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Volume 27, Number 6November/December 1976

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Festival In Fall River

"...a time to find out what we still had and bring it out for everybody to see."

Written and photographed by Katrina Thomas

Between 1905 and 1921 there were in cotton mills operating in Fall River, Massachusetts. The remaining gray granite structures, pierced with tall many-paned windows set in white sashes, are still the architectural hallmark of the city, although most now serve other commercial purposes. The two-mile-long Quequechan River, named by the Indians "Falling Water," drove the mill turbines. And as in so many of New England's small industrial cities, the men and women who worked in the mills were the immigrants who poured into America at the turn of the century. To Fall River, in a flood of hope, came Portuguese, French Canadians, Irish, Italians and Slavs. And from the distant Middle East, from what was then part of the Ottoman Empire, also came a few Turks and Egyptians, larger numbers of Syrians and—especially—Lebanese.

Last summer, as their special contribution to their city's local celebration of America's Bicentennial, Fall River's Lebanese-American Community—today about 500 families—organized a festival attended by some 6,000 people. The festival featured many of the old-country ceremonies and customs preserved privately in their homes, clubs and churches.

Renee Maalouf, the prime mover behind the Bicentennial Festival, explains why. "Because Fall River is an industrial city it does not put much emphasis on culture. But there is culture here—in the diverse ethnic traditions of its people. Our Lebanese culture is part of it, but often remains hidden. And as our young people intermarry with others of French or Irish descent it could even disappear. I thought the Bicentennial was an appropriate time to find out what we still had, and bring it out for everybody to see."

The result was Fall River's "Lebanese Cultural Week," which opened with a mass in the Maronite Church and closed with snaking lines of the dabkeh danced to the amplified sound of 'ud and the derbakki drum, played by a band called The Phoenicians in a community college cafeteria. It was a festival sponsored by people who emigrated from Lebanese mountain and seaside villages some 75 years ago, by their sons and daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom have never visited their mother country, and even by a few new arrivals from the Middle East. Lebanon— then tragically torn by civil strife—was recreated by the Fall River community as it would like to remember her: the land which gave them its religion, its poetry, its music and its tradition of hospitality.

The story of these early Lebanese immigrants is a familiar chapter of American history and the Lebanese-American community in Fall River is, in a way, a microcosm of many of the ethnic groups which helped build the city.

Most of the early immigrants still living fled the Ottoman domination of their homeland early in the 20th century. Most were young men, some still in their teens, who came with their brothers and cousins. One set of brothers was accompanied by an 11-year-old sister whose responsibility it was to sew and cook for them. They planned to stay two years, make a lot of money and return home. Most stayed a lifetime. As children, many had worked the soil of their terraced hillsides growing vegetables and harvesting silkworms from mulberry trees. A few had also worked in the silk mills. They landed at Ellis Island with cards around their necks indicating their names in English letters which they could not read, and pieces of paper in their pockets with the name of a cousin or uncle in Fall River, Massachusetts. After being processed through the labyrinth of immigration regulations, they boarded a Fall River Line steamer which brought them the next day to what was then a cotton textile capital of the world.

The new arrivals went to work in the mills for 12 hours a day, six and one-half days a week, for which they were paid nine dollars. Somehow, most of them sent some of that money home. "As little as they had here, America was Utopia for them," says Jamelle Abdallah, a first-generation Lebanese-American who lives today in a comfortable three-story brick house set on an acre of lawn and flower beds.

Mrs. Abdallah's parents had lived quite differently: her mother and father both settled in tenement flats in the Flint section of town adjacent to the mills clapboard buildings with bay-windowed front parlors facing the street.

In those days the parlor was kept for Sunday guests and special occasions; it crept into their Arabic vocabulary as al-front . They entered the flat through the kitchen, the center of activity for both family and visitors simply because it had a coal-burning stove. The stove provided heat as well as being the facility for cooking and baking.

The ground floor of two of these tenements, both on Jencks Street in the Flint district, served as the immigrants' first churches. The Protestant population arrived somewhat earlier than the Catholic; perhaps because they had come into more contact with the American missionary groups in the Middle East in the late 19th century (See Aramco World, November-December, 1969). In 1898, led by a lay minister, they began meet and the following year they formed the Syrian Protestant Bible Class for their children. The first Maronite Catholics in Fall River could attend the incomprehensible Latin masses in one of the local Roman Catholic churches, but for weddings they would have to travel 80 miles to Lawrence, at the time a woolen textile center, which also employed many new immigrants and which had Maronite priests. But by 1911 they too had a ground-floor church of their own to which they sometimes brought a Maronite priest down from Boston. Many of the first - generation Lebanese - Americans today have baptismal certificates issued from one of the two houses on Jencks Street.

Today, Maronite and Melchite Catholics worship together at St. Anthony of the Desert, the second Maronite church to bear this name. Completed just last year, the brick and wood contemporary church was the scene of a Melchite mass to open the Bicentennial Festival. For the congregation, it was a moment of deep feeling with the palpable presence of past generations when the Stars and Stripes and the Cedar of Lebanon on a red and white background were carried up the aisle.

The Syrian Protestant Church is now merged into the Calvary United Presbyterian Church, which also held services during the festival week.

When "An Evening at Baalbek" was presented in the auditorium of the regional vocational technical high school, the presence of that earlier generation was felt again. The performance was dedicated to Kahlil Gibran, who had visited Fall River to be honored by the Mt. Lebanon Society soon after it opened its headquarters on Quequechan Street in 1925. At the performance, Gibran's prose and poetry were sung or recited in French, English and Arabic. The children had to learn the Arabic words by rote.

But many of those listening to their effort could remember how, when they were children, their parents performed plays in Arabic, which the first American-born generation understood very well although they resisted speaking it.

"My parents would talk to us in Arabic, but we would answer in English even though we had to attend Arabic classes every day after school," remembers Loretta George, president of the Fall River Chamber of Commerce. Later, in the 1930's and 40's, Loretta George's generation would put on skits between the acts of the Arabic plays. These were comedies about their own people and jokes on themselves, often imitating their elders' inability to speak proper English, mixing "my fish" and mafeesh (there isn't any) to the delight of the community of elders struggling to preserve their Arab identity and culture, and of youngsters yearning to lose it.

The Mt. Lebanon Society, where these plays were performed, and the two churches were the focal points of the Flint community. After World War II the society changed its name to the Lebanon-American Society, and for years its headquarters was the scene of Thursday and Sunday night dances, amateur theatricals and weddings. Even today, some 205 male members meet there regularly on the first Thursday of every month, and the 188 women who form the Ladies' Auxiliary meet there on the first Sunday.

There were once several coffee houses in the district too, but one by one they have closed down over the years. The coffee house had been a haven for men, a refuge from the mill and the crowded tenement flat. To recreate them, the women of the community staged a cafe scene at the Bicentennial Festival and served Turkish coffee to visitors. Men in costume played towleh , which is backgammon (See Aramco World, July-August, 1973), and everyone had a chance to smoke the narghila (water pipe), which is still smoked in Fall River homes when guests are entertained.

The Fall River Lebanese-Americans have maintained the close-knit family relationship that is traditional in the Middle East, and Sunday is still set aside for visiting relatives and close friends. One never telephones ahead. Parents today have some difficulty persuading their children to accompany them on a Sunday visit to grandmother but the community has managed better than most ethnic groups to maintain strong family ties.

Over a hundred women cooked for days to provide Lebanese dishes for the Bicentennial Festival: kibbeh, mujaddara, tabbouleh and other specialties at one long table, and all kinds of desserts and cookies and cakes on another.

At the festival there was also a store selling imported foods provided by Michael Nassiff, who owns the Nasco Import Market. Baqlawa sweets on trays, spices, nuts and olives in glass jars, dried legumes in sacks, grape leaves, tahini and apricot paste, known as "fruit leather," were for sale. Although many of the Fall River Lebanese-Americans have gone into both the grocery and fruit store business, Nasco is one of the last of several stores which still specialize in the ingredients of Arab cooking for the early immigrants.

There are still three bakeries producing Arab bread, however. Sam Yamin, his wife, Georgette, and their five daughters run one of them, Sam's Bakery on Flint Street, rising long before dawn to mix dough. Three of his daughters have graduated from college and are married, and one is studying journalism, but all of them help out in the bakery on Saturday and Sunday mornings, Sam's busiest time. Their fingers fly as they roll dough and fold meat and spinach pies, and the round loaves of bread are still warm when handed to the waiting customers who start lining up at the counter at seven in the morning.

It was World War II which accelerated the changes in fortunes and outlook of the first- and second-generation Lebanese-Americans living in the Flint district. The immigrants had formed a self-sufficient and inward-looking community as they struggled to raise their families and still send money "home." Many of the same weavers who had worked on five or six machines before World War I were operating 40 by World War II. Edward Abdallah, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, remembers taking his father's lunch to the mill. "My mother cooked one main meal for the family for the whole day and I would run home when school let out at 11:30, get something to eat and take my father's pail to him, usually something like lentil soup and a kind of Lebanese goulash made from lamb, rice and peas. The mill sold milk to the workers. But nine times out of ten, I remember this well, he would save the milk for me and I would drink it walking back to school. Going into that mill was like walking into an oven. It was no degrees in summer! And the steam . . . which was to keep the threads from snapping! And the noise . . . the vibration of those looms! My generation, the first-generation Americans, vowed we would never go to work in the mills. And 99 percent of us did not, even when things were dire."

The first generation went to work as young boys and girls to help support their families, most leaving school in the eighth grade. By the 1940's some were going to high school, but practically no one went to college. If one did, it was to night school after working in stores, offices, bowling alleys or the small businesses of parents who managed to get out of the mills.

It was hard. The decline of Fall River's textile industry coincided with the Great Depression. The city ran a welfare program. "The most horrible thing for a Lebanese," says Edward Abdallah, "was to go on welfare. But some had to. You got $3 to buy a load of coal, some flour and some corn. And you went down to the welfare office to get it."

In July 1941, when he was working as a produce manager for the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, Ed was the first young man in the Lebanese community to be drafted. He was conscripted for a year, but when America went to war a few months later, he passed the aviation cadet exam, went to flying school and stayed in the U.S. Air Force for 23 years, stationed part of the time overseas. Many young men in the community enlisted. Some of them died.

According to Joseph Azar, a civil engineer for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the war spurred the awakening of the Flint community. "We had kept together, and we didn't assimilate easily. Our parents didn't speak good English and we were sometimes called names. But when we went into the service a lot of us became officers, commissioned and noncommissioned, and we saw that we were on a par with people from other ethnic backgrounds. We had a close relationship with each other, we still have, which is good. But we saw then that we held each other back, and those that went out on their own did very well."

One who did well was William Kalif, now a vice president of the Morton Salt Company. He was one of the youngsters who did not get away with answering his parents in English and as a result learned fluent Arabic. During the war, as a major in the Army he was part of a military mission to Saudi Arabia and, acting as interpreter, took part in many meetings with the famous King 'Abd al-'Aziz.

Military service entitled many of the Fall River community to a free college education. Most obtained degrees by going to night school, and the first American-born generation has entered the professions—medicine, law, education—as well as going into business and industry. Today the community includes two millionaires.

The American Lebanese Veterans Association, formed after World War II, is presently another vital force in the community. Both the Veterans and Lebanese-American Associations sponsor numerous haflis, which are indoor celebrations, and mahrajans , which are outdoor picnics. These may be fund-raising events or just for fun. It has been these occasions, before the Bicentennial festival displayed their heritage to the Fall River public, that the community enjoyed its traditional music, dances and food.

The other events which have traditionally brought together almost the entire Lebanese-American community are weddings and bridal showers. At first, wedding receptions were held in al-front, the parlor in the tenement flats, and included family and very close friends to at, drink, sing and dance. Although four or five people might link arms and dance the dabkeh in even a crowded tenement Bat, solo dancing predominated. At the performance of "An Evening at Baalbek," Flora Azar of nearby New Bedford danced a solo traditionally danced by women on festive occasions, usually weddings, in Lebanese villages, using expressive hand movements symbolizing love, forgiveness and acceptance, which she first danced at the age of seven at the wedding of a cousin. She had been taught by her older sister who was in turn taught by her mother who emigrated from Lebanon.

At the festival, the sword dance was performed by Fred Hajjar, a 58-year-old grandfather who learned it from his father and, having only daughters himself, has started to teach it to his oldest grandson, aged 14. "I don't know how I do it," he says. "I do it from my heart. It is in my blood. For my grandson I perform it as slow as I can, then hand him a sword and make him follow me. You have to be artistic about it. You have to give signals gracefully to your partner. Both dancers are leaping and jumping and swinging the sword very fast. You have to be on guard or you can get hurt. But it is in his blood too. He'll be doing it by Christmas." At every community celebration there used to be several sword dancers but now there are only two in Fall River—until Fred Hajjar's grandson has mastered the art.

On most occasions Fred brings a handkerchief. The handkerchief, twirled high above the head, is a staple of Lebanese dancing, used principally to signal to one's partner. The dabkeh is danced whenever there is room enough for three or 30 or more to hold hands and follow a leader flourishing the handkerchief. At the festival it was performed on stage by the Folklorettes, a troupe of young girls. An even more elaborate variation, the bedawiya, a dance derived from traditional Bedouin dancing, was performed by Flora Azar's professional troupe. But wherever there was someone playing the 'ud and beating the derbakki there were lines of dancers winding through the crowd at the festival.

In one way the Fall River Lebanese community closely resembles other ethnic communities throughout the United States. So often the first American-born generations, in a desire to be truly American, reject much of their heritage. Only with time do they feel secure, and Fall River's Lebanese-Americans are now rediscovering this heritage as a cultural mine from which they can dig treasures past generations set aside for the tastes, attitudes and behavior of the new country. Today, no longer ashamed of the old country's folk arts and folkways, they proudly put them on display at the festival.

Out of attics and living rooms came furniture, utensils and handwork. The writing desk and chair of inlaid woods and mother-of-pearl did not come to America with Charles Salamy, but were purchased on a trip back to Lebanon in 1932. Ted Smith, whose name was Americanized by his grandfather from Haddad, meaning "ironsmith," explained to visitors how Lebanese craftsmen made a box of olive wood inlaid with assorted other woods in natural colors. The brass braziers, decorated water pipes, the copper plates inlaid with silver, the backgammon boards, the pottery, and a set of Jezzine flatware of bone and brass inlaid with stones have all been purchased by those who traveled back to Lebanon in recent years, whereas the needlework—embroidery, tatting and tapestry—were done by women in the Fall River community.

Most of the community has moved out of the Flint district now, up the hill into houses with lawns and gardens in the East End, where both new churches stand. However, the American Lebanese Veterans Association remains on Flint Street and the Lebanese-American Association is still on the corner of Quequechan and Lebanon streets—in sight of the mills where their forebears started to earn the wages they hoped would return them to Lebanon as rich men. Instead, in a metaphor much used by their descendants today, "they tilled the soil and planted the seeds now being harvested by their children."

John Monsour, who was a lieutenant inspector in the Massachusetts State Police and who also served seven years with the U.S. State Department, says, "My father came to Fall River in 1902 and died in 1967. After 65 years here he didn't know 65 words of English. But he became a citizen and he loved this country. When I was in the State Department stationed for a while in Beirut, where I had a beautiful apartment, I brought my mother and father over for a visit. He had numerous cousins and nieces and nephews in Lebanon, and she had a sister and four brothers there, but you know, after a few months they came to me and said: 'We want to go home.' It's true. America was home."

Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Mirror of the Soul : "Here I am, a youth, a young tree whose roots were plucked from the hills of Lebanon, yet I am deeply rooted here, and I am willing to be fruitful." No one will deny that this describes the Fall River Lebanese community after three-quarters of a century in America.

Katrina Thomas, whose photographs appear with three articles and on the cover of this issue, lives in New York and is working on a book about America's diverse ethnic heritage.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the November/December 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1976 images.