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Volume 26, Number 2March/April 1975

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Arabs in America

The Transplanted Ones

But if in your thought you must measure time into seasons, let each season encircle all the other seasons.
And let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.

—Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) "The Prophet"

Written by Philip Harsham and Robert Azzi
Additional photographs by Robert Azzi

That bit of advice from Kahlil Gibran, the widely quoted Lebanese poet-philosopher who lived the last 20 years of his life in the United States, should be quite useful to most people. But Gibran's fellow Arabs who have chosen to become Arab-Americans might well shrug their shoulders and ask, "Who needs it?" For it is inconceivable that anybody can embrace the past with more ardor than can the Arabs who have immigrated to America; nor is it likely that any people looks with more anticipation to the future. Most emigrated as youngsters, following their star. Many have become old, still following that star. But practically all have endeavored to nurture something from their past, even to reach back and contribute materially to that past.

Farouk El-Baz is among those who've lived well by that philosophy. A geologist who delves into the earth's past by studying rock formations, he's already spoken for a seat on the first civilian space shuttle to the moon. Dr. El-Baz is 36, a native of the Nile Delta town of Zagazig, Egypt, and since 1970 a naturalized American. He very likely will be aboard that first civilian moon flight. For, as supervisor of lunar exploration for Bell Laboratories, he was one of those who chose the landing sites on the moon for the Apollo lunar-mission astronauts. It was he who taught the moon explorers what geological specimens to look for and photograph. And it was he whom the astronauts were addressing when from outer space they radioed such messages as, "Tell the King we're bringing him something from that little crater." (What else but "the King" would American colleagues call an Egyptian whose first name is Farouk?)

Farouk El-Baz left Egypt in 1963 to obtain a master's degree in geology from the University of Missouri and a Ph.D. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He's now assigned to the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where his primary job is to study, evaluate and write about the scientific findings from the Apollo moon flights. But at the same time he's helping to plan the next major earth-orbiting mission—the American-Russian joint venture in July that should have space ships docking for an extended stay in outer space. El-Baz is certainly looking to the future. But he has made sure too that some aspects of the past will not be forgotten: he's officially named one area of the moon Arabia, because it "looks like sand dunes and approximates the shape of Arabia." He's named another one Necho, to honor the Egyptian pharaoh who launched a naval expedition to prove that Africa was surrounded by water. "Moon craters have from the beginning been named for contributors to astronomy, mathematics and other sciences," he says. "There already are craters named for ancient Arab scientists, and I wanted to continue that practice. There were, after all, so many great Arab scientists at the height of the Islamic civilization who were not fully honored." El-Baz is doing his part, too, to spread the Arabic language. Along with several books on geology and lunar exploration, he has published a little phrase book, "Say It in Arabic," for use by English-speaking tourists. It grew out of Arabic phrases he'd compiled to help his American-born, Irish-descended wife on their trips to Egypt.

Operating on a more personal plane, the Ramallah Federation also embraces the past and looks to the future. Ramallah is a town now numbering perhaps 25,000 inhabitants which lies just north of Jerusalem, many of them descendants of Rashid Haddad who founded the settlement there near the end of the 15th century. Ramallahans remain Ramallahans wherever they may be. Today some 10,000 of them are scattered across the United States—carrying names such as Ayyash and Kawwas into Michigan, Ibrahim and Bateh into Florida, Salameh and Zabak into Texas, Sheraka and Nasrah into California, and Saah and Tawil into the nation's capital.

"We have the largest family in the world," says. Ramallahan spokesman Michael Saah, of Falls Church, Va., who left Ramallah 28 years ago. "I can go to any big city, find another Ramallahan, and be assured of room and board for as long as I like." That suggestion of magnanimity is not exaggerated. The Ramallah Federation, made up of local and regional Ramallah social clubs in the United States, annually provides college scholarships to deserving Palestinians (all so far have gone to Ramallahans). And the recipients may choose to study in the Arab world or elsewhere. The Federation is now planning a home for the aged. It sends money each year to support the schools begun in Ramallah by American Quakers more than 70 years ago, schools that have fallen on hard times since Palestine's partitioning. A Ramallah Foundation has financed the building of a library and a 60-bed hospital in Ramallah, and it maintains Boy Scout troops there.

Ramallah clubs help newcomer Ramallahans establish themselves in the United States, the San Francisco clubs perhaps distilling that effort to its most functional level. Realistically reasoning that newcomers aren't ready for sophisticated business ventures, the clubs guarantee them bank loans and seed money for mom-and-pop-type grocery, liquor and variety stores. The newcomer repays the loan with proceeds from his business, then kicks in a small percentage to the club so that it may help Ramallahans yet to come. It's estimated that Ramallahans now own a quarter—perhaps more—of San Francisco's small convenience stores. With them they're preparing their children for the more sophisticated businesses, building their future with help from the past.

Helping the newcomer always has been an Arab-American duty, self imposed. Often sparked by civil-liberties activist Abdeen Jabara, the 34-year-old attorney whose defense of Sirhan Sirhan attracted international attention, Detroit Arab-Americans try to speed the adjustment of some 3,000 Yemeni and Palestinian workers. They provide employment referrals, usually to the automobile plants; help with housing; offer classes in English and set up recreational opportunities. "You can't get community support for broader goals," says Jabara, "unless you first deal with the basic issues that touch members of the community personally."

Egyptian-born Abdulmunim Shakir looks to the future with more longing probably than even Gibran intended. "I owe a debt to the Muslim world, from which my spiritual and cultural roots sprang," says this naturalized American. "And I owe another to my adopted country, where my intellectual growth has been nourished." Dr. Shakir—he holds a Ph.D. degree from New York University—came to the United States as a student in 1943. While attending Columbia University and N.Y.U., he taught Arabic and the Islamic religion to young American Muslims at a Brooklyn, N.Y., mosque. Today, he heads a one-of-a-kind scholastic program with which he hopes to further pay those "debts."

Shakir is director of Muslim-world studies at Ricker College, a 126-year-old liberal arts institution in Houlton, Maine, that has the country's only undergraduate Muslim-world department. He teaches the Arabic language as well as basic courses dealing with Islamic culture, institutions and government. Beginning the program in 1969, Ricker graduated its first two Muslim-world majors last year. Both are "full-blooded Americans," as Shakir puts it, with no previous contact with the Muslim world or Arabic. Now both, having taken their junior year at the American University of Cairo, are studying—in Arabic—toward master's degrees at Cairo's Al-Azhar University. They're expected to go on to careers in foreign service or international commerce.

Shakir's idea for a department of Muslim-world studies was readily accepted by Ricker's president, Dr. C. Worth Howard. Now retired, Howard was for 32 years a faculty member or acting president of the American University of Cairo. But there remained a need for funding. What better source, Shakir reasoned, than enlightened Arabs themselves? He paid a visit to King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and came away with a $50,000 grant for the new department. The Arabian American Oil Company added $10,000, and the Government of Kuwait $8,000. Now Shakir and Ricker College have plans drawn for an Islamic studies center—a building that will be financed, Shakir feels sure, by Arabic-speaking countries. "We're just starting," Shakir says. "We plan to build a bridge of understanding between the people of America and those of the Muslim world." That's also a bridge linking the Arab-American's past with his future.

Others build their bridges in other ways. Nathan Haddad, for example, came to the United States from Lebanon in 1910 and soon owned a thriving clothing store and real estate interests in Madison, W. Va. Then, to honor a son killed in World War II, he built a swimming pool and a recreation center which he dedicated to the town of Madison. And remembering his past, he built a church and social hall for his native village, Jib Jenine.

Arab immigrants arriving in the early migration waves, whether Christian or Muslim, had nobody building bridges in their behalf. The lucky ones were those with known predecessors who could introduce them to the dubious wonders of backwoods back peddling. Arab back peddlers, like the more mobile peddler immortalized in the musical "Oklahoma!," played a big part in opening up some American frontiers. Nathan Haddad started that way. So did countless others who walked the wagon tracks across Kentucky and Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi, with tinware, notions, laces and ribbons. And their names—Coury, Khoury, David, Johns, Rahall, Joseph, Jamail, etc.—are today respected names on the American business scene.

Latecomers were more fortunate. Some arriving even prior to World War I came complete with degrees from universities in Beirut, Cairo and Baghdad. Usually they moved into academic communities to work toward advanced degrees, and more often than not they stayed on to teach. Senior among those scholars was Philip K. Hitti, the now-ailing professor emeritus of history and Semitic literature at Princeton University. Americans who have made even a cursory study of Arab history have to have read at least one of Dr. Hitti's books. They might also have read at least one by Iraqi-born Majid Khadduri, an authority on Islamic law. Dr. Khadduri received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Chicago in 1938. Returning to Baghdad to teach, he was made a member of Iraq's delegation to the 1945 San Francisco conference that gave birth to the United Nations. But two years later, he was back to stay; he has been a professor in the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies since 1949. Ramallahan attorney Farhat J. Ziadeh, formerly a member of the Princeton faculty and since 1966 a professor of Near East studies at the University of Washington, serves as something of a two-way communicator between Arabs and Americans. He's written a history of the American people for Arabs, and an Arabic primer for Americans—these among several other books.

"We are not just educating American students," says Ziadeh; "we're creating better understanding by having them weigh Arab culture within the context of world culture, as one of the mainstreams of world culture."

The academic world builds its bridges in many ways. Iraqi-born Abdul Karim Khudairi, for example, is a botanist and professor of biology at Northeastern University in Boston. But one of his major projects has to do with agricultural improvements that could make desert areas—particularly the Arabian Peninsula—self-sufficient in certain crops. Egyptian-American Abdo A. Elkholy, professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, since 1965, recently returned from Abu Dhabi. Headquartering there, he made a year-long study of life in the Arabian Gulf states—a study financed by a United States Fulbright grant. Jaffa-born Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a professor of political science at Northwestern University since 1967, is a founder and past president of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates. He has written and edited a number of articles and monographs to promote understanding of Middle East issues. Economist Charles P. Issawi, born in Cairo of Syrian and Lebanese parents, teaches Middle East economics to American students at Columbia University in New York. Syrian-born Noury S. Al-Khaledy teaches Middle East subjects to students at Portland, Ore., State University—and Arabic to the American-born children of Portland Arabs. M. Cherif Bassiouni, professor of law at Chicago's De Paul University (and like Abu-Lughod a past president of the AAUG), is an Egyptian who studied law in France, Switzerland and Egypt before emigrating to the United States. Now one of his several books, Criminal Law and Its Processes: The Law of Public Order, has become a standard text in more than 20 American law schools.

Bridge builders to the future they all are. So is Edward Said, born in Jerusalem, educated at Princeton and Harvard, and a professor of comparative literature at Columbia. But Said—labeled "our one true genius" by fellow Arab-Americans—would like to see some shoring up of the past as well as the future. He laments that even Arabs are neglecting Arab literature. Said calls for greater diffusion of Arab studies, diffusion that would help restore some of the past's acknowledged virtues. The Middle East today emphasizes medicine, engineering, and commerce, he says, while "ethical and spiritual values go untended."

If medicine has been overemphasized in the Middle East, however, that overemphasis has been the United States' gain. For the number of transplanted Arabs in medicine is quite large, and some of them have made—and are making—substantial contributions in their fields. Consider just a sampling:

— Lebanese-born Adel Assad Yunis, M.D., chief of hematology at the University of Miami School of Medicine, has isolated a substance in cancer cells that destroys fibrin, the protein that makes possible the clotting of blood. This could lead to development of new clotting and anti-clotting agents, as well as to an understanding of the causes behind cancer's rapid spread.

— Another Lebanese native, Sami A.Hashim, M.D., is director of the laboratory for nutrition and metabolism at St. Luke's Hospital Center in New York and of nearby Columbia University's Nutrition Institute. Considered a leading researcher in his field, Dr. Hashim has published more than 150 articles on metabolism and nutrition. He's currently working toward ways to control the build-up of cholesterol in man.

— Egyptian-born M. Hadi Salem, M.D., practices thoracic surgery in Los Angeles while working with the Egyptian Government to establish an international medical rehabilitation center in Cairo. Dr. Salem and his wife, a nurse, spent three weeks in Afghanistan last year doing volunteer surgery and lecturing at a C.A.R.E.-maintained teaching hospital.

Iraqi-born Salah Al-Askari, M.D., is a professor of urology at New York University School of Medicine. Lebanese-born Faruk S. Abuzzahab, M.D., Ph.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Minneapolis. Another Lebanese physician, Victor A. Najjar, is professor of pediatrics at Tufts University Medical School, Boston. And there is Egyptian-born Abdel Kerim Shaalan, M.D., a general surgeon in Detroit, who's a man with a dream. He'd like to find a way that Egyptian-born physicians in the United States—he estimates there are 100 or more in Michigan alone—could build a hospital in Egypt. They'd make it a replica of a typical American hospital and run it in a typically American way. Then the Egyptian-American physicians would volunteer to staff it, each giving perhaps a month of his time each year. They'd be providing a needed facility, using their knowledge of both Arab and American ways, and bridging their past and future.

Two transplanted Arabs, Palestine-native Sami Mayyasi of Ramsey, N.J., and Lebanese-born Ray Irani of New Canaan, Conn., are recognized achievers in medicine-related fields. Mayyasi, who holds a Ph.D. degree in virology from Ohio State University, Columbus, is assistant director of cancer research at Pfizer Cancer Research Center. Having contributed to the development of Pfizer's oral vaccine for polio and to other vaccines for influenza and measles, Mayyasi now heads a team that's researching the relationship between viruses and cancer. Irani, with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of California, is vice president for research and development of Olin Corporation's chemicals division. He held at last count 50 United States patents for products he's developed.

The Arab presence is being felt increasingly in sophisticated fields that would have astounded the early-immigrating back peddlers, successful though many became. Even 67-year-old Woodrow W. Woody (born Shikhany), an Arab-American whose 1912 departure from Lebanon ties him closely to both eras, might be astounded. But Woody himself has astounded a few. Starting as an automobile-factory assembly-line worker, he moved on to become a car salesman, a used-car dealer, and in 1940 a franchised Pontiac automobile dealer. He still owns the dealership, one of the country's largest, and he's added some other possessions—the Hillcrest Country Club in Mt. demons, Mich., a motor inn in Miami Beach, Fla., the Boca Raton Country Club on Florida's Gold Coast, and 5,000 acres of raw land near Daytona Beach, Fla., to name a few. And looking to the past, he's built a school and clinic in his native village (Bejderfel) to honor his parents' memory.

Woody credits his success to his adherence to the Golden Rule, not to any expertise in high finance. Iraqi-born Raymond Jallow is another story, however. He's chief economist of the United California Bank. And as senior vice president as well, he keeps interested customers informed about financial goings-on in the Middle East. Egyptian Mohammad Haki, until 1972 foreign-news editor of Cairo's Al-Ahram, spreads his knowledge of the Middle East further. Now in Washington as head of the Middle East public affairs office of the World Bank (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development), he explains financial aspects of the West to the Middle East and the Middle East—particularly large World Bank contributors Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—to the West. In Houston, Egyptian-born Fayez Sarofim applies a knowledge of finance at the person-to-person level. He heads his own investment counseling firm, one of the largest in the Southwest.

In Chicago, engineer Nasuh Khatib, a 43-year-old native of Syria, heads Katib & Associates, designers and installers of vast heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems for shopping malls and high-rise buildings across the country. In New York, interior architect Gamal El-Zoghby, a 37-year old native of Egypt, exhibits a style that has earned him Progressive Architecture's acclaim as "one of the top 10 interior architects in the United States." In Los Angeles, Egyptian-American Fouad Said (Aramco World September-October, 1971) revolutionized motion picture making with his development of fully self-contained mobile filming units. Now he's carried the concept further, designing a "video wagon" that can transmit television signals from a video camera directly to orbiting relay satellites.

And there's every indication that the work of immigrating Arabs will become more sophisticated, that the impact of their efforts will become even more greatly felt. The newcomers are starting with more education than most of their predecessors; they enter at a higher social level, and with more financial wherewithal. Says a faculty member at Portland State University, where some 75 young Saudis participate each year in an English-study program, "They come with generous allowances, and they seem to adjust awfully well to their new environment."

Economic trends suggest that more and more of the newcomers will choose to return to the Middle East after completing their education in the United States, or even after making a niche for themselves in one of the professions. Mahmoud Shahbandar could be a case in point. Shahbandar, son of a former Iraqi ambassador to the United States, is studying architecture and urban planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His primary project: redevelopment plans for Baghdad, the city to which he plans to return. Even radiologist Zuheir Mujahed, M.D., who's been teaching at Cornell University School of Medicine for the last 19 years, will return. "I'm still an Arab," he says. "And when I retire, I'm going home to Syria."

For Dr. Mujahed, Kahlil Gibran's remembered past and longed-for future seem to have become one.

This article appeared on pages 4-13 of the March/April 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1975 images.