A personal account about my great-grandfather and the Titanic
This Sunday, the 15th of April 2012, is the Centennial of the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic. Of the passengers aboard “the ship of dreams”, more than 1,500 perished, including Gerios Youssef Abi-Saab, my great-grandfather.
Gerios, a native of the village of Thoum, in Northern Lebanon, left his wife and six children including Wehbe, my grandfather, who was five years old, hoping to provide a better life for his family by working in America. Lebanon, under Ottoman rule at the time, was struck by famine and poverty and religious tensions pervaded. Lebanese migration became widespread resulting in several waves of departures to faraway lands such as Australia, South America, Canada and the United States.
The year 2012 was a Titanic year in both the literal and figurative sense.
Factually, on April 12 of this year, the world commemorated the 100th year anniversary of the sinking of the famed ship. The unabated fascination with Titanic was buttressed by the release of James Cameron’s epic movie Titanic in 3D on April 4, 2012. There were several ensuing centennial celebrations throughout the world including the event-packed Titanic 100, which I had the privilege of attending in Halifax, Nova Scotia. An iconic museum was inaugurated in the heart of Belfast, on the slipways where RMS Titanic was built. The Southampton Sea City Museum also opened in April 2012 with two permanent exhibits about the Titanic story and the city’s role as a major port from which the ship set sail.
When Al-Emir Fares Chehab, age 29, boarded the RMS Titanic in Cherbourg, France on April 10, 1912, he was clinging to his most precious possession nestled in a bottleneck-shaped case, as if for dear life. Inside rested a venerated musical instrument: The Oud. With its distinctive teardrop shape and decorative rosettes adorned with mother of pearl inlay, the Oud also know as Lute, is considered the most important instrument in the Arab world and is dubbed the “Prince of Ecstasy” and the “Sultan of Musical Instruments”.
Unlike Halifax that was dubbed the “City of Sorrows” for its grim role in the recovery and burial of the Titanic victims, New York City became notorious as the city that welcomed the 713 survivors. After a three-day journey hampered by fog, ice and rough seas, the RMS Carpathia docked at 9:30pm on April 18, 1912 at New York’s Pier 54. The rescue ship was greeted by tens of thousands of people anxiously waiting under a heavy rain. “At the pier, rich men, poor men stood shoulder to shoulder, all of them united in the hope of seeing the faces of those they loved,” Wyn Craig Wade wrote in “The Titanic: End of a Dream.” “People at the pier began weeping quietly. There was no hysteria; everyone remained in control.”
When 38-year-old Shaanineh, my great grandfather’s cousin, boarded the RMS Titanic in Cherbourg on April 10, 1912, the dusk was just settling in and the lights of the great ship were blazing under the fading sun. Was she, a poor immigrant from Lebanon traveling as a third class passenger, awe-stricken at the first sight of the mammoth vessel? Or was she merely relieved after a strenuous journey to have finally reached the famed liner, which would transport her to her final destination in Youngstown, Ohio? Perhaps both.
Mr. Robert Douglas Norman, a 28 year-old electrical engineer from Glasgow, Scotland, was traveling on the Titanic from Southampton to Vancouver, Canada where his brother resided and where he owned some land. He boarded the doomed ship as a second class passenger. On the evening of April 14th Douglas played the piano at a hymn service presided over by Reverend Ernest Carter. After the collision, Norman met Kate Buss and Marion Wright and told them the ship had struck an iceberg but assured them there was no danger.
Jack Thayer was a 17-year-old first class passenger on the RMS Titanic, traveling with his parents on that fateful night of April 15, 1912. He miraculously survived after an epic struggle in the frigid waters. His mother was able to board one of the lifeboats but sadly, his father John Thayer perished. Jack went on to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania four years later. In 1940, he described his harrowing experiences on the famed ship in a self-published book, of which 500 copies were printed for family and friends. OceanographerRobert Ballard used it to determine the location of the Titanic and proved that the ship had split in half as it sank, contrary to popular belief.
During my visit to Halifax, Nova Scotia on April 14-15th, for the Titanic 100 commemoration, I met numerous people, young and old, from different ethnic backgrounds and without necessarily a direct relationship to any Titanic victims or survivors, who flocked from all corners of the globe, to be part of this special remembrance. Some were die-hard Titanic fans, fondly known as “Titaniomaniacs” and some were novices just like me. Notwithstanding their knowledge base disparity, both groups share even one hundred years later, an unrelenting fascination with Titanic.