‘Karmal Allah Send Me Ten Lira’: Women, Migration, and World War I in Mount Lebanon

By Graham Auman Pitts
Submitted to Session P4747 (Negotiating Gender and Morality in the Ottoman First World War, 2017 Annual Meeting
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
World War I revealed a paradox of Lebanese migration to the Americas: a source of great prosperity for Lebanese before 1914, Lebanon’s dependence on money sent from abroad also represented a dangerous vulnerability, particularly for women who were apt to rely on cash remittances sent from male relatives in the United States, Argentina, Cuba, or elsewhere. Lebanon lost access to its main sources of income when the Ottoman Empire joined the war in November 1914. Money transfers from the mahjar had been the largest source of income for the Ottoman province of Mount Lebanon before 1914, followed by the export of silk to France. Residents of Beirut and Mount Lebanon faced famine conditions beginning in April 1915. As men succumbed to starvation or were conscripted into labor units, women shouldered an increased burden, raising children and running the financial affairs of the family unit. That reality reflected an Ottoman, and broader wartime trend on the one hand. However, women in Lebanon had a peculiar experience, as this paper will reveal, based on the detailed correspondence they sent to U.S. consulate at Beirut, as well as materials from Lebanese archives. The pronounced reliance of its economy on remittances had already created vulnerabilities for individual women before the war: they were more likely than men to be reliant on cash flows from relatives in the Americas (which were liable to cease as men fell on hard times or started new families). During the war, that vulnerability became general. In their time of need, many women requested support from the U.S. government, in light of the absence of support from the Ottoman imperial, provincial, or municipal governments. Those Lebanese who had the means to travel back and forth from the Americas and relied on remittances for their livelihood mostly survived into the latter two years of the war, suffering once the financial system stopped functioning. Had the war ended in 1916, they likely would have survived, no worse for the war. Their dependence on remittances became a liability only once the U.S. consulate could no longer facilitate the transfer of funds, and the Ottoman currency experienced massive inflation. The experiences of Lebanese women during the war varied, and can only be comprehended by attending to the complex intersections of gender and class that dictated their fate.