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Volume 37, Number 5September/October 1986

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The Arab Immigrants

Written by Aileen Vincent-Barwood
Photographs courtesy of Smithsonian Institution
Additional photographs courtesy of Arab-American Media Society

On May 5,1903, a bronze plaque was unveiled on what was then called Bedloe's Island, site of the Statue of Liberty. On it was inscribed a sonnet whose concluding lines not only summed up the spirit of the United States then, but have since become one of the best known pieces of American poetry ever written:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

At the time it was written - 1883 - the flood of immigrants that would pass through that "golden door," and transform America, had yet to crest, but Emma Lazarus' poem, The New Colossus, captured, nevertheless, the conditions that eventually drove so many in the Old World to immigrate to the New World.

In the following years, immigrants, fleeing religious persecution and economic deprivation in their homelands, poured through the reception facilities on Ellis Island. But unlike those who flooded in from Italy, Russia, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Scandinavia with the idea of making the United States their permanent home, early Arab immigrants apparently did not go to America with the idea of settling.

Before 1905, in fact, they almost in variably went to America to engage in peddling for two or three years before returning home with, they hoped, a financial stake large enough to permit them to buy more land in their ancestral villages or to set up their own shops.

Because entire family groups went to America to work side by side - and had each other for company - and because peddling required little English or capital - it was organized by fellow Arabs who operated as suppliers, extended credit and showed newcomers the routes - the need for the early peddlers to adapt to America did not occur.

These early arrivals did, however, establish a model for the residence and assimilation of later Arab immigrants escaping Ottoman conscription after 1909, or in political protest against French occupation of the Levant after World War I. The later arrivals settled along the old Arab peddlers' routes - establishing trading networks in the cities and small towns across the United States.

Perhaps the first Arabic-speaking person to land on America's shores was Luis de Torres, the Spanish interpreter who accompanied Christopher Columbus in 1492 on his voyage to the New World. Some speculate that Columbus may have undertaken his voyage after reading The Sea of Darkness, an account by ash-Sharif al-Idrisi of eight Arabs who sailed from Lisbon to discover what lay beyond the Atlantic; a book known to be much read by Columbus, it was found among the explorer's possessions after his death.

Two hundred and eighty-five years later, in 1777, Emperor Muhammad III of Morocco gave de facto recognition to the newly-declared independent United States of America, and 10 years later - the first foreign head of state to do so - officially recognized American independence, securing his alliance with the new country by signing a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with George Washington.

Although early immigration records are frequently misleading - all identification papers of Arab immigrants were issued by the Turks, who then ruled much of the Middle East, to "subjects of the Ottoman Empire" - the first officially recorded Arab immigrant to the United States was Antonius Bishallany. A Syrian who went to study in New York in 1854, he died of tuberculosis soon after arrival and is buried in Brooklyn's Greenwood cemetery.

From 1880 to 1920, there followed successive waves of Arab immigrants - mostly Orthodox, Maronite or Melkite Christians, but including Muslims and Druze - from Mount Lebanon and Greater Syria, a province of the Ottoman Empire which included today's Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Jordan.

As many have testified, the journey was not undertaken lightly. America was a vast, unknown continent which offered not only potential prosperity, but risk and danger as well, and setting out required boldness and faith.

The journey itself was hazardous, for after undergoing the long sea voyage - often under deplorable conditions - suffering seasickness, overcrowded conditions, dirt, pestilence and meager rations, some immigrants arrived at the huge red brick buildings on Ellis Island only to be denied admittance to the country.

This possibility - of being rejected and sent back - was a common fear, though in fact only two percent of the nearly 12 million who immigrated between 1892 and 1924 were rejected, usually for medical or political reasons. Still, most of the immigrants remember the inspection at Ellis Island as the most terrifying part of the journey.

Sometimes whole families were held there for days, even weeks, while one member was placed under observation in the island's immense infirmary. Some of the Arab immigrants who arrived with their families had harrowing tales to tell. One young man, terrified that his four-year-old sister would be returned because of her glaucoma, smuggled her through wrapped in an oriental carpet slung over his shoulder. Others, fearful that an unpronounceable Arabic name would be enough to reject them, Americanized their names on the spot. Thus Butros became Peter, Haddad became Smith and Peter Smith was born.

Some Arab couples left their children behind with relatives until they could afford to send for them. There were young unmarried men who hoped to earn enough money either to return home and settle down in fine style, or to go back, marry a local girl and return with her to the States. Whatever the plan, almost all earnings were sent to the "old country."

Gradually a pattern was established. One family member brought over others, until entire family networks and then whole village networks were recreated in such New World urban centers as Brooklyn, New York, Boston, Detroit - now holding over 250,000 Americans of Arab descent, largest in the country - Pittsburgh and Birmingham, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles. In New England they worked in the textile mills, in Pittsburgh and Birmingham the steel mills and in Detroit on automobile assembly lines. Few spoke English, most were discriminated against for the mere fact that they were foreigners - and almost all were desperately poor.

In most places Arab immigrants lived peaceably among other immigrants - Irish, Jews, Poles and Russians - equally poor, equally alienated from mainstream America. But, homesick, cut off by language, custom, race and religion, they also strove to preserve their identity, dignity and heritage by forming cultural clubs where they could eat familiar food, speak a familiar language, listen to familiar music, teach and practice their religions - and celebrate weddings, births and funerals in traditional ways.

Despite their problems with English, many of these early immigrants became peddlers: at least 40 percent of them according to some figures, 90 percent according to others. A few were women. Some bought their wares on credit and others had sponsors - dry goods wholesalers, often earlier immigrants, who relied on the new immigrant to sell the dry goods door-to-door in small towns and villages in America, simultaneously adding to his prosperity and their own.

From a backpack or a two-wheeled cart they sold needles, thread, pins, ribbons, lace, mirrors, yard goods, scissors and buttons. Some carried oriental rugs, fine linens and leather goods and, sometimes, confections and cakes baked by a willing wife. With a strong back, sturdy legs, a willingness to work and an ambition to get ahead, peddling could - and often did - lead to economic prosperity. Backpacks and carts gave way to trucks, later a small dry goods store, then to a department store and, perhaps, a chain of stores.

One early peddler, now a man of 92, remembers, "in the beginning all the English I knew was 'please to buy' and 'thank you,'" but at that time, it was enough. It was the turn of the century, rural America was still a raw, new country and out in the hinterlands the Syrian peddler was often an important visitor. One elderly American-born woman who grew up on a remote farm in Iowa fondly remembers her childhood excitement over the Syrian peddler's twice-yearly visits.

"It was something my mother and I looked forward to from one visit to the next," she recalls. "He brought not only the notions and dress goods we needed for our dress making, he brought gossip, news of the outside world, tales of the exotic East, and the latest word in fashion. He always stayed for dinner, but though we tried to persuade him to stay longer, he never did. He gave me a gold thimble which I still have, 80 years later."

By 1910, as immigration was peaking, all newcomers could expect to meet some degree of discrimination and opposition. Feelings eventually became so strong that various state legislatures and even Congress began to call for a halt to immigration and in 1924 new laws began to reduce the flow of "huddled masses" to whom the great hall at Ellis Island really was a golden door.

The Naff Collection
Written by Aileen Vincent-Barwood
Photographs courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

Resting in the permanent archives of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History, in Washington, D. C., since 1983, and now viewed by well over a million people, is "The Faris and Yamna Naff Family Arab-American Collection" - a labor of love that took over 20 years of research and travel to amass.

Begun in 1962 by social historian Alixa Naff, of Falls Church, Virginia, while she was a student at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), the work and its research came to include a book, Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience, one children's book on Arab peddlers, the Arab section of the Harvard University Encyclopedia on American Ethnic Groups, and one woman's greater appreciation of herself, her life, and her cultural heritage.

"Until I started my research," says Dr. Naff, "my ethnic consciousness was as remote as my parents' homeland. Oh yes, my father used to tell us tales of his early days as a peddler in rural America, but I felt that had nothing to do with me.

"Then I set out on 'my summer of discovery.' I traveled across the U.S. and eastern Canada and I discovered a mother lode of Arab life histories, a living record of the vitality of Arab immigrant life in America. The experiences of these people, and their delight in relating them fascinated me. Only much later did I develop the wit to perceive tlwt this rich folklore was a valuable part of my ethnic heritage."

Dr. Naff soon realized how rich her heritage was. She found that her parents' Old World traditions and customs, beliefs and rituals, folk remedies and fairy tales, fables, lullabies and folk songs, added depth, meaning and color to her life too. But not until 10 years later, when she came to Washington, D.C., to consult on a documentary film about Arabs in America, did she realize the importance of her research.

"Very little had been done on the subject of the Arab immigrant experience," she says now, "and much of what I did find conflicted with what my pioneer informants had told me. Not only that, but I knew that much of the early arti facts, books, personal documents, photographs, and other items which the early Arab immigrants had brought with them had been - or were being - thrown out. How often 1 heard, 'oh, we threw that old stuff out after my parents died!'"

As a result, in 1977 Dr. Naff planned her study on the history of the Arab immigrants and in 1979 the work found a home with the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs. In 1980 it was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in 1985 her book on the early Arab immigrant experience resulted, along with the family gift to the permanent Arab-American Archives at the Smithsonian Institution.

The gift from the Naff children - Wedad, Alixa, Nicholas, George, Thomas, and Faris Naff's daughter Nazha - to the Smithsonian contains over 300 tapes of oral history garnered by Dr. Naff from 16 different communities in the U.S. and Canada.

During her journeys she tape-recorded the stories of a number of elderly people, some of whom arrived here in the 1890's and have since died.

A sizeable number of photographs, everyday artifacts, documents, manuscripts, and books about the Arab-American immigrant experience swells the collection, along with 100 rare items of jewelry, wedding gowns, textiles, embroidery, and peddler's wares.

For groups able to fund the transportation and safe display of the collection, the Smithsonian will assemble the Naff Collection as a traveling exhibit and send it wherever it can be displayed in a secure location.

Dr. Naff hopes it will inspire other Arab-America families to augment the collection with gifts of their own family treasures, or start a collection of their own.

She comments: "Knowledge of one's cultural heritage - in all its various dimensions - fashions not only individuals, but groups. It informs the present and guides the future. Knowing one's beginnings is healing and uniting. It implies 'roots', and thus adds depth, strength, commitment, credibility and respect to one's life."

This article appeared on pages 10-15 of the September/October 1986 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1986 images.