He had left Lebanon at the age of 14, my father, an almond-eyed stripling sneaking aboard a westbound cargo ship near his Tripoli home. He wanted desperately to come to America, even then acclaimed as the land of plenty. And he was ready to work for his passage when inevitably the ship's crew would discover him. For life in Lebanon, then ruled by the Turks as part of Syria, was difficult; and, as he confided to me a half century later, "We imagined New York's streets to be paved with gold." But the overriding motivation for his runaway act at that moment in the 1880s was a deep-seated hatred for Turkish rule and, I suspect, a determination to escape conscription into an Ottoman Empire army notorious for its brutality. Often he spoke of his homeland's beauty, of his love for the Mediterranean and the mountains beyond it. But he seldom dwelled on his Lebanese past; it was far behind him, after all. And when I urged him to teach me Arabic, he replied: "I'm an American now. You're an American. We'll speak English."
My father, in sociological terms, was an assimilationist. He was the type of Arab that Palestinian Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, professor of political science at Northwestern University, would call an "Uncle Ahmed" today. But he's been dead for 20 years.
And times have changed.
No longer does the Arab in America strive to maintain a low ethnic profile. He's an assimilated American for the most part, yes. But he is also a Syrian-American, an Egyptian-American, a Palestinian-American, or what have you. And more and more today he is an Arab-American, preferring to downplay the individual country of ancestry in favor of an Arab cohesiveness. He's still America's least vocal ethnic minority, without a doubt. But he is determined to shake off the stereotype that for years has portrayed the Arab as a hawk-beaked heavy, a sinister djellabeh- or abaya-clad figure typically dealing in hashish or slave women. And his efforts are bearing fruit. Today one Arab-American is the nation's foremost consumer advocate, another is a top-ranked scientist helping to explore the moon, and another excels at mending perhaps the most delicate organ known to man—the heart. Still others are achieving national and international acclaim in other forms of medicine, in the arts, industry, education, entertainment, literature, and professional sports—in virtually all fields of endeavor. And countless thousands pride themselves on being independent shopkeepers and restaurateurs. The Arab presence in America is indeed making itself felt, and—the irrational violence of a Sirhan Sirhan excepted—making itself felt positively. Sana Hassan, an Egyptian who last year was studying for her doctoral degree at Harvard University, puts forth a plan for bringing peace to the Middle East, and the country's major publications give it worldwide dissemination. Stockholder Sam Maloof, a Lebanese-American, protests in New York to the vast American Electric Power Company that its advertising is demeaning to Arabs, and the leading financial newspaper headlines his charge. Lebanese journalists Clovis Maksoud and Ghassan Tueni, visiting major United States cities, are pressed for Arab views on Middle East politics and economics. Arab communities in Washington, Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, and New York erect major Islamic cultural centers, and the Muslim faithful in Chicago plan to follow suit. San Franciscans work toward a center that will perpetuate all aspects of their Arab heritage. The University of California at Berkeley proposes a program to teach Arabic at the secondary-school level in the San Francisco Bay area. And in Largo, Fla., a Syrian-American delicatessen popularizes kibbeh to such an extent that it's now a fast-food take-out snack.
Spurred by the Arab-Israeli confrontation of 1967 perhaps more than anything else, politically and socially minded Arab-Americans have in the last few years been stepping up efforts to organize toward greater Arab understanding. Late in 1967 a group of educators and professionals founded the Association of Arab-American University Graduates. Five years later, the National Association of Arab-Americans came into being. The aim of each: To counter anti-Arab propaganda with facts and informed opinion so that the American public might better understand the Middle East conflict. On a more political plane is the Action Committee on American-Arab Relations, an anti-Zionist activist group "dedicated to the establishment of a democratic non-sectarian state in Palestine." And on almost purely a social and fraternal plane are literally scores of regional and local organizations—a majority calling themselves Syrian-Lebanese-American Clubs—that keep alive old-country ties among third and fourth generations, even, of Arab-Americans.
Nobody knows precisely how many Arabs and Americans of Arab descent there are in the United States. Government statistics pertaining to incoming Arabs are disappointingly incomplete, particularly those compiled prior to World War II. A generally quoted estimate, however, places the total at 1,500,000 and there seems to be little reason to doubt that figure—unless it's to call it low. The Arab community in Detroit alone, said to be the largest, is estimated to number 75,000 to 85,000. Even relatively small Portland, Ore., lists more than 400 families as members of its Syrian-Lebanese-American Club. And when the Southern Federation of Syrian-Lebanese-American Clubs held its most recent annual convention, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., more than 1,100 members—representing 62 clubs in 42 southern cities—showed up just for the banquet.
But statistics and numbers are the least important aspect of the Arab presence in America. It is individuals and the accomplishments of individuals that count. Tour with us through Arab America and see why.
Mr. Harsham, a veteran reporter, writer and editor, has worked for or contributed to the Louisville Courier Journal, the New York Times, Time, Life, and Money. Midway in his career he took time out to study Middle East affairs at Columbia's Advanced International Reporting Program.