Beirut: Presidential libraries open to the public, although common in the US, are non-existent in the Arab World.
That’s what makes the Nazem Al Qudsi Presidential Library so important, launched last month by the family of Syria’s former president on the 25th anniversary of his death.
It also coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of his toppling at the hands of a group of Ba’athist and Nasserist officers on March 8, 1963.
Dedicated to his illustrious career and achievements, the online website contains over 5,000 documents from Al Qudsi’s private papers, including, among other things, parliamentary meetings from the 1940s and 1950s, documents related to the establishment of the Syrian Embassy in Washington DC in 1944, and his private papers during the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945, and his short presidency (1961-1963).
Al Qudsi is among the few Syrian presidents who were allowed a dignified life in exile. Others were either killed or jailed. He lived long enough in exile to tell his story — after much hesitation — first recorded at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1975, at the urging of the university’s former president, Constantine Zurayk, who had worked with Al Qudsi at the UN back in 1945.
“The Qudsi archive is of great importance to anyone studying Syria in the 1940s and 1950s,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Centre of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
Speaking to Gulf News, he explained: “We have many fine memoirs of Damascene politicians but none of Aleppans. One cannot understand Syria without understanding Aleppo, the leading industrial city of Syria. It was at the centre of the grain and cotton boom of the 1950s. Aleppan entrepreneurs opened up of northeast Syria and made Syria one of the fastest growing economies in the developing world.”
He added: “When I was a graduate student in the 1980s, I tried to interview Nazem Al Qudsi to get a first-hand account of what made Aleppo’s notables tick, he wrote back to me that it was “still too early.”
Al Qudsi began to record but his efforts were cut short by outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in April 1975.
Many years later, he returned to the herculean task, this time through the support of his sons and friends.
A total of thirty tapes were recorded during the years 1990-1995, and in one of them dated 14 February 1993, he gave explicit approval for their release.
It took another thirty years for these recordings to finally see the light, however, in addition to a trove of documents, papers and audio-visuals.
Nazem Al Qudsi was born into a prominent Aleppine family in 1906. He studied first at AUB then at the University of Geneva, where he graduated with a PhD in Law in 1929.
Entry into politics
He first ventured into politics under the umbrella of the National Bloc, a leading political movement dedicated to ending the French Mandate in Syria.
He resigned in the late 1930s, objecting to the annexation of the Sanjak of Alexanderetta, Syrian territory that was given to Turkey by the French to secure Ankara’s neutrality in World War II.
In 1944, Qudsi was named Syria’s first ambassador to the US, presenting his credentials to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In this capacity he was invited to attend the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945, co-signing the UN Charter.
Back in Damascus, he led the parliamentary opposition to then-president Shukri Al Quwatli, establishing the People’s Party with his lifetime friend and colleague Rushdi Al Kikhiya.
When Quwatli was toppled by military coup on March 29, 1949, Al Qudsi and Kikhiya refused to work with the coup mastermind, Husni Al Za’im, claiming that his coup was unconstitutional and undemocratic.
Their defiance of the officer class triggered a clash that was to last until their forced retirement from politics in 1963.
When Za’im was toppled and killed in August 1949, Al Qudsi became Syria’s minister of foreign affairs and then, prime minister that December.
He worked towards creation of a federal Syrian-Iraqi union, which was aborted by another coup, led by Colonel Adib Al Shishakli on December 1949.
Al Qudsi tried accommodating Shishakli’s ambitions and agreed to his main dictate, appointing a military officer to the Ministry of Defense. He created three cabinets during the years 1949-1951 before moving into the opposition when Shishakli assumed full control of Syria.
Al Qudsi was arrested during the Shishakli years for standing up to military rule and his party, the People’s Party, was disbanded.
When democratic life returned to Syria in February 1954, he was elected speaker of Syria’s parliament, supervising Syria’s last multi-candidate election in August 1955, which led to the return of Shukri Al Quwatli as president.
Although opposed to the manner in which the Syrian-Egyptian union was forced in February 1958, where officers flew to Cairo without authorisation from their president, he nevertheless did not opposite it. In fact, he was the first political to raise the issue of an Arab union from as far back as 1949, long before Jamal Abdul Nasser rose to fame in Egypt.
During the union years (1958-1961) Al Qudsi temporarily retired from politics and worked in banking, chairing a private bank called Bank of the Arab World before it was seized and nationalised by the socialist regime of Jamal Abdul Nasser in July 1961.
He supported the coup that brought down the union republic on September 28, 1961 and three months later, was elected president on December 14, 1961.
His tenure at the presidency was brief, and cut short with a brief coup on March 28, 1962, led by Colonel Abdul Karim Al Nehlawi, who had President Al Qudsi jailed.
The army mutinied against Nehlawi’s orders and had him banished, restoring Qudsi to the presidency on April 1, 1962.
He spent the next 11 months challenging Nasser’s tutelage and trying to undo many of his socialist measures, including the illegal confiscation of land, factories, banks.
Another coup would disrupt his efforts, this time staged by the Ba’ath Party and a group of Nasserist officers, who pledged to restore the Syrian-Egyptian Union.
Al Qudsi was jailed and accused of supporting the “crime of session.”
Upon his release, he retired first to Lebanon and then briefly to Tunis, Nice, and Abu Dhabi, before settling in Amman until his death at the age of 92 on February 6, 1998.