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Oscars remind Lebanese family of uncle who was `Titanic' hero

ON THE wall of his home in Beirut, Philip Nasrallah keeps an old, slightly damaged photograph of the uncle he never knew. The face in the picture is almost smiling, a 30-year-old Lebanese man with well-combed bushy hair and a neatly clipped moustache. He is dressed in a stiff collar with a watch-chain dangling rather ostentatiously across his waistcoat. His shoes are well-polished. He has the look of a man about to make his fortune.

Nicola Nasrallah, however, is a ghost that has haunted his family ever since he set off to make that fortune in America; Philip's father, Wadiah, always wept when he spoke of Nicola, whose young bride is said to have died in a San Francisco mental institution. Members of the Nasrallah family were later named after him, and Philip's wife Emily has published a book of short stories in Arabic, in which she imagines her husband's uncle in his last hours. Called Days Recounted, its cover features a painting of a beautiful Lebanese house, a set of footprints leading to a distant sea and, far across the ocean, a great ship sinking beneath the waves.

For Nicola left his home in Zahle, along with his bride, for Europe and a transatlantic liner. "It was a ship of the White Star Line, but not the Titanic," Emily says. "It was only when they reached Britain that they were told their boat had broken down - in fact, the shipping company had unsold seats on the Titanic and they wanted to fill it for the maiden voyage. So Nicola and his bride were put on the Titanic. They weren't in steerage - they had 2nd Class seats. Those of our family we've traced in America say that survivors talked of his courage at the end."

Emily has recounted their stories in her book; of how Nicola, a strong swimmer, dived into the water in the Titanic's final plunge, dragging his wife with him and putting her into a lifeboat. "They said he kept swimming back to save children and bring them to the lifeboat," Emily says. "His wife is said to have told him: `You can come into the boat now, there's a seat beside me,' but he refused and swam to look for more children. He never returned; he must have frozen in the water."

But Nicola has, in a strange way, maintained his hold over the family he never knew and who now glorify his memory. Did he save all of 30 lives, as Emily's book suggests? Did his bride - who reached New York on the Carpathia - really die in a mental home? Philip wonders quietly whether his aunt, whose first name is lost, may have quietly remarried in an attempt to forget her tragedy. Yet by extraordinary coincidence, Philip and Emily's son, Ramze, found himself attending university in Canada, at Prince Edward Island, scarcely 200 miles from the spot where the Titanic sank.

"Nicola's mother never really recovered," Emily says. "She was out in the garden of her home in Zahle one winter day. It had been snowing and it was very cold - Zahle is in the hills - and the family suddenly heard her screaming. She had dipped her hand in the pond and when she touched the ice, she started screaming: `Oh my baby'!"

Nicola's picture is stained with the damp of past decades. Long ago someone wrote the year of the Titanic's sinking as 1911 - in reality a year before the loss of the ship - at the bottom of the photograph. But his face sent Philip and Emily off to see the film Titanic a few days ago. Almost certain to win a trail of Oscars in Holywood tomorrow, Philip thinks it deserves every one. "Yes, I thought of Nicola several times when they showed the passengers in the freezing water," he said. "But it was such a powerful story that I enjoyed the film without feeling upset."

In all, 123 Lebanese died on the Titanic; the home of one of them today stands derelict and roofless, untouched since the day its owner set out for the New World in 1912.

`I wait for you on black nights'

IN HER book, Days Recounted, Emily Nasrallah writes of the grief that overcame Nicola's family after learning of his death on the Titanic, recounting the words of Nicola's brother, Wadiah:

"The day came when my mother's crying changed. Her eyes became wintry; she lost interest in living. We young ones tried to divert her from her thoughts, but a longing would waken in her heart and her emotions would overwhelm her. Her eyes would be red, and she would turn in on herself as if she was unconscious. She would withdraw to a dark corner of the room and draw her sorrow round her like a cloak. She would repeat the words of a poem that her lips had fallen in love with:

"The seaweed grows over where your body lies,

Precious pearls rest in your eyes;

Mermaids dance around you madly

While I, alone, have eyes denied

The sight of your eyes.

Still I am waiting for you,

Here in this solitary tiled house,

On top of a lonely mountain I wait for you,

When all others have forgotten you.

I wait for you on black nights ...

And from deep within me, a strange light shines out

Towards you,

Drawing you to me, showing you the way.

Have you really lost your way to me, my child?"