Syria’s Wartime Famine @100: “Martyrs of the Grass”

For Memorial Day, we revisit Najwa al-Qattan’s look at how civilians in Ottoman Syria experienced the Great War, originally published on December 15, 2016.
In the days leading up to the Muslim holiday of the Feast of Sacrifice ...

In the days leading up to the Muslim holiday of the Feast of Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha) in October 2013, several Syrian clerics issued a fatwa (a religious opinion or responsum) allowing—in several besieged and starved suburbs of Damascus—the consumption of cats, dogs, and donkeys killed in bombings. The fatwa, publicly announced from mosques and uploaded on YouTube, came in the context of war- and siege-induced food scarcities and starvation.1 It was not the first; over the previous year, similar fatwas had been issued in other besieged areas, including Aleppo, Homs, and Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. But there was poignancy to the timing of this fatwa: on this holiest of Muslim eids, believers all over the world celebrate the end of the Hajj, in part by the slaughtering of a sacrificial animal (and sharing its meat with the needy) in homage to the Prophet Abraham. But in this war, as was the case a century ago, it is the Syrian civilians that are being sacrificed.

In the centenary of the Great War, and amid the plethora of publications, conferences, and memorials that this has engendered, we may also want to remember the lost and almost forgotten hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties who, in Ottoman Syria (including Lebanon), perished amid the upheavals of that war. Across the world from the place where the trenches devoured Europe’s youth, in Lebanon and Syria people devoured grass. One of Lebanon’s most renowned poets, Beshara al-Khouri, penned a poem titled “1914,” in which he described his war-ravaged countrymen as “beggars and the desperate / People dispersed by hunger, they eat grass.”2


One hundred years ago, civilians in Syria and Lebanon experienced the Great War as a “starvation war.” As starvation spreads in Syria today, it might be instructive to consider the similarities as well as the differences between the two. Needless to say, the Syrian civil war is a more politically complex event, involving a larger number of local, regional, and international actors, and has brought to Syria’s cities and towns the kind of military brutalization that was not part of the Syrian home experience during the Great War. And unlike soldiers on the Western Front—and civilians in Syria today—Ottoman Syrian civilians were spared the agonies of poison gas. But they were spared nothing else. Like most civilians on other home fronts of the Great War, the Syrian population experienced deprivation and death, but did so more intensely: according to most estimates, some 300,000 people perished during the war, the vast majority dying of starvation.

The famine, which became acute by 1915, had several natural as well as political causes, which in conjuncture led to catastrophic loss. The war years brought unusually cold and snowy winters that closed the mountain passes to the wheat-growing regions, leading to widespread shortages of bread, a staple in the local diet. In 1915, and again in 1916, much of the area was swarmed by locusts that “devoured everything green, including our grass, so we started eating them.”3 In Ottoman Palestine, the year 1915 would be recalled as “the year of the locusts.”4 Famine, the historical handmaid of disease, enabled the spread of malaria, typhoid, typhus, and the plague.

Yet, unsurprisingly, the impact of nature’s wrath might have been softened had it not been for the politics of the historical moment. Following the Ottoman decision to join the war—and through the peace talks in Versailles in 1919—the Entente Powers blockaded the eastern Mediterranean. This prevented the arrival of foodstuffs by sea, as well as much needed remittances from immigrants in America (after the United States declared war in 1917). At the same time, Ottoman wartime policies of forced conscription depleted the work force, particularly of peasant labor, and—together with requisition, currency devaluation, corruption, and inefficiency—compounded the economic crisis and social dislocation. The confluence of these events and the myriad diseases that spread brought civilian life to the edge of catastrophe. By 1916, Syria’s civilians were hardly surviving on a diet of cats, dogs, trash, and grass.

In 2014, “the martyrs of the grass” was the name given by the people of Yarmouk to the men and women who had been shot dead by snipers while foraging for a meal of grass in a no-man’s-land on the edge of the starving camp.5 In its elegance and simplicity, the name captures both the tragic and the ironic meanings of this kind of dying. Interestingly, the name also coveys, albeit reluctantly, the mantel of martyrdom that was withheld from their forebears who had died from starvation a century ago. Instead, those who were remembered and memorialized in postwar Syria and Lebanon were the few dozen men who were hanged by the Ottoman government for their wartime nationalist politics. Because of their sacrifices for the nation, they were (and are) celebrated on Martyrs’ Day, and have city squares in Damascus and Beirut named after them. Although the death of civilians was deeply mourned in the literature and memoirs of the times, it was not deemed worthy of public historical remembrance, let alone of martyrdom. Writing from the safety of distant exile in North America in 1916, the Syrian poet Nasib Arida, regarding the events unfolding in his country, went so far as to declare:

Shroud them,
Bury them,
Lay them in coffins down the deep grave.
Then leave at once without weeping,
For they are dead and will not wake.6

Today we are weeping, as we should. In fact, the agony of the people of Yarmouk became iconic, if only for a short time in January 2014, thanks to a widely circulated photograph of thousands of men, women, and children lining up to receive aid from the UN Relief and Works Agency.7 A month after reports of massive starvation made international headlines, a few scores of people in New York and Tokyo came together to march in solidarity with the starving. By that time, two years had passed since reports of civilian death by starvation had started to leak out. Today, over five years into the Syrian civil war, news of civilian hunger continues. Voicing incredulity that the unimaginable was taking place, one eyewitness interviewed in Yarmouk said, “Maybe the people can eat each other. I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t imagine. Before, no one can imagine that a family can just cook a cat. Now it’s happened.”8 The urgency speaks of horrors that have little to do with the sharia.

<i>Bakery for Ottoman soldiers during the First World War, 1917</i>. Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Israel Collections / Wikimedia Commons

Bakery for Ottoman soldiers during the First World War, 1917. Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Israel Collections / Wikimedia Commons

Like many sharia rules, the prohibition against the consumption of cats and dogs, as opposed to pork or wine (or donkeys), for example, is not necessarily the object of legal consensus. My sense is that, historically, the prohibition has not been tested often enough for it to have become a significant part of sharia discourse. (In addition, all four of the major Muslim legal schools allow the consumption of forbidden foods if survival hangs in the balance.) What is explicit in sharia is the prohibition against the consumption of animals not ritually slaughtered (as is normally the case of animal casualties of war). The flesh of such animals—“dead meat”—is not permissible (halal) because the animals had not been ritually slaughtered. These traditional distinctions have been overturned by the recent fatwa. It is ironic that now such animals, when killed as a result of bombing, become in death the food that saves human life; war’s burnt offerings, made halal by brutal force and need.

It may be argued that, technically speaking, this was not a fatwa, as it was not articulated in response to a specific inquiry regarding Islamic law. Rather, it was expressed by multiple religious authorities, who were responding to the reality, as well as the rumors, that starving people were already consuming such animals. In other words, the fatwa was an act of legal intervention driven by the compassionate necessity to accommodate actual (and apparently public) practices. Additionally, according to the clerics, the fatwa was intended to be “a symbolic cry for help and an appeal for compassion in the Muslim and larger world.”9 There is an interesting inversion at play here: if the consumption of forbidden foods is only permissible in cases of life-threatening starvation, then permitting such consumption becomes a signal for and a symbol of a humanitarian crisis. But technicalities matter little in such situations. As succinctly expressed by a Yarmouk resident: “this is no longer a fatwa; it is the only choice,” adding that the “scepter of starvation is more dangerous than war.”10  He might have well said that starvation is war by other means.

The year 1916 is the year of Sykes-Picot: the British-French wartime agreement on the postwar colonial division and remapping of the Middle East, including Syria. Sandwiched between the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence of 1915–1916 and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 in the nationalist discourses of the twentieth-century Middle East, the Sykes-Picot Agreement is considered the cause and indeed the exemplar of the destructive influence of the West, including the drawing of modern borders. Sykes-Picot still resonates despite, or perhaps because of, the horrors of the Syrian present. Over the past five years, millions of Syrians have streamed over the country’s borders with Lebanon and Jordan, in unintended but symbolic mockery of the postwar colonial arrangements and borders. At the same time, as ISIS-controlled territory expanded from Iraq into Syria in the centenary of the Great War, a road sign at the trampled border proudly announced the end of Sykes-Picot. While ISIS violently dissolves colonial borders, the government is bringing Syrian society itself to a horrific dissolution.


Although neither snow nor locusts have a role in the starvation of the present, it is noteworthy that the drought-induced agricultural failures in Syria (as of 2008), and the failure of the Assad regime in dealing with subsequent food shortages, had a role in the Syrian Arab Spring. That “the martyrs of the grass” lost their lives rummaging in the Ghouta—the agricultural belt surrounding the city of Damascus and, historically, its breadbasket—adds poignancy to their story. But food is not merely an indirect cause of popular uprising; it has become a lethal weapon in this war’s deadly arsenal.

The starvation in present-day Syria, like the majority of starvation episodes in modern times, is primarily the product of war and politics. For four years now, the Assad regime has had in place a policy of imposing choking sieges in order to starve areas of resistance into submission. Although at times used by anti-regime resistance groups (Islamist and other), the government has used food as a weapon in calculated, cruel, and fatal ways. Rather than a coastal blockade like the one that cut off Ottoman shores in the Great War, the blockades in Syria today are inland and mobile, encircling different areas as the war progresses.

Yet despite their differences, the two famines share one defining characteristic: the unimaginable suffering that is the experience of starvation. Whereas the Great War is most often recalled as the time when deprivation was shared across the population, the civil war today is saturated with sectarian bloodshed. Still, the hunger is the same. Pictures of emaciated people, particularly children, may be worth a thousand words. But in the year 2016, as various armies battle it out in Syria, it is apt to remember the words of a Lebanese historian, Jirjis al-Maqdisi, who wrote about the Great War as it was unfolding. He speaks of a different kind of army: “an army of beggars”—the civilians of the region. He writes that

the war managed, albeit temporarily, to erase sectarian differences; instead, there were two kinds of people: those who were mobile and able to rummage for and eat banana and lemon peels and even carrion, and others too weak to move or even speak. But the hardest sights were of children twisted by hunger sitting in the laps of mothers too exhausted to move. And God protect us from such horrific sights.11

  1.  Sebastian Usher, “Clerics rule besieged Damascus residents may eat dogs,” BBC News, October 15, 2013; “Eid in Besieged Damascus,” Rozana Radio, October 21, 2013.
  2.  Shir al-Akhtal al-Saghir: Beshara Abdallah al-Khouri (Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi, 1972), pp. 342–50. This and all the translations in this essay are mine.
  3.  Mamduh Udwan, Safarbarlik 0: Ayyam al-ju (Majallat al-Hayat, 1994), pp. 13; 20.
  4.  Salim Tamari, Year of the Locusts: A Soldier’s Diary and the Erasure of Palestine’s Ottoman Past (University of California Press, 2011), p. 5.
  5.  Ann Curry, “People Eating Cats as Starvation and Deaths Plague Syrian Camp,” NBC News, February 3, 2014; Samira Said, “Palestinian refugees starving to death in Syrian camp, human rights groups say,” CNN, January 25, 2014.
  6.  Nasib Arida in Mukhtarat min al-shir al-hadith, edited by Mustafa Badawi (Dar al-Nahar li’l-Nashr, 1969), pp. 111–112.
  7. Jonathan Steele, “How Yarmouk refugee camp became the worst place in Syria,” The Guardian, March 5, 2015.
  8.  Curry, “People Eating Cats as Starvation and Deaths Plague Syrian Camp.”
  9.  Sebastian Usher, “Clerics rule besieged Damascus residents may eat dogs,” BBC News, October 15, 2013; “Eid in Besieged Damascus,” Rozana Radio, October 21, 2013.
  10. Eid in Besieged Damascus.
  11.  Jirjis al-Maqdisi, Azam harb fi al-tarikh (al-Matbaa al-Ilmiyya, 1918), pp. 68–69.