Arabs on Titanic: We Share the Pain But Not the Glory
By Ray Hanania
Originally published on April 8, 1998, Updated Dec. 19. 2009
With just one word, “Yalla,” audiences around the world watching the James Cameron Movie Titanic in 1997-1998 received their first hint that aboard the ill-fated voyage of the Titanic were passengers of Arab heritage.
Although the brief words survived the editor’s cut, the three and one-half hour theatrical blockbuster movie skipped past the tragedy of its Arab passengers, whom witnesses said had the liveliest haflis (parties) and who celebrated three on-board weddings.
All told, there were only 706 survivors of the 2,223 passengers and crew who sailed on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. There were 79 passengers whose sur-names are of obvious Arab heritage. Also lost in what is one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th Century was a priceless copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam which had been purchased by a Jewish investor in New York City. The book had 1,051 semi-precious stones set in 18-carat gold, 5,000 separate pieces of colored leathers and 100 square feet of 22-carat gold leaf in the tooling.
Although one Arab survivor and several other sources contend there were more than 165 Arabs on board, I searched and reviewed every name on the passenger, crew and business concessionaire list and only could identify 79 names that were obviously of Arab heritage or later identified through other sources. Geller, in her marvelous account of the Titanic tragedy, Titanic: Women and Children First, writes there “officially were 154 Syrians on board the Titanic, and 29 were saved: four men, five children and 20 women.” She also cited newspaper accounts which suggest that the small Roman Orthodox Village of Kfar Mishki in the lower Bekaa Valley of Eastern Lebanon was “devastated by the loss of at least 13 of its inhabitants.”
All the Arab passengers were ticketed “Third Class,” except four who traveled “Second Class,” distinctions that related to accommodations and the price of the boarding pass. Only 38 Arabs survived. Rescued by the Carpathia, they lived to share their personal tales of horror, having witnessed whole families drown as the ship slowly sank into the deep, dark seas of the Atlantic Ocean. (The ocean’s name comes from an Arabic derivative that means “Dark Sea” or “Sea of Darkness.”)
Like many events in history, Arabs experience the pain, but receive little glory.
Director James Cameron drew on the ethnicity of other passengers in making the 11 Academy Award winning movie, including a portrayal of a lively Irish “hafli” and parts featuring characters of Swedish, Italian, Irish and English heritage.
It’s not easy to read through the lengthy list of passengers, let alone decipher who is or isn’t of Arab heritage. We can only guess in some instances, and my instinct tells me the number, 79, is slightly low. Some of the Arab Survivors, though, were quoted extensively in local newspaper articles, usually during remembrances of the disaster. The stories of a few others are included in published works.
Titanic sailed from Southampton, England on April 10, 1912. The largest ship ever built, it made stops at Cherbourg, France, where some of the Arab passengers boarded, and Queenstown, Ireland, before heading out to the high seas and its intended destination, New York City.
There were not enough life boats to carry all the passengers to safety. Those in the Third Class galleys, in the lower decks, found themselves cast aside by a frantic ship’s crew desperate to escort the First Class passengers to safety.
The barriers that divided the Third Class passengers from the rest of the ship were broken only after the passengers realized that the ship was sinking.
Two hours and forty minutes after the Titanic struck the iceberg, the ship disappeared into the sea, spilling survivors overboard who could not fit into lifeboats, leaving them to splash futilely in the sub-zero waters.
Most of those who died, including 41 Arab passengers, died because of the arctic-like cold waters, not because of drowning. Among the survivors was the ship’s parent company representative, Joseph Bruce Ismay, who survived to testify before lengthy US Senate Hearings several days later in New York City. His cowardice, taking a seat on a lifeboat before other passengers, was well documented.
Not told at these hearings were the remorseful tales of tragedy that accompanied the Arab passengers, some of whom departed on the voyage with visions of new futures in new worlds. We know of their stories thanks in large part to people like Philip Hind and Michael A. Findlay, who authored an informative memorial to the Titanic that is on the World Wide Web. Findlay wrote the introduction to Geller’s book.
Here are some of the brief stories and profiles, followed by a complete list of the Arab passengers I was able to identify based on sur-names who survived and who perished on April 12, 1912.
Miss Banoura Ayoub (Listed often as Ayout Banoura):
A young child in her early teens, Ayoub traveled from Lebanon to Detroit, Michigan where she was to be re-united with her family. She traveled with her cousins, Shawnee George Wahbee, Thomas Tannous, Gerious Youseff and Tannous Doharr, who were to continue through Detroit to Youngstown, Ohio, where today a large Arab American community flourishes.
Shawnee (profiled below) and Ayoub survived. All three men, traveling to find jobs at the steel mills in Youngstown, died. Banoura Ayoub eventually moved to Windsor, Ontario, Canada, another center of Arab growth.
Thomas Tannous is reportedly related to the family of Danny Thomas (Jacobs).
Mrs. George Joseph Whabee, known as Shawnee Abi Saab:
The better known of the Arabs who traveled on the Titanic was born in Thoum, Lebanon on Palm Sunday, 1874. (In Arabic, the name Shawnee means Palm Sunday). She was the youngest of seven children, the daughter of Thomas George Abi-Saab and Katoole Deeb Abi-Saab. She married George Joseph Wahbee and came to America in 1906, hoping to make enough money to return to Lebanon and buy land for her family. But, when her husband died in 1908, she remained in Youngstown, Ohio, where she raised her children, Joseph, Thomas, Albert, Rose and Mary, who had stayed behind in Lebanon.
Around 1910, her son Thomas became seriously ill. Doctors told her to send him back to Lebanon where the fresh mountain air was expected to help nurse him back to good health. She later learned that her son’s illness had worsened, and, fearing his death, she returned to Lebanon, arriving 10 days after he had died. She had left her daughters, Rose and Mary, in the care of the Christ Mission Society.
It was in April 1912 that Shawnee traveled to Cherbourg, France where she purchased her ticket (#2688) aboard the Titanic. It cost her 4 pounds 4 shillings. She boarded with three other cousins, named above.
A survivor, she witnessed the sinking of the ship, and saw her male cousins remain on-board. Members of the crew, using guns, fired into the air to prevent some of the men from rushing the few lifeboats. She sat with other passengers in the life boat, dressed only in a nightgown and life-jacket, shivering in the cold. Several passengers in the boat died from the cold during the six hour wait.
Part of her story was told to the Sharon Herald on April 14, 1937, commemorating the sinking 25 years later:
“Banoura and I were placed into the next to the last lifeboat to be lowered from the ship. A scared young man leaped over the side of the liner and landed in the bottom of the lifeboat. Women shielded him with their night gowns so the sailors wouldn’t see him. They would have shot him,” she recalled. “After being pulled about a half-mile away, the sailors stopped rowing. We watched the lights of the big boat with our hearts in our throats. Then we saw it sink.”
Shawnee was cared for by the Hebrew Sheltering Society when she arrived in New York. She later boarded a train for Youngstown after being paid $150 by the Titanic company for her lost belongings.
Witnesses and relatives reported that when she left for Lebanon to see her dying son, her hair was jet black. A year after the Titanic tragedy, her hair was completely white.
From Lebanon, traveling with the passengers named above, died, although his body was later recovered in the aftermath of the Titanic sinking (Body label #312). He was buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, in Halifax, N.S., on May 10, 1912.
The story of Catherine, Michael and Mary Peter (Joseph):
Peter and Catherine Joseph had immigrated to Detroit, Michigan after the turn of the Century from Lebanon. Peter had begun typically pushing a peddlar’s cart, collecting scrap iron and junk. The Joseph’s had two children, Michael and Mary. In 1911, Peter Joseph sent his wife and two children back to Lebanon for a visit, possibly to let them escape from the hardships of their struggle in America. They returned on the Titanic, traveling by freighter from Beirut to Marseilles and then on to Cherbourg where they boarded the ship with other Lebanese voyagers. She listed herself, according to Geller, by her husband’s name, Peter, rather than by her real sur-name, Joseph, because it was custom.
The Story of Nicola Yarred, and Jamila and Elias Nicola (Yarred):
Originally from Hakoor, Lebanon, a moutain village, Jamilia Yarred, her father Nicola, and her younger brother Elias, were fleeing persecution when they began their trip to board the Titanic and to reunite with relatives that had settled in Jacksonville, Florida. They made the 130 km trip from their village to Beirut and boarded the boat to Marseilles. Nicola Yarred, the father, was prevented from boarding because he had an eye infection. Tight restrictions on diseases at Ellis Island in New York forced the Titanic shipping line to assume the cost of returning any passenger turned away there, so he could not board. The children registered, again as was custom at the time, by assuming their father’s name, Nicola, as their last name, and they boarded with what little money their father had left and his blessings for a safe trip.
As the story goes, the two children were fleeing the rising waters of the sinking ship, shivering in the cold as they tried to board one of the few lifeboats. John Jacob Astor, who had just put his own wife on a boat and was preparing to die onboard the Titanic, saw the children in the crowd and lifted them one at a time to help place them in the life boat.
Nicola, shocked by the ordeal, rejoiced that his children had survived and he joined them three months later in the United States. The Yarreds changed their name, according to Geller, to Garretts. Jamilia became Amelia and Elias became Louis. Amelia later married Isaac Isaac, a grocer, four years later.
The Story of Celiney Alexander Yasbeck:
Celiney Alexander Yasbeck and her husband Antoni Fraza Yasbeck had been married only a few weeks before. They traveled with Celiney’s younger sister, Amenia Alexander Moubarek and her two children George and William. A Hanna Moubarek is also listed and we assume he was Amenia’s husband.
Celiney was separated from her husband during the commotion, and Antoni Fraza Yasbeck is listed as one of those who died, along with Hanna Moubarek. Celiney, her sister and her sister’s two children survived.
Little else is known about the lives of the other Arabs who perished on that dreadful evening. Not all of the names of the Arab passengers were ever fully identified.
Imagine: The event of a couple’s death on board the Titanic held great significance in tragedy in 1912 and throughout the years that followed.
Each couple that died ended a lifeline of future generations that might have averaged six children. In three generations, the descendents could have increased to an extended family of 268 people. These unborn people, so to speak, also died on the night of April 12, 1912.
What follows is the list of Arab sur-named passengers, based on common recognition, of the 79 who were reportedly among 165 Arabs whose tragedies are a part of the immortal tale of the sinking of the Titanic. (Survivors are identified following their listing with an “S”.) But we know that there were more than 160 Arabs but not all could be identified easily.
First Class Passengers
|Hamad Hassab (Servant) (S)|
Second Class Passengers
|Marie Thuillard Jerwan (S)
Adele Nasrallah Nasser (S)
(read relative’s letter)?
|Nicholas Nasrallah Nasser
Ellen Toomey (S)
Third Class Passengers
|Nassef Cassem Albimona
Gerios Assaf ?Sleiman Attalah (S)
Banoura Daher Ayoub (S)
Akar Boulos (S)
Joseph Sultana Boulos (S)
Joseph Kareem Caram
Nassef Belmenly Cassem (S)
M. Houssein Hassan
Mustafa (Alma) Nasr
Mariana Assaf (S)
Tannous Betros (S)Hanna Boulos (S)
Laura Boulos (S)
Maria Elias Kareem Caram
Emir Farres Chebab (S)
Shawnee George Joseph Whabee (S)
Yousseff Ibraham Shawah
Betros Khalil Zahie Khalil
Sarkis Lahowd Ali Lam (S)
Hanna Mamee (S)
Fatima Masselmany (S)
Amenia Moubarek (S)
William George Moubarek (S)
Said Nackid (S)
Adele Kiamie Najib (S)
Saade Jean Risq Nassr
Jamilia Nicola (Yarred) (S)
Mary Peter (Joseph) (S)
Michael Peter (Joseph) (S)
Thelma Thomas (Toumas) (S)
Charles Thomas (Toumas)
John Thomas (Toumas) Jr.
Anna Razi Touma (S)
Hannah Touma (S)
Hileni Jabbur Zabour
Another good reference for passenger and crew names. (Names have been transiliterated and written
based on sound rather than actual spelling, or translated from Arabic to English in different styles.)
Another excellent source for some of the above information is listed at Philip Hind’s Web Site at:www.rmplc.co.uk/eduweb/sites/phind/
(Ray Hanania is a Palestinian Arab American author and journalist.).
Dec. 19, 2009
Thank you for your efforts regarding Arab passengers on Titanic, I was told by my grandmother that her brother Ibrahim Amin Al-Sabbagh, from south of Lebanon (Bint Jubail) died on the Titanic, while she was traveling to Michigan. But his name is not listed with the others arab passengers list.
This is for your information
My grandmother was Adele Nassar, Titanic survivor. She later remarried Albert Shamaley and one of their 4 kids is my mother. My son is researching the Titanic for school, and I had almost forgotten the story of my grandmother. She would never discuss the event or give interviews. as she was still full of grief from losing a husband and later their first child. I want to thank you for your article and giving new perspective on Arabs on the Titanic.
==== ====== ====
May 24, 2009
Re: In Search of Great Great Uncle’s name
I was told by my Aunt Helen that her great uncle died on the Titanic. Aunt Helen told me that her Grandmother, Etta Brown’s (Etta Brohein, from Lebanon) lost her brother on the Titanic. Etta Brown (unknown maiden name) was from Batron, Lebanon.
I would assume that Etta Brown’s brother was in rout to Dallas, Texas, to join her. However; I do not known this for sure. Etta Brown’s brother spoke no English, and was starting out his new life fresh for the first time in America. I was told that Etta Brown’s brother died on the Titanic (3rd Class Passanger).
Mr. Hanania, I am half Lebanese, and a very proud Texan. I’ve been employed for Dallas County as a Deputy Sheriff for the past 20 years. However; it would be an honor to trace down and find the name of my great great uncle that perished on the Titanic.
Thank you ever so much for your assistance.
(Ray Hanania is a Palestinian-American author. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the winner of the Society of Professional Journalists Lisagor Award for Column Writing. His columns are archived at www.hanania.com)
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Hanania covered Chicago Politics and Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992. Hanania began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He later published “The National Arab American Times” newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East food stores in 48 American States (2004-2007).
Hanania writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at www.ArabNews.com, and at www.TheArabDailyNews.com, www.TheDailyHookah.com and at SuburbanChicagoland.com. He has also published weekly columns in the Jerusalem Post newspaper, YNetNews.com, Newsday Newspaper in New York, the Orlando Sentinel Newspapers, and the Arlington Heights Daily Herald.
Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media. In 2009, Hanania received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. He was honored for his writing skills with two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild. In 1990, Hanania was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times editors for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.
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