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.


This paper deals with memory of the First World War in Lebanon. I will broadly discuss collective memory of the war and then engage with a rare historical artifact that I have been given access to, which is a voice recording of a survivor (Philip Abū Ḥamad) talking about his experiences during the war. This man, who happens to be my great-grandfather1, was born in 1907 and died in 1996. The recording was made in the early 1990s, towards the end of his life. I had grown up hearing stories from various relatives about how he survived the war as an orphan and I have been seriously looking into writing a biography of his life. However, this is a daunting task given that he is not around to tell me about his life, particularly the parts about World War I. This methodological limitation led me to wonder how scholars can actually retrieve the memories of those who lived 100 years ago; I decided to experiment with collecting memories of second and third postwar generations. I had believed that asking such people what memories were conveyed to them by their parents or grandparents would be just as productive.
My argument is twofold. Firstly, I argue that collective memory, though not entirely factual, can be studied to comprehend the war’s legacy in the region, and the role that this legacy plays in national and sectarian discourses. Collective memory should not be utilized to ascertain historical facts. Secondly, I will argue that second generation memories can be a source of untapped historical records if evaluated carefully, but that third generation memories are practically useless for reconstructing individual experiences.


  1. For information on oral history research, see: D.A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2003; L. Barnickel, Oral History for the Family Historian: A Basic Guide, Oral History Association, Murfreesboro 2006.

This is an Article from La Rivista di Arablit - Anno IX, numeri 17-18, dicembre 2019

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Catherine Batruni |