Surviving the Famine of World War I: A Case Study from Lebanon
in La rivista di Arablit, a. IX, n. 17-18, dicembre 2019, pp. 97-105.
During World War I, the area known as modern Lebanon was a part of the Ottoman Empire. The deadly famine in the Mount Lebanon region caused by the war was one of the overarching reasons for the demands by the local population for the creation of a separate Lebanese nation-state with a Christian majority, instead of having Lebanon incorporated into Muslim-majority Syria. One-third of the population of Mount Lebanon died during the war, one-third emigrated to the West, and the remaining one-third survived and witnessed the formation of the new state. Whether the Ottomans intentionally imposed starvation against their Christian subjects is highly debated; there is also some evidence that the British and French maintained the famine via food blockades as a weapon of war against the Ottomans.
How can historians of the Middle East and Arab world recover the marginalized voices of the common people who suffered the most from the famine of Mount Lebanon? This paper relies heavily on an audio recording left behind by a survivor of the famine, who was orphaned at the age of seven when both of his parents succumbed to starvation. His testimony serves as a case study from which to explore several issues related to the effects of the famine of World War I in Lebanon, in addition to how the war is remembered publicly. This rare and unique source additionally underscores the urgent need for Middle Eastern historians to be trained in oral history methods, as primarily utilizing written historical records excludes the point of view of the illiterate and focuses on the experiences of elites.