I never met my Lebanese grandfather, Nasif Qasem Abi-Al-Muna, but the tragic details of the Titanic, and the amazing game of destiny that played a role in his survival as a passenger on the ship’s maiden and only voyage, was told to my mother, who passed it on to me.
My grandfather was born in 1885 in Chanay, a mountain town in Lebanon. As an only child, he dreamed of a better future for himself and his family. In 1903, at the age of 18, he left his homeland and travelled to the United States. He landed in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he opened a dry-food store shortly thereafter. Although the store did well and he was able to make a living, he grew lonely and homesick.
In 1910, he returned to Lebanon. Upon his arrival, his parents introduced him to a beautiful girl named Salha. The young Nasif immediately fell in love and they were married. It was not until 1912, when his wife became pregnant, that he felt the need to go back to America to support his growing family.
At dawn, one late March morning, the village woke up to the loud clatter of hoofs. A large, horse-drawn gharry arrived to take my grandfather Nasif, along with two friends, Farid Qasem Abdelkhalek and Farida Abilmona, and her 11-year-old son Husayn, to Beirut to board the ship to begin their journey to America. Salha, Nasif’s nine-month pregnant wife was not to join her husband until later when he had settled down.
After sailing for days across the Mediterranean Sea, they reached Marseille in the south of France where they had to undergo physical examinations by French officials. All but Farida (the boy’s mother) passed the examination. She had trachoma, a contagious bacterial eye infection, which forced her to return to Beirut on the first ship available. Separated from his mother and frightened, Husayn began to cry. My grandfather held the boy tight and comforted him as best he could. “Your father is waiting for you in New York,” he whispered in his ear.
Upon inquiring about steamships leaving for New York, he learned that in three days there would be a ship leaving from Cherbourg for New York. The ship, he was told, was the largest and fastest ship afloat. They called it the “Unsinkable.”
But first they had to get to Cherbourg on the northern coast of France. The three left Marseille by train that evening and travelled north to Paris. Weary from many hours of travel, they stopped over for a day in Paris and left the following morning for Cherbourg where they would board the Titanic.
According to Encyclopedia Titanica, the official record of the Titanic’s voyage, my grandfather bought a 3rd class ticket (number 2699) for himself and young Husayn; it cost him 18 pounds and 15 shillings. On Wednesday night, April 10, the trio boarded the Titanic.
In a later 1938 interview with the Roxboro Courier newspaper my grandfather described the moment as follows:
“Surprise of surprises! Wonders of wonders! Were we in New York already? The ship was more like Broadway than Broadway itself. It was all decorated with colored lights, music playing, people dancing and singing on what seemed like a wide street running down the whole length of the ship.”
The porters quickly took them to their cabins on the top deck. On each of the berths was laid out a lifejacket to be used in case of emergency. My grandfather smiled at the idea of ever needing those jackets, since, as he remembered, this ship was “unsinkable.”
The following Sunday night on April 14, they had been asleep for a few hours when, suddenly, they were jolted awake by a terrible noise. Quickly, the joy of The Unsinkable’s dancing and singing passengers turned into palpable fear, and the sound of music was quickly drowned out by terrified yelling and screaming.
The Titanic had been traveling at a speed of 22 knots when it collided with the iceberg. Within seconds, the water rushed inside the ship and flooded the lower level of the vessel. Some people started praying, others cursing, while others hugged and cried hysterically. My grandfather made sure to keep the boy beside him, and went up on deck to look for his friend Farid, but he couldn’t find him.
“Farid, Farid,” he called loudly. But there was no answer. As his calls for his friend became louder, so did the screams of people on the deck. By then, it was apparent that there was no hope and that the vessel named “The Unsinkable” was indeed sinking. Fearing to lose the boy too, Nasif carried him on his shoulder, determined that if his own life was to be saved, the boy’s life would be saved too.
Shortly after, the crew started shouting that only women and children would be put on the lifeboats. Nasif passed the crying boy to a sailor to put him on a lifeboat.
At 3 am, they heard a horrific explosion and all the lights went off. The captain was going from one group to another bidding them goodbye and assuring them that a ship was coming to save them. He would remain with the ship. Nasif last saw the captain’s shadow in the moonlight as he walked upon the bridge never to return to shore.
Jumping into the Unknown
A lifeboat passed by. He tried to get on board, but the boat started shaking, and the passengers pushed his hands away.
Not knowing how to swim but at least wearing a life jacket, my grandfather had no choice but to throw himself in the water. A lifeboat passed by. He tried to get on board, but the boat started shaking, and the passengers pushed his hands away.
Another boat came by. As he was trying to climb on board, a woman shouted in Arabic: “Let him on. He will help us row.” Once on board, they started rowing in the dark, away from the ship.
Suddenly, there was silence. All the screaming on the ship had ceased. The Titanic had sunk.
On the lifeboat, no one spoke a word; everyone was freezing and terrified. As fate would have it, at the same time Nasif was struggling to survive in the deep dark ocean, his first son, Mohammad, was born, fighting for his little life in Lebanon.
At the crack of dawn, two long hours after the Titanic had broken apart and sunk with a thousand passengers still aboard, Nasif and his fellow survivors saw a ship coming their way. That rescue ship was the famous Carpathia.
As soon as Nasif got on the ship, he looked for Hussein and Farid, screaming out their names, with no reply except the echo of his voice. He was told that two of the lifeboats close to the Titanic had been sucked into the whirlpool the ship had made while going under. How ironic it was that he had handed the boy to the sailor so that he would survive, but he had not, and Nasif had lived.
The Carpathia took the survivors to New York. There, my grandfather found out he was one of the 700 fortunate people out of the 2,240 on board who had lived to see another day. Records reported that he had been saved on lifeboat number 15.
Surviving “The Unsinkable”
For six months, Nasif lived in a state of shock. Traumatized, he was unable to attend to his business.
The Titanic account brought back vivid memories of death, deep fears, and mostly “survivor’s guilt.”
Until his death in 1962, he rarely talked about his experience on the Titanic. Even the excitement of his grandkids hovering around him to listen to his compelling Titanic story never sparked in him enthusiasm. Instead, the Titanic account brought back vivid memories of death, deep fears, and mostly “survivor’s guilt.” My grandfather lived the rest of his life feeling guilty because he had lived while his friend and the little boy for whom he had taken on responsibility never made it to shore.
As to his wife, Salha, she never joined Nasif in the United States. Instead, her brothers, believing that Nasif had drowned in the Titanic, took her and her son to Syria where she married another man.
In 1920, Nasif went back to Lebanon. There he married my grandmother Najmi Abilmona with whom he had five daughters. My mother, Samia Abilmona Fayad, now 86 years old, is the youngest of his daughters. He died in 1962.
April 15 marked the 107th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, one of the worst tragedies in world history where over 1500 people died when the “unsinkable” Titanic sank. Of all the Titanic survivors throughout the world, I believe my mother is the only child of a survivor still alive today.
“If my grandfather could survive the Titanic, I can survive anything.”
My mantra today is: “If my grandfather could survive the Titanic, I can survive anything.” Whenever I am dealing with difficult issues in my life, I remind myself that my grandfather, a man from a remote village in Mount Lebanon who didn’t even know how to swim, endured the unimaginable only to survive with a happy ending; then I realize that my troubles too can be resolved and I also can look forward to a happy ending.