Lebanese passengers aboard the Titanic: In pursuit of the American dream

Some 150 Lebanese citizens were aboard the famous liner during its fatal crossing of the Atlantic Ocean on April 12, 1912. Through this series, L'Orient-Le Jour shares the stories of Lebanese passengers, a fragment of the Titanic’s history.

Lebanese passengers aboard the Titanic: In pursuit of the American dream

Some 150 Lebanese were on board the Titanic on its maiden voyage in April 1912. (Credit: Photomontage by L'Orient-Le Jour)

It was slightly past 6:oo p.m. at Cherbourg harbor on April 10, 1912.

Sheikh Nassif Abu al-Mona, originally from Shaney in Aley, rushed to the dock, followed by 11-year-old Hussein, a relative’s son.

After learning about what was being called “the fastest boat to New York,” Abou al-Mona purchased tickets to board the Titanic.

Nothing prepared him for the exuberant arrival of the magnanimous ship, which was the most luxurious and impressive of its time. It arrived illuminated, from the UK’s Port of Southampton.

“It was a floating Broadway,” he later told the Roxboro Courrier Times.

Abu al-Mona was among the crowd of admiring onlookers and passengers when the ship docked. He was not the only passenger hailing from a city or village in what would be called Greater Lebanon eight years later.

For a small land, a high number of people, mostly from Mount Lebanon and some localities in the South, stood at Norman Quay.

Discreet third-class passengers, with a few exceptions, carried with them the wounds of their native land, which was then under Ottoman rule. They were dreaming of a better future.

Instead, they became forgotten figures in a tragedy that still haunts the world a century on.

But before the tragedy, these individuals were confident and proud to be embarking on the ship. To arrive at Cherbourg port, many traveled a long and expensive journey. First, one needed to reach Beirut by donkey or horseback, where they would then embark for Marseille. From Marseille a train would be taken to Paris, and finally, another one to the Norman Port.

This is what Shaanineh Shahine, from Fghal in Jbeil, and Gerges Abi Saab, her cousin from Thoum in Batroun, did.

Despite the tiring journey, mourning the loss of a son, and the prospect of a long crossing, the extraordinary ship fascinated Shaanineh. At 38-year-old, it was not Shaanineh’s first trip to the US. She had been there in 1906 with her four other children, whom she took care of alone since her husband’s death.

Her cousin Gerges was en route to Ohio, where he had been for the first time a few years earlier. His wife and their six children stayed behind in Thoum.

Shaanineh was keeping an eye on Banoura, the teenage daughter of one of her relatives, whom she had promised to take care of.

Also from Batroun, more precisely from Hardin, 19 young men and women took on the adventure, including newlyweds Hanna Touma and Zahia Khalil, who were excited to celebrate their union on board.

At the same time, Neemtallah Hardini, also from Hardin, was about to be canonized as a saint in Rome. It was a good omen, and the young group never imagined that anything bad could happen to them on a boat deemed unsinkable.

Like the vast majority of emigrants at the time, they prepared to meet their relatives in the US. The Hardin locals were on their way to the city of Wilkes-Barre in Pennsylvania, where a large Lebanese community was already established.

The migration wave in the early 20th century was attributed to the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Despite enjoying partial autonomy, Mount Lebanon — extending at that time from Chouf in the south to Bsharri in the north and Zahle in the east — was under Ottoman control. Mandatory conscription was being enforced and poverty was rampant.

Mothers were encouraging their sons to emigrate. “As Europeans introduced new technologies to this part of the world, Lebanese artisans were gradually losing their jobs,” said Roberto Khatlab, head of the Latin American Studies and Cultures Center (CECAL) at Holy Spirit University of Kaslik.

“At the same time, the main industries, including sericulture [silk production], were in crisis. The widening inequalities pushed the poorest to set sail in order to secure their future,” he added.

The passengers were not from Mount Lebanon exclusively. Originally from Kfar Meshki in Rashaya, Joseph Elias took his two sons Joseph and Tannous, and set off to join his wife in Ottawa, Canada.

At the time, it was not uncommon for one family member to lead the way for others, although it was rare for a woman to be the first to leave. Unfortunately, Elias was forced to leave behind his three other children in the village, because they suffered from trachoma, a contagious eye disease, and could not travel. In total, 14 Kfar Meshki inhabitants attempted the crossing.

Difficult count

How many Lebanese were aboard the Titanic? Certainly much more than what the official figures suggested after the sinking. The number of Lebanese aboard would be high, considering there were 2,228 passengers and the crew on board the ship in total.

In Lebanese on the Titanic, a book, written in Arabic and published by Daccache Printing House in 2000, author and journalist Michel Karam writes that over 80 of the Titanic’s passengers came from localities that are now part of Lebanon. Of these individuals, 33 survived. Other sources note that 29 Lebanese passengers survived.

Lebanese made up one of the larger communities on the Titanic, after Americans, British and Irish travelers, also mostly immigrants. The names of many passengers are listed in Encyclopedia Titanica, a valuable archive.

Nevertheless, Karam estimates that this figure is a low estimate, and quoted Shaanineh Shahin, one of the survivors, who said she counted 165 Lebanese on the ship.

In another book titled The Dream and Then the Nightmare: The Syrians Who Boarded the Titanic, published in 2018, researcher Leila Salloum Elias estimates the number between 125 and 165. Elias refers to the passengers as Syrians, which is closer to the historical reality of the time.

Finding these passengers was made difficult by the fact that the spelling of their names was often distorted by the European crew, who understood little from these Arabic speakers who likely didn't speak another language.

Another group that was likely missed includes illegal passengers —those who could not obtain an Ottoman passport to travel legally. Ottoman passports were difficult to obtain and expensive at the time. Others relied on the Lebanese community in Marseille to “Europeanize” their identity and appearance, said historian Roberto Khatlab.

When sources are compiled and cross-checked, the most accurate number seems to be 150. Leila Salloum Elias said she was recently contacted by a family of Lebanese origin from Brazil who claimed to have family members who died in the tragedy.

American fascination, Ottoman vexations

At that time, the US, and North America in general, was the dream of every emigrant.

Family reunions were a lot less common back then, and of the lucky ones that managed to reach their ‘promised lands’ luckier were those able to eventually send for their families. This was the case of Latifeh Baaklini from Dhour Choueir,  who took her three young daughters and the 14-year-old daughter of a family friend, Adele Kiameh, on the fateful trip.

Latifeh was on her way to join her husband, a successful pharmacy owner, and Adele was to join her father, businessman Nagib Kiameh, both in New York. Nagib Kiameh’s letters were published in Karam’s book and give a valuable account of the period, and of the Titanic in particular.

“It is essential that’ [Adele] arrives at her destination with five lira in her pocket so that she would not need anyone’s assistance,” Kiameh writes. “In her statements [to the American Immigration Service], she claims to be 16 years old, and she was going to her father to study.”

At Cherbourg harbor that day, the two women had the leisure to admire the liner, on which they embarked, despite having almost missed it (they also did not have time to notify their families, who believed they were on another boat). They almost forgot the harassment and vexations of the Ottoman authorities in Beirut, who perceived negatively this massive emigration and searched their luggage for hours.

Amongst the crowd of eager travelers stands an unusually elegant man with a particularly immaculate mustache. Carrying a tarboush in one hand and his oud in the other, emir Fares Chehab stood at the docking station. It was a sad day for Chehab, who left his native home in Hadath and his ancestral castle to embark on the journey. The reason why this aristocrat opted for a third-class ticket remains a mystery.

Chehab was not the only one carrying secrets, perhaps. Daher Abi Chedid, from Abrin in Batroun, did not take the same route as his fellow countrymen to get to Cherbourg. He traveled from the port of Selaata, north of Batroun, to Cyprus in the middle of the night on a small boat, before continuing to France to board the Titanic.

This was because Daher allegedly killed a young woman from his village, likely his lover, by shooting her accidentally with a rifle he thought was empty, according to a centenary witness interviewed by Karam in the late 90s. Taking the advice of relatives, he set off to join his mother in the US.

Parties and good atmosphere

Among those that boarded the Titanic in Cherbourg and Southampton, were Nicolas and Adele Nasrallah from Zahle. They were among the few Lebanese in second class and were dazzled by the luxury and grandeur of the liner.

Spontaneously, many of the Lebanese passengers booked cabins near one another would gather. The “mistress of the seas,” as Shaanineh called it, ensured an unprecedented level of travel luxury and comfort, “even in third class,” she said in an interview with Sharon Herald in 1937.

The atmosphere on board was vibrant with music, dance, and good food. Abu al-Mona couldn’t believe his eyes. “This liner was really beautiful,” he would later say. It was not his first trip across the Atlantic and he witnessed the Titanic’s exceptional speed.

Georges Touma, originally from the South, who was a child back then, was fascinated by “the richness of the carpets, the very vast stairs, the ramps covered with gold, and the tempting smells of the dishes.”

Third-class passengers passed through the first and second-class sections before reaching their cabins, witnessing all of the wonders of the gigantic boat.

The Lebanese passengers had a particular sense of celebration. Like their Irish neighbors, who also clustered in cabins close to one another –as confirmed by Guy Younes, founder of the Irish-Lebanese Cultural Foundation — they celebrated the dawn of a new life.

Sunday, April 14, 1912, was going particularly well. Abu al-Mona even expressed wishing that the journey to New York was longer. The liner was scheduled to reach the city on April 19, a record for the time. That evening, the Lebanese onboard were busy celebrating the union of Hanna and Zahia, the lovers from Hardin.

As they danced the dabke to traditional music, they suddenly felt a shake. After being startled, they are reassured: What could possibly happen to an unsinkable liner anyway?

This story is based on Michel Karam’s reference book, Lebanese on the Titanic, published in 2000, and the archives of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center at Notre Dame University.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.

It was slightly past 6:oo p.m. at Cherbourg harbor on April 10, 1912. Sheikh Nassif Abu al-Mona, originally from Shaney in Aley, rushed to the dock, followed by 11-year-old Hussein, a relative’s son.After learning about what was being called “the fastest boat to New York,” Abou al-Mona purchased tickets to board the Titanic. Nothing prepared him for the exuberant arrival of the magnanimous...