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‘For God’s Sake Send Me Ten Lira,’: Women, Migration, and World War I in Mount Lebanon

 |  Graham Pitts

This post is authored by Graham Auman Pitts, who is currently a post-doc in NC State’s International Studies department. He completed his dissertation at Georgetown University on the environmental history of Lebanon. His last article focused on Mary Mills, an African-American nurse in Lebanon.

farida

Farida Nimr Haykal (click to enlarge)

Resident in the Matn town of Duhur al-Shuwayr with her daughter, Farida Nimr Haykal had stopped receiving remittances from her husband sometime in 1916. She wrote the U.S. consulate in Beirut at least two times that summer to implore they contact Nimr Haykal on her behalf. Ottoman censorship restrictions and the Entente blockade prevented her letters from reaching the United States, but the consulate in Beirut telegraphed Nimr to inform him of his wife’s desperate situation by way of the embassy in Constantinople.[1] With no money or response forthcoming, Farida’s situation grew more desperate. Her solution to “work the cocoon season” suggests she probably was not normally employed as an agricultural laborer and likely owned the mulberry trees she aimed to harvest. A professor at Syrian Protestant College[2] donated money so that she could purchase silk cocoons, but she lacked “baskets [tibāq] and ladders [sqāla]” to store and harvest mulberry leaves. In pencil on the back of the consulate’s response, Farida wrote a desperate plea in her colloquial Lebanese dialect: “We have become, my daughter and I, in need of clothes. We are totally naked. I don’t need to explain more [fahmik kifāya]. My daughter has a fever and constant attacks so she cannot come down [to Beirut in person].” She implored “Miss Nixon” of the American consulate, “for God’s sake [karmāl allah], send me ten lira,” but her pleas fell on deaf ears.[3] U.S. consular documents from 1918 listing Lebanese requesting funds from relatives in the United States make no mention of Farida and her daughter.[4]

World War I revealed a paradox of Lebanese migration to the Americas: a source of great prosperity for Lebanese before 1914, Lebanon’s dependence on money sent from abroad also represented a dangerous vulnerability, particularly for women who were apt to rely on cash remittances sent from male relatives in the United States, Argentina, Cuba, or elsewhere. It became almost impossible to send money to Mount Lebanon during the war. The interruption of remittances was a key factor in causing the famine that took the life of one in three Lebanese between 1915-1918. This blog will detail the heart-wrenching stories of several women who spent the war in Lebanon, cut off from their families in the mahjar and their source of sustenance, based on letters they wrote to the U.S. consulate in Beirut.

Famine in Lebanon

Famine in Lebanon (click to enlarge)

Lebanon lost access to its main sources of income when the Ottoman Empire took the side of Germany and the Central Powers against Britain and France in November 1914.[5] Money transfers from the mahjar had been the largest source of income for the Ottoman province of Mount Lebanon before 1914, followed by the export of silk to France. French and British ships blockaded the Mediterranean coast and prevented the importation of food and the export of silk. Deprived, too, of an easy means of receiving help from relatives abroad, residents of Beirut and Mount Lebanon faced famine conditions beginning in April 1915.

More Lebanese men than women had taken the journey abroad, once migration in Lebanon began in force in the 1880s. Many women stayed behind to head their households. Silk production had offered women new forms of social mobility, even before migration began, as Akram Khater’s work has shown. “Factory girls” spent long days toiling spinning silk, but reaped rewards in terms of personal freedom and economic autonomy.[6] Migration and silk economy thus created a dynamic and prosperous society in Mount Lebanon before World War I. When the falling price of silk threatened to imperil that prosperity, the American mahjars acted as a safety valve to soak up excess population.

During World War I, they no longer had that option because of wartime obstacles to mobility. While there is little evidence to support the accusation that the Ottoman government intended to starve the Lebanese, its administrators Ottoman government took no decisive action to stem the tide of famine in the province. Meanwhile, the traditional “protector” of the Lebanese, France, was blockading food supplies from reaching Lebanon. Spurned by other governments, many Lebanese looked to the United States, via the U.S. consulate in Beirut, for help in their time of need. The letters sent by Lebanese women to the U.S. consulate reveal the trying conditions they faced as they managed their families’ affairs as the head of household. Albeit fitfully, remittances from the Americas continued to arrive through the consulate until April 1917, when it became nearly impossible to cash checks drawn on U.S. banks.

JUSTINA GEORGES JACOB

Justina Georges Jacob

Justina Georges Jacob (click to enlarge)

By 1918, severe hunger impacted all but the wealthiest classes. Money transfers from the Americas became all but impossible after the United States entered the war in April 1917. Justina Georges Jacob’s husband was in the United States and had been sending money to her throughout the war. Having “spared no method attempting to send money” for his children’s livelihood, Georges Jacob had authorized the consulate to provide whatever amount necessary for his wife and children’s maintenance. The consulate declined to extend him credit, however. Writing in French, she claimed to be a “citoyenne americaine.” The consulate’s correspondence neither confirmed nor denied her claim in that regard. “Abandoned with my children without any resources […] having only some hectares of land I cannot use,” she demanded the American consulate save her and her children, “from hunger followed by certain death.”[7] Her reference to ‘hectares’ of land holdings she could not use is telling. She and her children were likely not equipped with the skills necessary to farm the land they owned. Nor could they hope to employ agricultural laborers to do so—they had largely perished or disappeared by that time.

MARY MODI

Mary Modi of Bayt Meri, near Beirut, also had been receiving money from her husband in the United States. Born in Mannington, West Virginia, where her husband remained, she had come to Lebanon for a “change of climate,” and to “visit relatives” with her five children. Considering the circumstances, she “was doing her best as a woman,” but was in desperate need of money in early 1918. Her fate is unknown.[8] Juharé Mattar, of Beirut, also had the misfortune to have come back to the old country shortly before the war: “We left America before the war to arrange our affairs here and return, and therefore we extend our hand to you to help us in our misery. My family is composed of eight people […] we are dying of hunger.” Sometime in the past year, her husband had “gone to Damascus in search of work,” but had not, since that time, “given any sign of life [il ne donne pas signe de vie].” [9] No indication in the consul’s documentation indicates that they were afforded help. With full acknowledgement of the essential futility of comparing human different forms of human suffering, Juharé’s fate to watch her eight children starve could easily be taken as more savage than her husband’s, probable death, alone, searching for work and food somewhere between Mount Lebanon and Damascus.

ADMA RAZOOK

request-for-funds

Request for funds (click to enlarge)

Adma Razook[10] began writing letters to the American consul in November 1917. Her husband was in the United States and unable to send funds to her and her four children. She had “returned to Syria some [short] period before the war [b-muda].”[11] The consul had remitted to her ten pounds, via the American missionary, Rev. George Doolittle of Sidon. That sum had afforded her only “temporary relief,” however. Her husband’s remittances had sustained her, “before America declared war,” but was forced to beg the consulate for “any aid or loan that might be advanced to me in such hard times to save me and my family from starvation,” which she insisted, “will be paid, in due time, by my husband who is faithful always to discharge his obligation with thanks.”[12] The consulate declined to extend her further assistance, noting it had “no funds for the relief of American citizens.”[13] Edma Feisal, of Ain Anoub, met an untimely death awaiting funds from her husband sometime in 1917 and her children went to live with one of “their grandmothers.[14]Another woman, Adèle Abusafi of Dbayeh, her husband dead of illness during the war, deigned to contact the American embassy and request assistance until after the end of the conflict. Her comfortable social position saw her through the war without having to make claims for charity based on her American citizenship. She had a Swedish acquaintance write a letter on her behalf. [15]

Those Lebanese who had the means to travel back and forth from the mahjar and relied on remittances for their livelihood mostly survived into the latter two years of the war, suffering once the financial system stopped functioning. [16] Had the war ended in 1916, they likely would have survived, no worse for the war. Their dependence on remittances became a liability only once the U.S. consulate could no longer facilitate the transfer of funds, and the Ottoman currency experienced massive inflation. Lebanon’s wartime suffering attests to the precarity of Lebanon’s social and economic gains before World War I, and the particular vulnerability and resilience of women during times of crisis.

Sources

[1] Farida had written on 29 August 1916, and the consulate’s response indicates she had initially contacted the embassy sometime before 26 July. Hollis to Farida Nimr Haykal al-Khuri, 5 September 1916, Beirut Consulate 194, RG 84, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland (NARA).

[2] Professor George Patch was also working as President of Beirut’s Red Cross society. Bayard Dodge to C.H. Dodge, “Relief Work in Syria During the Period of the War: a Brief and Unofficial Account,” n.d., A.A. 2.3.3.18.3, American University of Beirut (AUB).

[3] Farida Nimr Haykal al-Khuri to Amy Nixon, 14 Nuwwār [May 1917], Beirut Consulate 194, RG 84, NARA.

[4] See, for instance, Acting [American] Consul General [Hotz, Dutch Consul, Beirut] to Swedish Minister [Constantinople], “List of People Requesting Funds from Relatives in America and Addresses of Relatives,” 9 July 1918, Beirut Consulate 194, RG 84, NARA.

[5] For the Ottoman decision to enter the war see Mustafa Aksakal, The Ottoman Road to War in 1914: The Ottoman Empire and the First World War (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[6] Akram Khater, Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870-1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[7] Justina Georges Jacob (née Justina Jabour Bitar) to Consul General of the Netherlands, 14 May 1918, vol 194, Beirut Consulate, RG 84, NARA.

[8] Mary Modi to American Consulate 4 February 1918, vol 194, RG 84, NARA.

[9] Juharé Mattar to Consul General, 28 January 1918, vol 194, RG 84, NARA.

[10] Of Jdaidat Marjayoun, admittedly just outside the borders of Mount Lebanon. Her story is nevertheless quite reflective of the experience of many of the inhabitants of Mount Lebanon.

[11] Adma Razook [Razzuq] to Consul General, 8 November 1917, vol 194, RG 84, NARA. She wrote two additional Arabic letters: Adma Razook to Consul General, 20 January 1918; Adma Razook to Consul General 13 March 1918, vol 194, RG 84, NARA.

[12] One of the American missionaries based in Sidon likely helped her pen this letter in English. Adma Razook to Consul General, 1 August 1918, vol 194, RG 84, NARA.

[13] Acting Consul General to Adma Razook, 5 September 1918, vol 194, RG 84, NARA.

[14] Acting [American] Consul General [Hotz, Dutch Consul, Beirut] to Swedish Minister [Constantinople], “List of People Requesting Funds from Relatives in America and Addresses of Relatives,” 9 July 1918, vol 194, RG 84, NARA.

[15] Mary von Heidenstam to Hotz [Acting American Consul General] on behalf of Adèle Abusafi, 31 October 1918, vol 194, RG 84, NARA.

[16] Men, too, sought to contact relatives in the United States on behalf of their families. Salim Jawahiri of Zuq Mikhail, Kisrawan, sent word to his two brothers in the United States via the U.S. consulate in Beirut, from whom he had often received funds, which evidently lasted them until something shortly before May 1918. “We have become, recently, the victims of hunger.” Jawahiri referred to a family, composed of his wife, four daughters, and a sick, infirm sister [ukht marīḍa ājizat]. Salim Jawahiri to American Consul, 14 May 1918, vol 192, RG 84, NARA.

One response on “‘For God’s Sake Send Me Ten Lira,’: Women, Migration, and World War I in Mount Lebanon

  1. Raja Khalifah says:

    Graham, Powerful stories of a difficult period of history that people tend to not want to recall, unless they are historians!
    Please tell Dr. Khater that we strongly suspect that the mentioned woman “Edma Feisal, of Ain Anoub” who died waiting is almost certainly a relative of ours. Our family is from that village, and we did know two spinster aunts of my father who were from the Faisal family.

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