The Impact of the Sinking of the Titanic on the New York Syrian Community of 1912: The Syrians Respond

By Elias, Leila Salloum | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Impact of the Sinking of the Titanic on the New York Syrian Community of 1912: The Syrians Respond


Elias, Leila Salloum, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


ASIDE FROM THE LIMITED INFORMATION available concerning the Syrian passengers who boarded the Titanic in April 1912, even less has been published on the response of New York's Syrian community in the wake of the ship's sinking. Aware that these passengers would have families, relatives or friends throughout the U.S. and Canada, the community resolved to assist in any way possible.

As English language newspapers printed the initial lists of passengers' names, Arabic names appeared, in most cases, distorted and unclear. For the Syrian community, this created confusion, apprehension and nervousness. Many were no longer sure whether relatives had boarded the ship. It was essential, therefore, to clarification the passengers' names. Cohesive community efforts enabled relatives and friends to resolve conflicting information about who these passengers were and their village or town of origin. Eventually, the passenger names were published as accurately as possible in the Arabic language press.

Syrian organizations and community members put aside existing differences and made a concerted effort to identify, correct or confirm the names of the Titanic's Syrian passengers and seek material and spiritual support for survivors and victims' families.

Indeed, the response of New York's Syrian community to the plight of their fellow Syrians serves as testimony to the collaborative and cooperative efforts made to accomplish those goals. The toll of the disaster hit hard the Arab immigrants and families back in Syria. The entire Syrian community in New York identified with the difficulties of those who had left their homeland seeking a better future in a new land. They were reminded of their own journey across ocean and sea.

Hence, the Syrian community considered the ship's Syrian passengers as part of it. Those feelings were demonstrated through statements of its organizations, individual members and newspapers. Passengers originated from the same native soil (Greater Syria), spoke the same language (Arabic) and practiced the same traditions and customs. They, like those here, al-Huda reminded its readers, had boarded the ship as part of their lifelong dream to come to the U.S. seeking freedom and opportunity; but instead, became prisoners of fate. What happened to these Syrians was not only a catastrophe but also a disaster for the community as a whole. (1)

THE ARABIC PRESS IN NEW YORK REPORTS THE SINKING OF THE TITANIC

Early Arabic newspapers such as al-Huda, Mir'at al-Gharb, al-Bayan, al-Dalil and al-Sa'ih catered to their own audiences. Readers were informed of events in the homeland, each newspaper conveying coverage with tints of its own sectarian leanings. To many, immigration meant a sojourn in the Mahjar (the host society) from the homeland and so news from the native land remained important. There was a focus on politics from al-watan (the homeland) and editorials reflected specific religious (Maronite, Eastern Orthodox, or Druze) and political identities. Although newspapers did report about prominent individuals from the community, recent openings of business establishments by community members, marriages, births, deaths, and other social events, the Arabic print media focused on political news from home. Each Arabic language newspaper, a business in its own right, competed with other newspapers in the community, each claiming to be the best representative of its own faction in the community.

However, it was the sinking of the Titanic and news that a large number of Syrians were on board that put sectarian reporting aside. All newspapers now dealt with one community. Arabic newspapers reminded their readers of this horrendous human tragedy and that the Syrians who had boarded were their own compatriots. The print media's objective was to publish the facts as quickly and as accurately as possible and make it available to a community that needed the information to assist in any necessary relief. …

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