By : Melanie S. Tanielian and the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI)

In 2018, famine undulates in and out of the news cycle. We read reports of 6.5 million Syrian civilians experiencing food insecurity, accounts of the food supply crisis in Gaza caused by more than a decade-long blockade, and United Nations warnings that the two-year-old famine in Yemen is affecting half the country’s residents and is escalating into being comparable to the Ethiopian mass starvation of the 1980s. It is clear that hunger, malnutrition, and starvation is a present reality for people living in what we, although uncomfortably, refer to as the Middle East. But as this brief entry will show, it is a historical one as well.

The need to understand the contributing and causal dynamics of geopolitics, global capitalism, climate, war and epidemics to famines and sustained times of food shortages—both present and past—carries with it a political urgency that cannot be underestimated. While accounts of famines have figured into the works of economic and social historians in the past, recent trends of environmental and disaster histories, as well as a particular interest in World War I, which was marked by one of the most devastating famines in the region, inspired new and more narrowly focused interest in the topic.  The following suggested essential reading on the topic of famine is informed by my own positionality as a historian of the early twentieth century Eastern Mediterranean, who works in the American Academy. I cannot claim this to be comprehensive by any means, but it will be a good start for anyone interested in famine studies and theories generally and in the history of modern famine in the Middle East in particular.

Famine Studies is a well-established field that crosses the disciplinary boundaries of anthropology, geography, history, sociology, and economics. The existence of a vast literature attempting to define and theorize famine exemplifies a continued urgency in developing a theory that could translate into an applicable diagnostic tool. It may even be argued that at the heart of famine studies is a desire to render famine predictable, preventable, and punishable. Hence, theories of famine are often focused on causes so that early-warning systems and famine indexes may be created to prevent famines from occurring. But do such indexes and systems work? The development economist Stephen Devereux has argued the inadequacy of famine theory is partly to blame for the reoccurrence of famine even in a world that is endowed with advanced technology and communication systems. Problems, he argues, have been “misdiagnosed or not foreseen, leading to inappropriate or late intervention.”[1] Scholars, economists in particular, have argued that the failure to present a uniform famine theory leaves famines to stalk the globe in incognito.[2] Still, while we might be cynical about warning systems’ value and success, prevention is possible. For example, famine scholar Alex De Waal commented on the combined efforts of the Ethiopian government and the UN World Food Programme that fed 18 million people at one point in 2016, averting a catastrophe: “There’s nothing inevitable about people dying from hunger when the rains fail” De Waal exclaims, adding that this “fact can never be repeated too often.”[3]  De Waal is clearly frustrated and reprimands journalists for continuing to carelessly use the term “man-made famine, as if such events are unusual.” Instead he insists that every famine today is caused by a political decision.[4]  It is politics and not misdiagnosis, ignorance, or incapacity that stand in the way of prevention and aid. The current crisis in Yemen is exemplar. Politics here not only fail to indict the immediate culprits of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but also the United States for its steady supply of bombs and intelligence.[5]

The fact that famines are man-made and driven by the actions and inactions of political and military elites has not always been a foregone conclusion. Early works on famine like Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population described famine as a natural mechanism to maintain a balance between population and food supply.[6] In the Arab world, the fact that famines were neither divine punishment nor nature’s curse, but rather the outcome of politics was accepted much earlier. For example, the fourteenth-century historian and philosopher Ibn Khaldun blamed famine, the culmination of hunger, on the government’s “coercion of the subject” and its failure to intervene in the economy, agricultural production in particular.[7] Or take the writings of fifteen-century Mamluk chroniclers, such as Ahmad bin ʿAli al-Maqrizi, who clearly blamed governmental failures.[8] Still while the search for a theory of famine has produced many historical studies around the globe and while there is potential in the historical works of Arab scholars to redefine European dominated theoretical discussions, Middle Eastern famines have largely been absent in theoretical or global scholarship. Indeed, recent works display a geographic bias toward the Indian subcontinent and west and east Africa. There remains much room to add a Middle East perspective.[9]


Framing Famine

For students of Middle Eastern history, and in particular those interested in the region’s environmental past and future, a reading of the most important general theoretical works on famine, as well as the existing geographically specific scholarship are equally important. It is my belief that reading outside of our own geographic niche is an important exercise. It not only opens up new questions, but also allows us to bring our historical and present day studies of famine into conversation with a larger interdisciplinary field. No doubt, many works could be mentioned here and my selection of these four texts by three authors is simply based on what was most useful to me when writing about starvation in Ottoman Beirut and Mount Lebanon during the First World War.

Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famine: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.

The classic work of the economist Amartya Sen is a must-read for students of famine. Insisting that famine is not the outcome of actual lack of food, but human misappropriation and failures, Sen transformed the field in the 1980s. Sen blamed famine on failed government intervention (a significant move away from the Malthusian paradigm). People generally starve when they are unable to command food, either because they lacked the financial resources or the socially and politically sanctioned rights to receive food from an agency. Hence, famine for Sen was the outcome of a breakdown in “entitlements,” resulting in the loss of access to food. Sen’s work has been challenged and refined since its publication but remains an indispensible work for students of famine. [10]

De Waal, Alex. Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989; De Waal, Alex. Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017.

Spanning three decades, the work of Alex de Waal is undeniably essential reading for anyone studying famine. In Famine that Kills De Waal, examining famine in rural Sudan, argues that actual starvation is a less frequent cause of famine death than local outbreaks of disease. De Waal’s sensitivity to the local and his urgent call to include rural populations into dialogues for more effective famine relief makes this an instructive piece for social historians and humanitarian activists alike. His important 2017 book Mass Starvation asserts that historically the “biggest killers were famines that resulted from political decisions,” especially when starvation was used as a weapon of war.[11] He cites the Armenian Genocide as one example and implores scholars to look at forced starvation as a tool of genocide.

Watts, Michael. Silent Violence: Food, Famine and Peasantry in Northern Nigeria. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Watts analyzes the Nigerian Hausaland’s transition from the Sokoto Caliphate to colonial occupation and the integration of this famine-prone region into the capitalist world system. Watts contends, “famines were and are organically linked to the rupture of the balance between peasant subsistence and consumption precipitated by the development and intensification of commodity production” (p. xxii). This author’s insight, especially when combined with discussions of wartime disruptions and the political nature of famine, is particularly relevant to our understanding modern famines in the Middle East.


Modern Famines in the Middle East: The Nineteenth Century

Famines in the Middle East were nothing unusual leading up to the nineteenth century. Instead famines, as the historian Alan Mikhail has argued for Ottoman Egypt, were like yearly floods of the Nile, droughts, and the plague “an accepted environmental reality to be expected and with which to negotiate.”[12] It seems that famines decreased in frequency in the nineteenth century. But they by no means disappeared. I just mentioned the works of two scholars who have taken modern famines in Iran and Ottoman Anatolia and more importantly introduced a global and comparative perspective.

Kazemi, Ranin. “The Black Winter of 1860-61: War, Famine, and the Political Ecology of Disaster in Qajar Iran.”Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 37 (2017): 24-48.  

Ranin Kazemi’s work as a whole is concerned with nineteenth century famines in Qajar Iran. His forthcoming monograph The Ecology of Conflict: Privation, Protest, and Populism in Iran, 1850-1892 promises to be an excellent work on the topic and will surely have to be added to the list. Following Mike Davis’s assertion that the nineteenth century was “the age of food scarcity and famine in large parts of the world,” Kazemi contributes a largely neglected Middle East perspective to a rich scholarship that explores 19th century famines in India, China, Russia and parts of Africa. His article “The Black Winter of 1860-61” is only one of Kazemi’s many excellent essays. Herein he pays attention to a period neglected by earlier scholarship, which until was largely focused on the period of 1869-1873 and the most lethal instances of food scarcity. Working against a historiographical consensus that famines in Qajar Iran were the outcome of a pre-modern and underdeveloped society, Kazemi forcefully argues first that the Iranian food crises were not an aberration but widespread and recurrent in the region as a whole and second, more importantly, conditioned by a “a modern and capitalist global order that had long made inroads into the Qajar state.”[13]

Ertem, Özge. “Considering Famine in the Late Nineteenth Century Ottoman Empire: A Comparative Framework and Overview.” In ‘The Enormous Failure of Nature”: Famine and Society in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Andrew G. Newby, 151-172 (Helsinki: Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies).

In this article, based on her excellent dissertation on the same topic, Ertem discusses two of the most significant Ottoman Anatolian famines of the 1870s. Viewing the 1873-75 and the 1879-81 famines from a global and comparative perspective, the author showcases how modern infrastructure like railroads and telegraphs, generally thought to have been at the heart of the decrease in famine in the nineteenth century, “did not necessarily save people and relieve suffering.” Instead, these modern technologies could also be used to affect suffering or be mobilized to serve a privileged group of people.[14] Ertem has written a number of important articles on nineteenth-century Anatolian famines and her unpublished 2012 dissertation “Eating the Last Seed: Famine, Empire, Survival and Order in Ottoman Anatolia in the late 19th century” is a notable contribution to the history of modern famine in the Middle East.[15]


World War I in Greater Syria: Famine and Humanitarian Aid

The devastating mass starvation accompanying World War I in the Ottoman Empire has received significant attention in the last few years. The outcome of Ottoman inefficiencies and wartime policies, as well as international disruption of trade, this wartime famine continues to haunt contemporary society. It was a time when neighbor turned upon neighbor and families disintegrated in a struggle for survival. The famine was lamented by Arab poets and artist, commented on by intellectuals, politicians, and colonial officers and deeply embedded into the memory of those who lived through it and subsequent generations as the year when the competition for food sundered all social bonds.

Among historians, however, the famine was largely ignored as an event in itself.  Linda Schilcher’s foundational article “The Famine of 1915–1918 in Greater Syria” (Problems of the Modern Middle East in Historical Perspective, 1992)was the first to investigate and question the long-standing perception that the Ottoman government intended to starve out the Christians of Mount Lebanon. Schilcher proposed a multi-causal explanation fronting the Entente maritime blockade as a key contributing factors. Following Schilcher a number of historians emphasized the famine’s deadly character and its importance in shaping Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian post-war societies. Elizabeth Thompson’s influential Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon (Columbia University Press, 1999) discusses gender politics in Mandate Syria and Lebanon and is grounded in the famine’s destruction of the family and the social order. Salim Tamari’s Year of the Locust (University of California Press, 1999), through the lens of a soldier’s diary, tells the everyday life experience of the war wherein the lack of food loomed large.

It is now impossible to write the history of World War I in the Middle East without considering the famine as central to the narrative. The most recent works by Leila Fawaz[16]Talha Çiçek,[17] and Yiğit Akın [18] all devote significant attention to the famine. The original and cutting edge research of these historians in both the Ottoman and the regional archives have contributed new insights into the famine’s causes, how it was experienced on the ground, and how it was mediated and exaggerated by Ottoman officials, regional and local leadership.

A number of excellent articles and book chapters zero in on various contributing factors of the wartime Greater Syrian famine and their geographic variants.  For example, Zachary Foster’s “The 1915 Locust Attack in Syria and Palestine and its Role in the Famine during the First World War” (Middle Eastern Studies, 2014) and “Why are Modern Famines so Deadly” (Environmental Histories of the First World War, 2018) discuss the role of environmental factors, specifically the locust plague, as well as global trade and capitalism respectively. Elizabeth William’s “Economy, Environment and the Famine: World War I from the Perspective of the Syrian Interior,” (Syria in World War I: Politics, Economy, and Society, 2014) as the title suggests, shift the gaze away from the coastal areas of Beirut and Mount Lebanon to Aleppo. Williams, focusing on agricultural production in the Syrian interior, demonstrates “the regionally differentiated nature of the war’s impact” and “the strategies and policies deployed by Ottoman officials as they grappled with the multiple challenges facing the region’s wartime economy.”[19] A unique perspective on the famine as it offers a glimpse at how ordinary people experienced the suffering is that of Najwa al-Qattan. From “When Mothers Ate Their Children: Wartime Memory and the Language of Food in Syria and Lebanon” (International Journal of Middle East Studies, 2014) to her most recent “Fragments of Wartime Memories from Syria and Lebanon,” (Syria in Word War I: Politics, Economy, and Society, 2016) al-Qattan is interested in the cultural history of the famine and has mined poetry, literature, and memoirs for accounts of the famine.

For those interested in response to the famine, my own work publications will be of relevance. My monograph The Charity of War: Famine, Humanitarian Aid and World War I in the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2018)analyzes how local, state, and international actors contended with one of the most devastating wartime famines. Herein, I examine wartime relief activities of government-sponsored/municipal institutions, local philanthropic and religious organizations, and international agencies, scrutinizing the complexities of social and political hierarchies necessary in understanding provincial power dynamics that shape the experiences of civilians on the home front. Through the lens of the politics of provisioning, I argue that however inconsequential in preventing mass starvation, a dynamic politics of provisioning not only shaped wartime power constellations but also contributed to shaping the political landscape of the postwar period.


Conclusion: What is Your Big Question?

Famine is brutal; its images violent; its memories haunting. It is easier to avert our gaze, especially when its victims stare back at us, and resign to empathetic hopelessness. But during the last three decades, historical and contemporary famine studies have moved to implicate us. The charge is apathy. As we no longer can blame god, nature, or human inabilities, and are urged to recognize the political nature of famine, our scholarship must move to expose the apparatuses of power. This means our historical and contemporary work is tasked to examine the heterogeneous and ever-changing mechanisms that incite and govern societies on various levels. The past and present are mutually instructive. Historians of famine in the Middle East have begun to position the micro-historical processes and power constellations of their local case studies into the transnational and global scene. Indeed to make modern famines visible historians will have to address, as a friend alerted me about my own work many years ago, larger questions.  This does not mean a return to the broad and stagnant universalisms that our discipline fought for decades. Instead theories of power and governmentality have shown us “a political assemblage—city, state, party, or international order—has some coherence in what it says and what it does, but it continually dissolves and morphs into something new.”[20] We then can only insist on a careful study of contexts and contingencies as they evolve locally and take on meaning globally. The micro and macro have to converge to address local, regional, and international power constellations not only to reveal racial, ethnic, and economic hierarchies, but also hold decision makers past and present accountable. It is not simply a failure of global empathy that make the famine possible. It is the possibility of dismissing the famine as an event of global insignificance and ignorance that fails those starving. The famine in Yemen highlights this fact. Specially when considering how this humanitarian catastrophe made the New York Times front page on the coattail of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in November of 2018. It was only when the United States’ relations with Saudi Arabia was questioned in the course of this high profile case, that a glimpse at the largely unknown involvement of the United States in the region was possible. An International Rescue Committee (IRC) survey of Americans shows that a third of those canvassed had never heard of the war in Yemen. While local stories of tragedy had reached only a fraction of Americans, it was the larger context of international diplomacy, global geopolitics and weapons dealings that rendered the famine visible to a larger audience. Once the aware of America’s provision of arms and intelligence, the majority of those surveyed by the IRC wanted the United States congress to restrict weapons transfers to its Saudi and Emirati allies. To study, understand, and successfully warn of famine the heterogeneous multiplicities of local, regional, and international power dynamics have to make up our narrative. Only then will personal tragedies take on meaning for a global audience. So what then will be your big question?



[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Email us at for any inquiries.]


[1] Stephen Devereux, Theories of Famine (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), 5.

[2] Cormac Ó Gráda, Famine; A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[3] Alex De Waal, “The Nazis Used It, We Use It,” London Review of Books 39 (2017): 12.

[4] Ibid.

[5] De Waal, “The Nazis Used it,” 12.

[6] Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (Amherst, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1998).

[7] Ibn-Khaldun and Franz Rosenthal, trans., The Muqaddimah; An Introduction to History, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958), 249.

[8] Ahmad bin ʿAli al-Maqrizi and Adel Allouche, Mamluk Economics: A Study and Translation of al-Maqrizi’s Ighathah(Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press), 3.

[9] While there may be works in development studies that include the Middle East in their accounts, I am interested here in works that approach famine within a historical frame.

[10] Sen’s assertions have been questioned and revised by a number of scholars. Here are a few who are in direct conversation with his work. Amrita Rangasami, “Failure of Exchange Entitlements’ Theory of Famine: A Response,” Economic &Political Weekly 20 (October 1985); Jenny Edkins, Whose Hunger? Concepts of Famine, Practices of Aid (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

[11] De Waal, “The Nazis Used it,” 12.

[12] Alan Mikhail, Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt: An Environmental History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 214.

[13] Ranin Kazemi“The Black Winter of 1860-61: War, Famine, and the Political Ecology of Disaster in Qajar Iran,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, 37 (2017): 28

[14] Özge Ertem, “Considering Famine in the Late Nineteenth Century Ottoman Empire: A Comparative Framework and Overview,” in ‘The Enormous Failure of Nature”: Famine and Society in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Andrew G. Newby (Helsinki: Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies), 152.

[15] Özge Ertem, “Eating the Last Seed: Famine, Empire, Survival and Order in Ottoman Anatolia in the Late 19thcentury,” Ph.D. Dissertation (European University Institute, 2012); Özge Ertem, “Sick Men of Asia Minor in an Ailing Empire: Famine, Villagers and Government in Missionary Accounts (1873–75)” International Review of Turkish Studies 2 (2012): 72–94; Özge Ertem, “British Views on the Indian and Ottoman Famines: Politics, Culture, and Morality,”  RCC Perspectives 2 (2015): 17-27.

[16] Leila Tarazi Fawaz, A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

[17] Talha Çiçek, War and State Formation in Syria: Cemal Pasha’s Governorate during World War I, 1914-1917(Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2014).
[18] Yiğit Akın, When the War Came Home: The Ottoman’s Great War and the Devastation of Empire (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).

[19] Elizabeth Williams, “Economy, Environment and the Famine: World War I from the Perspective of the Syrian Interior,” in Syria in World War I: Politics, Economy, and Society, ed. Talha Çiçek (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2014), 150.

[20] Nicholas Tampio, “Assemblage and the Multitude; Deleuze, Hardt, Negri, and the Postmodern Left,” European Journal of Political Theory(2006): 383–400.