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.
Winner of the Society for Military History’s 2017 Distinguished Book Award
Shortlisted for the 2017 Palestine Book Award
Shortlisted for the Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-fiction, part of the Quebec Literary Awards
About the Author
Laila Parsons is a historian specializing in the modern Middle East. She received her D.Phil from St Antony’s College, Oxford, in 1996, and is currently Associate Professor of History and Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal. Previously, she taught at Yale and Harvard Universities. Parsons’ research focuses on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and she has published widely in this area, including a book entitled The Druze between Palestine and Israel, 1947–1949, as well as several articles on the role of narrative and biography in the field of modern Middle Eastern History.
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'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 Arabs and The Fall of the Ottomans
‘In this remarkable study, Laila Parsons provides an essential corrective… She succeeds admirably in her stated aim: to portray, "through a detailed description of one individual, the historical landscape of the early-twentieth-century Arab Middle East".’ The Times
'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
'With great skill and impressive scholarship, Laila Parsons succeeds admirably in bringing to life the hopes, struggles, and disappointments not only of al-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
'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
'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
‘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... Parsons’s own writing style is similarly light and pacy, as persuasive as it is measured … 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.’ Electronic Intifada
‘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 Commander is] a remarkably even-handed 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