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.
The Titanic Memorial Cruise on the Balmoral departed Southampton, England on April 8, 2012 carrying 1,309 passengers wearing period costumes and sailed the Atlantic along the same route as the Titanic herself. The ship’s chef painstakingly attempted to reproduce the seven-course menu served in Titanic’s first class. The Balmoral anchored at the wreck site in the midst of the vast Atlantic and at 2:20am on April 15, 2012, a hundred years to the minute after the Titanic sank, an emotional memorial service took place in the presence of more than 30 relatives of Titanic survivors and victims. Many passengers on the Balmoral expressed raw grief as they were reminded of the isolation and sheer terror those who died must have felt.
On a more personal level, I learned a great deal about my great grandfather Gerios Abi Saab who died on the Titanic. Writing his story on the blog has been an incredible experience. After depleting Amazon.com of its Titanic-related books, I hounded my uncle and father for information. Using Columbo-style interrogation techniques compounded by a salvo of emails, which undoubtedly jolted out of dormancy key neurons in my relatives’ hippocampus, I discovered additional facts. Mainly, that my great grandfather had been to America before 1912, the year he sailed on the Titanic. He came thru Ellis Island in 1900, bound to Ohio where he worked as an assistant cook in a restaurant. He eventually returned to Lebanon, proud of his earnings and of his ability to provide for his wife and six children. Back in his hometown of Thoum, in Northern Lebanon, he tried to make a living by selling the newly invented Singer sewing machine, which he would carry on a donkey from village to village. His unsuccessful wanderings and his positive previous experience in “Amerka”, enticed Gerios to go back with two of his fellow villagers with the hope of working in the steel mills of Ohio. He had contacts there from his previous voyage and knew he could make a decent amount of money.
I cannot help but draw a parallel of how Gerios would sail the Atlantic between Beirut and New York in the 1900s, the way we today take the shuttle between New York and Washington. And, what if he had not perished on Titanic, would he have eventually asked his family to join him in Ohio? The chances are, our family history would not have been the same. “What ifs” are often irresistible all-too-human mind games, which regrettably never provide anyone with a soothing answer.
I also discovered that when my devout great grandmother Marta was told that her beloved husband Gerios perished on the Titanic, she had been praying on a kneeler. Upon hearing the tragic news, she fainted and fell onto the floor breaking her pinky finger, which my father recalls remained forever deformed. Gerios’ brother, a Maronite priest, poet and writer, Father Youssef Abi Saab, helped my great grandmother Marta in raising the six children. She apparently filed a claim with a maritime company (presumably White Star) and received payment with which she purchased two gold bracelets for her daughters. Teta Marta also received 50 pounds from the Titanic Relief Fund. She lived until the age of one hundred and five, fueled by her faith and kindness.
After I wrote the story of Gerios, my great grandfather, I received numerous heartwarming and humbling messages. Janet White, the kindest soul and co-author of a book called “Ohio Tales of the Titanic” contacted me after reading Gerios’ story on this blog. She invited me to a Titanic convention in Secaucus, NJ where I met two aficionados in their 70’s who dove more than once to the Titanic wrecksite. Golly! I can barely dive in a pool. Janet also connected me with the great granddaughter of Shaanineh Abi Saab, Gerios’ cousin who was pushed into Collapsible C by my great grandfather and who survived the sinking. I was later contacted by the great grandson of Banoura Ayoub, the teenage girl traveling with Gerios and Shaanineh who also survived. He had been researching the Internet for any information about his ancestor Banoura Ayoub when he fell upon this blog.
One century later, American descendants of three Titanic passengers from the same remote village in northern Lebanon connected and shared their ancestors’ singular stories. In a remarkable or perhaps spiritual twist of fate, life came full circle, a sweet reminder that we are all somehow connected. Pulitzer-winning author Anthony Shadid writes in his poignant memoir The House of Stone “History is sometimes written to buttress the myths that underlie our imagined identities”. Perhaps this is true. And call me sentimental, but I cannot help but conjure up the image of Gerios as a valiant man, facing his fate on the deck of Titanic on that tragic night and yet steering his cousin Shaanineh and the fourteen year-old Banoura to the safety of a lifeboat.
In an attempt to solidify the imagery of my great grandfather, I went on a frantic Trans-Atlantic search for a picture of Gerios. Fearing my tormenting nocturnal emails, my father and uncle went on a fact-finding mission in the old ancestral village. They knocked on doors, took pictures of Gerios and Marta’s abandoned house and overgrown cacti in the garden, connected with a Lebanese book author who wrote about the villagers who perished on the Titanic, brainstormed with their cousins, visited the cemetery, all in the hope of finding a picture of Gerios. Alas, no such luck was to be found. After all the investigative reporting, the closest we got is a photograph of Gerios’ second elder son Joseph Abi Saab, my great uncle, who by all accounts looked uncannily like his father.
And this is where the story of Gerios ends. Maybe. Life is full of surprises.
2012 was also a titanic year in the figurative sense. The Arab Spring, which was ignited by liberals, anarchists, socialists, students, artists and social media savvy techno-nerds as well as many unemployed and disenfranchised in the Middle East, turned from a mostly secular and inspiring revolution in 2011 to a brutal religious power struggle in 2012. The epicenter of this bloody battle is Syria with the unrelenting, senseless and shocking violence. Some of the Syria tension is predictably spilling over in neighboring fragile Lebanon, which had witnessed in the preceding years a great revival and an ephemeral respite.
The Middle East pressure-cooker exploded eerily and not so coincidentally on September 11, 2012 with the horrific assault on Benghazi in Libya killing the US Ambassador and three colleagues. The year also saw the first democratically elected president in Egypt Mohamed Morsi, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood. Tensions in the Middle East continue to simmer between countries, factions, religious groups and neighbors. Conflict between Israel and Gaza reignited and culminated in targeted air strikes in Gaza, missile retaliation attacks on Israel intercepted by a Sci-Fi like Iron Dome defense system and more horrific loss of life on both sides of the isle.
2012 was a big year for elections. France’s first socialist leader in nearly 20 years was sworn in as President. Barack Obama was re-elected as president of the United States of America after a closely fought race in a deeply divided country. China’s political elite also witnessed a once in a decade event with the transfer of power from President Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping.
On the economic front, 2012 was an eventful year for Europe with a deepening Eurocrisis highlighted by bailouts and unpopular austerity measures. Greece, the birthplace of democracy, saw widespread riots, a devastated economy and unprecedented high unemployment. The future of Spain, Italy and France are also in jeopardy because of massive debt and growing unemployment.
Climate change deniers were proven wrong after a second and more devastating Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of the United States one year after relatively milder Hurricane Irene. Sandy wreaked havoc in New York and New Jersey causing unspeakable loss of life and material damage estimated in the tens of billions of dollars. Climate scientists predict rising sea levels and potential for more catastrophic storms.
And… as if all the aforementioned wearing news were not sufficient, 2012 had to end in grand style with an apocalyptic Mayan prediction! My eleven-year-old daughter explained in vivid detail the many gruesome possibilities by which our human civilization could be eradicated. The Earth might reverse its magnetic poles or be wiped out by a solar flare, rogue comet or asteroid. “Rubbish” I responded. How could the Mayans prophesize the end of the world on December 21, 2012 when they were not even able to predict their own demise?
Needless to say, the Armageddon fear compounded to an eventful year boosted additional soul searching and spiritual yearning. Yoga, Meditation, Ahimsa (Non-Harming), Veganism, Silence Retreats and Fasting are mainstream in today’s Western world. More than ever, there is an explosion of spirituality worldwide. Humans feel the need to reconnect with nature, to one another and to Source. They are flocking to hear spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, Eckhart Tolle, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson and…Oprah. Even in the darkest and most wretched moments, humans are rising to help, guide, comfort and care. We witnessed it in the heroic rescue efforts and inspiring volunteerism during Hurricane Sandy, in the NYPD officer who bought a pair of boots to a barefoot homeless man on a cold New York night and in the healthcare workers who are working double time to care for the ill and displaced after Hurricane Sandy. This basic human need for connectedness is what elevates the human spirit and brings joy and gratitude to one’s life.
From the dawn of times and in tragic stories epitomized by Greek Mythology, people are compelled by moral dilemmas of right vs. wrong and by human emotion in the face of disaster: from pride, arrogance and prejudice to courage, duty and selflessness. And so, we come full circle again to the story of Titanic, an enduring tragedy with many valuable lessons.
Humility. Hope. Courage. Faith. Resilience. Kindness. Charity.
I am grateful to my ancestors, especially my great grandfather Gerios Youssef Abi Saab for bringing the Titanic story into my consciousness. Recounting one hundred years later the story of his journey on the famed ship and of his self-sacrifice brought him back to life. Paying respect at his gravesite in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Halifax was a deeply spiritual experience, a precious date with stillness and quietude. I have been humbled by the number of visitors on this blog, totaling more than 10, 135 as of this writing and originating from 109 countries!
Before we ring in the New Year, I would like to wish you all Peace, Joy & Inspiration. Where will your journey take you in 2013?
“This journey has always been about reaching your own other shore no matter what it is, and that dream continues” Diana Nyad