- Reclaiming Iraq: The 1920 Revolution and the Founding of the Modern State, by Abbas Kadhim
Abbas Kadhim sets out to qualitatively change our understanding of the critical political events of 1920 in Reclaiming Iraq: The 1920 Revolution and the Founding of the Modern State. That year, anti-British sentiment in the nascent mandate of Iraq came to a head, leading Sunnis and Shi‘a alike to engage foreign troops in a heady effort to regain a measure of freedom from the oppressive colonial system emerging at the hands of the British. Ultimately, this insurgency, heretofore deemed a “revolt” by historians, cost the British 400 lives and 40 million pounds. Kadhim insists that the term “revolt” does not adequately describe a movement in which participants intended their liberation. He argues that “the 1920 Revolution was a genuine attempt by the Iraqis to attain freedom from oppressive occupation” (p. 168). Ultimately, however, the author’s argument seems premised more on semantic hairsplitting than on an overarching reevaluation of this event.
One problem lies in the fact that the author’s exploitation of primary sources is not an exhaustive accounting of the insights and information available to historians. The author has not visited archives, depending instead on published memoirs and a handful of published documents. At a minimum, Kadhim should have considered the use of Cengage Learning Historical Archives of Iraq, which, edited by Charles Tripp, include documents on “the Arab Uprising of 1920” (http://www.tlemea.com/iraq/index.htm). Further, the British memoirs on which the author relied could have been contextualized, as in the case of Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer L. Haldane, who is not even introduced by his first name (p. 72). Who is he? Why should the reader trust him as a historical source for the events of 1920? The list of published British memoirs used by Kadhim is not exhaustive, and so he relies (too) heavily on Gertrude Bell and Haldane. [End Page 480]
That said, the author has unearthed some truly remarkable sources of Iraqi participants, both through memoirs and interviews. In one case, an interview with a participant’s son reveals that a tribe lost 25 people to a British bombing campaign, including the interlocutor’s stepmother (p. 77). However, given the importance that the author places on incorporating the views of these Iraqi freedom fighters, one wonders why he did not include mention of the memoir Batal al-Islam by Mahdi al-Khalisi’s son Muhammad in the 1920s.3
Some chapters are disorganized and without clear purpose. For example, the fifth chapter treats “Revolutionary Networks,” and its analysis of tribalism begins — ahistorically, in my opinion — with the onset of Islam in the 7th century. It would have been much more useful for the reader to have learned a lot more of Ottoman policies regarding tribes, which, as notably argued by Hanna Batatu, led to the creation of wealthy landowners.4 For some reason, Khadim does not examine Ottoman policies with respect the tribes until the end of the chapter, well after his (otherwise interesting) discussion of one wealthy tribal leader, the influential Sayyid Muhsin Abu Tabikh (pp. 123–130). A discussion of Ottoman changes in land tenure would have contextualized the life and economic circumstances of this revolutionary.
More editorial attention may have helped mitigate the monograph’s organizational deficiencies. I will only mention the occasional absence of pronoun antecedents or what is at times a confusing overuse of passive voice. The most egregious example of the need for editing is undoubtedly the fact that a lot of critical information is embedded in the footnotes. At various points in the book, crucial information, such as the geographic location of a particular tribe or the difficulties encountered by the British in reaching it, is found in a footnote (e.g., fn. 25, 26, 77, and 182).
In short, Reclaiming Iraq does not carry through on its alluring promise of becoming the definitive account of the Revolution of 1920. Although the author has...