The Untold Story
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”. First introduced to Western Europe by the Arabs who established the Umayyad Caliphate of Andalusia in 711, the Oud is notorious for its rich wailing sound and its passionate and meditative quality. Little did Fares know that his prized belonging would soon lull many anguished passengers bound together on this fateful journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
Al-Emir Fares Chehab was a descendent of the prominent and noble Chehab family of Lebanon. The Chehabs, who trace their lineage back to the Qoraish tribe of the prophet Mohammad, were made princes by the first Caliph Abu Bakr in the year 636 AD. Hence, Fares Chehab’s title “Al-Emir”, which translated from Arabic, means “The Prince”. Although Fares grew up in Al-Hadath, 3 miles South-East of Beirut, his forebears were the traditional princes of Wadi-al-Taym, a long fertile valley running parallel to the western foot of Mount Hermon, an imposing mountain in Southern Lebanon, which held great religious significance for the Canaanites and Phoenicians who called it “The Seat of the All High”. In Hasbaya, the capital of Wadi-al-Taym, lies the grand, albeit run down 11th century citadel owned by the Chehab Emirs. The history of the structure which sits on a hill overlooking a river begins with the Crusaders. Today, several medieval houses and a 13th century mosque make up the rest of the 20,000 square meter compound and is amazingly still inhabited by some members of the Chehab family.
Fares Chehab was born five months after the death of his 80 year-old father Emir Fares ibn Sayyed Ahmad ibn Haydar Moussa. His mother was Marwa Al-Chehabi and he had two brothers Najib and Hares and a sister Helene. He married Hind Abi Yaghi and had no children. Unlike many of his fellow compatriots on the Titanic who were bound to America to peddle, labor and financially support their families left behind in Lebanon, Fares was traveling to New York to pursue his lifelong dream. He longed to launch his professional career as a musician and songwriter. Although he purchased a third class ticket since the family had been hit financially and politically by the harsh climate imposed by the ruling Ottomans, Al-Emir Fares Chehab was an educated young man who spoke English.
According to Leila Salloum Elias, author of the comprehensive book: “The Dream and Then the Nightmare”, Fares’ knowledge of English helped many of his fellow countrymen grasp the gravity of the situation. On the dreadful night of April 14, 1912, as the Titanic was achingly tilting its bow into the frigid North Atlantic, Fares Chehab directed many of the women and children to the exits, thereby enabling them to get to the upper decks and eventually to the safety of the lifeboats. Many lives were saved thanks to this honorable and aspiring musician.
Notwithstanding his self-sacrifice, Fares picked up his Oud and began to quietly strum the classic melodies of his home country. Emanating from the bowels of the wounded ship, the softly lamenting yet rich sounds of the Orient permeated the glacial air, thus warming the hearts of the panic-stricken Lebanese passengers. Leila Salloum Elias writes: “While the sounds of trilling from the women appealing and imploring God for help resounded upon the deck and in the waters, amid a state of bewilderment and confusion, the music of Fares’ Oud continued.”
Some survivors interviewed by the Arabic newspapers Al-Hayat and Al-Anwar, recounted the moving story of the composed, tall and handsome musician with a high forehead, who faced death by gently stroking the strings of his beloved instrument. The melody radiating from the depth of the Oud, alternatively sorrowful and meditative, then amplified as a prayer pleading for divine intervention, soothed his distressed countrymen.
Resigning himself to Fate, Al-Emir Fares Chehab showed immense fortitude. Until the very end, he remained calm and serene. And, in an ultimate spiritual feat, he comforted himself and many others by playing the wistful music of their cherished homeland. Thousand of miles away from the warm azure shores of the Mediterranean and struggling for survival under a moonless sky and pitch-black subzero waters, the music-evoked nostalgia sparked by Fares Chehab’s Oud, eased his countrymen’s pain and brought them closer to Home.
The world-renowned bravery of the Titanic band playing “Nearer My God To Thee” as the ship went down was indisputably admirable and gallant. As yet another unsung hero who died on the Titanic, Fares Chehab, a third class Lebanese passenger, was undoubtedly a skilled musician and a noble soul. He genuinely deserved the bestowed title of “Al-Emir”.
For He Was Truly a Prince.
1- The Dream and Then the Nightmare-The Syrians who boarded the Titanic by Leila Salloum Elias
3- Photo of Al-Emir Fares Chehab. Source: Leila Salloum Elias. Publisher: Atlas for Publishing and Distribution. Original Credit: Al-Anwar Newspaper, February 8, 1998