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Head of the Research Department at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Siyasat Arabia.

On Wednesday 30 December 2020, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies Seminar hosted Dr. Haider Saeed, Head of the Center’s Research Department and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Siyasat Arabiya, to present a lecture titled “Before Turning the Page on the Centennial: the 1920 Iraqi Revolt and Struggle of Memory in Iraq”.

Saeed began by clarifying that his research project was not so much on the revolts against British occupation that took place in various areas of Iraq during the year 1920, or on their causes; rather it examined the discourse on the revolution; the way in which it was portrayed, and why its narrative was subject to dispute. He studies the narrative’s internal logic without reference to external criteria or “facts,” and it emerged in such a way because of the balance of competing forces governing the narrative. He did not seek to reach the “truth” of what happened in the revolution; not because of nihilism, but because the struggle and debate over the narrative and the balance of forces that governed it are no less – if not more important – than the facts, in that the narrative was a subsequent driver of events as much as those facts. Discussion that took place of the narrative of national rule in Iraq, as seen in the revolution’s literature and more broadly the foundational literature of modern Iraq, suggests that history is not driven by facts and events alone but also by their interpretation.

Saeed then observed that when starting to write the history of the 1920 Revolt and sifting through the large written corpus of events and data, one comes to see its purely rhetorical character. As a result, one focusses on the fixed features of the examined discourse as a reflection, not a part of reality. Thus, a speech that was part of revolutionary action figures in the ranks of post-revolution speeches/discourse. Sometimes due to mismatching components of the revolution, the discourse does not evidently create or contribute meaning to the revolution but seems rather to be transmitting and reflecting it, and it may fail or falter in the task.

Documenting the 1920 Revolt as a purely interpretive exercise, Saeed devoted a significant portion of his attention to the narrative of Iraqi historian 'Abd al-Razzaq al-Hasani (1903-1997) in his book The History of the Iraqi Revolution (1935), which according to the researcher is perhaps the first independent historical account of the 1920 Revolt. Saeed highlighted that al-Hasani's neglect of some of the literature before his time on the 1920 Revolt may derive from his sense that the Great Iraqi Revolution (as the 1920 Revolt is also known) and members of the Iraqi political class affiliated with it were complicit in attributing the Iraqi Revolt to non-Iraqis.

Saeed then noted that during the 1930s in Iraq it was rare to encounter any criticism or belittling of the Great Arab Revolt (1916-1918), a foundational myth of the modern Iraqi state, with the 1920 Revolt in Iraq which – as per the available Iraqi sources led to national rule – considered to have been an extension of the Great Arab Revolt. Hence, Saeed believes that al-Hasani's attempt to disengage consideration of the Iraqi 1920 Revolt from the Great Arab Revolt, in its broadest and most explicit meaning, is an attempt to undo the ruling class in Iraq’s usurpation of the history of the feat and the achievement of the Iraqi Revolt. In elaborating on this, he referenced Muhammad Mahdi Al-Bashir's The History of the Iraqi Question (1923), which discusses the factors that led to the 1920 Iraqi Revolt, and through them examines the influence of the Arab Revolt on the 1920 Iraqi Revolt.

Saeed also took up the book of one of the tribal sheikhs of the Middle Euphrates, namely al-haqā’iq al-nāsia (Shining Truths of the Iraqi Revolution, 1952), by Sheikh al-Mizhir al-Farᶜoun, who defends the tribal identity of the revolution. He concluded that the struggle over the narrative of the Great Iraqi Revolution is linked to the prolonged throes of the central state-driven centralized modernization which was aimed at extending state sovereignty and control over other traditional societal institutions. This vying of attempts at control with resistance to them employed various instruments, including memory. The narrative of the 1920 Iraqi Revolt was effectively symbolic capital which the tribes and clans could brandish in confronting state-led modernization, with the understanding that the revolution that led to the establishment of the nation state was par excellence a tribal achievement. This struggle over the revolution's narrative flourished in moments of tension between the tribes and the state, in mid-thirties and early fifties Iraq.