The Coming of the Arabic-Speaking People to the United States by Adele Younis (Staten Island, New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1995). Edited by Philip M. Kayal, Seton Hall University.


I first met Adele Younis in 1968, two years before I completed my doctoral dissertation on the assimilation experience of Catholic Syrian (Lebanese) immigrants. Because information on this ethnic group was scant and difficult to come by, her 1961 dissertation on the coming of "Arabs" to the new world was invaluable to me. American social scientists and historians of ethnicity and assimilation were simply not interested in the emigration here from Syria and Lebanon.

Before the publication in 1924 of The Syrians in America by Philip K. Hitti, the renowned Princeton scholar, only one brief academic study and a few valuable journalistic accounts of Syrians in the United States had appeared. In 1904, Dr. Lucius Hopkins Miller made a survey of the Syrians in New York City. His detailed sociological analysis, A Study of the Syrian Population of Greater New York, was initiated by the Federation of Churches and appeared in pamphlet form. In 1911, Mrs. Louise Seymour Houghton received a grant from the Carnegie Institute to conduct her investigation, "The Syrians in the United States." Four detailed articles outlining her findings appeared in Survey Magazine.

Before the second World War, a few monographs were published as well as newspaper articles by leading emigrants or those born here attempting to explain needed facts about "their people." In 1927, Salloum A. Mokarzel prepared a short study, "The Syrians in New York City," published in the New York American. Though focusing on Boston, Elias F. Shamon in 1934 wrote an eighteen page typed manuscript, The Syrians and Lebanese in Massachusetts.

A decade or so before, Professor William I. Cole published a similar study in 1921 entitled The Syrians in Massachusetts for the Department of Education. Habib I. Katibah wrote a pamphlet in 1946 which he titled Arabic-Speaking Americans for the Institute of Arab American Affairs. While a valuable Master of Arts thesis was written by Morris Zelditch called The Syrians In Pittsburgh in 1934, not very much else was published until the 1970's, though many dissertations were in the offing. The only book since Hitti and before Younis was my own entitled The Syrian-Lebanese In America: A Study of Religion in Assimilation. A sociological treatise on the role of "Syrian Churches" in the assimilation process, this text stood alone until now.

Unlike my book and Hitti's short review, Younis' research illuminates the causes, conditions, and nature of what she documents as a long term interaction between Arabic-speaking peoples and the the New World. Her approach is to place the contact points, settlement patterns and problems of these immigrants and sojourners in a socio-historical context. By so doing, she sheds light on the mutual process of community development and eventual community assimilation as experienced by smaller and oft ignored ethnic groups. Understanding the American ethnic mosaic would be incomplete without her accurate and documented account.

What characterizes this book on Arab immigration and ethnicity is the author's skill in tying together the general facts of Syrian emigration at the turn of the twentieth century with the broader historical reality of western colonialism and American Protestant missionary activity in the Arab East. Indeed, the overall content of the first four chapters leave the reader with the impression that the book could have been entitled "The Coming of the Americans to Syria."

The stimulus for this original and valuable approach came, in fact, directly from Younis' own experiences as a Protestant Syrian and her own professional training as a historian. As a child, she had heard many accounts from her parents concerning positive American influences on them and their friends long before they set sail to the United States. The fact that Americans were so well received in Syria impressed her and led her to some preliminary historical research in New York City. Working alone, she discovered numerous references to Syrian, Arab, and Persian travelers and their place in the history of exploration and colonization.

Since Younis' original inquiry, the field of Arab-American studies has mushroomed. Arab-Americans are now writing in the first person about themselves; their own pluralism being matched by a multitude of perspectives and topics. Had it been available, most contemporary Arab-American research would have benefited from access to this book. Likewise, her own work would have been enriched by the depth and breadth of the newer scholarship.

In this regard, two books come to mind. Alexis Naff's Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience (Illinois Univ. Press, 1985) is, for the most part, the story of the Syrian peddler. Told in the first person through interviews, this topic is a major interest of Younis and both complements and extends her work.

As the title suggests, The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Migration edited by Hourani and Shehadi (1992) is a collection of articles on the experience of Lebanese (Syrian) immigrants worldwide and overtime. The data, analysis, and explanations of migration would have informed Younis tremendously and the section on the Lebanese in North America would have profited by a reading of this book.

These works and Younis' scholarship aside, there now are specialized texts on Chaldean Iraqi Christians in Detroit, Lebanese settlers in Nova Scotia, Moslems in the New World, and numerous collections of articles published by various Arab-American organizations. There are now nearly fifty graduate Master's and Doctoral level theses on virtually all aspects of Arab-American life and each Arabic-speaking community, from Yemenites to Syrian Jews.

Until Younis' research appeared, there was a void in our factual knowledge of the causes and consequences of the first period of emigration here from Syria. Much of what existed was superficial, heresay, and undocumented. It often was anecdotal and ideological. As children, Syrian Americans were told that Moslems persecuted Christians and this is why our forefathers left Syria.

Even Hitti barely elaborated on the real causes of emigration. Younis, on the other hand, goes into detail on this question, logically and empirically building her case for other more timely and probable explanations than persecution. She begins her expose piece by piece, carefully examining records, historical reports, and conflicting explanations. Then she lets the travelers and early settlers speak for themselves, relying heavily on diaries and journals.

One of the problems in editing this book was determining what was essential to the story, what should be left in, and what was essentially superfluous information. Since Younis was the author and had a vision of the book and a style of writing which was uniquely hers, this author favored a more inclusive approach. However, there were too many repetitions and literally too much information to be included in the text. Here and there sections of chapters were shifted about and excessive information removed to the various appendices at the end. It seemed a shame not to let the reader have access to all her meticulous research.

Book Outline:

Chapter One opens with an overall review of the western images of the Middle East, at least among Presbyterian students at Andover Seminary and Williams College in Massachusetts. Convinced that their destiny was to go to Syria (the original "Bible belt"), they ached in their innocence to reconvert "the nearly heathen Arabs"--- Christian and otherwise---to a purer biblical Christianity. They were convinced of their self-righteousness and were looking for Calvinist justification for their own personal conflicts and suffering. Being Puritans driven by a sense of sin and a need for repentance, they wanted to assuage an avenging God.

What the author does in this chapter is to create a setting of anticipation---the excitement of travel to the Middle East, the land of the Old Testament and Christianity. She does this by painstakingly re-creating the culture of both Salem in the early and mid 1800's and that of Syria, including Palestine. As Younis indicates, available letters, newspaper articles, periodicals and reports were traced to the communities where they had originated. In many cases, the writings and correspondence of the missionaries were reproduced for our benefit. They all wrote of their fears, yet praised their reception in Syria.

As far as is known, no other scholar has ever put together in one report such a stirring and unique story as that of the American Protestant missionaries in Syria. One gets a sense of their psyhology, their objectives, and how the world and Syria appeared to Americans of that period.

Chapter II begins with a review of the difficulties in getting established in Syria. Discovering the need for "firman's," understanding the millet system of government, gaining trust, and assessing and fulfilling local needs took some doing. Opening schools and hospitals became a major objective. What is remarkable and little known is the effect these apparently benevolent missionaries had on the creation of a viable Arabic press and script and their unintended instigation of a migratory trend from the region.

What began as a religious activity (producing Arabic bibles) ended up a secular impetus to both an Arabic language renaissance, a re-doubling of interest in formal education and to a desire to see America. Syrians loved their new American friends who themselves had only recently rediscovered the centrality of Arabic to Bible studies. This significant story of codependency rambles through the next two chapters where this fruitful connection is highlighted and illustrated.

In Chapter III, however, the emphasis reciprocally switches. Here the focus is on the early contacts Arabic-speaking people themselves first made with the New World, even before Columbus, and long before the sailings from Salem to Syria were even thought of. After this marvelous review, the question of who were the first permanent "Syrian" settlers and what their reception by Americans was like is raised in depth. Surprisingly, not only were Syrian Jews early residents of Rhode Island, but Arab slaves and freedom freighters were scattered about.

Two not readily known stories stand out, that of the "Al- Sultanah" from Muscat, docked in New York harbor with gifts for President Van Buren and that of Fr. Flavianus Kfoury, a Melkite priest criss-crossing the United States in search of funds for his monastary back home, before the Civil War. Adele's notes include photographs of the ship, its captain Ahmad Bin Na'Aman, and newspaper accounts of their impressive reception. Documenting Fr. Kfoury's mission led to several trips abroad, correspondence, and interviews with religious authorities in Syria.

The rest of the chapter gives a detail account of the travels and Antionio Bishallany and Hi Jolly, the man who brought camels to the United States. As is her habit, she searches out the literature and looks for information from people who actually knew these well known sojourners. Other less significant travelers are identified and the descendents interviewed---a timely task, considering that those with memories are less and less available. Those interviewed represented a cross section of professions and identities among Arabic-speaking people. "Frequently," writes Younis, "one name led to another."

References to specific individuals in Arabic-language and English publications were also contacted and interviewed for this chapter, either in person or by mail. Libraries and their specialized collections were also a source of information. The United Presbyterian Board of Missions Center and the offices of the Al-Hoda Press, both in New York City, proved invaluable as did the Congregational Library in Boston. All had substantial primary source material which were utilized in the remainder of the book.

For the author, the New York Public Library provided an excellent and supportive research environment. The Fall River Public Library,, the Bristol County Law Library, and Harvard's Widener Library offered some primary, but mostly secondary sources. The Boston Public Library proved important for United States Government records.

It was from the information in these resources that Younis gave us such a riveting account of life both in Syria and here. In Chapter IV, the reader begins to literally taste the Holy Land, just like the missionaries did. Their problems, objectives, sacrifices and accomplishments are outlined in depth as is their role in keeping the peace during the civil wars in Lebanon in the 1860's. While much attention is given to the rebellious instigation of the French and English among the various Christian minorities, the political and social philosophy of Arab leaders and the Ottoman Turks in response to these conflicts are all outlined.

What stands out in this chapter, however, is the love the Syrians developed for America because of the generosity of these missionaries during such a horrible period of history. Building schools, hospitals, being thoroughly trusted added to their prestige. The care and compassion they offered after the politically motivated Maronite and Druse conflicts on Mt. Lebanon was particularly respected and inspirational. The terror of these civil wars are recounted in personal stories as is the saving intervention of Abd El Kader, a noble Algerian prince whose roots go back to the prophet Mohammed.

The significance of these apparently neutral humanitarian acts of the Protestant missionaries, the reader soon realizes, goes much deeper than the mere dispensation of goods and services; they affected social arrangements, customs, values, and identities. The Syrians became aware of both their own history and culture, through Arabic language texts that the missionaries provided, and that of the Americans, primarily through the establishment of the American University of Beirut. Western medicine made inroads as well as educational and theological systems. Regardless of social class, women, for the first time, were offered an opportunity to be educated, and they enthusiastically responded.

Unintentionally, the success of the American missions spurred migration--a fact rarely emphasized by other researchers. Syrians were fascinated with American culture, benevolence, and apparent egalitarianism. Rather than remain there in the service of either government or religious sect, the better educated left to see the New World (often via Egypt). Conversely, through this interaction Syria likewise became discovered as a refuge and civilized entity shielding dozens of minorities from oppression, much like the United States ideally does. After the American Civil War, the nation began to expand with the help of immigrant laborer. One learns as much about American culture and national character as about the Syrians who began migrating here.

In Chapter V we learn that, like everyone else, the Syrians were attracted by the opportunity to labor, earn money, practice their religions freely, and own property. Likewise, a wave of hostility toward Syrians began to appear just as their numbers increased.

In America, the Syrians could excel in what they did best, namely trade. Their discovery of peddling is introduced in this chapter and sets the tone of what is to come for them, namely success. But some (a minority to be sure), Younis notes, came as farmers, drawn West by the Homestead Act of 1862. Others never made it here, settling in either Marseilles, France, a transfer point on the journey, or some other unexpected location like Austrialis or So. America that they were often accidentally rerouted to.

Unlike the Italians and other Mediterranean immigrants, many Syrian women also came with honed business and professional skills. They often contributed management and manufacturing skills to the family business. Moreover, the men's potential were rarely, if ever, contained by a Padrone system. Syrian men generally preferred independent entrepreneurship to outdoor labor or factory work. Women's labor aside, Arab cultural norms and American Protestant values often overlapped and help explain the Syrian's extraordinary economic mobility here, in the Caribbean, Latin America and in Australia. No wonder the missionaries and the Syrians accommodated one another so easily. Hitti tells us "the Syrians arrived in the middle class."

In addition to the various immigrant accounts of roaming the country and setting up settlements, Chapter V also recounts the story of the Algerian freedom fighters who jumped ship in 1877 in New York harbor seeking freedom from the French who had imprisoned them for revolutionary activity. Next we learn of the Arbeely's from Damascus, a distinguished family thought to be the first to settle here permanently as such. Their pleasant arrival is contrasted with that of the "Leoville 60," hapless immigrants who were not allowed to disembark, but who stole entry through Nova Scotia. Other stories involve the intersession of the Presbyterian church on behalf of immigrants they had sponsored in Syria, but who were being treated unkindly upon arrival and eventually left.

That the early immigrants were mostly Christian Arabs is understandable, given the social distance between Moslems and westerners. The Christians simply had more exposure and access to the west. They had professions which brought them into contact with westerners and simply would be more favorably received because of their faith, something Moslem Syrians were very aware of. Generally, the Christians were better educated and had more freedoms and opportunities than their Moslem counterparts. As Younis notes, many Syrian Jews from Aleppo also came with them.

After the Columbian Exposition of 1893, when the ripple became a flood, early emmigration was contained by the Turks who feared, like the missionaries did, the loss of so many talented and promising citizens. Despite restrictions, the newly established Protestant communities were also depopulated. Ironically, the very success of the missionaries led to their profits being wiped out. Christians migrated the most. The chapter ends with an introduction to "Little Syria," as the Washington Street colony in Manhattan came to be known woldwide.

As extensively documented in Chapter VI, what picked the interests of Americans in the Near East and Arabs in America, however, were three national exhibits celebrating both America and the world of commerce and trade. The first in Philadelphia in 1876 attracted Egyptian, Tunisian, Turkish and Moroccan displays which dazzled vactionneers visiting that city. Intricate and complicated gold embroidery and sculptured art works stood in contrast to unsophisticated and cheaply made American products. The Arabs won many awards for their displays. Americans were introduced for the first time to the beauty and creativity of Arab culture.

By the time of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, the Syrians decided America was the land of opportunity and began to arrive in large numbers to peddle and display their wares, encouraged by American interest in fine products and the wonderful reception Arab culture first received. Syrian and Egyptian exhibitors reproduced street scenes of Cairo and Damascus and replicas of the Holy Places. In St. Louis a miniature of the city of Jerusalem was reproduced. More importantly, for American tastes, the "ice cream cone" was born there, introduced by a Syrian merchant.

The "flood" of Arab emigrants, though rarely passing 9,000 souls in any given year, is documented in Chapter VII. This chapter identifies how the Syrians got here (the transportation they used, the routes they took, etc.) and where they settled. The emphasis here is on their employment and business acumen and the disregard Americans generally had of peddlers, whom they mistook as beggars. Younis carefully explains the trials and tribulations of peddling as well as its vast economic rewards. Unlike other ethnic groups that frowned on women's employment, much of the Syrian's success in this enterprise was due to wives and daughters both manufacturing and selling "notions" in their homes. There was also the quality of the products they sold and the need to fill a marketing vacuum where goods and services were lacking. As a group, the Syrians very quickly amassed fortunes which they used to protect their interests, expand their hegemony in manufacturing and the New England textile and silk industry (in Paterson, NJ), and build churches, their most favored institution.

These immigrant entrepreneurs were able to produce several Business Directories in the first decade of this century to help them network with one another. Peddlers had suppliers in large cities which allowed them to branch out into rural areas. From the cities other colonies would develop, all tied together economically. The more they peddled, the more English they learned and the more they knew, the more successful they would be. The country was expanding, being urbanized, and the Syrians from the longest populated cities of the world, fit right in.

Chapter VII also outlines the discrimination and prejudice that the Syrians faced upon arrival here. It also sets the record straight. Fearing reprisals from the Dillingham Commission on Immigration for not assimilating rapidly and living in ghettos, Hitti writes that the Syrians generally preferred to live alone and be left alone. Not so, claims Younis, who notes that after years of searching for others, the Syrians finally and willingly settled in "little Syrias" when the floodgates of immigration were open in the early 20th century and their numbers increased.

This coming together in communities, however, had its down side. Now they could be studied and observed by outsiders and their customs ridiculed (or praised). Living poorly, in overcrowding tenements, the Syrians did not appear to be proimising citizens. Sometimes called "horse-breeders" or "camel jockeys," the Syrians remained under attack for a generation by nativist Americans. Their health was called into question as well as their ability to assimilate. Both the pros and cons of their presence are detailed and shed light on the way a small ethnic group mobilized itself in self-defense. The work of Louise Houghton (1911) is particularly important at this point.

Chapter VII ends with a review of the founding of Syrian Jewish and Arab Moslem communities in various cities in the United States. Adele was intent on including everyone and she treats the arrival of Arab Jews and Moslems with the same attention and respect that she does the Christians. Of great interest is her recounting of the establishment in 1957 of the Islamic Center in Washington D. C., by Joseph Howar

Chapter VIII serves two purposes; it reviews the good and bad commentary on the Syrians as citizens and then gives some brief biographical summaries of immigrant Syrians who defied the stereotypes, thus, countering the negative stereotypes.

Apparently, Syrians didn't like unions (though they went on strike in Lawrence, Mass.), or working for others, preferring their own trades or to work outdoors. Why the Syrians generally are Republicans is hard to determine, though their capitalistic values and the role of President Theodore Roosevelt in admitting two blond Syrian children bared from entry by immigration, may have something to do with it. But it is probably because of their rapid mobility and economic success through the Protestant ethic and the fact that a democratic President Truman presided at the founding of Israel that they identify with the party of the landed aristocacy.

Chapter VIII further recounts the later founding of Syrian communities throughout the United States. From Atlanta Georgia, through North Dakota, to California, barely a state is missed. The emphasis here, though, is on Fall River, Massachusetts and Pawtucket, Rhode Island. What emerges is an insight of the role Syrians played in the labor disputes of the period. It was trade, of course, which scattered and connected the Syrians with one another. Census data on Syrian occupations is reiterated as is their relationship to the public school system.

Much of the information in this chapter comes from interviews with older immigrants or their children. This adds a personal touch and helps the reader "know" the community and its leaders as if friends and neighbors.

Despite the successes outlined in Chapter VIII, the Syrians were never really accepted as worthy citizens until after the second World War. Chapter IX reviews all the negative arguments used to prevent Syrians from both migrating here and becoming citizens. Contrary and stereotypical arguments were often used to demean Syrians and Arabs and deprive them of citizenship. But nativism actually had the opposite effect than desired.

The Syrians in all their communities joined forces, separated fact from fiction, and challenged the prevailing ideologies on whether immigrants were bad or good for America. To counter negative assessments of the Syrians, Younis gives a review of well- known Syrian American scholars, academicians, doctors, and citizens of that period, especially the "merchant princes" who lined New York's Fifth Avenue.

This chapter offers fascinating first hand accounts of Syrian immigrants entering the country when the quoto system of 1924 was being introduced. Nothing brought the Syrians together like these restrictions and the naturalization issue of the previous decade. Syrian American political activity reached its height during this period and then died down after the second world war, to be replaced by cultural and social issues until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. The chapter ends with a review of organizations and institutions designed to preserve the community and its culture.

Efforts to confront discrimination and contain and maintain the community feel to the Syrian press and its literary efforts. Chapter X recounts the founding of the Syrian World, a major Syrian-American publication which was used to educate and preserve the community from disruption. This essential primary source that Younis relied on, is now available in the Library of Congress and can be purchased on microfilm from the Immigration Research Center of the University of Minnesota.

What is remarkable, for a so-called illiterate people, is the number, quality and scope of Syrian-American news and literary publications both in Arabic and English. They covered an astounding array of important social issues.

Younis reviews the founding of the Syrian American press and its famed literary circle, Arribitah ("the Pen Club") or "the Literary Bond." She begins with a brief history of the Arabic language and its relationship to both Islam and western history in general. In this sense, she comes full circle. Starting with the role of missionaries in spurring emigration, she ends with the role of Protestant schools in Nazareth in preparing young writers for the Arabic literary renaissance generated in the United States.

Though Younis does not make a direct connection, the American renaissance in Arabic literature she so aptly describes is one of the practical results of a broadening communalization process among the Syrians, Lebanese and other Arab nationalities. At the same time a sectarian press appeared, so did a broadly defined Arab- American press and literary guild develop. It took decades, but happened and the phenomenon is repeating itself today.

It was always difficult to organize an Arab-American community much beyond family, home town and religious sect. To join together now for a common secular cause is the ultimate irony of assimilation. As briefly outlined in the epilogue, the newer Arab immigrants are distinguished from the earlier Arab settlers in their demographics, motivations for coming here, the conditions upon arrival, international events, and the presence of a growing arabphobia. Yet more Arab-American organizations exist now (beyond parochial borders) than ever before. Unfortunately, Adele was not able to document this evolution in consciousness.

Since this is her book and she did not do much research after the 1970's, this editor thought it unfair to judge her work in light of the changes which have occured among and between Syrian and Lebanese Americans. One topic, for example, that she did not discuss, though she was well aware of it, was the emergence of a distinct Lebanese identity and nationality. Instigated by the Mokarzel family and the Al-Hoda press, this division has been exacberbated by the recent civil wars in Lebanon and that country's occupation by both Israel and Syria.

Who would have guessed that such events would have occurred? Nor would it be appropriate to impose on her scholarship the recent perspectives of scholars and the knowledge we now have about the most recent Arab immigrants from Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, aand elsewhere. A revisionsist history or critique is not what this book is about.

In deference to both the author and the reader, however, the editor has compiled a bibliographic guide which not only gives sources and references, but offers questions that future researchers on the Syrian, Lebanese, and Arab-American might willingly and enthusiasticall persue.

The Coming of the Arabic-Speaking People to the United States can be ordered directly from the Center for Migration Studies, 209 Flagg Place, Staten Island, NY 10304. Tel: (718) 351-8800. ---P. Kayal

Back Home.