Lebanese on the Titanic II: Shipwreck and despair

Some 150 residents of what is today Lebanon were aboard the famed luxury liner during its fatal 1912 Atlantic crossing. In this series, L’Orient-Le Jour shares a fragment of the Titanic’s history in the stories of these lost Lebanese.

Lebanese on the Titanic II: Shipwreck and despair

Illustration by an unknown artist depicting the sinking of the Titanic. (Credit: AFP archive)

The Titanic departed from the Irish port of Queenstown (today Cobh) on April 11 at 1:30 p.m. The flagship of Britain’s White Star Line, the vessel set sail through the icy waters of the North Atlantic at high speed, destined for New York.

It was the maiden voyage of the largest and most luxurious liner of the time. Many wealthy celebrities and a large number of emigrants, including more than 100 Ottoman citizens hailing from a territory that, eight years later, would be called “Greater Lebanon,” were on board.

The passengers, numbering nearly 2,200, did not know that other ships had already issued several iceberg warnings to the crew.

That night the sky was clear, and the temperature dropped below zero. The lookout spotted a nearly 30-meter-high iceberg in the Titanic’s path less than 500 meters distant.

Despite the order to stop the engines and change the Titanic’s course, momentum drove the giant ship forward, striking the iceberg on its starboard side.

From that moment, the fate of the cruise ship and its passengers was sealed.

There was no panic at the moment of collision but questions were asked. The Lebanese passengers, especially women and the youngsters, were advised to head to the deck.

The journey from the third-class cabins to the deck, however, was fraught with obstacles. Twelve-year-old Elias Yared, from Hakour in Akkar, was traveling with his sister Jamileh, without their father Nicolas — who disembarked in Marseille after he was diagnosed with trachoma, a contagious eye disease, after he left Beirut.

Another adult who had taken Elias and Jamileh under his wing alerted the two teens.

“‘Go up to the deck without burdening yourselves with luggage and try to find a spot in a lifeboat.’

“Third-class passengers like us were only able to have direct access to the second class,” Elias recounted in the testimony of his survival. “We had no choice but to go directly to the deck, climbing a metal ladder.”

In a nearby cabin, Georges Toum, originally from South Lebanon, woke up abruptly when the ship hit the iceberg.

“We acutely felt the shock and voices started to be raised outside,” he later said.

Young Georges’ mother was sitting at the edge of her bed, concerned. She asked her two compatriots what was going on. They came back with bad news: the liner was seriously damaged. There was a lot of ice on the deck. The ship would sink..

Like the other Lebanese who were almost all in the third class, the two families struggled to reach the deck. Since the liner was considered unsinkable, nobody had paid attention to the limited number of lifeboats on board.

News of the ship’s dire straits spread quickly and with it panic among the passengers. They didn’t have time to dress properly. Most, like Georges’ mother, found themselves on the deck in nightclothes.

‘Her greed almost killed her’

Hailing from Dhour Choueir, Metn, 14 year old Adele Kiameh, who was traveling with a family friend, Latifeh Baaklini, 24, and her three little girls, almost ran out of time. They barely found spots in a lifeboat, assigned primarily to women and children, as maritime law dictates.

Abruptly, the teenager decided to head back to her cabin. Her father, businessman Nagib Kiameh, later wrote in a letter dated July 4, 1912, that “her greed almost killed her.”

The lifeboat had actually been lowered into the sea without her, despite Latifeh’s screams. Adele returned a few moments later, with a pair of socks wrapped around her neck and tied with a rope. It was later revealed that she had placed her gold coins inside her socks and her arms were full of pots of debs (molasses) that she wanted to take with her, because she had a hard time making it.

During Kiameh’s absence panic had escalated significantly and lifeboats were nearly all filled. An officer on deck threw her debs into the sea. She regretted this for the rest of her short life, falling ill and dying at the age of 26.

Kiameh owed her survival to John Jacob Astor, the richest man aboard. He had already secured spots in a lifeboat for his young wife and another lady. As the story goes, he took pity on the panicking teenager, pushing her into the lifeboat. He sank with the ship.

Not all Lebanese women and children were that lucky. Testimonies from several survivors or their descendants recount how harshly the panic-stricken crew treated the third-class passengers.

Some stories are harrowing, like that of Hanna Tannous, who hailed from Thoum in Batroun. He had offered one Titanic sailor all his savings, but could not secure a place on a lifeboat for his son Tannous, whom he kept with him despite the wife’s objections. They sank with the ship.

Then there is the tale of Joseph Elias and his two sons, Joseph Jr. and Tannous, from Kfar Meshki in Rashaya, who drowned with the father’s savings. News of the tragedy hit Elias Sr’s wife hard. She had already settled in Canada and her three remaining children were alone in Kfar Meshki. She reportedly had to knock on many doors to finance their passage to Canada.

Of all the villages in what is today Lebanon, Kfar Meshki and Hardin, in Batroun, paid the heaviest price in lives lost — respectively losing 13 and 12 residents to the Atlantic.

‘I was born a man and I will die a man’

Titanic’s tragedy divided many families, and widowed a significant number of women. Among them was Silaneh Yazbeck, 15, from Hardin, and the pregnant Adele Nasrallah, one of the few second-class passengers, traveling with her husband, Nicolas.

As for the Hardin couple whose union was celebrated on the evening of the shipwreck, things took a different turn. Even though she had the opportunity to save herself, Zahia refused to leave her Hanna and drowned with him.

Men were forbidden to board the lifeboats, which inspired notable behavior. For some, the survival instinct was the strongest. Originally from Hardin, Mbarak Assi tried twice to board the lifeboat. Both times the sailors in charge took him off. On his third attempt, an American woman saved his life by hiding him under her skirts.

Philip (Fahim) Zeenny, from Toula in Batroun, also managed to take refuge in a lifeboat and he ultimately helped save the passengers on board. Those at the lifeboats’ oars had to row very fast to avoid getting dragged down. Lifeboats were lost this way, but Zeenny is said to have taken the oars and got the boat to safety.

Others chose to die philosophically. Survivor Shaanineh Shahine, from Fghal, who later gave extensive details of her escape, recalled suggesting that her cousin Gerges Abi Saab, from Thoum, dress as a woman and follow her to the lifeboat. He refused.

Today, Josyann Abi Saab, an emergency services doctor in the United States and a descendant of the man from Thoum, is proud of her forebear.

“Since I was a child, I’ve been hearing the same story that he told Shaanineh,” she said. “‘I was born a man and will die a man’.”

Abi Saab’s body was one of those recovered and buried in the US, where his great-granddaughter visited him decades later.

Other men tried to save themselves by forcing their way through and avoided drowning by being shot. Lebanese survivors confirmed the disputed testimonies that Titanic’s officers fired on those men protesting being banned from lifeboats, a prohibition that was particularly enforced for third-class passengers.

Zgharta’s Tannous Kaoui and Sarkis Ishac were killed this way, testified Hanna Makhlouf, a survivor from the same village. A man from Kfar Meshki was killed before the eyes of Zad Nassif, the only survivor from that Rashaya village.

In their race for survival, some said they saw young men from Hardin holding hands and starting their last dance. “Dabkeh ya shabab! [Let’s dance dabkeh, guys!]."

Others saw the mysterious Emir, Fares Chehab, playing his oud with the orchestra. Did the Emir of Hadath really believe that the liner would not sink? In an apparent sign of desperation, he entrusted his family’s gold ring to a survivor, who returned it to his family years later.

Those who threw themselves into the sea in a last-gasp lurch for survival were unlikely to survive, given the water temperature.

Daher Abi Chedid, who fled Ebrin in Batroun after he accidently killed the girl he loved, was found surprisingly far from where the ship sank, frozen on a piece of ice. He fought to the end and was buried in the US.

Sheikh Nassif Abou al-Mona, originally from Shaney, Aley, was luckier. He managed to climb onto a piece of driftwood and was picked up by a lifeboat.

Little Hussein, aged 11, who accompanied Abou al-Mona, and whom the sheikh himself had placed in a lifeboat, was sucked into the abyss by the sinking Titanic.

Haunted for life

The mythical sea giant took just two hours and 40 minutes to disappear, claiming the lives of almost 1,500 victims, mostly of hypothermia in the icy North Atlantic. Of the 712 or so survivors, 29 to 33, depending on the count, were from what is today Lebanon.

Distributed among 20 lifeboats, they heard the cries of distress of those left behind, including their loved ones. The cries haunted them for the rest of their lives.

Then the voices fell silent, and the frigid wait for help was anguished, said Fatima Musulmani. The sole survivor from Tibnin, Musulmani also managed to save the four-year-old daughter of a missing friend.

Many in her home village and in the US later praised Musulmani’s bravery, but that night she mourned the loss of two close friends with whom she had planned to live in Michigan.

Shaanineh hugged young Banoura, shivering with cold, who survived. Losing four of her cousins, including Gerges, and the unbearable image of the Titanic swallowed by the sea are, for her, one ordeal among many.

Sporting jet-black hair before boarding the liner for America, she remembers disembarking the rescue vessel with an almost gray head of hair, thanks to the intense emotion that day.

This courageous survivor was one of the few who dared to set sail again to visit home, now “Greater Lebanon,” in 1922. She continued her life in the US, where she founded a prosperous business with her children.

In the silence of the night, a complaint was heard. In the panic before the ship went down, Catherine Peter Joseph (her Americanized name), from Seraal in Zgharta, lost her four-year-old son, Michael.

When the Carpathia, the nearest rescue ship, came to pick up the survivors, she found her son, who had been rescued at the last minute by an American woman, who had pulled him from the water where he had been clinging to flotsam.


Some 85 years on, the Titanic tragedy has lost none of its hold on public imagination. In James Cameron’s record-breaking 1997 feature film “Titanic,”  only one scene bears witness to the presence of Arabic-speaking immigrants on board: In the midst of panic, a mother shouts "Yalla!" to her children.

The film’s worldwide Hollywood success was a trigger for all those who had heard of Lebanese immigrants who went missing while aboard the liner.

It was at this time that UK-based Michel Karam threw himself into investigating Titanic’s forgotten Lebanese, first as a journalist then as an author, collecting their stories over time.

“Their story is that of emigrants who braved everything for a better future,” Karam said, “and I think it’s unfair to disregard them.”

Lebanon’s Notre Dame University (NDU) paid tribute to the memory of the Lebanese passengers who disappeared on the Titanic in 2012, marking the 100 anniversary of the tragedy. A model of Titanic and a commemorative plaque are housed in the museum of NDU’s Lebanese Research Center for Migration and Diaspora Studies (LERC).

“It moves me to think of those immigrants who put themselves at risk for their families,” said Josyann Abi Saab. “My great-grandfather died on the Titanic. I emigrated to the US during the Civil War and my daughter recently chose to return to Thoum, our home village. So we’ve come full circle.”

This story is based on Michel Karam’s reference book, Lebanese on the Titanic, 2000, and the archives of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center for Migration and Diaspora Studies At Notre Dame University.

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

The Titanic departed from the Irish port of Queenstown (today Cobh) on April 11 at 1:30 p.m. The flagship of Britain’s White Star Line, the vessel set sail through the icy waters of the North Atlantic at high speed, destined for New York. It was the maiden voyage of the largest and most luxurious liner of the time. Many wealthy celebrities and a large number of emigrants, including more than...