Book Review: The Arab Awakening by George Antonius

The Balfour Project is most grateful to the Times Literary Supplement for allowing us to reprint this review of The Arab Awakening, by George Antonius, the review by Harry Pirie-Gordon being published on November 26, 1938.

Readers might also like to note that The Arab Awakening, one of the seminal books on Arab Nationalism was published in 1938. The McMahon Hussein correspondence, which had been suppressed  since 1916 by the British Government, was published in 1939.  Palestine: The Reality, by J.M.N.Jeffries, which is reviewed elsewhere in our website was also published in 1939. So neither Antonius nor Pirie-Gordon had full access to the McMahon Hussein correspondence, nor to Jeffries’ book, which showed conclusively that there was no ‘lack of geographical precisionin McMahon’s promise.

Antonius and Jeffries, one an Arab Palestinian Christian, the other an Irish journalist, examine and expose the lies Britain told and the promises Britain broke, both of which contributed in no small measure to the subsequent, century-long conflict in Palestine. ED

Hussein bin Ali (King Hussein), Amman, 1921
© Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

A review by Harry Pirie-Gordon of The Arab Awakening by George Antonius, first published on November 26, 1938

It is nine decades since the Arab national movement began in Beirut with the formation of a small literary society under American patronage, and hitherto its genesis and development have been largely unknown to the outside world. This is partly because, for its first seventy years, its workings had of necessity to be, for the most part, subterranean, since the Turks, when they became aware of it, viewed it with the utmost suspicion and often took the strongest measures against its leaders; and partly because some of its records had for that reason to be destroyed as a precaution, while those which were preserved were scattered or concealed and were, moreover, in Arabic, a language with which few Western historians are familiar.

Mr. Antonius, fortunate in being able to read and write Arabic, French and English with equal facility, and in enjoying the confidence of those who still preserve essential Arabic documents or can remember episodes in the more recent phases of the movement, has devoted several years to the collection of the information on which this history is based. He contends, moreover, in presenting that part of his account which concerns most closely the relations between the Arabs and the British since the beginning of the Great War and the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in June, 1916, that owing to the linguistic difficulty and the inexperience of Arab writers in stating their case in a manner calculated to appeal to Western readers and the greater skill of Jewish writers and their friends, those readers have generally seen the Arab case through Jewish spectacles.


Mr. Antonius, in dealing very fully with the undertakings given, or understood by the Arabs to have been given, on behalf of the British Government—notably the “McMahon Correspondence”––shows how the lack of geographical precision and the failure to use in Arabic the Turkish names of all the contemporary administrative areas under discussion, have since given rise to such marked differences of interpretation. The author describes the aged King Hussein, while at Amman during the closing months of his life in exile, as having assured him that Palestine had been included in the area of independence guaranteed to the Arabs by the British; while Sir Henry McMahon, in his letter to The Times in July, 1937, stated emphatically that it was not intended by me, in giving this pledge to King Hussein, to include Palestine in the area in which Arab independence was promised. I also had every reason to believe at the time that the fact that Palestine was not included in my pledge was well understood by King Hussein.

Mr. Antonius, in an appendix, quotes the text of the declaration made on June 16, 1918, on behalf of the British Government to seven Arab leaders, in which they were assured that the future government of the territories then occupied by the Allied armies—a great part of Iraq and the southern half of Palestine— “should be based upon the principle of the consent of the governed.” He remarks that the Balfour Declaration was kept as far as possible from the people of Palestine as long as the War lasted, as though the British Government were ashamed of it. He also suggests that it was made partly to forestall the Zionists in the Central Empires—who were negotiating with the Turks for the issue of a Turkish declaration to the same effect—and thus rally Jewish support throughout the world to the Allied cause before it could be won for the other side. The author also points out the harm done to relations between Great Britain and the Arabs by the Zionist development of the theory that the promised “national home in Palestine” for the Jews really meant a “national State of Palestine.”

The subsequent external causes which have led to an increase in Jewish immigration into Palestine to an extent which has caused alarm among the Arabs, are, in the author’s opinion, no justification for “the persecution of one people in an attempt to relieve the persecution of another.” This policy he stigmatizes as “morally outrageous,” and he points out that “no room can be made in Palestine for a second nation except by dislodging or exterminating the nation in possession.”


The earlier part of this book provides the Arabs with the best and most clear and dispassionately reasoned statement of their case against the French, the British and the Zionists which has as yet appeared in English. Mr. Antonius describes the growth of the Arab movement in the days of the Turks, who, almost while it was in the press, have again appeared in the north as intruders into an, at least partially, Arab area which was for twenty years included in Arab Syria. He tells of the harsh measures used by the Turks to suppress Arab nationalism and of the remarkable success which so long attended Sultan Abdul Hamid’s policy of exalting his office of Caliph and thereby drowning, as it were, Arab racial consciousness in the Pan-Islam which was to extend his spiritual authority beyond the frontiers of his temporal power. How successful that policy was is shown by the eagerness with which pious Moslems from all over the Dar-ul-Islam provided him with the money for building the strategic railway planned ostensibly to facilitate the journeys of pilgrims to Medina on their way to Mecca but actually of Turkish troops into Arab provinces. It was also shown by the fact that, even after his deposition, Indian Moslems looked upon the Arab revolt as an irreligious rebellion against the Caliphate and a disloyal blow at the unity of “the Moslem Nation.”

The relaxation of Turkish pressure upon the Arabs which followed the overthrow of the “Red Sultan” and the seizure of power by the Young Turks who, like the Arab Nationalists themselves, had been hunted conspirators, was short-lived. The new masters of the Empire started on their policy of Ottomanization, which soon made the Arabs look back with regret upon the days of Abdul Hamid; and the later appearance of the doctrines of Yeni Turan, which exalted the Turks and made the Arabs feel that they were regarded as an inferior race, only made things worse. Mr. Antonius, after having paid special attention to the value to the Allied cause of the military support of the Arabs of the Revolt, draws a gloomy picture of the treatment of the Arabs by the French in Syria and the British in Palestine, and comments bitterly on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which gave free rein to imperialist ambitions and so completely ignored the aspirations and rights of his own people.

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