Thursday, 9 October 2014

‘Little Syria: Early Arab Immigrant Life in America’

 Above image: Syrian-American children whose immigrant families settled in New York’s Syrian quarter

On Wednesday 8th October, the Andrew Hook Centre was delighted to welcome Professor Akram Khater (North Carolina State University) for the third seminar in the 2014-15 series. Khater is the author of Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender and the Making of a Lebanese Middle Class, 1861-1921 (2001), Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East (2009) and Embracing the Divine: Passion and Politics in the Christian Middle East (2011). The subject of his talk was the immigrant experience of the first wave of Arab immigrants to the United States, with particular emphasis on the ways in which the immigrants tried to foster a sense of community and identity in their new surroundings. 

Professor Khater began his presentation with a discussion of the immigrant’s motivations for leaving their Eastern Mediterranean homeland. Even at this early stage in the immigrant experience, Khater argued, one finds the historical record plagued by inaccurate assertions of religious persecution as the chief motivating factor. This, Khater explained, belies the relatively unaffected origin point from which they sprang, and speaks more of the advice given to immigrants in Marseilles to exploit the trope of the “Terrible Turk”. Consequentially, the personal or pragmatic motivating factors of many Arab immigrants have been overshadowed by the predominant discourse of religious persecution. A great many Arab immigrants simply sought the better life promised by the economic opportunities of the United States. 

Khater then stressed the importance of early immigrant letters back home in accelerating immigration, as exemplified in the following source: ‘When people of ‘Ayn Arab saw that one man made … [sic] $1000, all of ‘Ayn Arab rushed to come to America … Like a gold rush we left ‘Ayn Arab, there were 72 of us.’ Stories of success, therefore, propelled greater numbers of Arabs to seek a new home in the U.S. For those who made it past the immigration authorities at Ellis Island (of which an estimated 15-20% did not), the reality of life in America garnered mixed responses. For some, New York, or “Nayrik” was like paradise, as indicated in immigrant Saloum Rizk’s statement that ‘“America is a country – but not like Syria. It is really a country like heaven.”’ In contrast, Mikhail Naimy was horrified by the capitalistic impulse in the U.S., describing the nation as the world’s ‘twentieth-century Babylon.’ Thus, the Arab immigrants impressions of America were varied, though Khater noted that daily life was not: For the majority, factory work came to define life in America, and this was reflected in the population dispersal in industrial heartlands such as New York, Detroit, Boston, Chicago and Worchester, Massachusetts, to name a few.

In the second strand of the discussion, Khater turned to the development of an Arab community in the United States and, more specifically, the internal and external tensions that Arabs encountered and negotiated. First, it was critical that the new immigrants retain a sense of group identity, which was achieved primarily through the establishment of multiple newspapers – foremost among them Al-Huda and Mira ‘at al-gharb. In this way, Khater argued, the community created a dialogue and, in this public forum, debated the appropriate levels of acculturation for their people in the United States. One such tension that Khater expanded upon was that of gender: Once in the U.S., Arab immigrants were forced to reconstruct the patriarchal construct of their homeland. Women, who had been expected to remain indoors and adhere to rigid gender roles, found this a difficult prospect in America, compelled as they were to make money for the maintenance of their family, which often involved interacting with men who were not family members, in order to achieve the economic success so coveted. Khater argued that the result of these tensions was often of a hybrid nature, where aspects of Eastern life and customs were fused with that of the West.

Turning to external tensions, Khater discussed the increasing pressures felt by Arab-Americans (and other ethnic groups) to defend their right to enter and remain within the United States. Starting around 1906, and accelerated with the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, the immigration of Arabs to the U.S. was prohibited, threatening the immigration and naturalisation possibilities for thousands of families. In response, a series of legal cases ensued, many of which explicitly raised the issue of race. With particular reference to the landmark Syrian case Dow v. United States, Khater outlined the importance of naturalisation debates. George Dow had been denied citizenship, despite fulfilling the necessary ‘character’ requirements. Therefore, on account of his race, as a non-Caucasian, his application was denied. The Syrian community mobilised in response, aware as they were of the future threat this posed to their entire community. Dow’s legal counsel, comprised of two Jewish lawyers, presented the court with the argument that, if Jesus Christ was semitic, he would have been allowed into the country, therefore they too should be allowed. Ultimately, this case represented the reconceptualisation of race, in what could be described, in the words of Nell Irvin Painter, as an ‘enlargement of American whiteness.’ In overturning the lower court’s decision to deny George Dow citizenship on the grounds that Syrians “were to be classed as white persons”, this represented the moment in which Christianity was mapped onto race. The implications of this, Khater argued, were far-reaching, in that the assimilation of Arab-Americans under the banner of ‘white’ distorted the correct proportions of institutional/welfare support that they were entitled to receive.

Khater concluded his paper with the interesting observation that Middle Eastern history refuses easy cartographical placement. At the height of Arab-U.S. immigration, the Eastern Mediterranean lost one-third of its total population – and this Arab diaspora perforates the notion of a static national history. Thus, Khater encouraged the audience to think about the importance of revising history to include the constantly moving and fluid immigrant communities. During the question-and-answer session, Khater went on to stress that the main difference between Arab-Americans and other ethnic groups is that being an Arab-American has never been a good thing. Beginning in the 1960s, people of Arab descent were retreating from their Middle-Eastern identity, increasingly identifying as ‘Lebanese’. This, Khater stated, has gained greater momentum in post-9/11 American society. Interestingly, Khater noted the extent to which the ‘Lebanese’ identity has successfully gravitated into mainstream American culture, as evinced in one contemporary advert by insurance company Geico, featuring Count Dracula at a blood bank who exclaims, ‘“I love the Lebanese!”'

Professor Khater’s discussion of ‘Little Syria’ and the early Arab community in America was highly engaging and expansive, extending beyond the early Arab experience and into the present-day. At this moment in time, Middle Eastern politics  are in the international spotlight, with discussions over nationalism and multi-nationalism receiving heightened attention. As such, Khater contributed to the much-needed and important discussion of Arab nations and their dispersed peoples. Formulated through an American lens, the discussion also helped to facilitate a greater empathy toward an ethnic sub-set of the American population often overlooked or, as is often the case, misunderstood. 

 By Rebecca Dunbar

PGR at the University of Glasgow   

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Dr Anthony Stanonis  (Queens University Belfast): ‘Feast of the Mau Mau: Christianity, Conjure and the Origins of Soul Food’. This will be held on Wednesday 22nd October 2014 in Room 208, 2 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!

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