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Volume 26, Number 2March/April 1975

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Arabs in America

One Arab’s Immigration

Written by Philip Harsham
Photographed by Robert Azzi

Today A. Joseph Howar is 89 years old, or perhaps it's 90; he isn't sure. A retired contractor and builder, he is a wealthy man. He can boast that he built the first high-rise apartment house in Virginia—and many, many more in Washington, D.C., after that. He has provided a mosque, a school, and a cemetery for his native town on the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem. But Joseph Howar takes greatest pride in the part he played in building Washington's striking Islamic Center, the focal point in North America of Islamic instruction and worship since its completion in 1949. It was Howar, a devout Muslim, who initially pushed for the Center and who took the lead in providing financing for it. It was he too who guided construction of it. Now he can say: "I love this place. It is mother and father to me."

Howar's immigration to America is typical of the moves made by thousands of Arabs around the turn of the century. Here in greatly telescoped narrative is his own account of it:

It was around 1900 that I first started thinking of leaving the Mount of Olives. I was perhaps 15—certainly not older. Palestine was under the Ottoman Empire then, you know, and the Turks were taking all the young men into the army at about age 17; I was too young for conscription, thank God. And I was very small for my age—I've always had a slight build. Looking back, it probably was the Turkish army and my size that prompted me to leave home. I wanted to avoid conscription. And I was tired of being told that I was too small "to be worth the skin of an onion" as a worker in the fields. Very quietly I made my plans. And when I had saved the equivalent of two British pounds, I took a carriage to Jaffa and stowed away on a ship.

That ship went only to Port Said. I had no money left, so I found work as a servant in a wealthy family's home. A few weeks later I boarded another ship, thinking I would work my way to England or America. But that ship went the other way—I ended up in Bombay. Through the mosque there, though, I again found work as a servant. But that Indian family liked me too much; they wanted me to stay until I was old enough to marry their daughter. The ship on which I'd arrived returned to Bombay after about six months. This time it was headed for England, and this time the captain welcomed me aboard. I worked for my passage to Southampton, found work as a servant there and stayed on long enough to earn money for steerage passage to New York. I reached New York in 1903 with $65. I was a rich man!

My true name is Mohammed Asa Abu-Howah. But people I met on the boat told me I'd better change my name. They said it labeled me as a Muslim, and no immigration officer would allow a Muslim to enter the United States. I had two cousins who'd become American citizens. One had taken the name of Abraham and the other Joseph. So I took both those names, and since the British had pronounced Howah as if it were Howar, I made my American name A. Joseph Howar. That's how I was naturalized in 1908.

When I reached New York, one of the immigration officers asked me where I was going. I didn't know. So I asked him, "Where does your king live?" He laughed at me. "We don't have a king in America," he said; "we have a President, and Washington, D.C." "Then I'll go to Washington, D.C," I told him; "if it's good enough for the President, it's good enough for me."

I had to find work in Washington, of course. I saw a man peddling bananas from a pushcart and asked him to start me as a pushcart peddler. But he said I was too small to push the cart. I then found work in a hotel kitchen, cleaning silver and doing all kinds of jobs. One night, though, I walked outside the hotel and heard two men speaking Arabic. They told me they were back peddlers and agreed to let me join them on their trips into Virginia and Delaware. I began selling women's clothing, door to door. But I soon found that my "partners" were cheating me. They'd jack up the wholesale prices on my goods and still take half my profits. After a few months of peddling, though, I'd learned what the goods should cost and where I could get my own. I decided to go it alone. When summer came, I took my goods up to the New Jersey shore. The pretty ladies would be sitting on porches and I'd joke with them—tell them funny stories—and they'd buy from me. I was 17 or so, and very small and peppy and smiling, and they liked me. So I soon had many friends and many customers. I made enough money to open a store in Washington with another man. We sold only women's clothing, and soon we were earning $30,000 to $40,000 a year—and that was in the early 1900s.

About that time, an architect talked me into becoming his partner to build an apartment house. I had $27,000 to put into it. All he had were the plans he'd drawn, but he would supervise the building. We built two buildings, and made about $ 50,000 on them. But the architect took so long to build them that I told him I'd do any further building on my own. "How are you going to do that?" he asked. "You can't even read and write." I answered that I could sign my name, and my signature along with my reputation for honesty and hard work would get me just about everything else I needed. It did, too.

I began completing in three or four months the type of buildings that took others nine months. I'd build them quickly and sell them quickly. My secret was simple: the others used a foreman of laborers, a foreman of carpenters, a foreman of steelworkers, and so on; they were always at odds. I used one foreman—a contractor. And we both worked very hard. I made a $69,000 profit on the first big apartment house we built. When my banker saw that I could do that, he said, "Build all you want; my bank will provide the credit you need." I knew then that I was in the building business for good.

Howar was indeed in the building business, and it was big business. He went back to Palestine in 1927, found a wife and returned to Washington in time to lose about everything he had in the Great Depression. But with an $18,000 nest egg, he started again. Now his sons Edmund and Raymond are carrying on the work he started. And A. Joseph Howar, once Mohammed Asa Abu-Howah, has fulfilled an American dream.

This article appeared on pages 14-15 of the March/April 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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