Home History The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East
The Death and Funeral of Yasin al-Hashimi
At the beginning of January, Rashid cAli al-Kilani advised Taha that Yasin was ailing and under the care of doctors at the AUB hospital. Mutual friends suggested he might be best able to oversee the care of his brother, who was depressed and mostly refusing to rest or take medical advice. Taha al-Hashimi left from Istanbul Haydarpasa Terminal and traveled two days by train through Anatolia, via Aleppo, to Tripoli in the Lebanese Mandate. From Tripoli, Taha al-Hashimi traveled by car to Beirut.92 In Beirut, Taha found Yasin surrounded by family, including his wife, Rafiqa, and daughters Madiha and Nicmat, who had recently arrived from Baghdad with her new husband, Ali Mumtaz al- Daftari. His second daughter, Sabiha, remained at Smith College in the United States. Despite his weakness, he continued to receive visitors.
Back in Baghdad those close to Yasin’s government were in danger. Several ex-cabinet minsters and high officials fled the country on hastily arranged official leaves. Rustum Haydar, who had recently served as King Ghazi’s private secretary, left for Damascus. Mosul deputy and chief cabinet secretary Dhia al-Din Yunis had been dismissed by prime minister Hikmat Sulayman in the days after the coup. On the evening of January 20, as he was taking a nightly walk near his house in the Baghdad neighborhood of al-Batawin, a car carrying two men and a driver came to an abrupt stop. The two passengers emerged, and each fired several pistol rounds at Yunis before speeding away. British ambassador Clark Kerr filed a report on the assassination in which he noted that the bullets that killed Yunis were fired from a new model of British service revolver that had been issued in very small quantities. He suggested this could only implicate Iraqi security officials who had access to British stores. He did not mention the possibility of any direct British role. Clark Kerr noted, “It is difficult to say what motive there was for this crime, but it is commonly believed that Dhia Younis had been in correspondence with Yasin al-Hashimi and he had paid for this indiscretion with his life.”93 No arrests were made.
The next morning at 9am, Yasin al-Hashimi died in Beirut. His wife, brother, and two daughters were with him. His eldest daughter, Madiha, was in her final year of studies at AUB and would graduate in June 1937. His youngest, and only married daughter, Nicmat, and son- in-law cAli Mumtaz al-Daftari, who had been Iraqi director-general of revenue, had fled Baghdad weeks before. Nicmat’s baby, born in September 1937, would have been Yasin’s first grandchild. They named the baby Yasin for his grandfather. Taha recorded that his fatal heart attacks had followed a particularly heated argument between
Yasin and his wife Rafiqa. Exile had been stressful, and Yasin had been under the care of physicians at the AUB hospital. Heart attack was the official cause of death, but many in Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon questioned the claims of natural causes, and many noted Yasin al- Hashimi’s heroic stature and many powerful enemies. At the age of 53 he was young and had been apparently healthy until his exile. British officials sought to quash such rumors and intimations of foul play. The Beirut consul noted that his death was a great surprise and the heart affliction, from which he had been ailing in Beirut, was not generally known. The Foreign Office instructed the consul and Baghdad ambassador to speedily counter any claims that there might be “something fishy” about the death of Yasin.94
Attending physicians immediately announced al-Hashimi’s death. They telegramed National Bloc leaders in Damascus, Haj Amin al- Husayni, Amir Abdallah, and King Ghazi requesting permission for transport and burial to Baghdad, as well as other Arab governments.95 Riyad al-Sulh, Beirut National Bloc delegate, visited the house in mourning and before King Ghazi or the new Iraqi government could reply, proposed a funeral in Damascus. AUB doctors embalmed the body for travel. A banner headline in Damascus’ al-Qabas read, “Calamity of the Arab Nation: Yasin Pasha al-Hashimi.”96
Hikmat Sulayman and Bakr Sidqi denied requests of the family for a funeral and burial in Baghdad. Yasin al-Hashimi was less a threat dead than alive, but was undoubtedly still a threat. The Iraqi army’s loyalty to the new regime was notably unsteady, and the Embassy, Bakr, Hikmat Sulayman, and Ghazi trod carefully. A few weeks earlier, during the month of Ramadan, King Ghazi had invited the Iraqi General Staff to an Iftar dinner. Only coup leader General Bakr Sidqi and fewer than a quarter of the invited senior officers bothered to respond or attend; a Cairo newspaper reported the “affront to the King has caused a sensation in political circles.”97 Bakr Sidqi was assassinated while visiting the Mosul officers’ club eight months later.98 The Iraqi government finally agreed to Yasin al-Hashimi’s burial in Baghdad, but demanded a small ceremony devoid of politics, and explicitly banned Taha al-Hashimi’s entry into the country with his brother’s body. By then the specifics of the funeral and burial in Damascus had been set.
The National Bloc in Beirut and Damascus rose to the pan-Arab occasion. Uniformed youth, Steel Shirts, and AUB students carried the coffin out of the house where Yasin had died. According to Peter Wien, the uniforms had special significance as they echoed Arab folk dress, and the kuffiya headdress that had come to symbolize the Palestinian rebels and their struggle. They placed the deceased in a bier atop an open truck adorned with flags and flowers, and led the procession to its first stop at Beirut’s central al-cUmari Mosque for early morning prayers. The convoy proceeded over the mountains and in many places the road was lined with mourners and admirers of the late statesman.
The procession traveled slowly over the course of the morning hours along the Damascus road past mountain villages, across the floor of the fertile Biqa valley, and up the eastern mountains. In Maysalun, it made a ceremonial stop at the tomb of Yasin’s martyred comrade Yusuf al-cAzma, cementing the link between the two military heroes of the Great War and Faysal’s Damascus government. The convoy dropped into the Barada river valley and followed the road and river to Damascus. Upon the foothills of the city, the valley opened up, and the procession skirted the river to the city’s outskirts, near today’s Umayyad Square, and the municipal gardens across from the ancient mosque complex of Ottoman Sultan Suleyman, and more recent government and administrative buildings, including the elite Tajhiz preparatory school, the Ottoman Teachers’ College, and Damascus University law school.
Thousands of Damascenes had assembled at the city gardens and the daily al-Qabas reported the crowds as the largest the city had ever seen.99 By the time the procession reached the garden, about 1pm, uniformed Steel Shirts lined the street and dozens of dignitaries, both Damascenes and visitors, walked behind the bier and at the front of the crowd as the procession crossed the Barada at Victoria bridge, up the street past the Orient Palace hotel, in front of the Hijaz railway station, and along Jamal Pasa Street, past the Ottoman military preparatory school where he had taught as a young staff captain, into the covered Suq al-Hamidiyya, and finally into the courtyard and prayer hall of the Umayyad Mosque. New Syrian president Jamil Mardam Bey delivered the eulogy and celebrated Yasin al-Hashimi as a hero of Arabism.
Yasin’s return to Damascus symbolized a return to the birthplace of the Arab nation two decades earlier. The traces of the Great War and Ottoman modernity, and the formative struggle against the colonial domination the war’s victors imposed was obvious. Yusuf al-cAzma was dead, King Faysal was dead, and now Yasin al-Hashimi had joined them. At the age of 36, in November 1918, he had been a decorated Ottoman staff officer, equal in rank and experience with Mustafa Kemal, Yusuf al-cAzma, and a handful of others, but like them, defeated, and with no army or state left to serve. He and his fellows eventually came to serve whatever successor polity seemed available or possible. In January 1937, his corpse and funeral procession made a similar journey, past the tomb of Yusuf al-cAzma, past all the monuments of modern, late
Ottoman Damascus, including the road and railway made under Sultan Abdul-Hamid, the Barada river water project similarly inaugurated, the university, colleges, and schools, the ancient mosque named for Sultan Suleyman, which first cemented and symbolized the Ottoman present and future of the great city, and had served, since 1926, as the final resting place of the last, exiled Ottoman sultan, the glorious train station built with funds raised by Ottoman subscription, and opened months after Yasin and his brother Ottoman officers forced Sultan Abdul-Hamid to accept their dominant role in government, state, army, and society in 1908, the processional street laid out and named for Ottoman officer and wartime governor Jamal Pasa, and finally through the modern covered market named for Sultan Abdul-Hamid.
The processional route was not an accident. It did not pass through Marja Square, in front of the Ottoman Saray and colonial mandate administration, or past the official Damascus residence of the High Commissioner at the cAzam Palace a couple hundred meters from the Umayyad Mosque, and down the covered market named for Ottoman governor Midhat Pasa. Or past any administrative structure now dominated by the mandate government, but no one could ignore the ever-present links with the recent Ottoman past. The body of Yasin Pasa al-Hashimi was laid in state in the prayer hall, of the Umayyad Mosque, which had been restored by the Ottoman government while Yasin was a schoolboy. In the following days, the Syrian government and Yasin’s family attempted to have him buried in Baghdad. Neither Hikmat Sulayman’s Iraqi government, nor British or French officials, wanted the political attention on Yasin al-Hashimi to continue and they blocked the return of his corpse to Baghdad, the city of his birth. He was finally buried in the small garden just next to the tomb of Saladin.
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