The impact of the sinking of the Titanic on the New York Syrian community of 1912: the Syrians respond.

JurisdictionUnited States
AuthorElias, Leila Salloum
Date22 December 2005

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)


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.

Calling it a calamity of enormous magnitude and the gravest of all disasters, a horror that no human could ever imagine, al-Bayan, al-Dalil, al-Huda and Mir'at al-Gharb began coverage of the sinking on April 16th, while al-Sa'ih, a weekly paper, began its coverage a week later with the publication of its first issue.

The initial reports in the Arabic daily press on 16 April did not mention that Syrian passengers had been on board. That a large number of passengers had lost their lives and that women and children appeared to be among those saved were emphasized. Coverage included the same news found in the English language newspapers; of the American, English and European passengers, of John Jacob Astor and his wife, of William Stead, Major Archibald Butt and Benjamin Guggenheim. Al-Huda and Mir'at al-Gharb described the flocks of grief-stricken relatives, men and women, lined up at the White Star offices, their faces bearing "shock and terror."

It was on the next day that the Arabic newspapers announced the stunning news that Syrians had, in fact, been passengers on the Titanic. Reports in their native tongue, made reality hit even harder. The Syrian community in New York and elsewhere learned of the Titanic disaster and the circumstances surrounding the fate of their compatriots. Initial lists of the names of the Syrian passengers were published in the first week after the sinking, some appearing once, but not on subsequent lists. (2)

Lists of names appearing in English language papers could not confirm the names of Syrian passengers. The phonetics and pronunciation of Arabic names, almost alien to English when transliterated (and translated), were confusing and, at times, inaccurate. Relatives relying solely on the White Star Lines' name lists were not always able to find the names they were looking for. For example, Bannurah Ayyub Dahir appears, in the New York Times's list of third class passengers, as "Banoura and Bancoura Ayont," while female survivor Adal Najib Qiyamah is listed as passenger "Najib Hachine." Najib, in Arabic, is a male's name. (3) Given that the Arabic newspapers were to take the names they presumed as Syrians and print them in Arabic, it is not surprising to learn that in the case of Sultanah Rizq Bulus and her two children, Nur al-Ayn and Akar, Harry Bullis, husband and father, was not able to determine if his family had actually been on the Titanic even after having perused the newspapers for their names. In another case, the report that a Syrian had anxiously rushed into the New York office of the White Star Lines refusing to be comforted as he told officials that of his 18 relatives on board, only seven had been accounted for due to mistakes made in announcing the names, demonstrates the problems that were arising. (4)

Consequently, as a preface to its initial announcement of the names, Arabic newspapers notified readers that the published names had been taken from the list of third class passengers who had boarded at Cherbourg, France and that these names had been published by one of the American English language newspapers. Mir'at al-Gharb and Al-Huda alerted readers that the names should be examined carefully as the White Star Line's list was still vague. Thus, these newspapers concluded, due to the ambiguity of the names, readers should be warned of possible discrepancies and inaccuracies. Arabic newspapers printed what they believed to be those names of Syrian passengers.

One example of misinterpretation was Cherbourg Austrian-Hungarian passenger "Firnaz...

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