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.