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Whereas in the European capitals the supply of food was a great problem during WWI, in Greater Syria food supply was not only a problem, but it was the problem, culminating in the famine that struck Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Famine, Louise Tilly argues, is not the result of an unavailability of food. Instead, she asserts that people starve because they are unable to command food; meaning that people either lack the money or the socially and politically sanctioned right to receive food for free. In light of the impending famine in Beirut, we see the local agencies, in particular the city’s municipality struggle to resolve the food crisis through legislative and provisionary measures beginning in the winter of 1914. The success or failure of these measures were determined by (1) the willingness of police, gendarmerie, bakers and merchants to enforce and adhere to the statutes set by the municipality and the Ottoman governor, and (2) by the inclinations of the Ottoman military authorities to allow the purchase and transport of food. Based on the journalistic accounts in the local sections of newspapers, i.e. al-akhbar al-baladiyyat (or city news) or al-mahaliyyat (or domestic news) as well as published and unpublished personal narratives of the war, this paper argues that the municipal attempts to obtain, distribute, and legislate food supplies —although mostly marked by failure— illustrate the increasing significance of municipal politics, discernable in its pre-war role of its agencies in urban management of “cleanliness, social behavior, and public hygiene” and further strengthened during the war. I argue that the wartime actions of the municipality and its various agents epitomize the interference of a governing body into the fabric of daily life of the civilian that is characteristic of wartime societies in general. In that the municipality asserts its right and responsibility to determine when, what and how much an individual was allowed to eat. Furthermore, the response of the civilian population to actions of the municipality undulated between compliance and resistance motivated by the desire to survive. The result is a bilateral process of negotiation between the municipality and the civilian. The outcome of which often was that the makeshift creativity of the civilian in terms of stretching food or substituting ingredients were often adopted into the legislative measures of the municipality.
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19th-21st Centuries