Refreshing Lebanese Memory by Yeghig Tashjian

“For your freedom we have lived and for your independence we are dying”, Abdul-Karm al Khalil, with the rope around his neck, May 6, 1916.

The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 brought Lebanon further problems, as Turkey allied itself with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Turkish government abolished Lebanon’s semiautonomous status (al-Mutasarifiah) and appointed Jamal Basha, then minister of the navy, as the commander in chief of the Turkish forces in Syria. Known for his harshness, he occupied Lebanon and replaced the last mutasarrif, Ohannes Basha, with a Turk, Munif Basha.

In February 1915, frustrated by his failed attack on the British forces protecting the Suez Canal, Jamal Basha initiated a blockade of the entire eastern Mediterranean coast which indirectly caused thousands of deaths from widespread famine and plagues. Lebanon suffered more than any other Ottoman province, loosing over one third of its population. In addition, a military court was established in Aley and thousands of Maronites were imprisoned or exiled for little reason. The Druze fled to Houran. The land of Mount Lebanon became a paradise for disease and plagues which claimed thousands of souls. Furthermore, the Turkish army cut down trees Cedar forests, for wood to fuel trains. The Mount Lebanon cedar forests lost over 60% of their trees in three years. In 1916 the Turkish authorities publicly executed 16 Lebanese in Beirut, for alleged anti-Turkish activities. The date, May 6, is (was) commemorated annually in Lebanon as Martyrs’ Day, and the site in Beirut has come to be known as the Martyrs’ Square. Hence Jamal Basha earned his new title of al-Saffah, the blood shedder.

For the Lebanese to ignore (or not know) this part of their history is an insult to all those who died during that period. The evidence is still fresh in the form of the ruins of houses in every village in Mount Lebanon and the stories that the elderly passed on to anyone willing to listen. Officially, the statement of Enver Basha is the first indictment of the atrocities when he declared on the 19th of May 1916 that “The Ottoman Empire should be cleaned up of the Armenians and the Lebanese. We have destroyed the former by the sword; we shall destroy the latter through starvation”.

What is more intriguing to me is the “Lebanese” part of the quote! History books attribute this genocidal act to WWI, as a war atrocity, a historical event rather than a criminal act committed (and admitted) by the Turks against the Lebanese.

The public statement of Enver leaves no room for interpretations; the Turks were hell-bent on exterminating the Lebanese. They committed genocidal acts against them. A plethora of books describe the Armenian tragedy, yet I have not seen any materials published that discuss the Lebanese starvation and its cause. Close to 250,000 (1/3 of the population) Lebanese perished in Mount Lebanon due to the Turkish policy of “starvation”, and yet we forget and forgive without making the criminal to apologize to our country, if really the Turks respect our people then at least they must apologize and compensate.

Lebanese intelectual martyrs

I cannot forget what Gibran wrote about the 200,000-300,000 Lebanese who died in the 1916 famine:

Dead Are My People

Gone are my people, but I exist yet,
Lamenting them in my solitude…
Dead are my friends, and in their Death my life is naught but great
The knolls of my country are submerged
By tears and blood, for my people and
My beloved are gone, and I am here
Living as I did when my people and my
Beloved were enjoying life and the
Bounty of life, and when the hills of
My country were blessed and engulfed
By the light of the sun.

My people died from hunger, and he who
Did not perish from starvation was
Butchered with the sword; and I am
Here in this distant land, roaming
Amongst a joyful people who sleep
Upon soft beds, and smile at the days
While the days smile upon them.

My people died a painful and shameful
Death, and here am I living in plenty
And in peace…This is deep tragedy
Ever-enacted upon the stage of my
Heart; few would care to witness this
Drama, for my people are as birds with
Broken wings, left behind the flock.
If I were hungry and living amid my
Famished people, and persecuted among
My oppressed countrymen, the burden
Of the black days would be lighter
Upon my restless dreams, and the
Obscurity of the night would be less
Dark before my hollow eyes and my
Crying heart and my wounded soul.
For he who shares with his people
Their sorrow and agony will feel a
Supreme comfort created only by
Suffering in sacrifice. And he will
Be at peace with himself when he dies
Innocent with his fellow innocents.

But I am not living with my hungry
And persecuted people who are walking
In the procession of death toward
Martyrdom…I am here beyond the
Broad seas living in the shadow of
Tranquillity, and in the sunshine of
Peace…I am afar from the pitiful
Arena and the distressed, and cannot
Be proud of ought, not even of my own

What can an exiled son do for his
Starving people, and of what value
Unto them is the lamentation of an
Absent poet?

Were I an ear of corn grown in the earth
of my country, the hungry child would
Pluck me and remove with my kernels
The hand of Death form his soul. Were
I a ripe fruit in the gardens of my
Country, the starving women would
Gather me and sustain life. Were I
A bird flying the sky of my country,
My hungry brother would hunt me and
Remove with the flesh of my body the
Shadow of the grave from his body.
But, alas! I am not an ear of corn
Grown in the plains of Syria, nor a
Ripe fruit in the valleys of Lebanon;
This is my disaster, and this is my
Mute calamity which brings humiliation
Before my soul and before the phantoms
Of the night…This is the painful
Tragedy which tightens my tongue and
Pinions my arms and arrests me usurped
Of power and of will and of action.
This is the curse burned upon my
Forehead before God and man.

And oftentimes they say unto me,
‘The disaster of your country is
But naught to calamity of the
World, and the tears and blood shed
By your people are as nothing to
The rivers of blood and tears
Pouring each day and night in the
Valleys and plains of the earth…’

Yes, but the death of my people is
A silent accusation; it is a crime
Conceived by the heads of the unseen serpents…
It is a Sceneless tragedy…And if my
People had attacked the despots
And oppressors and died rebels,
I would have said, ‘Dying for
Freedom is nobler than living in
The shadow of weak submission, for
He who embraces death with the sword
Of Truth in his hand will eternalize
With the Eternity of Truth, for Life
Is weaker than Death and Death is
Weaker than Truth.

If my nation had partaken in the war
Of all nations and had died in the
Field of battle, I would say that
The raging tempest had broken with
Its might the green branches; and
Strong death under the canopy of
The tempest is nobler than slow
Perishment in the arms of senility.
But there was no rescue from the
Closing jaws…My people dropped
And wept with the crying angels.

If an earthquake had torn my
Country asunder and the earth had
Engulfed my people into its bosom,
I would have said, ‘A great and
Mysterious law has been moved by
The will of divine force, and it
Would be pure madness if we frail
Mortals endeavoured to probe its
Deep secrets…’
But my people did not die as rebels;
They were not killed in the field
Of Battle; nor did the earthquake
Shatter my country and subdue them.
Death was their only rescuer, and
Starvation their only spoils.

My people died on the cross….
They died while their hands
stretched toward the East and West,
While the remnants of their eyes
Stared at the blackness of the
Firmament…They died silently,
For humanity had closed its ears
To their cry. They died because
They did not befriend their enemy.
They died because they loved their
Neighbours. They died because
They placed trust in all humanity.
They died because they did not
Oppress the oppressors. They died
Because they were the crushed
Flowers, and not the crushing feet.
They died because they were peace
Makers. They perished from hunger
In a land rich with milk and honey.
They died because monsters of
Hell arose and destroyed all that
Their fields grew, and devoured the
Last provisions in their bins….
They died because the vipers and
Sons of vipers spat out poison into
The space where the Holy Cedars and
The roses and the jasmine breathe
Their fragrance.

My people and your people, my Syrian
Brother, are dead….What can be
Done for those who are dying? Our
Lamentations will not satisfy their
Hunger, and our tears will not quench
Their thirst; what can we do to save
Them between the iron paws of
Hunger? My brother, the kindness
Which compels you to give a part of
Your life to any human who is in the
Shadow of losing his life is the only
Virtue which makes you worthy of the
Light of day and the peace of the
Night….Remember, my brother,
That the coin which you drop into
The withered hand stretching toward
You is the only golden chain that
Binds your rich heart to the
Loving heart of God…..

After 98 years now, unfortunately the tragic events are being filtered out of the pages of the history. What are we doing as Lebanese to keep this dark page of history alive and to learn from the lessons of the past and honor those who sacrificed their lives for us? We should not be selective towards our history and the history of humankind. After 10 years how should we remember those who sacrificed their lives for Lebanon? Hence we must remember our martyrs and condemn everyone trying to remove them from our collective memory. A nation without a memory is always doomed to repeat its own mistakes!!

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