Memoires from the Margins of the Arab Cause

26 January, 2021

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published Asaad Dagher’s On the Margins of the Arab Cause: My Memoirs, prefaced and edited by Director of the Arab Center’s Beirut branch, Khaled Ziade. In this book’s 14 chapters, part of ACRPS’ MemoryUnfolding series, Dagher looks back upon his half century identification with “the Arab Cause,” from the earliest Istanbul discussion forums where he was studying following the 1908 restoration of Ottoman constitutional rule, to his journalist days in Cairo, then to Damascus and his political activity during the brief lifespan of the Arab Kingdom of Syria (1918-1920) – and onwards until the close of the 1950s.

I Am an Arab

In the first chapter, Dagher presents his dawning childhood awareness of his Arab identity, and how he came to embrace the Arab cause. Chapter Two depicts his trip to the Ottoman capital where he witnessed the ouster of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, saw harbingers of discord between Arabs and Turks, and first encountered Zionism. Chapter Three discusses Arab politics and their contending stands in this period and his becoming acquainted with King Faisal bin al Hussein, as well as the arrest, trial, and release of the Egyptian officer and politician Aziz Ali al-Misri .

In the fourth chapter, the author presents the convening and ensuing decisions of the 1913 First Arab Congress, and the consequent improvement in Arab-Ottoman relations. Chapter Five takes up the protectorate status of Egypt between 1914 and 1919, promises made by the Allies to King Hussein, and the era’s ubiquitous injustices and atrocities in Syria. The sixth chapter presents Sharif al-Hussein’s “Great Arab Revolt” and its components and antecedents, the Balfour Declaration, and relations between Sharif al-Hussein and other Arab leaders. Drawing on Dagher’s trip to Damascus at the time, chapter Seven discusses 1919-1920 Syria, the Crane Commission, developments in Syrian public opinion, the growth of a national consciousness, and Iraqi politician Nuri al-Said’s developing policies.

Storms Sweeping Greater Syria and Baghdad

In Chapter Eight, Dagher discusses Arab consciousness reaching its peak in the battle of Maysaloun, the Syria referendum committee, the Faysal-Clemenceau agreement, the French ultimatum, his last meeting with Syrian Arab nationalist leader Yusuf al-Azma, and strife and rebellion in Syria’s Hauran region. Chapter Ten covers King Faisal's passage through Egypt and his being received as King of Iraq, the impact of the Syrian revolution, and the breakdown of relations between Syria and France. The eleventh chapter turns to the author’s initial trips to Iraq and meeting with King Faisal I, the Assyrian revolution, Faisal’s opinion of Nuri al-Said, Saudi-Hashemite relations, and the Geneva conference. In the twelfth chapter, he discusses Nuri al-Said and the deterioration of their mutual relationship. The final thirteenth chapter discusses World War II and its London Six-Power Conference aftermath, the birth of the newspaper “Cairo,” and the Association for Arab Unity.

Concern for the Arab Cause

Khaled Ziade observes in the book’s preface: “Dagher discusses the development of his awareness of the Arab cause over phases of his life in Lebanon, Istanbul, Cairo, Damascus and his travel between Amman, Baghdad and European capitals. Through this life trajectory, we see a person who selflessly devoted his life to this cause without seeking of position, influence or personal glory; he was someone whose personality and ideas took shape witnessing and participating in events as Arabism developed from idea to revolution, government and, after 1920, the foundational ideology of nation states. Dagher’s was a generation that devoted its youth to the Arab idea – some, individuals on the battlefield, others, assuming responsibilities as administrator, ambassador, minister, president, or military commander – all constituting ‘an outstanding elite shouldering the leadership of the nation in the critical phases of its life,’ in his words.

Dagher also illustrates how Saudi Arabia became the focus of attention for exponents of Arabism who had lost faith in the Hashemite leadership and considered that King Abdul Aziz bin Saud could play a role – particularly after a meeting reconciling King Faisal and Ibn Saud ‘despite it taking place on the deck of an English battleship’. Dagher was likewise keen on seeing a resolution of the dispute between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, which had supported opponents of a King Abdul Aziz who was fully supportive of the Arab cause. Ziade notes that Dagher looked forward as well to Egypt joining the Arab cause, since – as the largest Arab country – it could be the engine of Arab dynamism.

Early Hopes Realised

When he was still a student in Istanbul, Dagher cherished the idea of an Arab leader on whom the Arab nation could pin its hopes. He saw such a leader in Major General Aziz Ali al-Masri, an accomplished military veteran of many battles who had supported the constitutional coup with high military rank and standing among Arab officers in Istanbul – a focus of attention for Arabs seeking someone to lead their struggle for independence. However, Dagher lost hope in an Aziz Ali when increasing preoccupations prevented any such role. Subsequently, Dagher found himself impressed by Jamal Abdel Nasser at a public meeting with newspaper owners and saw in him a God-chosen leader for the Arab Nation’s salvation.

Asaad Dagher was destined to see some of his hopes come true. A few months before his death the unification of Egypt and Syria was for a time achieved – the dream of Arab unity that he had always striven for.

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