Part II: The story of the forgotten Arab victims of the Titanic, told 100 years later
Even though the list of victims who died on the Titanic denotes who among them was Arab, it is difficult to find enough information on their Arab nationalities and what circumstances drove them to board the doomed ship. This even applies to Encyclopedia Titanic, the most comprehensive source on the 1912 tragedy.
One of the challenges facing anyone investigating the case of foreigners on the Titanic is the way Arab names have been written as they do not necessarily correspond to the original names in Arabic. For example, Yusuf would become Joseph and Boutros would become Peter and so on.
One of the victims came from a family called Badr in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. The name was however spelled as “Badt” in the foreign media and had his first name not been Mohammed, no one would have guessed he was Arab.
The same happened with one of the survivors who came from the village of Chanay in the Aley District of western Lebanon. Nassef Qassim Abi al-Muna was written as “Albimona.” According to Muna’s granddaughter, the Beirut-based journalist Nada Fayyad, her grandfather died in Lebanon in 1975.
“He left behind an entire tribe that amounts to 200 children and grandchildren,” she told Al Arabiya. “Thank God he survived. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”
Fayyad added that her grandfather was married when he boarded the Titanic to a Lebanese woman who he divorced when he returned from the United States.
“In Lebanon, he married another woman and had six girls with her. The youngest is my mother who currently lives in the United States.”
A large number of the Titanic’s Arab passengers were laborers and farmers, as was made clear in the “travel contract” they signed with the company that owned the ship.
Suleiman Attallah, who drowned on the Titanic at the age of 30, was an exception. Attallah, who immigrated to Canada, was from Kafr Mishki, the village in Rashaya District that lost 13 of its residents on the Titanic.
Lebanese journalist and writer Samir Attallah could not confirm his relation with the deceased.
“I do not recall one of my relatives being on the Titanic and dying on it,” he told Al Arabiya.
Arab passengers on the Titanic rank fifth after the British (327), the Americans (306), the Irish (120), and the Swedish (113) as the largest group aboard the ship. Arabs were made up of one Egyptian and approximately 81 Lebanese, 20 women and 46 men. The youngest of Arab passengers was 16 and the oldest 45 and they had with them children whose ages ranged from three months to 15 years. Only 30 of them survived.
The only proof that those passengers were Lebanese is not their travel document since they carried Ottoman identification that indicated them as residents of Greater Syria, which includes present-day Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan. It was rather the fact that they came from villages that still have the same names in Lebanon.
The tiresome mission of tracing the Lebanese victims of the Titanic was first embarked upon by the Lebanese newspaper al-Anwar. In 1998, the newspaper published a report about correspondence between Lebanese expatriates in the United States and their families in Lebanon. This correspondence contained several names of Lebanese passengers on the Titanic and information about them.
A month later, another report was prepared by Palestinian-Lebanese journalist Ray Hanania which included a list of 79 names that did not include the Egyptian and the other Lebanese. He also published the names in their English form so the original Arabic remained unclear.
“I got the idea of digging up information about Arab passengers on the Titanic when I saw the movie and heard one of the passengers in it speak Arabic,” he told Al Arabiya.
Of the 899 crew members of the Titanic, there was one who was Lebanese, Mansour Meshaalani.
Meshaalani, also a British citizen, was born in 1860 in Lebanon and was in charge of the printing department on the ship on which food menus and name tags were printed.
He was also in charge of a daily newsletter that acquainted passengers with the activities that took place on the ship. Meshaalani did not survive the tragedy.
In 2010, Syrian-American writer Laila Salloum Elias released a book called “The Dream and then the Nightmare: Syrians who Boarded the Titanic.”
Elias sourced most of her information from Arabic language newspapers issued in New York on the year of the tragedy like al-Hoda and Meraat al-Gharb.
“There I found the original Arabic names of the Lebanese passengers who were aboard the Titanic,” she told Al Arabiya.
Elias noted that the word “Syrians” in her subtitle refers to citizens of Greater Syria and not present-day Syria.
Last year, Atlas publishing house in Beirut and Damascus released an Arabic translation of the book.
(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid)