A familiar shout in Titanic film spurs search for Arab passengers

There were dozens of Arabs aboard the RMS Titanic when it sank in the North Atlantic a century ago. So why have those passengers, most of whom perished when the vessel went down, disappeared from the historical narrative?

The ship's manifest from the SS Sinaia, on which Ray Hanania's then 21-year-old father George Hanna Hanania (listed at number nine on the manifest) came to America in 1926, leaving Jaffa, Palestine, and arriving in New York 30 days later on September 5, 1926. Courtesy Ray Hanania
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The scene, set during the chaos and confusion of the Titanic's final moments, lasts barely two seconds. As third-class passengers struggle to escape their fate, the camera lingers briefly on a family of four - a woman, wearing a hijab, a man and two children - lost on the ship's E Deck and trying desperately to interpret signs written in English.

Then the woman, urging her husband to go, repeats one word: "Yalla, yalla."

"It hit me in the face," says Ray Hanania, a journalist, newspaper columnist and host of radio shows in Chicago and Detroit, who recalls the moment he saw James Cameron's film Titanic in 1997.

"It slapped me silly. There's an Arab in the movie? It never occurred to me."

Hanania's own family story is one of so many of the immigrants who helped to shape the US. His grandfather was an Arab merchant from Romema, West Jerusalem, who traded in trinkets made from olive wood and travelled to Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition, staged in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the new world.

"Arabs realised that Americans would pay a fortune for junk," says Hanania, laughing. "You could carve a cross out of a piece of wood and sell it for a dollar."

Hanania, a Christian, was born and raised in Chicago, where his father George, mother Georgette, from Bethlehem, and an uncle, Moses, had moved in 1926, making the classic immigrant crossing to Ellis Island. The voyage from Jaffa on board the SS Sinaia took 30 days.

George and Moses enlisted in the US army after Pearl Harbor, "fighting for four years to destroy the Nazis and liberate the Jews, only to see the Jewish people take their land in Palestine". In 1948 the rest of the family was "kicked out of Jerusalem and they ended up in a refugee camp on the West Bank". It was 1952 before George was able to bring them to join him in America. Today, there are more than 60 members of the family in the Chicago area.

This was the family history that made Hanania's "Yalla" (let's go) moment in the dark of the Marcus Theatres cinema in the Chicago suburb of Orland Park so poignant.

Today, Orland Park is home to a thriving Arab community, including Ray's own family - his Jewish wife Alison and their children, Haifa and Aaron. On Wednesday, the Marcus Orland Park Cinema screened the 100th anniversary 3D version of Titanic.

Back in 1997, says Hanania, "I didn't go there thinking there were Arabs on the Titanic. I went there thinking this would be a good movie about a maritime tragedy that every young American kid has learnt about, and I'm sure kids [everywhere]. And then, all of a sudden, that word comes jumping out.

"I'm sure for everybody else in the theatre it meant nothing, but for me it was like I hit gold."

But it was gold that was to prove deeply buried.

In the film, we never learn the fate of the anonymous Arab family. The camera loses interest in their story and pans away as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, playing Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater, push past them. There is no further explanation of their presence, or of the appearance of the Arabic word in the script.

But that one word was enough to set Hanania digging. What he found was the extraordinary story of the Arabs of the Titanic - individuals and entire families who had set sail in search of a better future and who had not only lost their lives but had also suffered the posthumous indignity of having all trace of their existence swept away in the cold waters of the Atlantic.


Some of the facts about the events of the night of April 14, 1912, at least, are well known. One hundred years ago this month the Royal Mail Ship Titanic, the second of three Olympic-class ocean liners built for the White Star Line and at the time the world's largest and most luxurious ship, sank on her maiden voyage with the loss of more than 1,500 lives. She had set sail from Southampton, England, on April 10, calling at Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, before setting course for New York, her ultimate destination. Shortly before midnight on April 14, some 650km south of Newfoundland and about 1,700km east of New York, she struck one of the thousands of icebergs that each year calve off the glaciers of west Greenland or the Canadian Arctic and are carried thousands of kilometres south in the Labrador current.

On board were 2,206 passengers and crew but enough lifeboats for only 1,178 people. As a result, there were only 703 survivors. The Titanic, which was supposedly unsinkable, went to the bottom shortly before 2.20am on the 15th, just two and a half hours after the collision.

With her precise position unknown, for the next 73 years she lay undisturbed on the seabed until in 1985 she was found by Robert Ballard, a former US navy officer and oceanographer. But the Titanic had been transformed from a man-made thing of steel into myth, metaphor and cultural touchstone almost before the wreckage had struck the seabed, some 3,840 metres down.

To this day we still say that futile gestures made in the face of impending disaster are akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. And yet where we find futility, we also find nobility in the teeth of adversity; further along the same tilting deck, we note in admiration, the band plays on.


For some, the disaster remains a symbol of human arrogance and hubris. "God grant that we and our sister nation of America may take to heart and profit from the lesson," said the Bishop of Winchester in a sermon preached on the Sunday following the sinking. "The Titanic, name and thing, will stand for a monument and warning to human presumption."

To this day for the film and television industry the ship serves as a setting for heavy-handed morality tales about vanity, class and greed - from the 1958 film A Night to Remember to Cameron's 1997 retelling, in which the Titanic and all who died on her serve as mere prop and extras in a cliched poor-boy-meets-rich-girl love story.

Meanwhile, in a four-part mini-series currently being shown on UK television, penned by Julian Fellowes, the author of the popular Downton Abbey, the ship sinks not once, but four times. As a columnist on the UK's Guardian newspaper pleaded last month: "Can we just please let the Titanic sink for once and for all?"

And mystery, of course, continues to muddy the waters.

Why did the cargo ship SS Californian fail to respond to the nearby Titanic's distress rockets - and which was the mystery ship, seen clearly from the decks of the stricken vessel, that also failed to come to her aid? Did the doomed band indeed play as the ship went down, as legend has it?

Of course, conspiracy theorists love the Titanic. One can't, after all, libel the dead, let alone a dead company, which seems to make it perfectly acceptable to suggest that the doomed White Star liner was sunk deliberately as part of some extraordinary insurance fiddle.

And fans of Dan Brown will not be surprised to learn that the Illuminati - or possibly the Jesuits - were behind the sinking, as part of a complex plot to bump off wealthy opponents of the foundation of the US Federal Reserve and the imminent and profitable First World War. It's a theory that imbues with fresh meaning the phrase "collateral damage".

But arguably the greatest remaining riddle surrounding the Titanic is the mystery of the missing passengers - the forgotten Arabs whose dreams of a new life sank without trace.


After his "Yalla" moment, Hanania started to research the subject and, in April 1998, wrote an article headlined "Arabs on the Titanic: we share the pain but not the glory".

That, he says, "is the common theme of our lives. If you talk about Arab history in the United States, that is the title of what we have gone though".

Hanania says he believes that James Cameron "intentionally downplayed us" in the film, "because you sell movies to audiences that are going to buy tickets and nobody is going to watch a movie called The Arabs on theTitanic".

As a result, "I believe that he distorted the film. Obviously it was fiction based on fact so he had licence; but the Irish wedding party that they had down in the hull of the Titanic was actually an Arab wedding party ... a Lebanese family; there was a whole group of them, all distantly related, and they were going [to America] because the daughter was getting married.

"But an Arab wedding never would have played into the hands of the love story."

He doesn't, he says, blame Cameron "for not telling our story. I blame ourselves, because we don't do a very good job of telling our story. I've been a writer and newspaper reporter for years and my angle has always been that Arabs have never told their story".

Partly to blame for this reticence, he says, is the attitude of many Americans to their Arab neighbours: "We are very fractured in this country because we live under siege. People look at me and they hate me even before they meet me."

He grew up "watching every movie about the Middle East and every terrorist and bad guy looked like one of my relatives. You grow up in this environment where you're taught to hate your own people because they are the bad people you see in the media".

With a side career as a stand-up comedian, Hanania has also written two humorous books about growing up Arab in America - called I'm Glad I Look Like a Terrorist and Arabs of Chicagoland.

"You are bludgeoned with these negative stereotypes and that makes it worse when you come to see a movie like Titanic; maybe there was some positive role model on that ship who saved people's lives. Maybe there was an Arab guy that was playing music. There had to have been some heroic moment in the Arab passenger community on the Titanic that we should have been told about. But we never are told that story."

In fact, according to a book written by a Lebanese author in 2000, there is evidence that at least one of the Arabs on board the Titanic, who was to lose his own life, may have saved the lives of dozens of children by making sure they got into lifeboats.

But the true story behind the death and possible heroism of Niqula Nasrallah, a Syrian-American businessman lost on the Titanic, remains obscure despite the fact his body was recovered and, as such, offers an insight into just how easy it was for the stories of his compatriots to sink without trace.

The first problem is determining exactly how many Arabs sailed - and died - on the Titanic.

"I don't think there is any easy way to tell," says Jess Bier, a geographer doing a PhD in science and technology studies at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, and who wrote her masters at City University, New York, on Syrian immigration to the city. "And there are a number of reasons."

From an immigrant New York family herself - her father's side were from Poland and Ireland - she highlighted some of those reasons, including technological mishaps, expedient name-changing, the lack of standardised transliteration between Arabic and English and simple confusion at the height of the difficult rescue effort following the sinking, in a fascinating paper published in 2008 in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology.

In How Niqula Nasrallah Became John Jacob Astor: Syrian Emigrants Aboard the Titanic and the Materiality of Language, Bier argued that many Arabic names on the Titanic were literally lost in translation, altered and Anglicised beyond recognition as casualty lists were transmitted from ships to shore by Morse code.

She cited the extraordinary case of Nasrallah, whose body was recovered from the sea five days after the sinking. Despite the fact that his right forearm bore a unique tattoo and that his correct name was to be found on the recovered business cards he had on his person, declaring him to be a "wholesale confectioner and candy maker", a series of faulty Morse transmissions saw his unfamiliar, foreign name mutate from Nasrallah to N Nasser, Nicolas E Rasher and NE Coles Rasher until, eventually and for some time, his corpse was mistaken for that of the multimillionaire John Jacob Astor, also lost in the disaster.


Various sources agree that Arabs accounted for between 10 and 20 per cent of the Titanic's third-class passengers and Bier went back to original White Star documents to confirm this total. All available figures, she wrote, "whether by my own count or from other sources, confirm that Syrians formed no less than 10, and no more than 20, per cent of the Titanic's steerage passengers". In a 1998 article, Hanania wrote that he had pored over "every name on the passenger, crew and business concessionaire list". He could identify only 79, but added: "It's not easy to read through the lengthy list of passengers, let alone decipher who is or isn't of Arab heritage. We can only guess in some instances."

That same year, Judith Geller, the author of the book Titanic: Women and Children First, wrote that "officially there were 154 Syrians on board the Titanic, and 29 were saved: four men, five children and 20 women".

Put another way, that would mean that 125 died. If so, then Arab victims accounted for no less than 23 per cent of the 527 third-class passengers who died - a shocking proportion to have vanished from the story.

To add to the confusion, the term "Syrian" had a very different meaning in 1912, when Syria was the name of a province in the Ottoman Empire that embraced all of modern-day Syria, the Palestinian Territories, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan.

One Lebanese man who has spent the past 10 years piecing together the stories of the Arabs on the Titanic believes there were 145 on board; of them, 97 were Lebanese, of whom 68 died.

Disaster, despair, persecution or simply a yearning to improve their lives drove many of the Titanic Arabs to seek a new life overseas. Guy Jones's own journey, which by chance brought him from Lebanon to Ireland, where he now lives a short drive from the Titanic's last port of call, was triggered by similar motives - in his case, the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War.

By the time it ended in 1990, an estimated one million people - Jones among them - had fled the country. In 1976, aged 17, "things were going really bad" and he was unable to take up the place he had won at the American University of Beirut. Instead, he "decided to look for a university elsewhere and ended up in Montreal".

Later, he met and married an Irish woman and, 14 years ago, they moved to Ireland, "not knowing there was any link at all between Ireland and Lebanon". He settled in Kilkenny, and to his surprise, "I discovered that Queenstown was the last place where these Lebanese were ever seen alive".

In 2001 he started the Lebanese-Irish Cultural Foundation, which for the past three years has taken part in the annual Titanic commemorations, centred on the memorial to the dead on the waterfront at Cobh (pronounced Cove). For this year's ceremony, which takes place on Wednesday, he has been asked to speak on behalf of all the minority nationalities who lost their lives on the ship.

Jones knows that any assessment of the number of Arabs on board the Titanic can only be a guess. Part of the problem, he says, was that at that time, living under the Ottoman Empire, many Arabs would have been travelling with Turkish passports. For this reason, he says, "all through South America, Lebanese were known as Turkos, while in North America and Mexico, they were called Syrians". Jones says other factors helped to obscure the true number of Arabs on the ship.

"Some passengers were not even listed as Arabs or Lebanese because some who already lived in America and were returning after visiting relatives had Anglicised their names and were passed for English or Americans."

Lebanese, in particular, had started coming to America as early as "the 1860s, after the traumatic events in Mount Lebanon [in which thousands of Christian Maronites were massacred by the dominant Druze community]". There were, says Jones, "a great number of Christians among the [Arab] passengers".

Many such Anglicised Arabs were almost certainly lost among the throng of Britons and Americans, who accounted for the two largest groups on board the Titanic - 327 and 306 passengers respectively, of whom 223 and 119 died.

Jones also believes the Arabs were written out of the Titanic's history partly because of the impending First World War, which rendered them citizens of an enemy state - the Ottoman Empire - and conveniently allowed White Star to forego paying any compensation for the dead.

"There are relatives in Lebanon who never even knew what happened to their relatives on the Titanic," he says. "They never knew they died or got any compensation."

For Jones, this was one of the worst aspects of the tragedy.

"There is a myth about these guys who put their hands together and danced the Lebanese dabke when the ship was sinking. I doubt the story, but it doesn't matter; it is proof that certain villages in Lebanon were devastated, meaning 11 or 13 people all died on the Titanic from the one village."

According to Bier, the inadvertent renaming of the dead had "an incredible impact" on the living. "The claiming of the body was instrumental in terms of getting the pension or the life insurance that was owed to that person."

And it was not, she says, solely down to the vagaries of the cruel sea that so few bodies were brought ashore by rescuers.

The crew of one ship, the cable-layer Mackay-Bennet, recovered 306 bodies, of which 116, deemed beyond identification, were wrapped in canvas, weighted down and returned to the sea.

For Hanania, the story of the Titanic "is the most important story of the Arab-American experience" and a lost key to unlocking understanding of the Arab condition in the mind of the average American.

"It's the story of how we came here and it's a story that we share with every immigrant that's come to this country; in other words, it shows that we're no different than anybody else - we came here with the Irish, the Italians, everybody."

Arabs in America, he says, are subject to a lot of racism, founded on ignorance. "I had a woman come up to me after September 11 and she said, 'I can't believe that you abandoned your Christian faith to become an Arab'.

"I was laughing, it was so painful. How do you even respond to a person like that? How do I make this lady my friend?"

He doesn't hold Americans wholly responsible for their ignorance. "What is friendship? It's about two people who identify with each other, but when an American looks at me they don't identify with me: I haven't told them my story; I never identified myself in a way that would be of interest to them."

That, he says, is why the Titanic story is so important - and why the 1997 film, with its "Yalla" moment, was such a lost opportunity. Back then, "it hit me - this is exactly the problem. We are a major part of the story and we're not even in it".

In a debate, he says, you don't win the argument, you win the audience: "We've always tried to fight to win the argument, never to win the audience. The Titanic story would have been a great way to win the hearts and minds of the audience in America but, instead, we want to yell and scream about 1948 and Palestine and how the United States screwed us at the UN.

"Americans don't want to hear that. You want to win them over? Tell them you were just like them - on the Titanic."

Jonathan Gornall is a former senior features writer for The National.