Autobiographies: Is staying silent better than telling lies?
Memoirs and autobiographies are an exciting genre of literature, but only if the writer is faithful to the truth. Many Arab writers have traced the history of the most prominent men in politics, science, and literature, from the early days of the Caliphs until the end of Arab Islamic civilization.
History is the memory of the people. As a scientific discipline, however, it is surrounded by controversy. History is made up of a number of facts that are surrounded by illusions, delusions, and outright lies. In the early days of Islamic civilization, a general openness ensured the biographical genre flourished with writers following scientific methods in validating and verifying all the details.
Later, as Arabs were awaking from their slump, autobiography witnessed a relative boom as several politicians and intellectuals were keen to record their thoughts and observations in a truthful manner. The biographical genre suffered with the advent of independent Arab states as political and cultural freedoms deteriorated. Much is therefore lacking in Arab political history because writers feared repression and worried about portraying their rulers much more than about guaranteeing the faithfulness of their writing.
To this day, different Arab countries refuse to honor the past and prevent those who want to write history from doing so. Meanwhile, state historians undermine events and distort facts, creating a situation where entire generations have lost connections with their past.
In the democratic world, however, the freedom of information has forced governments to make their archives public. As a result, autobiographical writing flourished with a plethora of memoirs published by a variety of intellectuals, artists, and politicians. Many professional biographers also wrote accounts of the major men and women of the time. In addition, an entire new genre emerged, comparing different biographies and allowing the reader to judge events and tease out the truth.
In the second half of the twentieth century, a number of autobiographies by Arab decisions makers were written, either to defend or eulogize a particular ruler. These memoirs have not been critically reviewed because of the lack of historical knowledge and inquisitive journalism across the region. In effect, silence has become a better option than praise.
Perhaps the most important political memoir in the post-independence era is that of Akram Hourani who captivated Syrian politics between 1945 and 1963. Written with the help of a professional journalist, his account included previously unknown information on Hourani’s life. Asharq al Awsat readers might remember that I reviewed extracts from his memoirs published in the newspaper. I remarked that Hourani intentionally neglected to analyze the major role he played in politicizing the Syrian army. History tells us that Hourani and others were responsible for the officer class’ domination of politics and power in Damascus .
Last week, I read in Asharq Al Awsat the fourth episode of the memoirs of another Syrian politician, Maruf al Dawalibi, a well known academic who specialized in civil and religious law with a profound knowledge of Arab and French cultures. As a politician, however, he was a largely mysterious figure who lacked a popular following and communication with the lower classes. I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed when I read the extracts, as al Dawalibi tried to portray himself as the dominant figure in Syrian politics, at a time when Hourani was active. He is, I believer, very wrong. Undoubtedly, al Dawalibi played a role as a member of the right wing People’s Party under the leadership of Nazem al Qudsi and Rushdi al Kiyha, perhaps the most honest politician in the contemporary history of Syria .
It seems the writers of al Dwalibi’s biography hadn’t come across the debate between us, published in this newspaper many years ago, about al Dawalibi’s plan to involve the Iraqi regime of Nuri al Said and the Prince Regent, Abdel Ilah militarily in Syria . He had denied traveling to Baghdad for this purpose until I confronted him with the testimony of Fadil al Jamali, then Prime Minister of Iraq and forced him to admit the true reason for his visit. I had divulged al Dawalibi’s plan and explained how he sought to encourage the Iraqi Army to invade its neighbor.
The leading statesman Nuri al Saidi thwarted the plan to attack Syria , at a time when the Prince Regent supported it, after realizing that an intervention might have disastrous consequences. For his part, al Dawalibi didn’t mention this episode and, instead, depicted himself as an expert in international and regional politics.
The memoirs also included many factual errors al Dawalibi couldn’t have included. For example, the government of Marshall Hosni al Zaim was lead by Muhsin al Barazi and not Hosni al Barazi, an official during the French mandate. I am, in addition, skeptical about the role attributed to Mansur al Atrash in instigating the Druze rebellion against Adib al Shishakli, with Iraqi support. In fact, the son of the revolutionary leader Sultan al Atrash was a Baath member of leftist persuasion.
I am not opposed to al Dawalibi. I respect him as a scholar and appreciate him as a politician, perhaps even as a democratic figure. However, his denials of close ties to Iraq contradict the truth, especially his arrival to Lebanon in an Iraqi diplomatic vehicle. I also seriously question his use of the term North Africa to refer to the countries of the Maghreb !
Across Iraq , Lebanon and Egypt , many wrote their memoirs but adopted a classical style void of analysis and detail. The genre of autobiographies and memoirs remains an emerging style in the Arab world. This is why the accounts of Mahmud Riyad and General Mohammed Fawzi, among others, are timeless. One shouldn’t compare their writings with the biography of Jamal Abdel Nasser by Mohammed Hassanain Haikal who remains the most prominent historian in the contemporary Arab world, regardless of the truthfulness of his writings.