Palestinians woke up a couple of weeks ago to a new chapter in the dark series of Arab betrayals of Palestine, scrambling to fathom the shocking of details of a new agreement in which an Arab country, the UAE, all but conceded to Israel the right to declare sovereignty over all of Palestine.
A widespread sense of betrayal by fellow Arabs runs deep among Palestinians, and with betrayal comes profound disenchantment and disillusion. So perhaps the time has come for Palestinians to shed their hope in this old myth of Arab nationhood, and come to grips with the notion that the Arab nation was, in fact, invented.
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In 1907, Gertrude Bell, the famous British Arabist, observed: "There is no nation of Arabs, the Syrian merchant is separated by a wider gulf from the Bedouin than he is from the Ottoman, the Syrian country is inhabited by Arab speaking races all eager to be at each other’s throat."
That was bound to change.
In the fall of 1936, as the world was bracing for a new world war, readers awoke to find that a paperwork bombshell had landed on the busy shelves of London bookstores: The Arab Awakening: A History of the Arab National Movement. The book, published by a London publishing house, presented British readers with a dose of their own creation: Arab nationalism.
The book’s author was a prominent Christian Arab historian named George Habib Antonius. Antonius was born in Lebanon, educated in Egypt, and settled in Palestine. His uniquely cross-boundary background perfectly suited his vision of welding those hybrid identities into a single whole – Arab nationhood – earning him the nickname ‘the first pan-Arabist.’ Antonius, who frequently met with Zionist leaders like David Ben-Gurion to discuss the future of Arab-Jewish relations in Palestine, was also dubbed "the Palestinian Arab Weizmann."
The Arab Awakening, hailed as the bible of Arab nationalism, is a nationalist manifesto masquerading as a historical account of Arab national awakening. The book tells the story of the Great Arab Revolt, but more dramatically, the birth of Arab nationhood in Palestine.
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In his classic, Antonius hailed the Arabs as a nation united by a shared ethnic origin, just like the English, or the French, or the Germans, or indeed the Jews, were being celebrated as a distinct national group unique among nations. It was the first book to refer to the Arabs as one people, bound together by a shared national character, shared destiny, and shared enemy (the Zionists).
Before Antonius, such nationlike references to the Arabs were virtually nonexistent. Surely Arabs had always boasted common ancestry, perhaps even imagined themselves as belonging to a shared community, yet not in the national sense, and that’s precisely what Antonius was doing: nationalizing Arabness.
In fact, until relatively recently, the term ‘Arab’ was almost exclusively used as a reference to the Bedouin, as opposed to the peasants or townspeople. With Antonius, the Arab nation was discovered, or rediscovered, or indeed, ‘invented.’ In this sense, Antonius was not simply the historian of Arab nationalism, as he is widely hailed, but its creator.
Historians of Arab nationalism tend to trace the birth of the Arab nation to founding events like the First Arab Congress of 1903, which was organized by a host of secret Arab societies who met in Paris to demand Arab independence from the Ottoman Empire. Or the Great Arab Revolt in the Hejaz, proclaimed by Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons in 1916. Or the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria, self-proclaimed by Emir Faysal, Hussein’s third son, in 1920. But it was up to Antonius to weave all those events into a coherent narrative of Arab nationhood.
The book, which Antonius completed while in Egypt, was brilliantly timely, coming on the heels of dramatic events in the Middle East, from the Great War, to the Great Arab Revolt, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Balfour Declaration, the rise of Jewish immigration and Zionist colonization of Palestine, to the creation of British and French Mandates over most the former Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. In hindsight, given the profound transformations reshaping the region at the time, if Arab nationalism did not exist, it had to be invented.
The seeds of Antonius’ national awakening were sown in Palestine, where he returned after the war and became a strong advocate of the Palestinian cause during the Mandate, having witnessed firsthand the Palestinian national uprising against the British and the Zionists that erupted in the interwar period. He was granted Palestinian citizenship in 1925.
In Antonius, Arab and Palestinian nationalisms became inseparable. From Palestine, he moved to the United States, where he championed Arab independence, while warning, prophetically, against the explosive situation in Palestine, which he attributed to Britain’s pro-Zionist policies. He never forgave the British for betraying their promises to the Arabs during the war. He dubbed the Balfour Declaration the original sin of British policy towards Arabs and Palestinians.
In a telling episode, in one of his meetings with David Ben-Gurion, the latter suggested that Arabs should help the Zionists expand the borders of their future sovereign Jewish state to include areas then under French Mandate, including southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights. Antonius responded, sarcastically: "So, you propose that what England did not give you, you will get from us." Still, Antonius believed that Arabs and Jews were destined to live together.
At the London Conference on Palestine in 1939, where he acted as both secretary to the Palestinian delegation and Secretary General to the united Arab delegation, he supported a proposal, laid down by the British Government and Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization, to establish a binational state in Palestine, in which Arabs and Jews would have equal representation. To his dismay, the proposal never materialized.
Antonius died in Jerusalem in 1942, six years shy of the birth of Israel and the loss of Palestine. He was buried in the Greek Orthodox cemetery on Mount Zion. His name was engraved in both English and Arabic on a humble gravestone. The brief epitaph was a memorable line he quoted in his book: "Arise, ye Arabs, and awake." With his death, Arab nationalism was born.
Shortly after Antonius’ departure, the Mandates ended and the era of Arab independence commenced. Arab veterans of the 1948 War, like General Mohamed Naguib of Egypt, who fought in Palestine and was wounded three times, emerged as national heroes. They staged military coups and toppled old monarchies in their countries. The deposed monarchs were labeled as traitors and old remnants of European imperialism, whose reactionary ideologies had led to the defeat in Palestine.
Overnight, Arab nationalist ideologies, like Nasserism and Baathism, spread from Egypt to Syria and Iraq, becoming the hallmark of Arab politics in the 20th century.
To fellow nationalists, Antonius became a prophet. Charismatic nationalist leaders like Sati Al-Husari, Michel Aflaq, and Gamal Abdel Nasser saw in him a founding father, and in his book a national bible. Nasser, who was born a hundred years ago, and whose pan-Arabist ideology would transform Arab politics for decades to come, was the political incarnation of Antonius. He too believed that Egyptians, Iraqis, Syrians, and Palestinians – to name a few – were one people, united by a common ethnic origin and a shared destiny.
His short-lived United Arab Republic, a political union between Egypt and Syria, was a perfect manifestation of Antonius’ pan-Arab vision. In other words, if Antonius was the Paul of Arab nationalism, Nasser was its Constantine.
Like Antonius’, the seeds of Nasser’s national awakening were planted in Palestine. His wartime experience as an officer in the Palestine War, as it was called, played a formative role in his nationalist evolution. He saw the liberation of Palestine as the path to Arab unity and freedom. He made the Palestinian cause his rallying cry, capturing the hearts and minds of millions of Arabs.
And like Antonius, Nasser deemed Arab nationalism inseparable from Palestinian national aspirations. In May 1964, he moved to formally share his leadership position over Palestine by initiating the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Then came that fateful week in 1967, when a collation of Arab armies, led by Egypt, was crushed by Israel in the span of six days. The Egyptian air force was destroyed on the ground, Egyptian troops were vanquished before reaching Palestine, chased by humiliating images of barefoot soldiers lost in the Sinai desert. What began as a "holy march" to liberate Palestine culminated in Israel’s occupation of what remained of Palestine, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, along with the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula.
Nasser, the invincible leader of the Arab world and the paragon of Arab hopes, was hopelessly defeated. The ghosts of 1948 returned to haunt him with a tragic feel of déjà vu. He died three years later.
The 1967 defeat marked not only the death of Nasser’s national vision, but also of Arab nationalism. From that day Arab politics was transformed beyond redemption. The Palestinians, disenchanted, took matters to their hands and broke free from the control of Arab states, before declaring the PLO as "the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people."
Sadat’s Egypt went its way and signed a unilateral peace treaty with Israel at Camp David, culminating three decades of Arab patronage over Palestine, and leaving Palestinians to their destiny. Fifteen years later, the Palestinians signed their own treaty with Israel, and shortly after, Jordan followed suit.
Meanwhile, traditional Arab monarchies hostile to Nasserism, led by Saudi Arabia, began vying for power and jockeying for dominance over Arab politics, assuming the leadership mantle from rival Baathists in Syria and Iraq, now branded as vanquished and vanishing remnants of Arab nationalism.
These monarchies were never at war with Israel, and some of them were founded after the last Arab-Israeli war had concluded. With them Arab nationalism lost its shared enemy, its sense of common destiny, and its cause.
Overnight old sectarian rivalries were revived to cosmic levels, reigning supreme even in more secular countries like Lebanon and Iraq. A climate of petty and narrow nationalisms, redrawn along the Sykes-Picot lines, and confined to the old political boundaries and provincial identities demarcated by the Mandate system, began to cast its shadow over Arab politics, dealing a decisive blow to Arab nationalism.
Antonius and Nasser lived two generations apart, but their destinies converged into one dream, and that dream died a half century ago. Once the dust of the last Arab-Israeli war had settled, the saga of the Arab Awakening came full circle: Arab nationalism was born and buried in Palestine and, together with Israel, the UAE has just paid for its headstone.
Seraj Assi holds a PhD in Arabic Studies from Georgetown University, and is the author of The History and Politics of the Bedouin: Reimagining Nomadism in Modern Palestine (Routledge, 2018)