Tylor Brand, Famine Worlds: Life at the Edge of Suffering in Lebanon’s Great War (Stanford University Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Tylor Brand (TB): This book would not exist without Kamal Salibi, who initially suggested that I look into the Lebanese famine of World War I because of our conversations about historical disease and disaster.
However, the book in its current form is drastically different from my initial vision for the project. Like most disaster historians, my early research focused on the what and why questions of the famine and dwelled excessively around issues of causality. Such a depersonalized approach began to feel trite as the Syrian refugee crisis began to spill into the streets of Beirut, and people (including me) began to behave in ways that echoed what I read in my sources. The current humanitarian disaster reinforced the obvious fact that even in a calamity as horrific as the famine, life still had to be lived—and now I was curious how. At that point, I began to narrow the scope of my research to look at people in the crisis, not the crisis itself.
Famine Worlds proceeds from the assumption that everyone had to try to persist within their own little corner of the disaster (a sentiment that I tried to capture with the title). I sought out those elements of lived experience where I could find them in the sources, and in the process, I began to interrogate my interlocutors about their own relationships with the crisis they depicted. In the end, the book is more intimate and personal than I had imagined.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
TB: Famine is a complicated topic, especially for a first project. Generally, it requires a firm grasp of economic and social theory of crisis, a sense of historical epidemiology, and a strong understanding of the society in question. However, that traditional famine analysis tends to relegate people in crisis to hypotheticals or horrid anecdotes. To compensate, I looked to examples like Piero Camporesi’s search for the “vibrant arc of lived experience” and Najwa al-Qattan’s brilliant textual analysis to highlight themes that defined life within the crisis.
Looking beyond the historical discipline, I sought theoretical frameworks that not only accounted for the effects of the disaster, but also the ways that we as humans process traumatic situations. I asked how people subsisted amid soaring prices and falling wages. I wondered how they dealt with the horrors of death and starvation—both in their own lives and in the lives of those around them. I asked how they experienced fear, loss, and trauma, and how those shocks influenced their attitudes about the broader world that they saw when they stepped into the streets or looked up at the socially secure. In the end, the book is as much about how we as people experience and understand our place in calamity as it is about the famine itself.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
TB: This book is the culmination of my ongoing research on the famine and the war, but it offers a far broader take on what to date has mainly consisted of very specific answers to very specific questions.
Many of the themes from that earlier work have made their way into the book as well. For instance, the entire chapter “That They May Have Life” is dedicated to issues of humanitarianism and humanitarian policy—and how perception shaped the terms of humanitarian engagement. While I do not dedicate as much space to food and eating as I would have liked, I also touch on the issue of eating in famine, both as an adaptive strategy and as an emotional coping method, as I detail in my chapter “Some Eat to Remember, Some to Forget.”
In the book, I was able to integrate those concepts into a broader analysis of lived experience in the famine, as well as the discourse about the disaster that followed it.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
TB: The book has a natural readership among Lebanon scholars and historians of World War I in the Middle East, but since the book dips into several disciplines without (I hope) much epistemic trespass, I feel it could also appeal beyond historians of Lebanon to include scholars of disease and disaster, historical anthropologists, humanitarian scholars, and scholars of World War I in other contexts. While it was written as a standalone text, it can also be read as a companion to other work on the war by my brilliant colleagues, Melanie Tanielian, Leila Fawaz, Graham Pitts, Elif Maher Metinsoy, and Najwa al-Qattan (to list but a few).
However, my main hope is to break through to more popular audiences. Many academics claim to want a wide readership, but few of us working in what might be deemed topical or regional niches ever achieve it. I hope that Famine Worlds might prove an exception, in part because the book feels awkwardly relevant in a time of war, widespread displacement, killer pandemics, natural disasters, and looming climate catastrophe. Thanks to my incredible editor at Stanford University Press, Kate Wahl, I think that the language and pacing of the book could actually appeal to both scholars and lay audiences alike, especially, I hope, in Lebanon itself.
The book is grim, and often quite depressing, but it seeks to channel its messages through the examples of real people who endured the crisis as best they could. It is ultimately a story of perseverance at a time devoid of hope, and that is something that we can all use these days.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
TB: Along with Famine Worlds, I am awaiting the publication of an open-access volume that Bilal Orfali and I edited in honor of my late mentor, Abdulrahim Abu-Husayn, entitled In the Steps of the Sultan, which will be released by the American University of Beirut Press in fall 2023.
As for my own work, I am wrapping up several smaller pieces on topics relevant to the wartime era, including a chapter on childhood in the famine that will appear in the volume, a chapter on narrative in disaster historiography, and an article on the famine and the Ottoman legacy in postwar Lebanon.
In the coming year I hope to initiate an oral history project about the famine with a public historian colleague before I shift to a broader analysis of disease and disaster in the Middle East for my next major book project.
J: What is the value of studying past crises?
TB: The laziest answer to the question “why do we study disaster history” is that knowing how we failed in the past will help us avoid failing in the future. One need only look as far back as the pandemic responses in 2020 to see how, as in World War I, politics, wealth, and optics often outweigh what might normally be seen as the “greater good” in crisis policymaking.
Because of that, I am mortified to admit that the wartime crisis actually furnishes a great example of leaders learning from past mistakes. When famine threatened greater Syria under the Free French occupation in World War II, the British head of Mission in Lebanon, General Edward Spears, wrote that he pushed a policy emphasizing existing production and distribution networks in Syria and Lebanon instead of taking control of it through the military, as was the initial French impulse. How did he come to that strategy? Spears wrote that he had been part of Allenby’s force that entered the famished region in 1918 and was keenly aware of the Ottoman administrative approaches that had made matters worse during the last war. His policy was implemented and the war passed, famine free. I should emphasize that it is unclear if Spears himself prevented famine, if he stole the idea from discussions with Lebanese and Syrian leaders, or if he was just self-aggrandizing as usual.
It is somewhat tragic that the increasingly nuanced analyses of historical crisis produced in recent years tend to fall by the wayside during actual crisis. Horrid cases might become objects of fascination or repositories of social memory. But the best examples can show us not only what to do (or more likely, what not to do), they can also offer insight into who we are and what we become when the world turns dark around us.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 2: Death and the Famished Body, pp. 38-40 and 58-60)
The town of Khiam bore a heavy burden during the war. The predominately Shiʿi municipality in what is now southern Lebanon was plagued by Ottoman provisioning policies, abusive policing, forced financial contributions, and occasionally violent conscription by unsympathetic government agents. Between 1914 and 1915, the town was called to sacrifice its sons, its animals, and even its transportation bags for the distant war. Like the rest of the region, rising prices impoverished a community that had already faced the confiscation of metal currency and the widespread exploitation by wealthy creditors. Though Khiam was far from the front lines, the war continually intervened in the lives of its residents throughout the period. In August 1916, the Ottoman effort to counteract chronic harvest shortfalls through retraining and forced labor dragged Khiam’s women and elderly into the fields for an obligatory eight hours a day. Government agents returned at the height of the famine in 1917 to demand even more men and more livestock, depriving the town of necessary resources while it fought a losing battle against social collapse. As time passed and famine mounted, typhus, malaria, and smallpox spread through the town, killing many. Deepening poverty gnawed at those who remained.
As if its own problems were not enough, Khiam’s size and location made it a destination for those trying to escape the effects of famine in Mount Lebanon and nearby villages. Like the thousands across the region who fled from suffering at home, these migrants often faced harsh realities upon their arrival—if they arrived at all. One particular tale of forlorn hope deeply touched the famine-scarred psyche of the missionary humanitarian Reverend George Doolittle. In his unpublished account of the war, he made special note of one family’s failed final bid for survival that ended on the outskirts of Khiam. Their arduous trek toward safety, food, and shelter may have begun with dreams of a better future, but as they trudged toward their destination, it slowly turned into a nightmare. At one point, the father stopped and laid down to rest. He never got up again. The remaining members pressed wearily on until they neared Khiam, where the mother also fell. Her daughter rushed into the town crying that her mother had died, and a number of the townsfolk followed her back to the body to bury her. When they got there, they were surprised to find her still alive, if barely so. Since death seemed imminent, they began to dig the mother’s grave as she lay next to it, occasionally opening her eyes to watch them. Then they waited. Their vigil lengthened, and over time they grew restless at her persistent survival. Still convinced that her death was close, the men were instructed to turn her from side to side to accelerate her demise. This had predictably little effect other than to make her final minutes more agonizing.
Eventually they gave up and buried her alive.
Superficially, this story is not so different from any of the innumerable episodes of human misery that have been told and retold about the famine period. Doolittle’s account of the war alone is a grim repository of anecdotes that he collected on his journeys throughout the famine-stricken region—but even he was left aghast by the incident. Even if we read the story charitably, it still raises a number of unsettling questions about the effects that famine had on society, the most poignant of which surround the choice that the men made at the end. They could have brought the mother into town to revive her, but they chose not to. Why? What did their decision mean? Was it simply a matter of practicality? Saving her would have meant sacrificing precious food and an investment in another hungry mouth had she lived. But the cost of care was not enough for them to drive her daughter away. What made the mother different? Did they view her as irreparably broken? Why did they choose to bury her alive rather than simply leave her by the side of the road to die naturally? Did their act constitute murder? Or was their terrible decision motivated by a form of mercy—or at least mercy’s famine-inverted twin?
Retrospectively, we can read this story as a parable of how death grew to impact life in the famine period. Even accepting the possibility that this story is fabricated (and there is little reason to think so), it reflects a common refrain in famine literature—that the crisis changed how society had begun to regard human bodies, death, and the dead. The sources make it clear that the most horrifying scenes of mortality became frequent and altogether unwelcome aspects of daily life for both sufferers and the secure alike. As time passed, individuals and communities began to rationalize death’s presence in their worlds and to adjust how they dealt with the emotional and practical burdens that it placed on them.
However, rather than simplifying the relationship between the dead and the living, such scenes of mass mortality complicated it. Although the omnipresence of death and dead bodies was normalized over time, seeming to soften death’s impact on those who constantly faced it, there were also glimmers of grief and humanity in the era that indicated that some deaths still stung. Those who died miserably in the famine may have been difficult subjects to grieve for secure observers who wrote about them, but their deaths were still an acute reminder of the difficulty of life in crisis and the shared humanity that bound even the most tragic cases to their secure counterparts.
Conceptually, death exerts a powerful sway over the ways that we have understood (and continue to understand) life in the famine era...
With little solid evidence for any of the estimates, choosing to cite a specific number is an implicit comment on the crisis and its severity. Death tolls tend to skew toward the higher, often unfeasible end of the scale because a “killing famine” that piles the dead in the hundreds of thousands feels far worse than one that “merely” kills eighty thousand. It is not surprising that more extreme figures gained currency as interest in the famine briefly spiked around the war’s centennial and again as Lebanon slipped into economic collapse after 2020. In our new digital era, the stakes of such claims are not political gains but rather clicks and views that track how ghastly the subject can be made to appear in a headline. Though it may draw people to learn more about the era, in the end, the “clickbaiting” of history risks creating a misleading popular understanding of the period as a whole in its effort to attract the sympathetic or just the morbidly curious.
And it is unclear if the rhetorical use of death tolls has the ability to generate the sympathy the era deserves. The death of one person can convey depth and pathos. The death of a hundred thousand is little more than a number. At best, it is a dark landscape onto which authors can impose meaning. Vast figures may be shorthand for suffering, but to what end? Death figures are embedded with semiotic and symbolic value that extend beyond the lives (or bodies) that numbers represent, and ultimately, the meaning that is attached to that mortality is more important than whatever arbitrary number an observer chooses to represent it. Citing unbelievable death tolls and describing starvation, disease, and mortality in gruesome detail was an easy way for a writer at the time to convey the terrible nature of the famine to an innocent readership. Though these descriptions sought to depict the undepictable, paradoxically, the use of such extreme descriptions was dehumanizing as well. By reducing suffering to a statistic to convey its scale, writers inadvertently converted each individual life into a tiny fraction of a percentage—a drop in the vast ocean of anonymous mortality.
While death understandably remains the morbid standard by which famines are measured, to overemphasize death skews our understanding of famine to the extreme, worst cases at their final, irreparable end. By focusing on the margins of the crisis, writers during the famine inadvertently confirmed themes of degradation and dishonor that they had consistently written into the disaster’s narrative from their vantage as mostly secure observers at the famine’s fringes. As a result, the microtragedies of daily life and its many struggles to survive were reduced to the sum of their outcomes: people either lived or died. But we know that not all of those who lived through the war in Lebanon or coastal Syria starved, and that suffering was more of a spectrum than a binary. Even those who were dragged into poverty by the famine did not simply acquiesce to their fate, lie down, and perish. And even if many of the desperate attempts at self-preservation ultimately failed, the defining theme of the era was not death—it was survival.