Louis Farshee. Safer Barlik: Famine in Mount Lebanon during World War I. Portland: Inkwater Press, 2015. 278 pp. $20.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62901-171-4.
Reviewed by John Walbridge (Indiana University)
Published on H-War (September, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
To answer the obvious question first: Safer barlik is the Ottoman Turkish term for mobilization. For the people of Greater Syria during World War I it meant catastrophe, and for the Christians of Mount Lebanon, the mountain range east and north of Beirut that is the core of the modern state of Lebanon, it came to refer to a catastrophic famine that began in 1915.
The historiography of the Great War has gradually moved away from a focus on the western front to an increasing interest on the campaigns and political events in the Middle East, a trend whose legitimacy can be judged by the increasing frequency with which the Sykes-Picot Agreement is mentioned in the better parts of the popular media. What we do think we know about World War I in the Middle East is likely to involve the ANZAC experience at Gallipoli and Lawrence of Arabia as portrayed by Peter O’Toole. Obviously, there is more to it than that. Fortunately, more scholarship on the Middle East in the Great War is becoming available with the work of historians of the Middle East, including several recent surveys.
Despite all this, the civilian experience in the Middle East in World War I has not attracted a lot of attention, apart from the massacre of the Armenians, but Anatolia, the former Ottoman Balkans, and the Ottoman Arab provinces all suffered civilian mortality during the war comparable or higher than any European state except Serbia and Russia. Moreover, while the civilian experience in western European countries has been studied in some detail, much less is known about the experiences of civilians in Middle Eastern countries.
The book reviewed here deals with the experience of the Christian population of Mount Lebanon during the Great War, particularly the famine that afflicted the region beginning in 1915 and that killed perhaps 70–80,000 of the half-million population of the region. At the beginning of the war, Greater Syria—modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan—as well as western Arabia were put under the control of Cemal (Jamāl) Pasha, one of the Young Turk triumvirate that ruled the Ottoman Empire. Not without reason, Cemal distrusted the Christians of Mount Lebanon. Since the aftermath of the 1860 Lebanese civil war, Mount Lebanon had been managed by the so-called mutaṣarrifate, an arrangement in which an Ottoman Catholic governed the region under the supervision of five western European powers. The largest Christian group was the Maronites, an eastern Christian church in communion with Rome that had close connections with France. Christian provinces had been breaking away from the Ottoman Empire for over a century, and everyone knew that there were nationalists in the empire’s Arab provinces who wished to follow their example. In particular, Arab nationalists in Lebanon looked to France to help them achieve this goal. If Cemal had had any doubts, they were removed when his agents broke into the sealed French consulate in Beirut and read the documents reporting contacts of Arab nationalists with the French consul—ironically, François Georges-Picot, of Sykes-Picot fame.
The famine in Mount Lebanon, however, resulted less from Turkish oppression than from the Allied blockade. The Ottoman Empire, with its underdeveloped railroad infrastructure, was heavily reliant on coastal shipping, which the French and British navies shut down in 1915. The blockade bit especially hard in Mount Lebanon. First, this was a poor region where only a small percentage of land was suitable for agriculture. Large numbers of Christians from Mount Lebanon had migrated, particularly to the Americas, and their remittances were cut off by the blockade. One of the book’s many odd tales tells of how an American missionary press served for a time as a bank for transmitting remittances, but with the American entry into the war, this channel too was cut off. (While the United States never declared war on the Ottoman Empire, the empire did break off relations when the United States declared war on Germany.) Second, at least half the arable land in Mount Lebanon had been devoted to mulberry orchards, whose leaves were the food of silkworms. Traditionally, the income from sales of silk had supported the import of food from elsewhere. Now both the income and the imports ceased. Even when food surpluses were available elsewhere in the region, land transport was inadequate, so, for example, high-quality Jaffa oranges that could no long be exported rotted while people died of scurvy 250 kilometers to the north. Third, mobilization meant that Christian men were called up for the labor battalions that supported the army, putting the tasks of agricultural labor on undernourished women and children. Finally, as if the unfolding disaster were not sufficiently biblical, a plague of locusts struck in 1915 that destroyed the food crops and stripped trees bare.
While Cemal Pasha and the Turkish authorities were scarcely blameless in this, they did make various efforts to relieve the suffering, though with the demands of the army, underdeveloped internal transport systems, and chaotic wartime conditions these were inevitably not very effective. The main blame for the famine rests on the Allies, particularly the British, who took the position that any relief supplies allowed into the region would simply support the Ottoman war effort—a partly valid but cold-hearted policy. Americans, who were aware of what was happening in Syria through missionaries and American diplomats, attempted to deliver relief supplies on American navy ships. While the Allies were reluctant to annoy the still neutral Americans in 1916 and early 1917, Ottoman ambivalence eventually blocked major deliveries of aid, so civilians continued to die in large numbers from famine and disease.
Farshee describes the sufferings of the people of Mount Lebanon and the sometimes heroic but always insufficient efforts to provide them with aid, but he also tells a number of interesting stories of individuals caught up in these events. The French, for example, had captured Arwad, an island just off the Syrian coast from which they ran spies who also smuggled grain into the country. There is a certain tone-deafness to Farshee’s account of this, since while complaining of the persecution of Christians and Arab nationalists by Cemal, he also reports the Maronite patriarchate’s involvement in espionage on behalf of France. Other stories are more purely uplifting, such as the Good Ladies of Brumanna, a group of housewives who began giving food from their kitchens to the hungry and ended up running a major feeding station.
The most important source for the book is a 1972 Georgetown University dissertation by Nicholas Z. Ajay, Mount Lebanon and the Wilayah of Beirut: 1914–1918: The War Years, a two-volume, 800-page work that Farshee rescued from obscurity. This work, which I have not seen, collected large amounts of material, including eyewitness interviews. The reason why it was not published—apart from its bulk—may be explained by Ajay’s 2012 obituary in the Altoona, Pennsylvania, Mirror, which reported his death after a forty-year career in the CIA.
This book is the work of an enthusiastic amateur, though the back cover reports that the author has an MA in history. The main audience seems to be those interested in Christian Lebanon, since a certain amount of space is devoted to rather elementary summaries of the history of World War I. The larger historical context of Greater Syrian in the First World War is rather vaguely drawn. The sources are almost entirely English though some are translations. This is somewhat mitigated by the author’s use of the much more thorough thesis of Ajay. Ottoman archival material is conspicuously missing since the Ottoman archives had only begun to be explored when Ajay did his work, and the Turkish military archives even now are mostly inaccessible.
This is certainly not the definitive account of Mount Lebanon in the Great War, but it is well written, with a good deal of useful information. It is certainly worth reading as a supplement to accounts of the Great War in the Middle East that deal mainly with politics and fighting.
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John Walbridge. Review of Farshee, Louis, Safer Barlik: Famine in Mount Lebanon during World War I.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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