The RMS Titanic and Lebanon

As many of us were going to sleep yesterday, the idea that 100 years ago, 2000 people were going through an ordeal stranded in the middle of an ocean escapes us. 100 years is surely a long time – but for many, the whole tragedy of the Titanic has become a laughable matter.

How so? It was turned by Hollywood into a movie, which later on became a common area of jokes. For many, the word Titanic nowadays is followed by the word “meh.” We fail to remember that for many, especially Lebanese, we’ve had great-grandfathers, great-uncles, aunts & family on that ship, many of whom died, either by drowning or by getting shot.

I grew up listening to the story of Daher Chedid, a man who was trying to escape the Ottomans in Lebanon only to find death at the hands of the Atlantic ice. I couldn’t escape the haunting stories of the people from Hardin, how they prayed and danced Dabke until their very last moments. The people of Kfarmishki lost 13 people on the Titanic – how could we call that funny?

A man from Zahle saved his wife and swam away, losing hope with every second of being saved. He wasn’t. Two men from Zgharta got shot for wanting to survive – they left families behind.

How could we ignore all of those stories and act as if the Titanic is one big popular event that happened, got turned into a cliche and shouldn’t be talked about?

Lebanon lost many people on the night of April 14th-15th, 1912. The least we can do is to honor their memories by telling their stories, at least on the centennial anniversary of their passing.

For many, their interest will only be transient, as is our interest in many things. And when it comes to the Titanic, although worse tragedies have happened over the years, we – as Lebanese – should feel involved because we have lost many people there. Some say as much as 93 – in a country as small as ours, at a time where the population was very little, 93 is a tragedy.

They say people truly die when they’re no longer in anyone’s memory. This is my attempt, at least briefly, to get the Lebanese of the Titanic back into people’s memory so they’d be alive on the 100th anniversary of the ship sinking.

There are many more Lebanese whose stories I couldn’t tell. Perhaps I’ll tell them later on. But for those stories that I told, I hope they made an impact – even if it’s in a small number of people.

Many asked me if those stories were correct or made up. Many asked for my sources. Many accused me of stealing them from Al Arabiya. To those I say: these stories are not exclusive to any news service. They are not written by anyone as a novel, they were not first reported by Al Arabiya and they won’t stop with a report from MTV. These stories were written with the lives of the Lebanese passengers that went on that ship, seeking a better life for themselves and their families, away from the oppression in the country.

My sources were from books I had bought back in 1998 about the tragedy, newspaper articles that I had saved over the years, as well as stories that I was personally told when I was young.

Today, most countries are holding events to remember their deaths aboard that ship. Lebanon, who lost more people than most of those countries, is not.

May the victims of the Titanic generally and the Lebanese especially rest in peace.

Stories of Lebanese on the Titanic – Part 5: The People of Zgharta & Choueir

For part 1, click here. For part 2, click here. For part 3, click here. For part 4, click here.

Sarkis Moawwad was a 35 year old man from Zgharta, preparing his papers to travel to the United States. While on an excursion to Tripoli, a palm reader told Sarkis he’d die drowning. Believing the superstition, Moawwad almost stopped his travel plans, which involved a ship. His friends, however, convinced him otherwise by reminding him that the ship he was boarding, the RMS Titanic, was supposedly unsinkable. God himself cannot sink this ship, they said.

Aboard the Titanic, and on the night of April 14th when it hit the iceberg, Moawwad raced to the ship’s deck and was faced with a dilemma. One part of him told him that women and children ought to go on the boats first. The other part of him begged him to get on a boat – every shred of him was begging to fight for survival. Moawwad succumb to the latter part and got on one of the rescue boats.

The captain of the Titanic looked at him. Within a few seconds, the captain had held his gun and shot Moawwad, killing him instantly. The palm reader was not right. Sarkis Moawwad didn’t drown. He was shot, leaving behind a family of four.

Sarkis Moawwad

Another man from Zgharta was Tannous Keaawi, a 21 year old married man. Tannous was a fighter. When in 1912, some Ottomans raded his friend’s farm and took over his cattle, it was up to Tannous to get them back. So he took a riffle and, with his blood boiling, raced to where the Ottomans lived and waited for them until the got home. Once they did, he held the riffle to their heads and asked them to give back the cattle. They refused. So he shot them one by one.

After his actions, Tannous couldn’t stay in Lebanon so his friend gave him enough money to secure a trip to New York for him and his family. On their way to the Titanic, his family got held up in Marseille because his daughter had chickenpox. His wife decided to stay behind with their children while he continued.

Once on the Titanic, Tannous also tried to get on a rescue boat, along with Sarkis Moawwad. And he met the same fate as Sarkis, at the hands of the same gun by the same man.

Of the three men from Zgharta that were on board the Titanic, only one survived. His name was Hanna Makhlouf. Hanna also tried to get on a rescue boat with his two other friends. The difference was that he was lucky enough to have found a large enough skirt for him to hide. And hide he did and watched both his friends get shot before the boat was lowered into the water and taken away to sea. He later on went to Waterbury, CT where he settled down.

Mona, the wife of Tannous Keaawi

In another side of Lebanon, in the Metn town of Dhour el Choueir, Adele Kiame was summoned by her father to join him in New York where he had started a silk-work company. In a letter that her father, Najib, sent to Lebanon to ask to send his daughter to America, he asked her to bring with her some Turkish carpets which are much better in Lebanon. He also asked her to get him some fancy tobacco seeing as the kind he was smoking in New York was nowhere near as good.

Adele left her hometown with a woman named Latife Beaaklini who also took her daughters with her, to follow her husband who had opened a pharmacy in the United States.

One of the letters that Najib Kiame sent

Once news of the Titanic sinking reached them, Adele, Latife and her daughters went to deck and got on a rescue boat. However, Adele decided to go back to try to rescue whatever she could of her belongings, including some amount of money she had hidden in socks. She didn’t stop with at the socks. She tried to get some dresses and other belongings with her. The crew refused and threw them all away.


Meanwhile, Latife took her daughters and put them in waterproof bags that she dangled off the sides of the rescue boats. A man gave way for Latife to get on the boat and he helped her tie her daughters to the side. He then went back to the ship where he drowned. When Adele returned, the boat was full. So Latife started shouting, as the boat was being lowered, for them to stop and let Adele on. She was screaming in Arabic. The crew couldn’t understand and there was nothing they could do – the boat was already full.

Adele, stood stranded on deck: a 16 year old minor who didn’t know the language.

She caught the eye of the person you’d least expect: John Jacob Astor, the ship’s wealthiest man. So he carried Adele and gave her to his bride whom he had secured on one of the recue boats. Astor’s wife then took off her coat and gave it to Adele who was afraid and shivering.

Once they reached New York, Adele’s father hosted the survivors. Latife’s youngest daughter, Eugenia, contracted pneumonia due to the cold that night and died soon after. Latife then gave birth to a boy named David, on January 28th, 1913. She raised her family and died year 1962.

Latife, in the 1940s

Adele, on the other hand, got married in Brooklyn and had two children: Mitchel and Layla. She then fell ill and died, at the age of 26. The year was 1924.

The story of the people from Dhour el Choueir is not this simple. Doubts arose over the years about whether Adele went back to her cabin because she was stingy, as people had said, or because Latife had asked her to. Moreover, some doubt that it was really John Jacob Astor who saved her.

Either way, we can never be sure of some things when it comes to stories that are over a hundred years old. Both women went on to live for years and have families.

Stories of Lebanese on the Titanic – Part 4: Two Men from Toula & Zahle

For part 1, click here. Part 2, click here. Part 3, click here.

Toula is a small town in the Batroun region which had only one person aboard the Titanic, named Fahim el Zeanny. Seeing as his name is difficult for foreigners to pronounce, it was changed in Cherbourg to Fahim Kini before it changed, yet again, once he got to New York, to Philip el Zeanny.

Philip left Toula at the age of 23, leaving in Marseille his wife whom he married 4 months prior so he can settle down and start his own business in Cincinnati before she follows him. Philip wrote down what he went through on the Titanic.

Philip, 2 years before his death.

On the night the ship hit the iceberg, he was fast asleep. One of the passengers woke him up hastily and told him what was happening. So Philip started panicking, as was everyone around him. He then ran to the deck where, still panicking because of what he had heard moments ago, he got into a rescue boat. The officer, though, forced him off and threatened him with his gun, saying: women only.

Philip then used the chaos around deck to his favor and got into a second rescue boat. That same officer, however, saw him and forced him off again. Moments later, Philip got past that officer and hid under the seating flanks of one of the boats. That boat was lowered into the water. It only had two men who couldn’t row it away from the ship fast enough with more than twenty women on it. So Philip made his presence known and helped them take the boat away from the Titanic.

Then they waited and watched as the ship sank. The shrieks coming from the passengers who were thrown in the water were deafening.  Philip urged them go back but no one agreed. More lives could have been saved. As he looked around his rescue boat, Philip was apalled by one woman who brought her pet dog with her. The dog was big enough for another person to take its place.

Once the Carpathia arrived, the woman said sternly to Philip, whom she thought shouldn’t have been on board with them, to help her carry the dog as she got on the Carpathia. Philip refused, telling her that the souls of people are more important than those of animals.

Philip ended up passing away on 1927, fifteen years later, leaving a family of four children behind.

The descendants of Philip

On the other side of Lebanon, Zahle had the only Lebanese passenger not in third class. Nqoula Nasrallah and his wife, Adele, were both second class passengers. Nqoula left Zahle at the age of 28, to go to San Francisco where his uncle had started a successful movie franchise.

Seeking the fame and fortune that his uncle had already found, Nqoula took his wife and got on the Titanic. On the night the ship sank, Nqoula got his wife on a rescue boat while he jumped into the water and started swimming away, hoping like other swimmers, that the vests they were wearing would keep them afloat until the rescue boats arrived. His hope was out of place.

As Adele’s rescue boat moved away from the ship, she saw her husband swimming away. So she stood up and started shouting with every bit of strength she had for him to come on board. But amid all the chaos of all the people in the water around her, Nqoula never heard her. He kept swimming and swimming until he could swim no more.

On April 24 th, 1912, the MacKay-Bennett found Nqoula’s body which was thought to belong to the millionaire John Jacob Astor. The following description of the body was given:

Nqoula’s mother, Wardeh, was devastated by the untimely passing of her son. So she went out on Zahle’s very cold winters outside and sat, as snow piled up on her, so she can have a taste of what her son went through in the freezing water of the Atlantic. Wardeh’s granddaughter Emily told how her grandmother used to go outside and put her hands in a frozen pond just so she can feel closer to her son.

Adele was pregnant when she was rescued. She gave birth to a baby boy on December 9th, 1912. The boy died soon afterwards. Adele remarried and had a family of four children. She died on January 20th, 1970.

Part 5 will be coming tomorrow.

Stories of Lebanese on the Titanic – Part 3: The People of Kfarmishki

For part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.

Out of all the Lebanese villages that sent its sons and daughters to America on the Titanic, Kfarmishki has the highest death toll at 13, out of the 14 people that wanted to reach Ontario, Canada where most of the town’s expats reside.

Out of the 13 people that kfarmishki lost, only one body was recovered. Everyone else was lost, never to be seen again or given a proper burial. The abyss of the Atlantic became their final resting place.

Of those whose bodies were never found, there’s Assaf el Saykali who left his newly pregnant wife in order to find a way around the poverty in his hometown. Another is Mansour el Hajj, who left his 3 year old daughter and wife, only to be taken in by the sea.

The only body that was recovered through the MacKay-Bennett belonged to Mansour Nawfal, a man in his late twenties who had left his hometown searching for a better life all by himself. Almost none of the people of Kfarmishki know about him. The MacKay-Bennett’s crew wrote his name as Mansour Sovel on the medical form they filled upon collecting him on April 24th, 1912.

The only survivor from Kfarmishki was a woman named Zad Assaf, who is more commonly known as Mariana Assaf. The name discrepancy arose when she was rescued and asked for her name. Being illiterate, she couldn’t inform the personnel of her proper name so on the lists of survivors, she became known as Mariana.

Zad was born in 1867 and got married in her hometown before leaving it and her two sons to follow her husband to Ontario. In 1912, she returned to Lebanon to see her sons and got on the Titanic, via Cherbourg in France, to go back to her husband. Her sons would soon follow her. It was a good thing they weren’t on the Titanic with her.

While being interviewed on April 24th, 1912, a traumatized Zad told the story of what happened on the day Titanic sank. She said when the ship first hit the iceberg, none of the passengers she was with, most of whom were Lebanese, got afraid. They had called it a night and went to bed. The lack of fear was due to them not knowing the gravity of the situation. It had been kept under wraps for as long as the crew could do so. Some of the Lebanese, however, wanted to go on deck to see what was happening. They were told nothing was wrong and no one felt any danger. So they stayed in their rooms.

Zad Assaf's house in Kfarmishki.

As time went by and the ship didn’t move, their minds started racing and thinking about what the crew could be hiding from them. Some had started to think about the possibility that the ship might be sinking. Suddenly, one of the passengers shouted that the ship is sinking fast. That was then the chaos began and people started running frantically to the deck of the ship, not caring how they got there as long as they did.

Zad said her mind went numb. The only thing she was able to think about back then was to get to the deck where first class passengers had already been. She got to there with a man from her hometown named Elias Tannous Nasrallah, a 22 year old who had left his wife in Kfarmishki. He was going to Ontario to provide for her. As he neared the rescue boats, Elias tried to reason with an officer there to let him on. The officer wouldn’t let him. The chaos that ensued and Elias still pleading for his life got the officer to hold his gun at Elias and shoot him in the chest, killing him instantly, saying: women and children go first.

Shocked by what happened to Elias, Zad froze in her spot. She couldn’t move. The shock of the ship sinking was just made worse by seeing the man from her hometown murdered right in front of her. Without her being aware of it, a navy officer pushed her into a boat full of women and a few men. The boat was then lowered to the water and the men started rowing away as the ocean engulfed Titanic.

Some of the survivors had said the music band kept playing until the very last moments. Zad wasn’t aware of that. She was still in shock. She was among the last people to be lowered off the ship, an hour and thirty minutes after impact. Stranded at sea, they stayed there for hours, freezing in the cold. Six hours after leaving Titanic, the ship Carpathia came to their rescue. The only thing she was able to remember was them offering her warm clothes.

Once she got to New York, she was admitted to the hospital for observation. Once discharged, people from the area helped her get to Ontario where she met her husband. Her sons soon followed her. One of them later on went to Sao Paolo where he lived to be over 105 years old.

Elias Nasrallah’s wife got remarried in Kfarmishki after getting the news that her husband has passed away.

Stay tuned for part 4 tomorrow.

Stories of Lebanese on the Titanic – Part 2: The People of Hardin

For Part 1, click here.

Hardin is a town in the mountainous region of the Batroun caza, famous for St. Neaamtallah who is famous for his hometown and who made his hometown famous. During 1912, Hardin had 19 people on board of the Titanic. Only 7 of those made it, including a man, two children, an infant and three women.

One of those who survived, named Sileneh Dagher, was a newly wed who was traveling to the United States with her husband, Antoun Yazbeck. Their cabin was close to the water line of the ship so the collision was especially frightening for them. They went out into the hallway to see what was happening. Once they realized the gravity of the situation, they started moving towards the main deck. But many of the passageways, especially those that went through first class areas, were sealed off by passengers for fear of theft. Once they reached the deck, Sileneh and her husband both got into a rescue boat. But an officer held a gun to Antoun’s head and forced him to relinquish his seat, convincing Sileneh that her husband would follow her on another boat. That was the last time she saw him. She later on remarried and changed her name to Celine. She gave birth to 9 children and raised them before dying at the age of 69 on March 10th, 1966.

Sileneh Dagher remarried

Sileneh with her family

The only man from Hardin who survived did so because a foreign woman pitied him and got him to hide under her dress. The man in question, Moubarak Assi, was the deacon of Patriarch Elias Howayek, who’s currently laid to rest in the convent he built in my hometown. Assi went on to start a family and a business in Michigan. He died on February 3rd, 1952.

Mr. Moubarak Assi

Sileneh Dagher wrote to her brother, the former mekhtar of Hardin, about what she went through aboard the Titanic. She spoke about how cruel the officers were to the men who tried to get on the rescue boats. She spoke about how the men of Hardin who knew they wouldn’t be rescued knelt in their last moments and prayed to the Saint of Hardin.

Another story that came from Hardin is the story of Hanna Touma, a man who was in love with a girl from his hometown called Zahiyya Khalil. Both decided to travel to the United States to start a better life but Zahiyya’s parents refused for them to leave without getting married so they tied the knot hours before leaving Lebanon. Aboard the Titanic, a wedding party was thrown for the newlywed the night Titanic hit the iceberg. Once the news of the collision reached them, they continued their wedding party as if nothing happened. Later on, when death was looming, Zahiyya refused to leave her husband’s side despite the officers begging her to. And so they held to each other tight and bid farewell to their lives.

The people of Hardin clinged to their Lebanese heritage until the last moment. According to Moubarak Assi, as his rescue boat was being lowered off the ship, he saw the men of his hometown huddle around each other. Then one of them shouted: “Dabke ya chabeb!” And they faced death with a Lebanese dance, knowing they won’t be saved.

The zajal for the occasion that went on to commemorate the loss went as follows:

ابكي ونوحي يا حردين…..عالشباب الغرقانين
غرق منك حدعشر شاب….. بسن الخمسة وعشرين
منهم سبعة عزابي…..والبقية مزوجين
ما فيهم واحد شايب….. كلن بالخمس وعشرين

Cry and weep, Hardin for your men who drowned.

You lost 11 young men, aged 25.

7 of them are single, the rest are married.

None of them have gray hair, all were 25.