In the Syrian Deadlands

Folk memories endure, mothers’ and grandmothers’ sagas trumping documents in neglected archives. What will Syria’s youth, when they are old, tell their children? All will have stories of cowering in their flimsy houses while bombs fell, of the deadening existence of refugee camps, or of escapes through treacherous seas and perilous highways to uncertain lives in strange lands. My maternal grandmother left Mount Lebanon, then part of Syria, as a child in the late nineteenth century during a confrontation between the Christians of her village and their Ottoman rulers. Although her father was killed a few months before she was born, she told me many times how he faced Turkish troops on horseback as if she had witnessed it. I don’t know what really happened; but her stories, including of a river that was so cold it could crack a watermelon in two, remain undeniable truths to her descendants.

Syrians today are enduring a brutal, unending ordeal that reenacts the drama of their ancestors during a prior war exactly one century ago that their families, novelists, and poets preserved for them. What we know as World War I was to Syrians Seferberlik, from the Arabic for “travel across the land,” when military conscription, forced labor battalions, machine-age weaponry, arbitrary punishment, pestilence, and famine undid in four years all that the Ottomans had achieved over the previous four centuries. The Palestinian sociologist Salim Tamari saw that period as

four miserable years of tyranny symbolized by the military dictatorship of Ahmad Cemal [or Jemal] Pasha in Syria, seferberlik (forced conscription and exile), and the collective hanging of Arab patriots in Beirut’s Burj Square on August 15, 1916.

Turkey’s institutionalized sadism added to the woes of Syrians, who grew hungrier each year because of the Anglo-French blockade that kept out, as American and European Union sanctions do today, many of the basic staples needed for survival.

No part of what was then called Syria, which included today’s Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, avoided the cataclysm. An economics professor at Beirut’s Syrian Protestant College wrote, “You never saw a starving person, did you? May the Almighty preserve you from this sight!!!” Rafael de Nogales, a freebooting Venezuelan officer in the Ottoman army, recorded that

Aleppo kept on filling up with mendicant and pest-stricken deportees who died in the streets by the hundreds, and infected the rest of the population to such an extent that on some days the funeral carts were insufficient to carry the dead to the cemeteries.

The locust infestation of 1915 and hoarding by Beirut’s grain merchants aggravated a famine so severe that there were many tales of cannibalism. Hana Mina, a Syrian novelist born just after the war, wrote in his novel Fragments of Memory, “During the Safar Barrlik, mothers…became like cats and ate their …read the full article on (*subscription required).