THE ARAB IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE Michael W Suleiman
Questions to Consider
Since 9/11, the media seem to have newly discovered the Arab-American population in the United States, even though this group has been a signifi- cant presence in this country for almost one hundred and fifty years. This article maps Arab migration to the United States and the process of ”Ameri- canization” that this group, like almost all immigrant groups to this coun- try, has experienced. In this article, Michael Suleiman suggests that an ambiguous racial status and racism were used to deny Arab immigrants of citizenship. How and why did this happen?
In 1977, William E. Leuchtenburg, the prominent American historian, remarked, “From the perspective of the American historian, the most striking aspect of the relationship between Arab and American cultures is that, to Americans, the Arabs are
From “The Arab Immigrant Experience,” by Michael Suleiman as it appears in Arabs in Amer- ica: Building a New Future, edited by Michael Suleiman. Reprinted by permission of Temple University Press. Copyright © 1999 by Temple University. All rights reserved.
a people who have lived outside of history.”l Professor Leuchtenburg could have just as accurately made the same observation about Arabs in America.
Ignorance about Arab Americans among North Americans at large means that, before looking at more detailed accounts of the Arab-American experience, we may benefit from a quick overview of Arab immigration to North America and what the Arab- American communities here have been like.
There have been two major waves of Arab immigration to North America. The first lasted from the 1870s to World War II and the second from World War II to the
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present. Members of the two waves of im- migrants had somewhat different character- istics and faced different challenges in the social and political arena. Any examination of the immigrant communities must take into account these differences. As we shall see, the two communities began to come to- gether in the 1960s, especially after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war/ and this rapprochement must also be taken into account.
The term”Arab Americans” refers to the immigrants to North America from the Ara- bic-speaking countries of the Middle East and their descendants. The Arabic-speaking countries today include Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, pre- 1948 Palestine and the Palestinians, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Somalia and Dji- bouti are also members of The League of Arab States and have some Arabic-speaking populations. Most Arab immigrants of the first wave came from the Greater Syria re- gion, especially present-day Lebanon, and were overwhelmingly Christian; later immi- grants came from all parts of the Arab world, but especially from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen, and had large numbers of Muslims among them. Al- though most Muslim Arab immigrants have been Sunni (reflecting the population in the region), there is a substantial Shi’a minority. Druze started immigrating in small num- bers late in the nineteenth century.
Immigrants from the Arabic-speaking countries have been referred to and have re- ferred to themselves by different names at different times, including Arabs or Arabi- ans, but until World War II the designation Syrian or Syrian-Lebanese was used most often. The changeability of the name may in- dicate the absence of a definite and endur- ing identity, an issue that is discussed later. For the purposes of this chapter, the various names are used interchangeably, but the
community primarily is referred to as Arab or Arab American.3
It is impossible to determine the exact number of Arab immigrants to North Amer- ica, because u.s. and Canadian immigration officials have at different times used differ- ent classification schemes. Until 1899 in the United States, for instance, immigration sta- tistics lumped the Arabs with Greeks, Arme- nians, and Turks. For this and other reasons, only estimates can be provided.
According to U.S. immigration figures, which generally are considered to be low, about 130,000 Arabs had immigrated to the United States by the late 1930s.4 Estimates of the size of the Arab-American community by scholars and community leaders vary widely. A conservative estimate is that there were approximately 350,000 persons of Arab background in the United States on the eve of World War IJ.S In the 1990s, the size of the Arab community in the United States has been estimated at less than one million to the most frequently cited figure of two and one-half to three million.6
Numerous reasons have been given for the first wave of Arab immigration to Amer- ica, which began in large numbers in the 1880s, but the reasons usually fall into two categories: push and pull factors, with the push factors accorded greater weight.
Most scholars argue that the most im- portant reasons for emigration were eco- nomic necessity and personal advancement.7 According to this view, although the econ- omy in geographic or Greater Syria (a term encompassing the present-day countries and peoples of Syria, Lebanon, the Palestini- ans, Israel, Jordan, and possibly Iraq) regis- tered some clear gains in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this progress was uneven in its impact and did not mani- fest itself in a sustained manner until”after emigration to the New World began to gather momentum.”s The economy of Mount Lebanon suffered two major crippling blows
in the mid-1800s. The first was the opening of the Suez Canal, which sidetracked world traffic from Syria to Egypt and made the trip to the Far East so easy and fast that Japa- nese silk became a major competitor for the Lebanese silk industry. The second blow came in the 1890s, when Lebanese vineyards were invaded by phylloxera and practically ruined.9
Also contributing to the economic stress in the Syrian hinterland was a rapid increase in population without a commensurate increase in agricultural or industrial produc- tivity. Many families found that the sub- sistence economy could support only one child, who eventually inherited the farm or household. Other male children had to fend for themselves, and emigration to a New World of great wealth became an irresistible option.10
Many Lebanese Christians, who consti- tuted most of the early Arab arrivals in North America, emphasize religious perse- cution and the lack of political and civil free- dom as the main causes of their emigration from lands ruled by an oppressive Ottoman regime.n Under Ottoman rule, Christians in the Syrian province were not accorded equal status with their Muslim neighbors. They were subjected to many restrictions on their behavior and often suffered persecution. These oppressive conditions worsened and discriminatory actions occurred more often as the Ottoman rulers became weaker and their empire earned the title of the “Sick Man of Europe.” As the power of the sultan declined, the local rulers began to assert greater authority and power, which they at times used to suppress and oppress further their subjects, particularly Christians. In part, this persecution took place in response to the increased power and prestige of “Christian” Europe and the encroachment of its rulers on Ottoman sovereignty. This ef- fect, combined with the Christian popula- tion’s desire for greater equality, threatened
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the Muslim public’s sense of security. Like the “poor white trash” of the American South at the time of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, the Muslimpopu- lation in the Syrian province was poor and oppressed-but it still enjoyed a social sta- tus that was superior to that of the non- Muslims, particularly the Christians. The threat of losing that “high” status made many Muslims susceptible to suggestions from local Ottoman rulers that their Chris- tian neighbors were the cause of rather than companions in their troubles. The worsened social and economic conditions in Syria in the mid-1800s and the beginning of the dis- integration of feudalism, especially among the Druze, produced social turmoil that erupted in sectarian riots in which thou- sands of Christians perished.12 Many Chris- tian Lebanese, especially Maronites, cite the 1860 disturbances and massacres as the main factor contributing to the exodus from their homeland.
In addition to the economic, political, and social causes of the early Arab immigra- tion to North America, some incidental fac- tors should be cited. Among these are improved transportation and communica- tion facilities worldwide, development of steam navigation that made the sea voyage safer and shorter, and aggressiveness of agents of the steamship companies in re- cruiting new immigrant passengers. AI- thoughAmerican missionaries often actively discouraged Syrians or Arabs from migrat- ing to the United States, their very presence as model Americans, their educational activ- ities, and their reports about American life ignited a desire, especially among the grad- uates of American schools and colleges in Syria, to emigrate to America.
After the feasibility and profitability of immigration to the United States and to “America” in general were well established, chain migration became the norm, with im- migrants making it possible for the ambitious
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and the disgruntled in the old homeland to seek newer horizons. Those wanting to es- cape military service in the Ottoman army and those craving freedom from oppression and the liberty to speak and publish with- out censorship or reprisal left their home- land quickly and stealthily and sought what they thought would be a temporary refuge in America.
The Early Arab Community in America
Before World War II, most Arabs in America were Christians who came from the Mount Lebanon region of geographic Syria. Espe- cially until the turn of the century, these travelers were mainly poor, uneducated, and iIIiterate in any language. They were not trained for a particular profession. As unskiIIed workers, after they learned the rudiments of the English language, they could work in factories and mines. How- ever, such jobs were taxing and monotonous and, most importantly, did not offer oppor- tunities for the fast accumulation of wealth, which was the primary objective of these early Arab arrivals. Farming presented them with the added hardships of isolation, lone- liness, and severe weather conditions. Peddling therefore was an attractive alter- native. It did not require much training, capital, or knowledge of English. With a few words of English learned on the run, a suitcase (Kashshi) full of notions (e.g., needles, thread, lace) provided by a better- established fellow Lebanese or other Arab supplier, probably a relative who helped bring them to the New World, many new arrivals often were on the road hawking their wares only a day or so after they landed in America. Success in peddling required thrift, hard work, very long hours, the stamina to endure harsh travel condi- tions (mostly walking the countryside on
unpaved roads), and not infrequently, the taunting and insults from children or dis- gruntled customers. These conditions were made tolerable for most early Arab arrivals by their vision of a brighter economic future and the concomitant prestige they and their families would eventually acquire in the old country. When they could afford to do so, they switched to the “luxury” of a horse and buggy and later to a dry-goods store,13
Before World War I, Arabs in North America thought of themselves as sojourn- ers, as people who were in, but not part of, American society. Their politics reflected and emulated the politics of their original homeland in substance and style, because they were only temporarily away from home. In New York, Kawkab America (Kawkab Amirka), the first Arabic-language newspa- per established in North America, declared in its very first issue its unequivocal support for the Ottoman sultan, whose exemplary virtues it detailed at length.14 All other newspapers had to define in one way or an- other their attitude toward and their rela- tionship with the Ottoman authorities. Although Kawkab America was pro-Ottoman, at least initially, Al-Ayam (al-Ayyam) was the most vehement opponent of the Ottoman authorities, a role it later shared with Al- Musheer (al-Mushir).15 It excoriated the cru- elty and corruption of Ottoman rulers, especially in the Mount Lebanon region. It also called for rebellion against the Turkish tyrants and urged its readers to exercise their freedom in America to call for freedom back home. Other newspapers, including Al-Hoda (al-Huda) and Meraat-ul-Gharb (Mir’at al-gharb), fell between these two ex- tremes of total support or clear rejection of Ottoman authority.
The orientation of early Arab Ameri- cans toward their homeland meant that their political activities were also focused on issues that were important in their country or viIIage of origin. There was communal
solidarity, but the community was a collec- tive of several communities. The sectarian and regional disputes that separated the Arabs back home were also salient in this “temporary” residence. The newspapers they established were in the main socializ- ing agencies conveying the messages of their sectarian leadership. Because the Or- thodox already had their Kawkab America, Al-Roda was set up to represent and speak for the Maronites. Later, Al-Bayan (al-Bayan) proclaimed itself the newspaper of the Druze.16 Within each community there were rivalries and competing newspapers, each claiming to be the best defender or repre- sentative of its sect.
World War I was a watershed event for Arabs in North America, cutting them off from their people back home. This separa- tion from the homeland became almost complete with the introduction of very re- strictive quota systems in the United States and Canada after World War I, which prac- tically cut off emigration from Arab regions. These developments intensified the commu- nity’s sense of isolation and separation, simultaneously enhancing its sense of soli- darity. One consequence was a strengthen- ing of the assimilationist trend-a trend already reinforced by the American-born children of these Arab immigrants.