in bringing to life the hopes, struggles, and disappointments not only of Qawuqji but of many of his contemporaries."—Charles Tripp, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

"Laila Parsons’s excellent new book combines a rare command of published memoirs with a novel interpretive reading of private papers in mostly unused archives. It tells us the unique story of one individual, but also the story of a people and a region. The Commander gives an important place to narrative and storytelling without sacrificing depth of analysis and interpretation. It is also quite remarkable in conveying the views not only of powerful colonial overlords but of the Arab populations they ruled."—Leila Fawaz, Tufts University

"The Commander brilliantly encapsulates the tragic, broken history of the modern Middle East in the extraordinary and little-told story of one man, Fawzi al-Qawuqji. His epic but ultimately doomed odyssey of Arab liberation weaves through the collapse of an empire and the creation of the contemporary status quo. Written in a fluent and compelling style, The Commander is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand both the tortuous history and the current tragedy of today’s Middle East."—Carne Ross, author of The Leaderless Revolution and founder of Independent Diplomat

"The many tales of Fawzi al-Qawuqji are a pure joy to read for specialists and a revelation for general readers. Most startling is how Qawuqji overturns everything we thought we understood about World War I from T. E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt. Laila Parsons is to be commended for capturing the marvel and immediacy of events in vivid, clear prose. This unforgettable portrait of Qawuqji rises to the pinnacle of a new biographical literature on the Middle East."—Elizabeth F. Thompson, University of Virginia

"In The Commander we have, at long last, a thoroughly researched and well-written biography of Fawzi al-Qawuqji. As an Ottoman officer, an anticolonial rebel, and a commander, he left his mark on modern Arab history, which makes this definitive study of his life and times most welcome."—Zachary Lockman, New York University

"An indispensable account of the career of a remarkable Arab military leader whose life involved participation in most of the Middle East's major twentieth-century battles."Roger Owen, Harvard University

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt




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