The Charity of War
Famine, Humanitarian Aid, and World War I in the Middle East
Melanie S. Tanielian



Total War

Politics, Power, and Benevolence

In 1952, the Lebanese government held an international design competition for a national monument to commemorate the nation’s experience of World War I (1914–1918). A watershed in the country’s history, the war had marked the end of the four hundred–year-old Ottoman Empire. And for many Lebanese looking back at the Great War from the vantage point of the 1950s, the war signified the beginning of national resistance, a moment of communal martyrdom for independence from Ottoman rule, even if this independence was to be delayed by decades of French colonial rule.1 The winner’s statue would be erected in the heart of the country’s capital of Beirut, at the center of what was then and is still called Martyr’s Square (Sahat al-Shuhada’).2 The new design would replace an existing sculpture, controversial and by then also vandalized, the work of prominent Lebanese sculptor and painter Yusuf Huwayyik.3 Sculpted from locally sourced limestone, Huwayyik’s monument was a somber and understated centograph framed by two modestly dressed upright women. The only difference between the two female figures lay in their head coverings, which clearly identified one as Muslim and the other as Christian. With outstretched arms, the women faced each other, their hands and gazes fixed on a funerary urn, which symbolically held the ashes of those who perished in the war. Titled Deux pleureuses (Two mourners), the stoic women were alternatively interpreted as mourning the loss of their sons, their children and families, or the many who had fallen victim to a devastating man-made wartime famine.

The upheavals of World War I were felt early on in Beirut and in the adjacent Mount Lebanon, the former a provincial capital and the latter a semiautonomous district of the Ottoman Empire. It was at the end of June 1914—when affluent Beirutis escaped the heat of the city, and with the tourist season in the cool resort towns of the neighboring mountains in full swing—that news of the Austrian imperial heir’s assassination set off a “firestorm” in Mount Lebanon.4 Upon hearing the reports, vacationing families from Cairo, Damascus, Europe, and the United States instantly gathered up their belongings and hurried down to Beirut to catch the next boat, train, or carriage back home.5 This swift flight stirred locals’ worst fears. Was war imminent? Their concerns were to be substantiated in short order. The Ottoman call to arms came on August 3, 1914, several months before the empire’s central government in Istanbul publicly announced its ill-fated decision to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers—Germany and Austria-Hungary.6 According to official figures released in 1921, in the course of four seemingly endless years of war, the Ottomans mobilized an extraordinary 2.85 million men between the ages of fifteen and fifty-five to fight, what historical hindsight now makes plain, a losing battle.7 By the end of the war, the empire had lost a fourth of its army and suffered many more casualties among its civilian population.8 Ottoman military engagement, as is well known, was limited to the peripheries of the empire. Except for a few targeted aerial bombardments of its harbor, the cosmopolitan Mediterranean port city of Beirut and the coastal and rugged mountain terrain of Mount Lebanon did not see direct combat.9 Although they were far removed from the Ottoman battlefronts, high estimates of noncombatant mortalities for both city and rural mountain areas, however, are clear indicators that the war happened here too.

When considering the empire as a whole, it is evident that the war hit civilians living in Beirut and Mount Lebanon especially hard. In the course of four years, approximately half a million people perished in Greater Syria.10 While there are no reliable statistics, historians have estimated that Mount Lebanon lost somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000 people.11 Beirut, the capital of the Ottoman province of Beirut, alone is said to have lost approximately half its residents.12 While many fled, the extraordinary human loss was a direct result of war calamities; the biggest killers were hunger and disease. As early as October 1914, Ottoman civilians complained of food shortages, diminishing supplies of seed grain, and a disproportionate rise in the cost of living. In Beirut and Mount Lebanon, both places of limited agricultural production, the food crisis soon escalated into “a famine of epic severity.”13 As Ottoman authorities closed the Beirut harbor to imports from abroad, the Entente Powers (Britain, France, and Russia) blocked nearly all Mediterranean trade; transportation of food from the grain-producing regions of Greater Syria to the coast became increasingly difficult, and the coastal areas’ most important supply lines were effectively cut. Bad harvests due to heat waves, lack of rain and workers, followed by an infamously destructive locust invasion, exacerbated the situation. Basic necessities, if they did not completely disappear from the market, rose in price beyond the reach of the average person. Famine struck!

The Horrors of Famine on the Provincial Home Front

It was the bloodless incursion of starvation and the silent assault of fatal microbes that defined the experiences of war on what I refer to as the provincial Ottoman home front. First propagated during World War I, the term “home front” is useful here. It was initially intended to differentiate a masculine battle front from a female home front, but here the term “home” is used to describe the military term “front.” This suggests a blurred line between soldiers and civilians and introduces violence into the civilian realm.14 Lacking the high drama of bombs and bullets, it was a different, silent violence that defined life on the home front in general, and in this provincial home front in particular. As an employee of the American Syrian Protestant College (SPC) in Beirut, Edward Nickoley observed in early 1917 that “there is more evidence of distress and suffering at those places [soup kitchens, meaning the home front] than there is on any battlefield.”15 With an already dire situation worsening in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, starving bodies, now easy targets for deadly infectious diseases, turned into everyday sights. Visiting Beirut in 1916, Turkish feminist Halide Edip described the scene in her memoir: “In the rich streets of Beirut, men in rags with famished faces, solitary waifs and strays of both sexes wandered; lonely children, with wavering stick-like legs, faces wrinkled like centenarians, eyes sunken with bitter and unconscious irony, hair thinned or entirely gone moved along.”16 Individuals turned into survival machines, defying all human dignity; women and children scavenged for food in Beirut’s garbage bins; like animals, they grazed on the fields and mountain meadows, devoured dead animals, and, in final acts of desperation, even picked grains from horse dung.

The situation in Mount Lebanon, as in Beirut, was dire and no doubt was growing worse each year. Hunger’s wreckage was confirmed by the accounts of American canvassers, who traveled into Mount Lebanon, compiling lists of people in need. Upon their return to Beirut, the men testified to the appalling state of affairs caused by starvation. One surveyor, after making a list of poor people in the villages assigned to him, returned to the same villages to ensure their accuracy. In the meantime, so many people had died that his lists were useless, and he had to compile new ones. In one village, forty-seven people had died during the twelve-day interval between his first and second visits. In another, nineteen were dead after only three days, most of them from “out and out starvation.”17 The account of an unnamed American eyewitness published in a Cairo newspaper further confirmed the disproportionate fatalities. In the village where he had spent the summer months, more than thirty people had died of hunger.18 In other cases, entire villages had been abandoned. For example, one small village near the Damur River was “empty except for one old man, who was burying his dead friend.”19 Here, the war was, without a doubt, a battle endured, fought, and eventually lost on the home front. Civilians were the victims.20

The inhumanity of war and famine became a catalyst for indescribable behaviors. The most horrifying example, framed as a moral disease that accompanied “body disease,” was the moment when “mothers ate their children.” According to an eyewitness, starvation reached such heights that people employed “just about any means to get food to survive, means which ordinarily their upbringing and pride would have ruled out.”21 Eating human flesh may have been such a means. Yusuf Rufa’il, a resident of a small town in northern Mount Lebanon, claimed to have known of two such incidents: one in the northern Kisrawan and another in the central Shuf district of Mount Lebanon.22 Ibrahim Kan‘an included a section in his history of wartime Beirut titled “The Eater of the Children’s Flesh.” In it, he recounted the story of a man who had reportedly slaughtered and eaten one of his sons. When interrogated by police, the man admitted his crime and blamed hunger.23 Antun Yamin’s eyewitness account published in 1919 offers, as the historian Najwa al-Qattan put so well, “not stories or even anecdotes, but a register of horrific still lifes in bite-size bursts of arresting detail.”24 He quickly rattled off a list of the violations, never pausing, as if to avoid lingering on the moral implications. He enumerated: “In Damur, Kattar Shahdan al-Salafani ate three human corpses; in Matn, Helena daughter of Salibi Abd ate the corpse of her nephew, Najib Salibi ‘Abd. And ‘she was not the only one who ate a corpse.’ In Tripoli, four women cannibalized four children.”25 It is impossible to parse fact from fiction. But there is no doubt that this “epic” famine turned food into most people’s primary concern.26 The chroniclers of the famine used the “unthinkable” to describe what they saw as nothing less than a demographic catastrophe, an attack on human existence, an existential crisis. The accounts of first-generation eyewitnesses and historians alerted their readers and listeners that this famine, like so many others, had exposed sentiments, instincts, and behaviors that not only revealed, unflatteringly, a universal abandonment of ethics but perhaps represented the darkest moment of their people’s history.27 It was, as the Syrian poet Nasib ‘Arida signaled, a “tale of weakness and disgrace” best erased from history.28

Reminding the public as it did of the horrors of famine, Huwayyik’s Deux pleureuses became the focus of heated debates and disapproval in the Lebanese press immediately after its inauguration on May 6, 1930.29 The monument depicted the beginning of the Lebanese Republic’s national “birth” as the unacceptable passivity of female suffering and male absence or, perhaps more aptly, impotence. As one critic noted, it “did not represent the manhood [rujula] of heroes.” Another lamented that the sculpture “symbolized tears and resignation rather than courage and heroism.”30 And while the most horrific effects of the famine were recorded during and immediately after the war, this sinister episode was perceived as a stain on the memory of a newly emerging nation. It seemed best forgotten, which had the remarkable effect of turning this catastrophic devastation into an insignificant detail in the larger history of World War I in the Middle East. This book insists that the famine was anything but irrelevant. Instead, it argues that this man-made wartime famine opened a space for local, national, and international actors to reshape the wartime and postwar political landscape as they responded to starvation and disease. Indeed, the position of state and nonstate actors in the chain of civilian provisioning, their willingness or refusal, their capability or failure, and their altruism or greed in feeding the poor and destitute affected their social and political standing during and after World War I. The great potential for sociopolitical benefits and, in turn, losses rendered civilian provisioning a highly contested field.

Uncovering a Forgotten Story: The Famine in Lebanese Memory and History

When I was conducting research for this book, state-sponsored memory of the war years chose to highlight the martyrdom of a select group of Arab notables, intellectuals, and nationalists who were framed as having resisted the tyranny of Ottoman rule. This memory was also rooted in wartime events. Under the umbrella of martial law, the regional and local representatives of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the ruling party of the Ottoman state, regulated the smallest and seemingly most insignificant civilian matters in Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Jamal Pasha, a high-ranking member of the party, arrived in Syria as the commander of the Fourth Army Corps soon after the Ottomans entered the war on October 31, 1914. The military commander more often than not was described as an unsavory character. The American ambassador to Istanbul, Henry Morgenthau, found “there was little about Djemal [Jamal] that was pleasing.” On the contrary, he saw him as cunning, remorseless, and selfish to “an extreme degree. Even his laugh, which disclosed all his white teeth, was unpleasant and animal-like.”31 As the CUP had entrusted Jamal Pasha with full reign over Greater Syria and the Arabian Peninsula, he ruled unchecked and with an iron fist.32 According to the ambassador, he governed Syria “as independently as a robber baron,” becoming “a kind of sub-sultan, holding his own court.”33 Jamal Pasha dealt ruthlessly with any opposition that advocated ideas threatening to Ottoman sovereignty, such as Arab nationalism and demands for the continued autonomy of Mount Lebanon. Jamal Pasha ordered suspected traitors to be exiled, imprisoned, and in the worst cases executed. The public hanging of thirty-three prominent Arab men accused of anti-Ottoman scheming in Beirut and Damascus in 1915 and 1916 earned Jamal Pasha the titles of “blood-shedder” (al-saffah) and “butcher” (al-jazzar).34 It was this public spectacle of violence that became the focus of the state’s commemoration of World War I in 1938, when May 6, the date of the men’s “sacrifice,” was proclaimed an official day of national mourning. There was no plaque, no statue, and no mention of the famine in the state’s official memory of World War I. But the famine’s memory lingered right below the surface.35

During my many casual conversations with Lebanese citizens, I never missed an opportunity to ask what they knew about the experience of World War I. Most if not all men and women framed their answers by stating that there had been no war in their country, no real war at any rate. There had been, however, starvation, hunger, no food, or as some would say, the people fought a “war of famine” (harb al-maja‘a).36 The experience of the Great War in the second- and third-generation memories of ordinary Lebanese seemed to be primarily identified with either famine or its semantic associates, hunger and food shortages, and with people’s reactions to the famine, even though Lebanese textbooks generally dismissed this historical episode within a paragraph or two. Whether emphasizing family histories of feeding, provisioning, and compassion or focusing on the suffering of the many, the famine loomed large in what we might call popular memory.37 Intrigued by the discrepancy between official and contemporary popular memory—the latter partially influenced by the famine’s domineering presence in the accounts of eyewitnesses and first-generation historians—this book retrieves the story of this Ottoman provincial home front through its encounter with the famine.

A number of historians have recently begun to write the social and economic history of World War I in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, their focus has been on the war’s dehumanization and perpetual disruption of normalcy.38 This book, however, is not only about the injurious inhumanity of famine or the war’s destructive force. Indeed, the horrors of the famine will eventually fade into the background. It is clear, as Janam Mukherjee points out, that “famine preys on the poorest of the poor, the weakest of the weak, those whose very lives and life-stories are erased by marginality and neglect.”39 It is of little use to present sensational perhaps even pornographic pictures and accounts of suffering. However shocking, sad, and startling, such images and texts contribute little toward explaining the long- and short-term processes that bring about famine. Instead, I am interested in the reactions of those men and women who saw, heard, or read the accounts of starvation and were motivated to help, whether for pity, piety, politics, prospects, power, or profit.


1. Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943.

2. The square’s shape and name have changed a number of times since the nineteenth century. Khalaf, Heart of Beirut, 190–191; Volk, Memorials and Martyrs, 52–53.

3. Yusuf Huwayyik was the nephew of one of the most powerful political figures in postwar Lebanon, the Maronite patriarch Ilias Butrus al-Huwayyik. Volk, Memorials and Martyrs, 67.

4. Al-Hakim, Bayrut wa-Lubnan [Beirut and Lebanon], 131.

5. “Syrian and Lebanese News,” Al-Muqattam [literally “the broken,” the name of a range of hills southeast of Cairo], Cairo, September 19, 1916; Edward Nickoley, “Historic Diary,” Edward Nickoley Collection, Box 1, File 2, AUB.

6. For mobilization in a Greater Syrian town, see Rida, Mudhakkirat lil-tarikh [Memories of history]. For a detailed account of the Ottomans’ entry into the war, see Aksakal, The Ottoman Road to War.

7. The numbers exclude hundreds of thousands of men and women conscripted into labor battalions. See Aksakal, “The Ottoman Empire,” 468.

8. Historians Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker estimate the war’s total casualties of mostly soldiers as around 9 to 10 million. See Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker, 14–18, 21. Edward J. Erickson estimates Ottoman military casualties at 771,844. See Erickson, Ordered to Die, 237–243. Ottoman civilian deaths are approximated as about 2.5 million, with some historians citing numbers closer to 5 million. This includes approximately 1.2 million Ottoman Armenian victims of genocide. Gelvin, The Israel-Palestine Conflict, 77.

9. The Ottoman military engaged in five major campaigns: the Caucasus Campaign (1915–1918) against the Russians along the northeastern borders of the empire; the Gallipoli Campaign (1914–1916) against the French and British; the Mesopotamian Campaign (1914–1918) against the British; the campaign against British and Russian troops in northern and western Persia (1914–1918); and the Palestine Campaign against mostly British troops in the Sinai. In addition, the empire fought a number of smaller battles, most notably against Arab forces in the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula (1916–1918).

10. Greater Syria includes the geographic area of today’s Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel and the occupied territories of Palestine.

11. There are no reliable statistics concerning the death toll from the famine. George Antonius estimated that 350,000 people succumbed to famine in Greater Syria. Based on German records, Linda Schilcher argued for the number to be closer to 500,000. Antonius, The Arab Awakening, 241; Schilcher, “Famine in Syria,” 231; Thompson, Colonial Citizens, 27.

12. Beirut’s population was about 185,000 in 1914. By 1918 it was reduced to 80,000, according to a letter from Jerome Vuallie, Superior of the Capuchin brothers in Syria, published in the journal Les missions catholiques [The Catholic missions], October 10, 1918. Vuaille, “La famine à Beyrouth [The famine in Beirut],” 553.

13. T. Khalidi, “The Arab World,” 292.

14. Grayzel, Women’s Identities at War, 7; Healy, Vienna, 5.

15. Nickoley, “Historic Diary.”

16. Adivar, House with Wisteria, 371.

17. Nickoley, “Historic Diary.”

18. “The State of Affairs in Syria and Lebanon,” Al-Muqattam, October 24, 1916.

19. Unofficial Report from Bayard Dodge to Cleveland Dodge, “Relief Work in Syria during the Period of the War,” 1918, Howard Bliss Collection, Box 18, File 3, AUB.

20. Downes, Targeting Civilians, 14.

21. The historian Nicholas Ajay interviewed Yusuf Rufa’il in 1964. Ajay, “Mount Lebanon,” appendix, 61.

22. Ibid.

23. Stories of cannibalism were and continue to be powerful rhetorical devices exemplifying the complete breakdown of society and family and the real horrors of famine. Najwa al-Qattan points out that a subsection of Ibrahim Kan‘an’s Lubnan fi al-Harb, titled “Eaters of Children’s Flesh,” was republished by Lebanese historian Wael Hallaq in a volume edited by Khalid al-Lahham under the title Old Beirut in the Papers of Ibrahim Na‘um Kan‘an in the 1990s. See Kan‘an, Lubnan fi al-Harb al-Kubra [Lebanon during the Great War], 167–169; Wael Hallaq, “Social Life in Beirut,” 127–135; Al-Qattan,” When Mothers Ate Their Children,” 724.

24. Al-Qattan, “When Mothers Ate Their Children,” 724; also see Fawaz, Land of Aching Hearts, 115.

25. Al-Qattan, “When Mothers Ate Their Children,” 724.

26. Thompson, Colonial Citizens, 15.

27. Ó Gráda, Famine, 68.

28. Quoted in al-Qattan, “Fragments of Wartime Memory,” 135.

29. Khalaf, Heart of Beirut, 191; Volk, Memorials and Martyrs, 69.

30. Lebanese minister Muhieddine al-Nsouli was an outspoken critic of Huwayyik’s statue. Volk, Memorials and Martyrs, 67–69.

31. Morgenthau, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, 172.

32. Çiçek, War and State Formation, 2, 7.

33. Morgenthau, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, 174.

34. Tauber, The Arab Movements, 28; Volk, Memorials and Martyrs, 41.

35. One of the first scholarly works that addressed the memory of World War I in the region was Farschid, Kropp, and Dähne, The First World War as Remembered.

36. Furayha, Qabl an Ansa [Before I forget], 49.

37. By “popular memory” I mean a memory that is articulated in the course of casual conversations and interviews.

38. The historiography of the Armenian genocide looms large here. See, for example, Suny, “They Can Live in the Desert”; Kévorkian, The Armenian Genocide; for Syria, see Thompson, Colonial Citizens; al-Qattan, “When Mothers Ate Their Children.”

39. Mukherjee, Hungry Bengal, 1.