I’ve been enjoying a lovely lovely weekend at home with my parents, enjoying the quiet tranquility of life in suburban Iowa. And since its been a while since I was last here, I’ve also been enjoying the chance to reacquaint myself with the odds and ends that I have been storing here: artwork, clothing, and, of course, a large aghabani collection.
I have several of these beautiful Damascene tablecloths (you can learn a bit more about aghabanis here), including one in light blue and another in a rich salmon as well as the more classic cream, white, and red versions. Now that I am back in the US for a bit and actually have a suitable table, I’m looking forward to taking one back to Brooklyn.
While here, I’ve also had the chance to follow up a bit further on the Syrian Young Men’s Association and other Syrian/Lebanese-American clubs, thanks to various online resources. I haven’t learned anything more about SYMA, but I did go off on a very interesting tangent: the Titanic. In addition to carrying the leading lights of British and American society (not to mention Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet), the Titanic apparently carried a significant number of Syrian/Lebanese immigrants, coming to the United States as steerage passengers.
The subject of Syrians on the Titanic is fascinating, and I will post more about it soon. But in this post I want to focus on something I learned from an article by a woman named Leila Salloum Elias, about how the Syrian community in the United States worked together to respond to the tragedy of the Titanic‘s sinking. For Arabic speakers, it was a particularly difficult tragedy to deal with, since the names of the dead were reported in English-language newspapers first. The combination of Arabic names written down at the ports of entry by French or other non-English speakers and cultural differences in what defined a “full name” (Syrians tended to give their first names and their parents’ names, and perhaps a village or family moniker, which Americans) meant that for the first few weeks after the ship had sunk, some families grieved unnecessarily, thinking that their relatives had died.
The problem of names was compounded by the slowness of early 20th century communication: relatives in the United States might know that family members were planning to join them soon, but they rarely knew when these family members left Syria, or what ships they traveled on.
Elias’ article was fascinating, but what really made me sit up and take notice was this:
Equally important were the reports [in US-based Arabic-language newspapers] about memorial services for the victims that allowed the community to mourn together … In vivid detail, Al-Sa’ih [a New York-based paper] described for its readers the memorial service held for Niqula Khalil Nasr Allah and that members of the Syrian community having come to pay their respects to the Nasr Allah family on the death of “al-shahid”.
The title of the Al-Sa’ih article from which Elias drew this quote was also titled “Al-Shahid”.
I don’t know Elias, but I assume she noted the word “shahid” for the same reason that I am mentioning it here: because today “shahid” is understood – at least in the US – as part of that great stereotyped mishmash of suicide bombers and jihadis. But in the Arab world, “shahid” is used for all kinds of tragic deaths: the Lebanese soldiers who died fighting in Nahr al-Bared in 2007, for example, were all described as martyrs, and so were the people who died during the mini-war in May.
In English, we would call these people “innocent victims” – and there is a word in Arabic for “victim”, with the same connotations of sacrifice as our English word. And on the surface, “martyr” and “shahid” also share the same connotations – both refer back to an earlier sense of a martyr as one who died bearing witness to a belief.
But seeing the use of “shahid” in this 1912 article about a Titanic victim makes me wonder whether the contemporary Western understanding of “shahid” isn’t a bit skewed. Rather than seeing it as an exclusively Islamic term, it might help Americans and others to learn just how many shahid-s there are in the Arab world, and how few die in service of religion.
It might also help to expand the definition of “shahid” to one that includes a more messy (but not less accurate) term like “victim of a wrongful death”, or “victim of an unnecessary death”. Arabic linguists, what do you think? Would that be stretching the word’s definition too far?