The contrasting tale of two monarchs

In the aftermath of Queen Elizabeth’s death, Iraqi Jews posted a curious photograph on Facebook. It was a picture of a youthful Elizabeth, side by side with an even more youthful King Faisal II of Iraq. But youth was the only thing they had in common. The two royals were to have very different destinies.

The one was to live a tranquil 96 years – a full life. The other was to be cut down aged 23 in a bloody revolution. Faisal, his family, the prime minister Nuri al-Said and his ministers were brutally shot by military officers who seized power in 1958. Iraq became a republic. In a show of exceptional barbarism, the corpses of King Faisal II, his uncle Abdelilah, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Said were dragged, naked, through the streets of Baghdad.

Iraqi Jews who were still living in the country  – 98 percent had already left by 1951 – remember that ghoulish episode. For some it was the final signal to leave forever. They could not stomach the brutality with which Iraq treated its royal family.

Conditions had already deteriorated quite badly for the Jewish community by the time King Faisal II took the throne in 1953. When the photo was taken, only 6,000 Jews out of 150,000 still lived in Iraq, a fractious country.

The Queen was a comforting symbol of unity and stability to whom British and Commonwealth Jews have always pledged loyalty. Faisal I, Iraq’s first king, Faisal II’s grandfather, from the Hashemite dynasty, also commanded the respect of the Jewish community in Iraq. Still today he is thought of as a wise and tolerant king.

Iraq was a post-WW1 concoction of three Ottoman provinces under British mandate. The Jews experienced their golden age under Faisal I in the 1920s. He pledged to treat the Jews, Christians and Muslims in his kingdom equally.

The Hashemites were brought in from the Arabian peninsula by the British as a reward for fighting alongside them against the Ottoman Turks. The Allies had promised Faisal I the throne of Syria. But he was  double-crossed by the British and the French and offered the throne of Iraq instead. Faisal never appeared to forgive the British and arrived in Baghdad with a coterie of disgruntled ex-Ottoman and Syrian nationalists. During his reign Iraq became a hub of Arab nationalism.

Faisal I died aged just 48 of a heart attack, a year after Iraq nominally became independent in 1932. His son Ghazi, Faisal II’s father, was  a lover of fast cars and a Nazi sympathizer. Jews felt the pressure as Iraq came under increasing Nazi influence. But Ghazi was killed in a car crash after ruling for only six years. His son Faisal II was too young to succeed him, and so his uncle, Abdelilah,  became Regent. It was in the interregnum between the defeat of a pro-Nazi coup in 1941, and the    Regent re-taking power, that Iraq’s Jews experienced their darkest days – the Farhud massacre.

Faisal of Iraq is known to have spent time in England in the 1950s and could have met the Queen when she was still Princess Elizabeth. The young monarchs’ lives could have intersected when Faisal II studied at the posh Harrow public school, together with his cousin King Hussein of Jordan. In 1956, Faisal II made a state visit to the UK.

Jordan and Morocco are the only Arab countries to still have a monarchy. All the others have jettisoned their royal families  – and their Jews with them.

One wonders what the two royal figures would have talked about when they met  – and whether the Queen ever made any reference in her long life to Faisal’s sorry fate. Now we will never know.

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)
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