Famine Worlds
Life at the Edge of Suffering in Lebanon’s Great War
Tylor Brand



Four Years of War

We tend to associate famine with starvation in the streets and widespread death, but the first stages of famine were far subtler and its effects far more diffuse.34 Though retrospectively the famine appeared to be a single event, the different ways that wartime circumstances affected the region produced what was essentially three overlapping subfamines that existed within the broader, regional crisis: a famine of the mountain, a famine of the cities, and a famine of the countryside. Each subcrisis was shaped by the unique economic and social factors of its situation, as well as the variable effects of catalysts and the effects of the war. Some areas were more vulnerable to the crisis, and others were better suited to weather it. Rural areas were deeply disadvantaged by Ottoman military policy and were hampered by unequal social structures and natural disaster. Famine in the mountain, on the other hand, was mainly driven by the cessation of overseas trade, the elimination of remittance money, and failures of Ottoman policy. The mountain’s unusually internationalized economy made it vulnerable to the blockade, but Mount Lebanon also contended with a disastrous Ottoman anti-smuggling cordon that made moving food into the region nearly impossible for the average family (at least by legal means). Locally known as the “blockade of the mountain” this policy contributed to even higher prices and local shortages. Coastal urban areas were similarly affected by the loss of foreign markets, but they also suffered the side effects of famine in rural and mountain areas, mainly in the form of in-migration. Though each area’s problems were rooted in the same basic structural issues that came from the war itself, these differences meant that enduring the famine in Beirut was very different from living it in the agrarian market town of Baʿalbek or in the mountain village of Barouk.

Famine conditions may have fluctuated by season and in response to various internal dynamics, but the social and individual impacts were cumulative and often horrific. Poverty surged, and with it came suffering, emotional misery, sickness, and starvation. The famine was inescapably public and emotionally traumatic. Even those whose lot was merely to sit and watch as their world dissolved in front of their eyes were appalled by its transformations. As the crisis grew, waves of people poured from the mountains into both coastal and inland market towns. The first influx included wealthy elites seeking safety in cities or unemployed laborers seeking work, but later waves included whole families, widowed women, and orphaned children who came seeking a chance at life when survival in their home villages was unsure. Social judgment and acts of desperation litter the sources from this era, as observers grew increasingly appalled by the degeneration that they saw in the behaviors and even in the very bodies of their starving peers. For untold thousands, death was the unavoidable result, but many more continued to struggle, to strive, and to adapt to survive those “years of horror.”

From the onset of hostilities until the Armistice of Mudros on October 30, 1918, life in the region was defined by the pressures of the war and the omnipresent suffering of the famine. Though the entire Ottoman home front suffered,35 the brunt of the crisis fell on the province of Beirut and especially the district of Mount Lebanon.36 Widespread starvation and the increasingly despotic behavior of Jamal Pasha’s military administration convinced many contemporaries that the Ottomans were deliberately targeting the mostly Christian populations of the mountain because of their close ties with France and their contentious politics in the decades prior to the war. Some contemporaries even saw the famine as a deliberate extermination campaign, using food as its weapon in a way that mirrored genocide and ethnic cleansing against the Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks of Anatolia.37 As more detailed historical analysis has been conducted in recent decades, this speculation has been shown to be inaccurate, but it is readily apparent that the state’s disaster response was no less a disaster itself.

With the arrival of Faysal ibn Husayn’s fabled Arab Revolt in 1918 (with the Entente occupying force on its heels in support), the Ottoman administrators retreated, and the empire’s policies evaporated. Soon after, the blockade lifted, and normalization mercifully began to commence. Speculators who had been hoarding grain for years released their inventories in a single wave, causing a sudden collapse in food prices. This alleviated some immediate suffering, though inflation remained for some time.38 The lifting of Ottoman banking restrictions and the embargo brought an influx of bank transfers and family members who had been prevented from coming home to relieve their loved ones. As ports once again opened to the outside world, aid poured in through private donors like Near East Relief and through French agents seeking to burnish France’s prospective imperial reputation as it awaited the results of the Paris Peace Conference.39 Within months, a muted postfamine normalcy gradually descended while politicians and imperialists began to reimagine the region’s future in Sevres and San Remo.40 Though the end of the war brought the nominal end of the famine, its effects would reverberate through society for years to come.41

Tracing the War through History

That is the story of the home front in the territories that would become Lebanon after the war, or at least a basic sketch of it. Like any complex historical process, such a narrative is necessarily limited by scope, scale, and framing. Indeed, this triad has frustrated efforts to situate the wartime crisis in the Great War’s broader historiography for over a century now. Each nation has its own mythologies, and for general audiences, the wartime suffering of a tiny fragment of a peripheral region in the Middle East has difficulty competing with the familiar horrors of the trenches and the fables that they produced, no matter how intense that suffering may have been. Even if we neglect the general Eurocentrism of the wartime historiography (and no, we should not neglect it), the tragedies of the Ottoman home front hardly matched the sheer scale of the carnage in Europe. How does one justify the importance of a localized calamity when twice as many men perished in the Battle of the Somme than in all of the nearly four years of famine across western Syria?

Even within the region, the famine suffers challenges of framing. The war was an unequivocal watershed event in the regional history of the Middle East. Not only did it mark the end of the two great remaining empires in the region, those of the Ottomans and the Qajars, but their dissolution launched their former imperial subjects unevenly into eras of imperialism and nationalism, which in turn laid the foundations for many of the political realities of today. Juxtaposed with these profound events, the general neglect of the home fronts in wartime historiography is somewhat understandable, if not entirely justifiable. When the famine has been studied, its historical importance has often been seen as a hinge event that linked the era of Ottoman imperial rule to one of European imperial domination42 or to the admittedly important topic of national creation.43 Until recently, the war has rarely been granted real value as a self-contained historical event.

Changing historical trends have amended this, but slowly. Like the often competing historiographies of the European fronts, language and identity initially cleaved Ottoman wartime experience into distinctly Turkish, Armenian, Greek, and Arab (primarily Lebanese) proprietary traumas, which have only recently begun to be critically analyzed or integrated into a collective whole.44 Recent inquiry into the war in the Middle East has begun to shade away from political and diplomatic history in favor of a more comprehensive social history,45 offering distinct niches for the study of the crisis, disease, famine, and genocide that devastated the region during the war.46 Much of this attention has centered on the “Lebanese” famine of the war (indeed, it is the focus of this book).47 Though the area that would become the Republic of Lebanon after the war was not the only place in the empire that experienced famine,48 the appalling suffering of Mount Lebanon has given the famine special meaning for the country’s Maronite Catholic community in particular and, by later extension, to the Lebanese nation as a whole.

Thanks to retrospectives, diaries, and archival sources, it has not been particularly difficult to trace a narrative arc for the history of the wartime famine in the area that would become the Lebanese Republic. However, this narrative can be deceptive. Many of the most read accounts were rife with tales of oppression, backroom conspiracies, clashes of personality, and the usual heroics, histrionics, failures, and follies that are so often included to sweeten the plot.49 As such, historians have struggled with the veracity of many of the sources and their claims. This has been complicated by the politics of the famine in the postwar era. Though early accounts after the famine literature were often framed as scathing class critiques depicting common suffering under a savage imperial heel, the famine was rapidly weaponized by postwar sectarian politics, particularly after Maronite patriarch Elias Huwayek cited the disaster to justify a Christian-dominated state under French protection after the war.50

Many studies of the famine in Lebanon and the province of Beirut have naturally pondered over why the famine took place and what happened during the era. In its most basic sense, the answer to the causality question typically follows one of two general themes: one focusing on Ottoman oppression and Lebanese victimhood (often with local elite complicity)51 and another placing the blame for the famine at the feet of the Entente powers, specifically their wartime blockade. Recent critical analysis has also blamed locust plagues52 or silk monoculture and Lebanon’s overreliance on foreign imports and capital.53 Admittedly, it is almost impossible to analyze an event as devastating and vast as the famine of World War I without either rounding off the edges or focusing on a central, narratable theme—but by framing it, the messier, more personal aspects of life in the famine are often lost.

Living the Famine

This book seeks to rediscover the complexity of life in the famine. Though the events that took place within the macrofamine were objectively important (and will be dealt with thematically within this book), the subjective, experiential aspects of the famine are undoubtedly just as vital if we wish to understand the era as a lived context. This book proceeds from the basic premise that if we randomly examined the lives of a dozen people who lived the Lebanese famine of World War I, we would find a dozen different ways of understanding both the famine and life within it. Though many of those explanations would have been united by common themes and shared experiences, we would inevitably find differences in experience due to varying social circumstances, vulnerabilities, status, power, wealth, access to capital, physical location, proximity to hazards, and resilience in the face of change. All of those factors and more affected how much an individual suffered, or if they even suffered at all during the wartime crisis. In turn, each of those individuals would have interpreted the challenges that they faced through their own unique set of experiences and perspectives. While one person might have defined the era through fear, pain, and trauma, another might have spent the four years of the war bored, disgusted, and perhaps even a bit irritated at how difficult it was to acquire the little luxuries of their prefamine life. Another may have survived easily but suffered vicarious traumatization from the tragedies that surrounded them. For others the era may have been defined by the loss of loved ones, livelihoods, a home, or a future. Statistically speaking, around two of those people would have died. To access these experiences, this book focuses on tiny slivers of life in the crisis that speak to the subtle impacts of social calamity.

As a result, much of my analysis about the wartime famine in Lebanon will differ from traditional famine analysis by economists and social historians, and not every example might be immediately recognizable as a famine story. Take the following anecdote, which was passed down through generations of one family in the central mountain village of Barouk. It is not clear exactly which year this story took place—what matters is that at the time, suffering was intense, and life was hard in the mountain. The story centers on two brothers who had set out on a smuggling expedition to purchase grain from their Druze coreligionists in the fertile plains of the Hawran. With prices high and legal avenues for resupply slim, the brothers’ journey was an expression of hope. If successful, they could sustain their families and perhaps even earn some extra money by selling their surplus. If they failed . . . well, it was best not to consider that. When they stopped to rest along the hidden trails of the eastern mountain foothills, one brother, named Jammul, pulled out a half loaf of bread, some olives, and an onion, which he broke on a rock, intoning, “Al-hamdulillah ʿala hadhihi al-naʿma” (Praise God for this blessing). While this little invocation may have been as much a matter of habit as anything, hearing such praise as people starved all around them irritated his brother-in-law, who snapped that Jammul should not be so liberal with his praises. Since God was so clearly taking them for granted, perhaps they should make him earn their gratitude.54

Superficially, this scenario is not necessarily interesting as a source of historical content. There is no reason to doubt that it happened, but its details are unverifiable. Even assuming its accuracy, the exchange took place between two obscure historical actors far from the suffering and starvation that we might consider the titillating bits of the disaster. A literary critic might point out that the action had no overt consequences. Nobody dies, and the only violence in the story is committed against an onion. Nevertheless, this brief moment between Jammul and his brother in that hidden corner of the famine is just as rich in historical meaning as more recognizable wartime scenes like the locust plague or the sight of dissidents swaying lifelessly in the squares of Damascus and Beirut. Within this flash of famine life, we find themes of survival and perseverance and even a hint of the emotional complexity that was an inevitable product of existing amid the traumas of the famine. The story is authentically human—perhaps even more so by virtue of not being very sensational.

These are the stories that are most important for this text. This book holds that life in the Lebanese famine of World War I was not just a montage of sorrow and woe centered on the wartime triumvirate of locusts, starvation, and the villainous Jamal Pasha. Nor was it simply a transitional point between the dying of the Ottoman age and the birth of the nation. The famine was a lived experience. It was a dynamic, four-year-long process of destruction and change that dramatically remade the lives of everyone who lived it. It was physically, socially, practically, and emotionally transformative. It forced people to adapt their behaviors, their habits, their diets, and the ways that they approached their presents and their futures. It shattered social orders and reshaped communities. From within, the famine was unpredictable, overwhelming, and unsolvable. It was, as a contemporary described it, like going up against “adamant.”55 It was “affective,”56 it was challenging, and it was traumatic. It was the evolving milieu in which people acted, lived, survived, and struggled—for some, until they were physically incapable of struggling any longer. People experienced the famine inside their homes and encountered it when they opened their doors. They saw it, heard, it, and smelled it in the markets and on the streets. It haunted their minds in times of quiet contemplation and they felt it in the pits of their stomachs. As it filled streets with misery and warped the bodies of the starving, it even redefined the shared social constructs that shaped how people understood the world they saw and their place within it. It framed their worldviews and constricted the range of choices that they could make as they sought to survive, or even simply to endure as the days, months, and years passed.

I argue that living within the famine was not just to namelessly take part in one broad, impersonal calamity—it was to be the protagonist of one’s own story, with a specific setting, a unique cast of coactors, and personal subplots that developed from one’s own subjective experiences of the war and its ineffable calamity. In short, it was to occupy one’s own personal famine world embedded within the broader crisis. Accessing those individual worlds is of vital importance if we wish to understand how people negotiated the uncertainty of life while their world fell apart around them.


34. See Howe, “Famine Systems,” 144–55.

35. The value of the Ottoman piaster fluctuated in Istanbul at roughly the same rate as it did in Beirut. Yalman, Turkey in the World War, 144.

36. Williams, “Economy, Environment, and Famine,” 150–51.

37. Yammine, Quatre ans, 23.

38. Saʿab, Stories and Scenes, 337–38.

39. Jackson, “Compassion and Connections,” 90.

40. On this, see Thompson, How the West Stole Democracy.

41. Various consequences are noted in Sibley et al., Social Survey of Syria.

42. See Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace. See also McMeekin, The Ottoman Endgame. For a general overview, see Johnson, “The First World War and the Middle East,” 142–51. The region is largely absent from the war’s most comprehensive literature overview, Winter and Prost, The Great War in History.

43. This originated scholastically with Antonius, The Arab Awakening. See also Hitti, Lebanon in History; Traboulsi, A History of Modern Lebanon; Elizabeth Thompson’s excellent Colonial Citizens offers a fresh reconsideration of this dynamic. See also Schayegh, The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World; Çiçek, War and State Formation in Syria; Provence, The Last Ottoman Generation; and Kayalı, Imperial Resilience.

44. Excellent recent integrated histories include Fawaz, Land of Aching Hearts; and Rogan, Fall of the Ottomans. See also the incomplete set by Shaw, The Ottoman Empire in World War I.

Several edited volumes have also emerged in recent years to add greater texture to our understanding of the war. Notably: Qassis, Lubnan fil harb al-ʿalamiyya al-ula; and Frazier, The First World War.

45. Winter and Robert, Capital Cities at War; Procter, Civilians in a World at War; and Grayzel and Proctor, Gender and the Great War.

46. Without even touching on the vast literature of the Armenian genocide, this would include Akın, When the War Came Home; Tanielian, The Charity of War; Metinsoy, Ottoman Women during World War I; Ajay, “Mount Lebanon”; Pitts, “Fallow Fields”; Pitts, “Hungry Population,” 217–36; Rose, “Implications of the Spanish Influenza Pandemic,” 655–84; Watenpaugh, Bread from Stones; Schilcher, “The Famine of 1915–1918 in Greater Syria”; Jacobson, “Negotiating Ottomanism in Times of War,” 69–88; al-Qattan, “When Mothers Ate Their Children,” 731–32; Nakhul, “Bilad al-Batrun,” 2: 795–867; al-Khuri, Majaʿa; Pitts, “‘Make them Hated,’” 175–90; and Williams, Economy, Environment, and Famine.

47. For an excellent literature review, see Abi Fadil, “Bibliographi al-harb al-ʿalamiyya al-ula fi Lubnan,” 83–116.

48. An oft-neglected example would be the Iranian famine; see Majd, Great Famine. However, reports of famine conditions ranged from Anatolia to the Arabian Gulf and, to a lesser extent, Greece and Egypt.

49. The most prominent of these sources include Yammine, Quatre ans; Yammine, Lubnan fil harb; McGilvary, Dawn of a New Era; Doolittle, “Pathos and Humor in Wartime Syria”; al-Maqdisi, Aʿ dham harb; Khuwayri, Al-rihla al-suriyya; and Dhahir, Jabal ʿAmil.

50. The Maronites are a Uniate Catholic sect who formed a majority population in the territory of Mount Lebanon in 1918. See Huwayek, Les Revendications du Liban. The translated text of the patriarch’s speech appears in Zamir, Formation of Modern Lebanon, 269–78.

51. See von Sanders, Five Years in Turkey, 140; Khuwayri, Al-rihla al-suriyya, 91; Yammine, Quatre ans, 39; and Yammine, Lubnan fil harb. Henri Lammens’s postwar account of Syrian history, dedicated to conquering French general Gouraud, amplified such notions: Lammens, La Syrie précis historique. For the American perspective, see McGilvary, Dawn of a New Era, 25; and Doolittle, “Pathos and Humor.” For more contemporary analysis, see al-Khuri, Majaʿa, 32–43; Schumann, “Individual and Collective Memories,” 247–263; Moawad, “Jamal Pasha en une version libanaise,” 425–46; and Walker, “Clericist Catholic Authors,” 91–128.

52. Foster, “The 1915 Locust Attack,” 370–71.

53. Pitts, “Was Capitalism the Crisis?”

54. This story was told to me during an interview with Hayat Mahmud conducted on January 24, 2014. I have structured and edited the narrative for clarity but have kept its plot intact.

55. Nickoley, “Historic Diary,” 19.

56. Anderson, Encountering Affect, 13–14.