The Tarbouche is back

By Sami Halabi

The statue of Riad el-Solh in downtown Beirut

Patrick Seale produces a 700 page epic about Riad el-Solh and the wider Arab struggle

Albert Hourani, the late Lebanese-British historian once wrote: “All states are artificial… they have been formed by specific historical processes, by human acts within a given physical environment over a period of time.” It is precisely those processes and acts that are laid out in great detail by Middle Eastern historian Patrick Seale in his latest book on the region, “The Struggle for Arab Independence.”

This 730-page history book reads more like a gripping novel, with its protagonist carrying the tale from start to finish. In addition to plotting the course of how myriad Arab provinces came to become the rigid collection of states that we today call the Middle East, Seale also chronicles the life of Lebanon’s prodigal, yet perhaps most important, son: Riad el-Solh.

The life of Lebanon’s first prime minister is recounted from the days of his grandfather Ahmad to his untimely death in Amman in 1951.

Seale, who spent six years researching material for the book, describes a dark and tumultuous period of Arab history, jumping back and forth between the life of his protagonist and the broader events happening at the time, to offer one of the most comprehensive books in English on Arab struggles against Ottoman, Western and now Zionist occupiers.

The book cites countless sources from historical works, intelligence documents and personal accounts to paint what is, at times, a rose-tinted picture of Riad el-Solh’s political life and the role he played in shaping Lebanon and the wider Middle East. Seale portrays Solh as an internationalist, an Arabist, a working class sympathizer, an anti-colonialist, a journalist and a lawyer all in one.

The only criticism he seems to have of Solh — which by the end of the book seems to be a veiled compliment of sorts — is that he was no accountant, as he squandered a large portion of his family’s fortune on his political career and the fight to free the Arab world from its occupiers. But as any journalist, including Seale, knows, there are always at least two sides to every story, and indeed to every person.

Seale also goes to great lengths to give credit to others who fought for Arab “independence.” A laundry list of Arab notables, politicians, kings, imams, and thinkers are mentioned, leaving the reader with the impression that each of these men could have their own 700-page tome.

Meanwhile, Seale gives special attention to the calculations of the Zionists and their collusion with the British in such detail that it is perhaps only topped by Ilan Pappe’s “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.”

Interestingly, he describes Solh’s repeated meetings with notable Zionists such as Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president; David Ben-Gurion, its first prime minster; and Moshe Sharett, Israel’s second prime minister, who he first met as a young boy when the latter’s father was employed as a smallholder at one of the Solh family friend’s estates in Jericho.

Solh naively offered these men a pact with the Arabs, a fact which Seale admits, but again paints it as a politically astute calculation during the 1920s and early 1930s, despite the disastrous affects of Israel’s creation.

However, it is details such as Solh’s childhood meetings with Sharett that makes the book stand out as a work of both exhaustive research and refined story-telling. It gives due credit to a man who is described in the first half of the book as a bastion of the wider Arab, and to a greater degree Syrian, struggle — a Greater Syria which included Le Grand Liban, which became the Lebanon we know today.

Midway through the book, Seale describes Solh’s most significant change of heart, when he started to believe in an independent Lebanon, something that set him apart from his fellow Arab nationalists. From that point onward, the reader follows Solh’s every political maneuver to become the first premier of the country, as he navigates his way past colonial French occupation, hostile Maronite opponents and even his own family members. The chapter describing how he and Bishara el-Khoury, the British-backed first president of Lebanon, battled with the French in the final throws of their colonial project, is separated into rounds — 14 of them, each a page or two long.

Finally, Seale describes how King Abdullah I of Jordan, the great grandfather of the current king, who sought to end the fight with the Zionists, tricked Solh into coming to Amman to mend ties that had deteriorated, only to be assassinated in what Seale suggests was an Israeli plot.

Seale may at times overstate the importance or relevance of Solh, but he does give him more of the genuine credit he is due than the Lebanese seem to today.

Tellingly, his book ends with the commissioning of Solh’s statue in the heart of downtown Beirut — today, the statue serves as little more than an adjunct to a construction site.   

First published in Executive Magazine’s June 2010 issue


Author: Sami Halabi

Sami Halabi is a policy consultant who covers a range of policy issues and analyses development programmes, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Sami specialises in analysing policies and programmes in order to provide evidence-based recommendations to policy-makers and international development agencies. Sami holds a Master of Public Policy with Distinction from The University of Edinburgh.

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