Each new Titanic book comes with an air of excitement.
It's more than the 'new book' look and 'new book' smell. It's the anticipation that tickles your fancy even before you crack the first page. Does this book contain something new? Something thrilling? Or is it just a rehash of the same old thing?
Well, The Dream and then the Nightmare by Leila Salloum Elias delivers in spades. It's all new, and it's excellent. Not only does it shower the reader with information never before available, but, for added frisson, it sprinkles the story with controversy---firsthand evidence of the darkest secret of the Titanic disaster.
The subtitle is 'The Syrians who boarded the Titanic', making it the latest in a line of books about nationalities on the doomed ship (Irish, Norwegians, Canadians, Swedes). It follows the pattern---here are the survivors, here are passengers who died and here's their stories.
(For the purpose of this book, Syrian means residents of the former Ottoman Empire--- Syrians, Lebanese, Armenians--- before the Middle East was divided into the countries we now know.)
What separates The Dream and then the Nightmare from the others is how little is known about the Arabic passengers on the Titanic. They were poor, they didn't speak English and they had funny (to us) names.
Strikes one, two and three when it came to newspaper coverage. Their stories were told only in regional papers which covered local survivors, and those accounts were quickly lost in the sands of time.
The first contribution by Elias is to provide the real names of the Syrian and Lebanese passengers on the Titanic. The lists of living and dead supplied by American and British authorities relied on phonetic spellings of non-Anglo names, and the results were often brutally wrong. As Elias writes, families in the Middle East reading these lists frequently couldn't even tell whether their relatives were on the ship. Arabic newspapers spent weeks sorting out names so that family members left behind could know whether to mourn a loved one or not.
Tapping these newspapers, reading the survivor accounts told in their own language, interviewing descendants and relatives of Syrian passengers in their home villages, and mining the book 'The Lebanese on the Titanic' by investigative reporter Michel Karam, (published in Beirut in 2000), Elias was able to piece together the stories of the Titanic's Arabic passengers.
Dahir Shadid Abi Shadid was fooling around with a rifle when it discharged, killing a girl. Fleeing the revenge of her relatives, he got a ticket on the Titanic to America, thanks to money sent by his uncle in Pennsylvania. He never made it, dying in the mid-Atlantic.
Safiyah Halut-Mariyam Yusuf Ibrahim (Sophie Abraham) was 15 years old and a new wife, with an 8-month old baby, when she and her husband decided to emigrate to the United States---in 1909. They left their daughter with her in-laws until they were settled. Her husband was allowed in, but she was turned away because of an eye infection. She spent 3 years in the Caribbean trying to qualify to enter the U.S., but finally gave up and recrossed the ocean to France on her way home. When a ticket on the Titanic became available, she decided to try once more. She succeeded this time---after a harrowing escape from the sinking oceanliner. She didn't see her daughter again for 39 years.
Mubarik Hanna Sulayman AbicAsi (aka John Borek, Hanna Monbarek, Hanne Moubarck) was one of a large group of emigrants from the Syrian village of Hardin, and one of the few survivors. The residents of Hardin still repeat the story told by the survivors of the last minutes of those Syrians who couldn't find a place in the lifeboats.
Many Titanic books recount how a group of passengers gathered on the boat deck in those final moments and together sang the hymn Nearer My God To Thee. The Syrian survivors told a different story.
As the boat sank, writes Elias, one of them took out a mijwiz (a wooden flute) and began to play. Others, standing shoulder to shoulder, began to stamp their feet and sing.
"Heads held high they danced defiant to death and steadfast they faced the end: the final scene that survivors from Hardin remembered."
The Syrian survivors remembered something else---something the authorities wanted forgotten as soon as possible and never mentioned again.
They remembered seeing their countrymen shot down by officers and sailors aboard the Titanic.
Elias tells these stories, which have circulated in Arab villages for almost a hundred years. She names some of the men who were shot.
Ilyas Tannus Ibrahim Nasr Allah was coming to Canada to make money for his family. Ottawa-bound survivor Zad Nasr Allah (Mariyam Assaf) told his wife, a 15-year-old relative of hers, that he "did not die from drowning but that he died from gunshots fired by one of the officers..."
Fatimah Muslamani told her family that one of her cousins was shot by a crewman when he got caught hiding in a lifeboat.
Latifah al-Haj Qurban al-Bacqlini told an Arabic newspaper she saw three Syrian men shot and killed.
This is sure to be the most controversial element of The Dream and Then the Nightmare. And one wishes that on this point Elias stopped paraphrasing the survivor accounts and repeated verbatim what they said about the shooting incidents.
Other quibbles: there is no index and the Syrian passengers are listed alphabetically, based on the first letters of their (unfamiliar) names.
But such minor faults shouldn't deter anyone from buying this book. It belongs in the library of every Titanic researcher and historian and anyone interested in immigration to America at the turn of the 19th century.
The Dream and Then the Nightmare sells for $25 plus postage. The book is 366 pages, with photos, and includes a handy foldout poster of the permutations of the survivors' names as they were reported in assorted publications. It's softcover, nicely bound and well laid out.
It is published in Syria and only available so far from a single bookstore in New York City, Dahesh Heritage Fine Books firstname.lastname@example.org.