When typesetter Joe Sharbel told the editors of Al-Hoda, New York's oldest Arab-language newspaper, that they would have to enlarge the type because it was too small for him to read, the editors neither fired him nor laughed at him. For they knew, even if Joe did not, that despite 55 years of continuous service with Al-Hoda Joe Sharbel was more than just a typesetter. He was a spokesman for the thousands of Arab immigrants who still read the newspaper. If Joe Sharbel's eyes were dimming with age then the eyes of the readers probably were too. If Joe Sharbel was having trouble making out the delicate differences in the brass molds, then the readers were probably having trouble reading it. The type was enlarged, the columns were widened, and Al-Hoda went on publishing as it has for nearly 68 years.
Foreign-language newspapers used to be common in America. With each wave of newcomers—German, Polish, Italian, Russian, Puerto Rican—there immediately sprang up, wherever immigrants gathered in large numbers, at least one newspaper in the only language the immigrants could then read. Such publications served a vital function. They linked immigrants of one area with those of another. They offered information about jobs. They provided a familiar cultural bulwark in a strange country. Above all, they brought news of the countries that were and would be for years afterward, much closer to their hearts than the new land.
Arabs, of course, never figured greatly in the immigration to the United States. Even at the peak Arabs were counted in thousands, not millions. But for that very reason, because they were such a small minority among so many large minorities, the desire for close ties with their homelands—Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Egypt—was possibly even stronger and newspapers in Arabic soon sprang up in both New York and Detroit, the two areas where Arab immigrants had settled in large numbers.
It was not easy to found an Arabic-language newspaper at the turn of the century. Type had to be imported, most of it from Lebanon. Whole newspapers had to be set in type by hand—by people like Joe Sharbel—because the lovely but unwieldy Arabic letters, symbols and vowel marks, more than 100 of them running right to left, defied all efforts to adapt them to the Linotype machine until 1910. Nevertheless, in 1892, the first Arabic newspaper made its appearance. It was called Kowkab America (The Star of America). It was published in Boston and it failed almost as soon as it appeared. So did its successor Al-Hasr (The Day), a short-lived publication launched in 1896. But then, in 1898, in a small office on East 28th Street, Naoum Mokarzel, a young Lebanese with an interest in journalism, founded an eight-page daily called Al-Hoda (The Guidance) that was soon reaching a readership of 5,000 people. Other publishers quickly followed suit and by the early 1900's the immigrants had numerous papers to choose from, most of which lasted for many years. As late as 1956, in fact, there were five Arabic-language newspapers in New York and five in Detroit, plus others that concentrated on Arab news but printed it in English—such as the Arab Information Center's Arab World, Al-Hoda's sister paper The Lebanese-American Journal, and The Heritage .
The appearance of English-language newspapers for Arab immigrants was a natural development since, to the second generation, English, not Arabic, would be the first language. But it was also an omen. It meant that second-generation Arabs, like most immigrants, were tending to shy away from the foreign language that set them apart from others at school, at play and at work. It meant that the need for publications in Arabic was waning. It meant that one day the Arab language press might disappear.
To an extent this has already begun to happen. Half the Arabic papers in existence in the New York area 10 years ago have quietly succumbed. Where there were six papers—Al-Hoda, Al-Islah (The Reform), Al-Bayan (The Statement), As-Sayeh (The Traveler), Mera't Al-Gharb (Mirror of the West) and As-Samir (The Entertainer)—there are now just three: Al-Hoda, a six-page semiweekly with a circulation of between 4,000 and 5,000 copies; Al-Islah, a four-page weekly, with a circulation of 1,000 copies; and Al-Bayan, which during the decade absorbed Mera't Al-Gharb and As-Sayeh. In Detroit, Al-Mashriq (The Orient) and As-Sabah (The Morning) have also disappeared, leaving only three still publishing: Nahdat Al-Arab (Arab Progress), Lissan Al-Adl (Mouthpiece of Justice) and Al-Risaleh (The Message).
Even the surviving papers have had to retrench. From daily publications they have shrunk to semiweeklies and weeklies, biweeklies and even, in some cases, to a "now and then" schedule. Some editors frankly say that the Arabic press can only survive as long as there is still a substantial number of people who read Arabic and that this number is dropping. Some, like Dr. Alphonse Chaurize, publisher of Al-Islah , are even more blunt. "When I die," he says, "this paper will die with me."
Dr. Chaurize is an unusual man. Born in Iraq, he is a professor of philosophy and law, a linguist, a priest (in the Chaldean Rite of the Roman Catholic Church) and a teacher who has taught in Iraq and lectured at Columbia and Yale. He is also a dedicated editor who is representative of all the men who in the last 60 years or so have founded or run Arabic newspapers.
At Al-Islah Dr. Chaurize, in his own words, is "it." In a small newsroom at 260 West Broadway, amid a familiar clutter of proofs, copy paper, stacks of books, old letters and a few items not usually seen in the editorial side—parts of a Linotype machine, headlines in elaborate swirling calligraphy—Dr. Chaurize functions not only as a publisher but also as editor, reporter, makeup man, business manager, typesetter and proof reader. He is even his own newsboy since being "it" at Al-Islah extends even to wheeling the papers to the post office every week in a hand cart.
Dr. Chaurize has been with the paper since 1947—when he went to work with Fawzi Braidy, the man who founded it in 1933—and has been the owner since 1950. Even that early, despite the assistance of his wife, his son and two daughters, it was still pretty much a one-man operation. Not only did he run the editorial and business sides of the paper but also, as he will tell you with pronounced, if justifiable pride, the mechanical side. Dr. Chaurize was his own Linotype operator and repairman and made up his own page forms and handled his own galleys. The only thing he didn't do, in fact, was actually print it. That was and is still done by an independent printer in the same building.
In the small world of the foreign language press, however, Dr. Chaurize is more the rule than the exception. In Brooklyn, for example, where Raji Daher gamely absorbed two Arabic papers into his own, or in Detroit, where Chekri Kana'an at 73 is struggling to keep a once strong, now declining paper from going under, the story is the same: dedicated editors trying to do too many jobs, failing sometimes but not really minding very much. Raji Daher bought the 40-year-old Al-Bayan in 1950 in Washington, D.C., where it had been moved in 1941 on the death of its founder, Arab nationalist Sulaiman Baddour. He moved it back to New York in 1953, combined it with As-Sayeh, a semiweekly put out by Abdul Massih Haddad, a well-known Arab writer, and with Mera't Al-Gharb , the second oldest Arabic paper in the country. Then he moved the whole operation, including two Linotype machines and a small press, into its present two-room plant at 139 Atlantic Avenue, the heart of Brooklyn's "Little Syria."
Mr. Daher, a bachelor, has devoted most of his life, and still devotes most of his time, to Al-Bayan. He gathers news, writes editorials, edits, sets type and even prints the paper on a small press in Al-Bayaris office.
Yet, for all his efforts, the paper barely survives. Al-Bayan , he says, exists on about five per cent advertising and subscriptions of approximately $I5 annually and will probably succumb "as soon as I do."
In a similar position is Chekri Kana'an, the 73-year-old publisher of Lissan Al-Adl. Chekri Kana'an first founded Lissan Al-Adl in 1912 in Lebanon, at the age of 22. Twelve years, later after he had emigrated to Detroit, failed in an attempt to publish a French-language magazine entitled Liban, and gone to work in a shipyard, he revived Lissan Al-Adl and nursed it into a flourishing 12-page daily that reached a large part of the nearly 40,000 Arabic-speaking peoples who had followed industry to Detroit. So successful was it that three years ago, on the occasion of the paper's 50th anniversary, the Mayor of Detroit presented a key of the city to Mr. Kana'an for his contributions to the Arabic-speaking peoples of the area. Yet today, the single Linotype machine standing in the Lissan Al-Adl plant at 10214 Charleroix, tells a sad story. It is the only one left of three that were once needed to get the paper out on time.
But if Mr. Daher and Mr. Kana'an are convinced that the Arabic press is on the way out, and if the decline in circulation seems to offer evidence that they are right, there are still some who see a bright future. One is editor Phillip Akel of Detroit, who acknowledges that the four-page, 20-year-old weekly Nahdat Al-Arab has suffered losses, but is still "pretty healthy." And Mary Mokarzel, publisher of Al-Hoda , insists that despite problems, the Arab-language press still has an important role to play.
Mary Mokarzel represents the second generation of American Arabs. Although the niece of the man who founded Al-Hoda, and although she has run the paper since 1952, Miss Mokarzel neither speaks nor reads Arabic, relying heavily on her editor Marwan Jabri to check all copy. But like her uncle who founded the paper, and her father who carried it on after, Mary has strong faith in the paper's capacity to survive. "It's true that we used to be a daily and that we're down to twice a week and it's true we're down from eight pages to six," she says, "But they were predicting the end of the Arab press 30 years ago and Al-Hoda is still very much alive."
Coming from Al-Hoda, that kind of optimism tends to stimulate all publishers. Al-Hoda, after all, is the "big" Arab paper. It's in New York. It has a publisher and an editor. It has Linotype operators. It even has more than one "department." If Al-Hoda can survive, the other publishers seem to say, maybe we can too.
And maybe they can. Mr. Daher, for example, is still putting out his paper regularly, his difficulties and his grim predictions notwithstanding, and shows no signs of giving up. Dr. Chaurize, ignoring his 76 years, says, "My father lived to be 102 and I plan to outlive him by two years." Although there is no doubt that they are now fighting a rearguard action, none of the publishers and editors is thinking of quitting. "And as long as only one person is dedicated to the service of the Arab world," one editor said, "the Arab press will survive."
William Geerhold, formerly a reporter with The Providence Journal, is the editor of a weekly newspaper in New Hampshire and an occasional contributor to Aramco World.