This month marks the 107th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, which sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic in the early morning of 15 April, 1912.
Only 706 passengers survived from among the estimated 2,223 passengers and crew — exact figures are disputed — who were on board the ship during its maiden voyage to New York. Hollywood film director and producer James Cameron made a movie about the voyage that premiered in November 1997; Titanic became the second movie at the time to cross the $2 billion gross threshold demonstrating how popular the story was.
Of course, the world fell in love with the fictionalised romanticism of the RMS Titanic that Cameron selected to present, but not to the reality. Like millions of people around the world, I had not only heard about the sinking of the ship, but also watched Cameron’s fictional account starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
I remember being surprised that Cameron included a 6 second scene in his movie that drew attention to a little-known fact about the Titanic tragedy: there were Arab passengers on board the doomed vessel. The scene in question showed an Arab man, his wife and two children trying to figure out where to go as the ship alarms blared in the background. The woman yells “Yalla, Yalla” as DiCaprio and Winslet rush past holding hands.
When I saw this, I wanted to know more. As an Arab American, it was one of the few times that I had been in a cinema and the Arab character on the screen wasn’t a bloodthirsty terrorist. All the terrorists looked like my cousins and my uncles, and me, so I would always give my relatives a second look as a child, just to be sure.
During the movie, I wondered what had happened to the Arab family depicted by Cameron. Fortunately, the cinema had a “Titanic display” in the lobby with a list of every passenger and crew member. I was shocked when I saw dozens of obviously Arab names, and wondered if any shared my name. Further research uncovered some resources, but not many that offered details about the Titanic passengers. Nevertheless, from what I have been able to ascertain, there were 79 passengers whose surnames indicate obvious Arab heritage, although one Arab survivor and several other sources contend that there were more than 165 Arabs on board.
Also lost in the tragedy was a priceless copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam which had been purchased by a Jewish investor in New York City. The book had 1,051 semi-precious stones set in 18-carat gold, 5,000 separate pieces of coloured leather and 100 square feet of 22-carat gold leaf in the tooling.
In her marvellous account of the Titanic tragedy, Titanic: Women and Children First, author Judith B Geller wrote, “Officially there were 154 Syrians on board the Titanic, and 29 were saved: four men, five children and 20 women.” She also cited newspaper accounts which suggest that the small Roman Orthodox Village of Kfar Mishki in the lower Bekaa Valley of Eastern Lebanon was “devastated by the loss of at least 13 of its inhabitants.”
All of the Arab passengers had Third Class tickets, apart from four who travelled Second Class, a distinction that related to accommodation and the price of the ticket. Rescued by the RMS Carpathia, the survivors lived to share their personal tales of horror, having witnessed whole families drown as the ship sank in just over two hours into the Atlantic depths. In Arabic, by the way, a derivative of “Atlantic” means “Dark Sea” or “Sea of Darkness”.
After writing Titanic: We Share the pain but not the glory, I started to receive enquiries from Arabs around the world asking for information about their relatives. There was a problem for them in making such efforts to trace deceased relatives, of course, because Arab names suffer from transliteration into English, along with inconsistency in the pronunciation of Arab words, especially names.
Some of them emailed to tell me that their relatives had travelled aboard the Titanic and hosted an engagement party during the voyage. In Cameron’s movie, DiCaprio and Winslet dance at an Irish celebration on the lower decks. I like to think that, in reality, they could have danced at a Lebanese hafli with Arabic music.
Arabs were accustomed to travelling to America by steamship. My father, George, made the journey on board the SS Sinaia. It took nearly 30 days to cross the Atlantic after leaving Jaffa, Palestine on 5 September, 1926; he arrived in Providence, Rhode Island on 4 October. From there, my father took a train to Chicago where he was met by his brother, Mousa. The Titanic was built to provide a much faster five-day trip from the UK to New York.
For me, the story of the RMS Titanic represents a double tragedy for the Arab people. The loss of life and suffering of the survivors was a calamity of huge proportions. However, the fact that so little attention has been given to the identity of the victims in a story that has captivated the imagination of the world symbolises, for me, the real tragedy that we all face.
It is a reminder that Arabs in the West have not done a very good job about telling the world who they are and where they come from. A film about the Arabs on board the Titanic would be enormously moving for me. Theirs is a story waiting to be told.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.