Brand, Tylor. Famine Worlds: Life at the Edge of Suffering in Lebanon’s Great War. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2023.
Review of Tylor Brand, Famine Worlds: Life at the Edge of Suffering in Lebanon’s Great War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2023).
Munich (Special to Informed Comment) – Suez, Gallipoli, Kut al-Amara, and Jerusalem saw some of the major battles of the First World War in the Middle East. The countries that are nowadays Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine were the scene of considerable fighting between the Ottomans and the British during the conflict that would bring about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. On the contrary, the territories that currently belong to the modern state of Lebanon saw no fighting during the war. The global conflagration, however, also brought death to Lebanon, if only more slowly and indirectly.
It was hunger, and the vulnerability to disease that came with it, that decimated Lebanon. We learn about this in the book Famine Worlds: Life at the Edge of Suffering in Lebanon’s Great War. The author, Tylor Brand, is an Assistant Professor in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at Trinity College Dublin. In Famine Worlds, he brilliantly studies how the population of Lebanon experienced a famine that brought massive death, changed society, and left an often unspoken but indelible mark on the country’s historical consciousness.
Brand writes that historically, there have been two main narratives to explain the causes of the famine in Lebanon. One ascribes responsibility to the Ottoman administration and blames it for having intentionally starved Lebanon. The other points at the blockade of Lebanese ports by the Entente powers, which abruptly stopped grain imports, of vital importance for a region that was not food self-sufficient. Neither of these explanations fully convinces Brand, who presents a more nuanced view. The Ottoman administration was certainly responsible for the shortage of labor in the agricultural sector that followed the conscription of peasants to fight in the war, as well as for the army’s mismanagement of grain reserves in Syria. Even so, there was no deliberate Ottoman policy that led to Lebanon’s suffering.
Meanwhile, the Entente blockade severely restricted Lebanon’s options to secure its food supply. Moreover, the blockade was accompanied by the halt of remittances from Lebanese migrants in Europe to their home country, with the ensuing decline in the purchasing power of many Lebanese. But the Ottoman Empire entered the war with considerable grain reserves and the famine in Lebanon cannot simply be explained by a lack of food. Equally important was the food speculation of Lebanese businessmen who, after trade routes were closed by the blockade, decided to make a profit in the local grain markets. And, although the famine was largely man-made, a plague of locusts that decimated local crops made matters worse.
Brand is deeply skeptical about the possibility of establishing with some certainty how many people succumbed to the famine in Lebanon during the First World War. He points out that “the available statistics are little more than pointed guesses or ways to denote severity” and notes that, although death tolls are important, “suffering in famine does not necessarily correlate with death.” It is this suffering, and the Lebanese population’s resistance to it, that is the focus of Famine Worlds. The book is not a political history of the Ottoman authorities’ response to the food crisis. Sometimes, the reader might actually feel that the political and historical contextualization of the famine is too vague. Instead, Brand’s attention is focused on how the Lebanese society experienced this period of widespread hunger and disease.
This is no simple task. The newspapers of the period are of little use due to the strong censorship imposed by the Ottoman authorities during the war. Brand’s research importantly relies on memoirs, letters, and reports written during the war period or shortly afterwards. Many of these were authored by Americans employed in education or missionary institution in Lebanon. While British and French citizens had to abandon the country when the First World War began, American nationals could stay as the United States never declared war against the Ottoman Empire.
The Americans were relatively privileged as they had sufficient resources to avoid hunger, even if they could not always escape the diseases that proliferated during the period. In this sense, the contemporary accounts of Americans living in Lebanon need to be understood as the writings of first-hand witnesses to hunger, not of people whose bodies and minds deteriorated as food became increasingly scarce. It is difficult to know how the poor, and the former members of the middle class who were impoverished by the exorbitant prices of food, would have told their own stories. Even so, when we consider all the limitations, Brand succeeds in presenting a portrait of how the famine shaped the lives of ordinary people.
Famine Worlds describes a society in which ownership of land and animals, as well as the social capital of family, community, and patronage networks, could be the difference between life and death. It was also a society where the ubiquity of death and suffering progressively anesthetized people’s consciences. Jirjis al-Maqdisi, who published in 1919 a historical account of the effects of the war on Lebanon, describes this change in detail. Al-Maqdisi writes: “In 1915, the sight of a starving man falling would cause people to surround him and give him some water, some food, and some dirhams. By 1916 we would walk in the streets with men, women and children lying in the mud on both sides, whimpering for mercy or for a crust of bread. (…) Most frequently, on passing, people turned their face and blocked their ears so they could not see or hear.”
With the spread of a typhus epidemic, the poor and their emaciated bodies were not only an uncomfortable sight to the relatively privileged. They were also seen as “potential carriers of deadly disease.” Despite their vulnerability, Brand cautions against imagining the poor as devoid of agency. They had very limited options, but they exploited them to the fullest. They changed their diets and migrated in search of work or aid. As Brand notes, “not all survived, but no one lay down to die without a fight.”
This rebellion against a looming death often implied a subversion of the traditional moral codes that governed social life until that moment. As Middle East historian Najwa al-Qattan succinctly puts it in an article discussing the famine, “the question of food during the war was about morality as well as mortality.” Thievery and robbery saw a dramatic increase, and the same happened with prostitution. Very often, the desperation brought by hunger and disease on most of the population was not reason enough for the privileged to suspend their usual moral judgments. The American Red Cross and the American missionaries in Lebanon saved many lives but, as Brand documents, used moralistic criteria when deciding who deserved help.
Beggars, people with physical disabilities, or those who suffered from syphilis (a sexually transmitted disease likely to prey upon prostitutes), were to be denied aid after the American Relief Committee adopted a new set of guidelines in late 1917. Faced with an increase in aid demands and declining resources, the American humanitarian organizations adopted a policy that “instead of seeking to preserve the helpless, (…) deliberately excluded those whose physical or perceived moral characteristics rendered them unworthy.”
Writing in 2014, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, Najwa al-Qattan noted that “the famine does not occupy a prominent place in nationalist and other public narratives of the war, where it competes with more heroic public markers of the period, such as the Arab Revolt.” In Famine Worlds, writing a decade after al-Qattan, Brand explains that the centennial of the Great War significantly contributed to more people learning about the famine in Lebanon during the conflict. Back in 2014, al-Qattan lamented that victims of the famine were not “publicly mourned or memorialized.” This appears to be slowly changing. In 2018, for instance, a sculpture to remember the victims of the famine was unveiled in Beirut.
The expert on conflict and humanitarian crises Alex de Waal notes that most famines are caused by war and political repression, with the current situation of widespread hunger in Yemen being no exception. De Waal adds that the main driver of hunger in Yemen is not a lack of food but the fact that “a large section of the population simply doesn’t have money to buy it from the local markets.” Swarms of red desert locusts have also negatively affected domestic agricultural production. The famine that ravaged Lebanon during the First World War has strong echoes in our current times.
 Tylor Brand, Famine Worlds: Life at the Edge of Suffering in Lebanon’s Great War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2023), p. 41.
 Quoted in ibid., p. 98.
 Ibid., p. 145.
 Ibid., p. 82.
 Najwa Al-Qattan, “When Mothers Ate Their Children: Wartime Memory and the Language of Food in Syria and Lebanon,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 46, no. 4 (2014): 721.
 Brand, Famine Worlds: Life at the Edge of Suffering in Lebanon’s Great War, pp. 164-5.
 Najwa Al-Qattan, “When Mothers Ate Their Children”: 722