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«A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (History) in the University of Michigan ...»

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The Poetics of Revolution:

Cultures, Practices, and Politics of Anti-Colonialism in Iraq, 1932-1960


Kevin M. Jones

A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment

of the requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy


in the University of Michigan


Doctoral Committee:

Professor Juan R. Cole, Chair

Professor Geoff Eley

Associate Professor Farina Mir

Professor Andrew J. Shryock

For Kate,

for your patience, your love, and your laugh ii Acknowledgements I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the Department of History and the University of Michigan not only for the critical resources that have allowed me to complete this project in a timely manner, but for shaping my understanding of academic and historical scholarship.

Fellowship funding from the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies, and the Department of History allowed me to conduct extensive archival research and to devote my full attention to writing for several semesters. Lorna Altstetter, Diana Denney, and Kathleen King have provided immeasurable help in this process.

Additional Arabic and Persian language study in Michigan, Wisconsin, Egypt, and Yemen was supported by a Critical Language Scholarship, two Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships, and a fellowship from the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad. I am deeply grateful for the opportunities provided by all of these institutions, organizations, and programs.

My development as an historian and scholar of the modern Middle East was shaped by the incredibly community of scholars at the University of Michigan. I am particularly grateful to Kathryn Babayan, Michael Bonner, Juan Cole, Geoff Eley, Paul Johnson, Barbara Metcalf, Farina Mir, Gina Morantz-Sanchez, and Andrew Shryock for their roles in this process. I benefitted greatly from the tremendous intellectual community at the Eisenberg Institute. I was honored to participate in three different roundtable discussions at the Institute, and the thoughtful questions and advice that I received from faculty members and graduate students helped to strengthen the arguments of this dissertation. I am also grateful to the tremendous graduate student community in the Department of History, and particularly my fellow cohort members, for providing humor, advice, and insight throughout my years in Ann Arbor.

My dissertation committee members, Juan Cole, Geoff Eley, Farina Mir, and Andrew Shryock, have provided essential assistance in shaping this dissertation. Their advice at the earliest stages of this process ensured that this project would be both manageable and consequential. Without their encouragement I would have taken fewer risks and produced a less interesting dissertation. Their willingness to work through busy and conflicting schedules to matt deadlines, frequently on short notice, is a sacrifice for which I am truly grateful. Each one of their bodies of scholarship has served, in very different by equally significant ways, as a guide and inspiration for me in my own endeavors, and their questions and comments have helped me iii to further develop and better express my own thoughts. It goes without saying that any flaws or shortcomings in this week are attributable to me alone.

I am incredibly fortunate to have enjoyed the support of a wonderful and loving network of family and friends. I owe my work ethic and commitment to my mother, Mary Jones. Though I may sometimes have tested the limits, her constant encouragement of my intellectual curiosity has taken me across the world and soon will send me back home again. Her love and support means everything to me. My older brother Colin, sister-in-law Kathy, and my beloved twin sister Kelly have provided constant inspiration, emotional support, and desperately needed humor through difficult years, and I could not have maintained my sanity without them. Though none of my grandparents have lived to see this project to completion, I owe a debt of gratitude to all four of them for their love and encouragement throughout the years. To my extended network of family members - Bill and Becky, Joe, Mike, Chris and Ann, Kurt, Kim and Hugh, Mary Anne, Bethany and Chad, Chris and Leah, Sean, Taylor, Cam, and Mia - I thank you for brightening my holidays and understanding my absences from family holiday celebrations, weddings, and funerals when my research took me beyond easy travelling distance.

The Woods and Shanahan families have treated me like a family member since the day that I met them. Jan Shanahan has given me humor, love, support, and meals since I started working on my dissertation. Robert Woods has been like a father to me, and I owe a great debt to him and Laura for helping to facilitate holiday travel and welcoming me into their home. Jessica and Charles have helped to make holidays both delicious and enjoyable. Colleen Woods has been a wonderful friend, colleague, and collaborator over the past seven years, and I cannot even begin to calculate my debt to her. Vince Messana, Noah Gardiner and Nancy Linthicum, Britt Newman, Andrew Ice, and Brad Wharton have all provided crucial friendship and support in academic or non-academic capacities. Harry and Ralphie have brought incalculable joy to my life, and I love them dearly.

Finally, I owe everything that I have achieved to Kate Woods, my best friend and true love. While the journeys of this long project have taken me away to Washington and Wisconsin, to London, to Egypt and to Yemen, Kate has remained by my side, even if from a distance. Her selfless devotion to the poor, underprivileged, and suffering people of Washtenaw County has been a tremendous inspiration to me on both an intellectual and a personal level. Kate has made incredible personal and professional sacrifices for the sake of my project and my career, and I iv can only hope to repay that debt over the coming years. Her smile and laugh has made long and lonely Egyptian nights bearable, Baʿthist poetry tolerable, and Michigan winters enjoyable. This work is dedicated to you, with love and affection.

–  –  –





'For I Am Their Death'

Chapter One:

'The Tomb Stirs': Anti-Colonialism and the Poetics of Resistance, 1932-1938................32

Chapter Two:

'When Did Nazism Enter This Shop?': Contesting Fascism in Iraq, 1939-1945...............85

Chapter Three:

'Leave Your Fields and Throw Away Your Sickle': Urban Migration, 1932-1958.........146

Chapter Four:

'A Horizon Lit with Blood': Public Poetry and Mass Politics, 1946-1952

Chapter Five:

'This Is the Crowing of the Roosters': National Front Politics, 1952-1960


'We Are What Flows in Every Soul and Spirit'




This dissertation uses Iraqi poetry, memoirs, and newspapers alongside British and American archival documents to analyze the cultural dynamics of popular opposition to foreign political, economic, and cultural hegemony in the post-mandatory state. It argues that the varied instances of political, social, and cultural revolution during this period were rooted in a fundamental commitment to anti-colonialism and national liberation and illustrates the historical contingency of ideological conflict and sectarian commitments in nationalist narratives used by scholars to classify and categorize revolutionary movements as fragmentary expressions of local grievances and demonstrate the global dimensions of these revolutionary currents. By shifting attention from the domain of elite politics and the ideological debates of isolated intellectual circles toward the cultural arena of popular political poetry and the social dimensions of tribal disintegration, urban migration, and capitalist dislocation, the dissertation shows how popular poets appealed to diverse populations of peasants, workers, and students and helped to mobilize popular movements that transcended sectarian and class conflicts.

The dissertation shows that the Iraqi public overwhelmingly refused to consider colonialism as part of the historical past as long as power remained in the hands of foreign officials and the old colonial elite and virtually all revolutionary currents in this period were aimed at eradicating the vestiges of colonialism. It illustrates the ways in which social change and cultural politics contributed to the development of mass politics and the emergence of a public sphere and fundamentally shaped revolutionary anti-colonial movements and challenged competing loyalties to class, sect, and ideology. The dissertation analyzes the social role of popular poetry in shaping national political discourse and mobilizing mass political action and contends that the binary dichotomies of Iraqist and pan-Arabist nationalism or radical and reactionary social ideologies have obscured the national solidarities constructed through public protest and opposition to British and American policies in Iraq and the Arab world. By juxtaposing the testimony of immediate and retrospective historical texts, like poems and memoirs, the dissertation illustrates the extent to which these ideological narratives were applied retroactively to justify post-revolutionary political agendas.

–  –  –

On the morning of July 4, 1949, the celebrated Iraqi poet Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri (1899-1997) walked to the shop of his friend and comrade Ilyas, a prominent Armenian tailor in Baghdad, and asked him to sew a new suit. The unrivaled master of Iraqi poetry after the passing of Maʿruf al-Rusafi (1875-1945), Jawahiri had been invited to compose and deliver a lyrical ode to Hashim al-Witri, Dean of the College of Medicine, at a formal ceremony in Baghdad to honor the dean's acceptance of an honorary doctorate from the King's College School of Medicine in London. The ceremony would be attended by the political and social elite of Baghdad, including Crown Prince ʿAbd al-Ilah and then Prime Minister Nuri al-Saʿid, and Jawahiri wished to look as though he belonged. After Ilyas finished the poet's new suit, Jawahiri returned home and offered a tearful farewell to his wife and children before handing his wife the entirety of his financial savings, a sum large enough to sustain the family for more than three years. He then pocketed his ticket, an ostentatious object gilded with solid gold, and departed for the ceremony in a private car sent by the dean to collect and deliver him.1 Jawahiri, who had already been arrested for political sedition on several different occasions, had good reason to make these arrangements with his family. He had, after all, politely declined the dean's request for some lines of verse, pleading his inability to recover emotionally from the death of his brother Jaʿfar, who was gunned down by Iraqi police alongside hundreds of other young Iraqi students on al-Maʾmun Bridge while protesting the Portsmouth Treaty signed between the British and Iraqi governments in January 1948. Jawahiri had agreed to attend the ceremony as a guest only, but unbeknownst to the dean and his political allies, he had in fact composed a poem for the event, though it resembled an ode only in poetic form and in its eponymous title, "Hashim al-Witri." Jawahiri planned to seize the stage in the middle of the ceremony and to throw the event into turmoil and chaos with an unprecedented public assault on the political establishment. Despite his strong personal and familial ties to several prominent members of the political elite, including the royal family, Jawahiri had good reason to once again expect arrest and indefinite imprisonment for political sedition.

1 The entire episode is recounted in Jawahiri's memoires. See Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, Dhikrayati (Damascus: Dar al-Rafidayn, 1991), 2:57-66.

–  –  –

These opening verses brought the crowd to an uncomfortable silence as Jawahiri drew attention to the uneasy social dynamics of political collaboration with the Iraqi regime in the aftermath of the wathba massacres of January 1948. Hashim al-Witri had famously resigned from his post as Dean of the College of Medicine to protest the brutal slaughter of student demonstrators actions by state security forces on hospital grounds.

Witri, though, soon squandered his newfound popularity with the political opposition by returning to his post after the immediate political crisis had passed and the Iraqi regime had succeeded in reestablishing political control through the implementation of martial law. For Jawahiri and many others on the Iraqi Left, Witri's acceptance of the King College's honorary degree signified a political rehabilitation organized by Nuri al-Saʿid and his cronies and signified a disgraceful abdication of the moral claims forged in the streets of Baghdad during the wathba

uprising. Jawahiri now turned to publically condemn Witri for this betrayal:

–  –  –

2 Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, Diwan al-Jawahiri (Beirut: Bisan, 2000), 3:247-52. The translation of "Hashim alWitri" and all subsequent poems are my own, unless otherwise noted.

–  –  –

The stunned crowd sat in silence before this tidal wave of poetic fury, with politicians and state dignitaries paralyzed by the dilemma of either suffering through public humiliation or exposing the naked oppression of their dictatorship and disaffected students astonished by this new expression of political dissent. As the poem wound to its end, meandering from the initial condemnation of the dean to a frontal assault on the state's blatant subservience to neo-colonial power, Jawahiri directed his final lines at the political elite, warning them that the power and

fury of his verse could not be suppressed by ordinary means:

–  –  –

When he finished reciting the poem, Jawahiri stepped away from the microphone, defiantly ripped his notes into shreds and allowed the scraps to flutter to the ground, and then walked out of the garden.

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