A review of The Arab Awakening, by George Antonius
When I started reading The Arab Awakening, I was an intern at a Palestine-focused think tank in Washington, DC. When I finished it, I had just begun a new job at a Palestinian news agency in Bethlehem. As I pored over George Antonius’s chronicle of the Arab national movement, I left the US behind and watched as my own trajectory carried me to a stateless territory that has long been a symbol for Arab liberation at large.
On the plane, as I read of Antonius’s travels around the Arab world to interview key players in the Nationalist movement, I marveled at his detailed web of documentation, feeling somewhat inferior to my own upcoming post as a documenter of the Palestinian story. I comforted myself: he a historian and I a journalist, my scope would be much more manageable than his. While I would focus on the present day in one tiny region with a team of coworkers, Antonius singly took on nearly a hundred years in a region spanning from the westernmost point of the Mediterranean Sea to the easterly tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
In a forward, dated October 1938, Antonius explains his mission. The Arab national movement had never been covered in full, and those who had covered it in part have relied strictly on either European or Arabic sources, respective to the race of the historian. Antonius, a Lebanese-Egyptian former member of the British government in mandatory Palestine, sought to draw from “both founts of knowledge,” with special emphasis on making Arabic sources available in English for the first time.
He begins with the first and faintest modern semblance of Arab nationalism, Mohammad Ali Pasha of Egypt. Although himself Albanian, Mohammad Ali made the first successful attempt to create an Arab empire separate from the overarching Ottoman one. At the time of his death, he had taken control of Greater Syria; but eight years later in 1840, under his son’s rule, the Mohammad Ali Dynasty was forced out of the Levant and confined to Egypt and Sudan until the British invaded in 1882.
Antonius outlined modern-day arguments on the Palestinian–Israeli issue more than ten years before the State of Israel even came into existence
Consider the Internet generation’s revolutionary activity in the Arab World in 2011. Now imagine the same righteous angst in the technological context of the late 1800s. Antonius’s potent narration guides the reader through candlelit hallways in Beirut, where five young friends form a society aimed at dismantling Turkish rule:
“They set to work with the agility of youthful conspirators. Having drafted the text of an appeal they would spend long nightly vigils making out innumerable copies of it in disguised handwritings. Then at an agreed hour at dead of night, the younger members would go out, with pots of glue in their pockets, and stick as many placards as they found time for on the walls of the city. In the morning, a crowd would collect around each poster while someone read it aloud, until the police would come, tear it down, and make arrests among the innocent bystanders.”
But this is only the beginning of the Arab national movement, only one of its many developments which Antonius covers in depth. He moves on to detail Arab participation in and later betrayal by the Young Turks movement. Then comes a more magnified participation/betrayal scenario: the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans during WWI, an event to which Antonius devotes a sizable chunk of the book’s 400 plus pages. He details Great Britain’s promises for Arab independence, quoting heavily from the McMahon–Hussain Correspondence — a letter exchange between a British diplomat and the Sharif of Mecca, the English translation of which Antonius provides for the first time. Additionally, he overviews and praises T. E. Lawrence’s part in the Revolt, but criticises the facticity of his coverage of it in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In many ways, The Arab Awakening serves as an academic response to Lawrence’s autobiographical novelisation. Yet the Revolt is only one of many dense historical developments of the Arab national movement unpacked by Antonius.
For me personally, the book takes its most fascinating turn during the last chapter, a prophetic warning against British and Zionist plans for Palestine. Antonius published The Arab Awakening in 1938, and yet his predictions of future Palestinian turmoil are remarkably accurate. Antonius outlined modern-day arguments on the Palestinian–Israeli issue more than ten years before the State of Israel even came into existence.
As European anti-semitism and German ultra-nationalism stirred the waters for war, Antonius was conscious of the Zionist threat to Palestine. While sympathetic to the Jewish cause, recognising the “abominable persecution” Jews faced in Central Europe, he foresaw the whirlwind of violence and despair that would ensue from a Zionist solution. His eloquent and studied argument against a Jewish state in Palestine is based on his belief in its unworkability barring military force. The Zionist plan, Antonius writes:
“runs counter to the lessons of history, the requirements of geography, and the natural play of human behaviour[…]. It pays scant regard to the doctrine of consent. In drawing it up, the Commissioners appear to have overlooked that it is no more feasible to drive a peasantry from its soil than to impose an alien government upon an unwilling population, except by constant resort to force; and that the use of superior force to hold down a nationally-conscious people, while it may for a time achieve its immediate purpose, is bound sooner or later to defeat its own ends.”
I finished reading Antonius’s book in the garden of my Bethlehem apartment, which faces one of the West Bank’s nineteen refugee camps. Glancing up from the final pages of The Arab Awakening — the only pages to contain prediction instead of history — I saw the 75-year-old text playing out before my eyes, in vivo.
Main image courtesy of Flickr: F.R.L