A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

victims and martyrs

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on August 31, 2008

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?


7 Responses to “victims and martyrs”

  1. M. said

    Hi my new BFF 😉

    Just want to say I loved this post.


  2. ST said

    Hi Diamond,

    Like M, i loved this post.

    And i also agreed with you completely. I have often found myself explaining to non-Arab speakers with an interest in the Middle East that the word shahid encompasses a much wider range of deaths than those for the sake of religion. In general, we primarily use the word for anyone who died for a cause, religious or otherwise (freedom of speech is the most prominent example, hence the Martyr’s day we used to celebrate on May 6th). But nonetheless, it is not at all uncommon to extend the word to some unfortunate deaths, especially if the deceased was young, and died tragically.

    For murders, however, people (and the press especially) often refer to the victim as the “maghdour” – the deceived. :S

  3. Moose said

    The Inuit have more than 150 words for “snow” as it is a major part of their lives…
    How many words exist in Phoenicia to describe “death”?

  4. Haiseb said

    An unnecessary death…
    It is rare to see such point of view in the Wild-wild-west.
    Being driven by the lack of understanding and moved by the fear of Islam and Arabs in general, You will find people who will tell you that poor passengers of Titanic were the real attackers of NY.
    By the way the people who you have metioned were Christian and not Muslims.
    The using on word SHAHEED is applied to any type of death which comes accedently and unnecessary.
    There is anther word worth mentionung here ALLAH which used by Mideleastern Christian.
    Thanks for your insight view.

  5. Hi M and welcome back salaf to the US, with pinky swears and our secret handshake, of course! And ST, a big big hug to you! Thank you both for your comments.

    And ST, thank you very much for mentioning “maghdour”. I’ve seen it, but hadn’t really thought of how it relates to this post. In English, as you know, we just say “murder victim” – certainly an accurate description, but one that misses the pain that the victim’s family must be feeling.

    Moose, too funny! My mother and aunts are from Alaska, and we have all heard the urban legend that “Eskimos have 30 words for snow”. I see that the numbers have grown – must be some real word coiners up in the Yukon!

    I can’t comment on the Phoenician language, but Latin, which is what most of the later Phoenicians probably spoke, doesn’t seem to have many more words for death than we do today. Looking at Arabic, though, I do realize how in English at least we try to minimize death. Using specific terms for different types of innocent deaths probably brings comfort to grieving families.

    Haiseb, welcome to my blog! I haven’t heard anything about immigrants from the Titanic attacking New York, but you are certainly right that from 1913 on the immigration laws of the US became much more restrictive. It was a real nativist era, and a racist one. Luckily the 1965 law opened things up for non-European immigrants – and our country is the richer for it.

    And you are quite right that Mr. Nasr Allah was Christian, although there were many Muslim Syrian/Lebanese immigrants on board the Titanic as well. Although people in the West today probably think of “shahid” as a religion-specific term, it isn’t – and I’m glad you pointed this out.

  6. […] although thanks to ST’s helpful distinction (which you can find in the comments to my post on the meaning of “shahid”), I would say that they are both more accurately described as “maghdour” – deceived. […]

  7. […] mentioned before that the ship carried a number of Ottoman Syrians, many of whom would today be described as Lebanese. For American and European upper classes, the […]

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