Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

The War of Famine: Everyday Life in Wartime Beirut and Mount Lebanon (1914-1918)

  • Author(s): Tanielian, Melanie
  • Advisor(s): Doumani, Beshara
  • et al.

World War I, no doubt, was a pivotal event in the history of the Middle East, as it marked the transition from empires to nation states. Taking Beirut and Mount Lebanon as a case study, the dissertation focuses on the experience of Ottoman civilians on the homefront and exposes the paradoxes of the Great War, in its totalizing and transformative nature. Focusing on the causes and symptoms of what locals have coined the `war of famine' as well as on international and local relief efforts, the dissertation demonstrates how wartime privations fragmented the citizenry, turning neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother, and at the same time enabled social and administrative changes that resulted in the consolidation and strengthening of bureaucratic hierarchies and patron-client relationships.

This dissertation is a detailed analysis of socio-economic challenges that the war posed for Ottoman subjects, focusing primarily on the distorting effects of food shortages, disease, wartime requisitioning, confiscations and conscriptions on everyday life as well as on the efforts of the local municipality and civil society organizations to provision and care for civilians. Although all residents of Beirut and Mount Lebanon took part in the same war, their experiences were often different, mediated by existing gender and class differences and communal belongings, which the international conflict - and concomitant interventions by the state as well as international relief agencies - both exposed and exacerbated. The war aggravated the inequalities embedded in late Ottoman and European colonial definitions of citizenship, since class and communal affiliation determined people's access to food, their ability to avoid conscription, fight disease, obtain provisions, and secure relief funds. Moreover, mutual sacrifice, collective martyrdom and communal resistance rule loom large in state-sponsored national narratives about World War I. Post-colonial Lebanon is no exception. This dissertation reveals how attempts to construct a dominant 'collective' memory of World War I to promote national unity served to mask the continued perpetuation of social inequalities and contributed to tensions within post-independence Lebanese society.

This dissertation contributes to the general scholarship of World War I, which so far has dismissed the experience of civilians on the Ottoman homefront as peripheral. Second it shifts the historiographical focus of World War I in the Middle East as a political diplomatic event, toward it being understood as a dynamic social, economic and political process the outcome of which was dependent as much on the immediate necessities of war, its political economy and strain on civilians, as on long-term historical developments that had left the region vulnerable to the wartime disruptions in the world market and hence more susceptible to famine. Third, this social history of World War I in the Middle East outlines interactions between the Ottoman military authorities, provincial representatives of the state, municipal council members, religious leaders, greedy merchants, bakers and local law enforcement agencies and their relations to the urban and rural poor, that force us to rethink common perceptions of Ottoman tyranny and ambivalence in regards to its civilians and poses a challenge to sectarian interpretations of the war experience on the homefront.

Main Content
Current View