by Nabeel Abraham
Arab Americans trace their ancestral roots to several Arab countries. Lebanon is the homeland of a majority of Arab Americans, followed by Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. The Arab world consists of 21 countries that span from North Africa to the Persian Gulf.
Ethnic Arabs inhabited the Arabian Peninsula and neighboring areas. With the rise of Islam in the seventh century A.D. and its phenomenal expansion over parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, Arabic culture and language spread to the newly conquered peoples. Over time the Arab identity lost its purely ethnic roots as millions in the Middle East and North Africa adopted the Arabic language and integrated Arab culture with that of their own.
Today, the term Arab is a cultural, linguistic, and to some extent, political designation. It embraces numerous national and regional groups as well as many non-Muslim religious minorities. Arab Christians, particularly in the countries of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent (Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan) constitute roughly ten percent of the population. In Lebanon, Christians of various sects approach just under half of the population, while in Egypt, Christians comprise between ten and 15 percent of the population.
According to the 1990 census, there were 870,000 persons in the United States who identified themselves as ethnically Arab or who emigrated from one of the 21 countries that constitute the contemporary Arab world. Previous estimates by scholars and Arab American community organizations placed the number of Arab Americans at between one and three million. The discrepancy is partly due to the standardization of Arabs in the United States, leading many to conceal their ethnic affiliation. The traditional suspicion of Middle Easterners toward government authorities seeking information of a personal nature compounds this problem. These two factors, along with standard problems in collecting census data, probably explain the discrepancy between the estimates of scholars and the actual census count. Considering these factors, a revised estimate likely would place the number of Arab Americans in the range of one to two million.
The 1990 census indicates that most Arab Americans are U.S. citizens (82 percent) even though only 63 percent were born in the United States. Arab Americans are geographically concentrated in a handful of cities and states. According to an essay in American Demographics by Samia ElBadry, over two-thirds of Arab Americans live in ten states while just three metropolitan areas (Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles-Long Beach) account for over one-third of the population.
Arab immigrants represent a tiny fraction of the overall migration to the United States, constituting less than three percent of the total. In her study of the census data, El-Badry found that more than 27,000 people from Arab countries immigrated to the United States in 1992, 68 percent more than those who arrived ten years earlier, not including Palestinians from Israel or Israeli-occupied territory. Approximately 20 percent of the 78,400 Arab immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1990 and 1992 were Lebanese. The remainder were from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. The figures for Sudan and Yemen, though small in comparison, indicated rapid growth from these politically unstable countries.
Arabic-speaking immigrants arrived in the United States in three major waves. The first wave between the late 1800s and World War I consisted mainly of immigrants from Greater Syria, an Arab province of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I. Following the breakup of the Empire, the province was partitioned into the separate political entities of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan. The vast majority of immigrants in this wave were members of Christian minorities. Although some writers claim that these immigrants left their native countries for religious or political reasons, the evidence suggests that they were drawn to the United States and other countries by economic opportunity.
Of the approximately 60,000 Arabs who emigrated to the United States between 1899 and 1910, approximately half were illiterate, and 68 percent were single males. The early immigrants were mostly unskilled single men who had left their families behind. Like many economically motivated immigrants during this period, Arabs left with the intention of earning money and returning home to live out the remainder of their lives in relative prosperity.
The major exception to this pattern was a small group of Arab writers, poets, and artists who took up residence in major urban centers such as New York and Boston. The most famous of the group was Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), author of The Prophet and numerous other works. Curiously, this literary circle, which came to be known as the Pen League ( al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya ) had a negligible influence on the early Arab American communities in the United States. The Pen League's greatest impact was on arts and letters in Lebanon, Egypt, and other Arab countries.
Early immigrants settled in the urban areas of the Northeast and Midwest, in states like New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. By 1940, a fifth of the estimated 350,000 Arabs resided in three cities—New York, Boston, and Detroit. In these urban areas, the immigrants clustered in ethnic neighborhoods. Although many found work in the industrial factories and textile mills that propelled the U.S. economy in the first half of the twentieth century, some also chose the life of itinerant salesmen, peddling dry goods and other sundry items across the American heartland. Others homesteaded on the Great Plains and in rural areas of the South.
Very few Arabic-speaking immigrants made their way across the Atlantic during the interwar period marked by the Great Depression and anti-immigrant sentiment. Immigration resumed, however, after the close of World War II, especially from the 1950s to the mid-1960s. Unlike the earlier influx, this second wave included many more Muslims. It also included refugees who had been displaced by the 1948 Palestine War that culminated in the establishment of Israel. This period also witnessed the arrival of many Arabic-speaking professionals and university students who often chose to remain in the United States after completion of their training. Immigrants of the second wave tended to settle where jobs were available. Those with few skills drifted to the established Arab communities in the industrial towns of the East coast and Midwest, while those with professional skills ventured to the new suburbs around the major industrial cities or to rural towns.
In the mid-1960s, a third wave of Arab immigration began which continues to the present. According to El-Badry, more than 75 percent of foreign-born Arab Americans identified in the 1990 census immigrated after 1964, while 44 percent immigrated between 1975 and 1980. This influx resulted in part from the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 which abolished the quota system and its bias against non-European immigration.
The third wave included many professionals, entrepreneurs, and unskilled and semi-skilled laborers. These immigrants often fled political instability and wars engulfing their home countries. They included Lebanese Shiites from southern Lebanon, Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and Iraqis of all political persuasions. But many professionals from these and other countries like Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, and unskilled workers from Yemen also emigrated in search of better economic opportunities. Had conditions been more hospitable in their home countries, it is doubtful that many of these immigrants would have left their native countries.
Relations with the host society have been mixed. Early immigrants went largely unnoticed by the general population. They tended to settle in economically vibrant areas, which drew similar immigrants. Those who opted to homestead in the Midwest or farm in the South also blended into their surroundings. This same pattern carried over after the Second World War to the second wave of Arab immigration.
Relations, however, soured for members of the third wave and for native-born Arab Americans after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. This situation worsened after the Arab oil embargo and the quadrupling of world oil prices that followed in the wake of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Arabs and Muslims were vilified as bloodthirsty terrorists, greedy oil sheiks, and religious fanatics by the mass media, politicians, and political commentators. With the fall of the Shah and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini to power in Iran (a large, non-Arab country) in 1979 came another oil shortage and price shock that further exacerbated anti-Middle Eastern sentiment in the United States.
For the better part of the 1980s, Arab Americans lived in an increasing state of apprehension as the Reagan Administration waged a war on international terrorism, and tensions ensued from the two U.S. attacks against Libya and U.S. involvement in Lebanon following Israel's 1982 invasion of that country. The hijacking of an American passenger plane in Europe en route to Lebanon triggered a backlash against Arab Americans, Muslims, and Middle Easterners in the United States. After another hijacking in 1985, on the morning of Friday, October 11, a bomb went off at the Los Angeles office of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), killing the organization's regional director, 41-year-old Alex Odeh. The previous day Odeh had appeared on a local television news program, where he opined that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its leader, Yasir Arafat, were not behind the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise liner in the Mediterranean. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) strongly hinted that the Jewish Defense League (JDL), or a similar Jewish extremist group, was behind the bombing and considered Odeh's murder the top terrorist act of 1985. The murder of Alex Odeh was clearly political and continues to be highly significant for Arab Americans.
The mid-1980s were the peak of anti-Arab hate crimes. In comparison, the Gulf crisis of 1991-1992 was relatively less lethal. Although there were many reports of assaults against Arab Americans, few incidents resulted in serious injuries and no one was killed. No Arab or Islamic community organizations were bombed, though many received threats and an incendiary device that apparently failed to explode was discovered at the American Muslim Council in San Diego. A few incidents during this period can be traced to the assassination in November 1990 of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the former leader of the Jewish Defense League. His murder triggered a rash of death threats and harassment against prominent Arab Americans.
U.S. law enforcement agencies have also violated the civil liberties of Arab Americans. Beginning in the 1960s, the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and other federal and local law enforcement agencies began surveillance of Arab student and community activities. The surveillance, code-named Operation Boulder, was the result of an executive order signed by President Richard Nixon. The special measures included entry restrictions on foreign nationals, surveillance, information gathering on political activities and organizations, and even restrictions on Arab access to permanent resident status. Ostensibly the measures were designed to prevent Arab terrorists from operating in the country. This argument rang hollow as there had been no instances of Arab terrorism in the United States until that time. In fact, no incidents occurred for the next 25 years until the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center by Arab Muslim immigrants. Ironically, much of the FBI surveillance and questioning focused on constitutionally guaranteed activities involving the exercise of free speech and association.
On the morning of January 26, 1987, scores of INS, FBI, and police agents raided several houses in Los Angeles, arresting six Palestinians and the Kenyan wife of one of the arrested men. Several days later another Palestinian was arrested while sitting for an exam at a local community college. The eight were held in detention for nearly three weeks. The arrests reportedly were the culmination of a three-year-long FBI probe into the activities of Arab American activists. The L.A. Eight, as they came to be known, were originally charged under a little-used section of the 1952 McCarran-Walter Immigration Act. This law allowed the government to deport aliens who "knowingly circulate, distribute, print or display" material that advocates the over-throw of the U.S. government or who advocate or teach the "doctrines of world communism." In court, attorneys for the government could produce nothing incriminating except magazines and other printed literature linking the defendants to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a nationalist guerilla group with Marxist overtones. Unable to make the subversion charge stick, the government moved to deport six of the Arab Americans on visa technicalities and tried to invoke other clauses of the McCarran-Walter Act. These attempts were thrown out of court as unconstitutional.
The L.A. Eight's ordeal continued into 1994, as the government insisted on deporting them even though it failed to produce any evidence that the defendants had done anything illegal. Many civil libertarians who rallied to their defense feared the arrests were a blatant attempt by the government to chill the political activities of Arab Americans and others who opposed U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Their concern was heightened when a copy of a secret INS plan was obtained by the Los Angeles Times shortly after the arrests occurred. The plan revealed the existence of an interagency contingency plan to apprehend, detain, and deport large numbers of Arab and Iranian students, permanent residents, and American citizens, in the event the President declared a state of emergency. According to the plan, a target group of less than 10,000 persons was scheduled for detention and deportation.
In 1997, the Clinton administration continued the detention of the L.A. Eight. Instead of holding the detainees under the anti-communism statute, though, the U.S. Department of Justice decided to continue the detention under a new anti-terrorism law. In February 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the L.A. Eight was not entitled to immediate judicial review of their case. The Clinton administration continued the detention of the L.A. Eight. Instead of holding the detainees under the anti-communism statute, though, the U.S. Department of Justice decided to continue the detention under a new anti-terrorism law. In February of 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the L.A. Eight was not entitled to immediate judicial review of their case.
Early Arab immigrants assimilated easily into American society facilitated by the fact that the majority were Christian. Aside from barely discernable Arabic names beneath anglicized surnames and a preference for some Old World dishes, they retained few traces of their ethnic roots. Many were successful, some achieving celebrity status.
At the turn of the century when the first wave immigrated, the Arab world still languished under Ottoman Turkish rule, then four centuries old. Arab and regional national consciousness was still nascent. By the time the second wave immigrants arrived in mid-century, the Arab world was in the process of shaking off the European colonial rule that had carved up much of the Middle East after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. In the 1950s and 1960s the Arab countries resonated with nationalist ideologies, and the Arab world was filled with promise and hope, especially regarding the question of Palestine and Arab national unity—two of the burning issues of the day. These ideological currents profoundly influenced many second-wave immigrants. The second wave of Arab immigrants was able to assimilate into mainstream society without much resistance. This wave tended to retain some distinctive features of its ethnic past because many of the newcomers were Muslim, contributing to the retention of a distinct cultural identity. The establishment of cultural clubs, political committees, and Arabic language schools helped maintain a cultural identity and a political awareness among many new arrivals and their children.
Arriving in the 1970s and 1980s, the third wave of Arab immigrants encountered a negative reception from the host society. Instead of assimilating, these new immigrants often opted to remain on the outskirts of society, even while adopting many American cultural mores. The third wave has been the driving force behind the recent upsurge in the establishment of Muslim schools, mosques, charities, and Arabic language classes.
Collectively many Arab Americans have experienced cultural marginalization. Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Easterners generally have been vilified in the news media, in Hollywood productions, in pulp novels, and in political discourse. Arab Americans cope with their marginality in one of three different ways: denying their ethnic identity; withdrawing into an ethnic enclave; or engaging mainstream society through information campaigns aimed at the news media, book publishers, politicians, and schools. The theme of these campaigns centers on the inherent unfairness of, and pitfalls in, stereotyping Arabs, Muslims, and Middle Easterners. In 1999, the cable television network TNT announced that it would never again show movies that blatantly bash Arabs and Arab Americans. Such films included Shadow Warriors 2: Assault on Death Mountain and Thunder in Paradise.
The types of Arab Americans who choose to deny their ethnic background cover the spectrum: recent arrivals, assimilated immigrants, and native-born. Among the American-born, denial takes the form of a complete break with one's ethnicity in favor of wholesale adoption of American culture. Others, particularly immigrants, tend to stress their distinctiveness from Arab and Islamic culture, as when Iraqi Christians stress their Chaldean identity as opposed to their Iraqi affiliation.
Arab Americans who opt to withdraw into an ethnic enclave tend to be recent immigrants. Running the gamut from unskilled workers to middle-class professionals, this group prefers to live in ethnic neighborhoods, or close to other members of the same group in the suburbs. They believe that their ethnic culture and religious traditions are alien to American culture, and hence need to minimize assimilation. Cultural marginalization is the price of living in American society.
Those who advocate engaging society head-on seek to win societal acceptance of Arab Americans as an integral part of America's cultural plurality. The integrationists adopt several strategies. Some stress the common bonds between Arab or Islamic values and American values, emphasizing strong family ties. They also focus on the commonalities between Christianity and Islam. Others seek to confront anti-Arab stereotyping and racism by emphasizing that they are Americans who happen to be of Arab ancestry. Along with well-assimilated, native-born Arab Americans, this group also consists of foreign-born professionals who wish to maintain their ethnic identity free from stigmatization by the wider culture.
Foremost among the key issues facing the Arab American community is dealing with the rising numbers of new immigrants. The current stream of Arab immigrants is expected to increase as political instability and civil conflict within various Arab countries grows.
Customs center on hospitality around food, socializing with family and friends, and a preference to reside close to relatives. Arab Americans generally harbor negative attitudes toward dating and premarital sex, especially for females. Educational achievement and economic advancement are viewed positively, as are the maintenance of strong family ties and the preservation of female chastity and fidelity. Arab American beliefs about the United States are extremely positive, particularly regarding the availability of economic opportunities and political freedoms. Socially, however, Arab Americans feel that American society is highly violent, rather promiscuous, too lenient toward offenders, and somewhat lax on family values.
A common American stereotype about Arabs emphasizes that they are by definition Muslims and therefore are bloodthirsty, fanatical, and anti-Western. Another misconception is that Iranians are Arabs, when most Iranians are Persians who speak Farsi, an Indo-European language, which uses Arabic script. Arabic, on the other hand, belongs to the Semitic language family. Other misconceptions and stereotypes include: Arabs are desert nomads; however, only two percent of contemporary Arab society is nomadic; and, Arabs oppress women. While formal laws protecting women's equality are fewer in Arab countries than the United States, the prevalence of rape and physical abuse of women in the Arab world appears to be lower than in American society.
Stereotypes of Arab culture and society abound in Western literary works, scholarly research, and in the news and entertainment media. Typical of the fiction genre is Leon Uris's celebrated novel Exodus (1958), in which the Arab country of Palestine is repeatedly depicted as a "fruitless, listless, dying land." Arabs opposed to the creation of the State of Israel are described as the "dregs of humanity, thieves, murderers, highway robbers, dope runners and white slavers." More generally, Arabs are "dirty," "crafty," and "corrupt." Uris amplified these characterizations in his 1985 work, The Haj. These and other examples are examined in Janice J. Terry's Mistaken Identity: Arab Stereotypes in Popular Writing (1985). A study of the cultural antecedents of Arab and Muslim stereotyping in Western culture is found in Edward W. Said's highly acclaimed work, Orientalism (1978). News media coverage is critiqued in Said's Covering Islam (1981); television portrayals of Arabs are examined in Jack Shaheen's The TV Arab (1984).
The most pronounced dietary injunction followed by Arab Muslims is the religious prohibition on the consumption of pork. Many Arab Christians also disdain the consumption of pork, but for cultural reasons. Muslims are required to consume meat that is ritually slaughtered ( halal ). In response to the growing demand for halal meats, many enterprising Arab American grocers have in recent years set up halal meat markets.
Arab Americans have a distinctive cuisine centered on lamb, rice, bread, and highly seasoned dishes. The Middle Eastern diet consists of many ingredients not found in the average American kitchen, such as chick peas, lentils, fava beans, ground sesame seed oil, olive oil, olives, feta cheese, dates, and figs. Many Arab dishes, like stuffed zucchini or green peppers and stuffed grape or cabbage leaves, are highly labor-intensive.
Virtually no items of traditional clothing are worn by Arab Americans. The exception is the tendency of some immigrant women, particularly those from peasant stock, who wear traditional dress. Among the most dramatic are the colorfully embroidered dresses worn by some Palestinian women in certain neighborhoods of Detroit and Dearborn. More common are the plain-colored head scarfs worn by many Lebanese and other Arab Muslim females. Some Arab and other Muslim women occasionally don long, shapeless dresses, commonly called Islamic dresses, in addition to the head scarf.
Men rarely wear traditional garb in public. At some traditional wedding parties individuals might don an Arab burnoose. Many foreign-born men of all ages are fond of carrying worry beads, which they unconsciously run through their fingers while engaging in conversation or while walking.
The Arabic language retains a classical literary form which is employed on formal occasions (oratory, speeches, and university lectures) and in most forms of writing, some novels and plays excepted. Everyday speech is the province of the many and varied regional and local dialects. It is these dialects and, in the case of highly assimilated Arab Americans, their remnants, that a visitor among Arab Americans is likely to encounter.
Each national group (Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, Yemeni, etc.) has its particular dialect, and within each group regional and local subdialects are found. For the most part, speakers of different dialects can make themselves understood to speakers of other dialects. This is especially true when closely related dialects (Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian) are involved, and less so among geographically distant dialects. The great exception is the Egyptian dialect which is familiar to most speakers of Arabic because of the widespread influence of the Egyptian movie and recording industries, and the dominant cultural role Egypt has traditionally played in the Middle East.
Some basic Arabic greetings include: marhaba ("mar-ha-ba")—hello, and its response ahlen ("ahlen")—welcome (colloquial greetings in Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, and Jordanian dialects). Egyptians would say: Azayyak ("az-zay-yak")—How are you? and its response quwayyas ("qu-whey-yes")— fine. A more formal greeting, readily understood throughout the Arabic-speaking world is: asalaam 'a laykum ("a-sa-lamb ah-laykum")—greetings, peace be upon you. The proper response is wa 'a laykum asalaam ("wa-ah-laykum a-sa-lamb")—and peace be upon you, too.
In Arab society members of two or three generations dwell in a single household or, in wealthier families, in a family compound. This extended household centers around a married man and some of his adult sons and their families. A grandparent may also reside in the household. A variation on this structure is for several brothers and their respective families to reside in a compound with a grandparent and other elderly relatives.
Among Arab Americans, the large extended family constituting a single household is found only among recent immigrants. As families acculturate and assimilate they tend to form nuclear families with, occasionally, the addition of an elderly grandparent, and an unmarried adult child. Among less assimilated families, adult married children set up a household near their parents and married siblings. This arrangement allows the maintenance of extended family networks while enjoying the benefits of living in a nuclear family.
American-style dating is virtually non-existent among all but the most assimilated Arab Americans. Dating conflicts with strict cultural norms about female chastity and its relationship to the honor of the woman and her family. The norm stipulates that a female should be chaste prior to marriage and remain faithful once wed. Similar standards apply to males, but expectations are reduced and the consequences of violations are not as severe. The ethics relating to female chastity cut across social class, religious denomination, and even ethnic lines, as they are found with equal vigor in virtually every Middle Eastern ethnic and national group. Real or alleged violations of the sexual mores by a female damages not only her reputation and diminishes her chances of finding a suitable marriage partner, but also shames her family, especially her male kinsmen.
Among Arab American Muslims a type of dating is allowed after a woman undergoes a ritual engagement. In Islam, the enactment of the marriage contract ( kitb al-kitab ) amounts to a trial period in which the couple become acquainted with one another. This period can last months or even a year or more. If successful, the marriage will be consummated after a public ceremony. During this period, the family of an engaged woman will permit her to go out with the fiance but only with a chaperon. The fiance will pay her visits and the couple may be allowed to talk privately together, but this will be the only time they are allowed to be alone until the wedding. It is perfectly acceptable for one or both parties to terminate the engagement at this point rather than face the prospect of an unhappy marriage.
Arab culture prefers endogamous marriages— especially between cousins. This preference is, however, not uniform throughout Arab society. It is not strong among some Christian groups like Egypt's Copts, and among certain educated elite. In general, the ideal marriage in Arab society is for a man to marry the daughter of his paternal uncle. The ideal is achieved in only a small percentage of all marriages. Marriages among cousins on either the paternal and maternal side are relatively common. The preference for cousin endogamy is found among immigrant families, but declines among highly assimilated and native-born Arab Americans.
Arranged marriages are common among recent immigrants. Arranged marriages run the gamut from the individual having no voice in the matter and no prior acquaintance with a prospective marriage partner to the family arranging a meeting between their son or daughter and a prospective mate they have selected. In the latter situation, the son or daughter will usually make the final decision. This pattern is prevalent among assimilated immigrant and native-born families, especially if they are educated or have high aspirations for their children. Some working-class immigrant families in Dearborn, Michigan, for example, arrange the marriage of their daughters, who are sometimes legal minors, to men in the home country. This practice seems to be limited to a small minority.
While not all Arab Americans practice cousin endogamy or engage in arranged marriages, most demonstrate a strong preference for religious endogamy in the selection of marriage partners. In this Arab Americans retain a deeply-rooted Middle Eastern bias. Middle Easterners do not approve of
In selecting a marriage partner, attention is paid to family standing and reputation. Since dating and other forms of mixing are virtually non-existent, there are few opportunities for prospective mates to meet, let alone learn about each other. Thus parents and other interested relatives must rely heavily on community gossip about a prospective suitor or bride. Under such conditions, the family standing of the prospective mate will be of major interest.
The strict segregation of the sexes is inevitably weakening because American society poses many opportunities for unrelated males and females to meet at school or on the job. Consequently, there is a detectable increase in the number of cases of romantic involvement among young Arab Americans in cities where large numbers of Arab Americans reside. But many of these relations are cut short by families because they fail to win their approval.
Divorce, once unheard of in Arab society, is increasingly making a presence among Arab Americans although it is nowhere near the proportions found among mainstream Americans. Recent immigrants appear less likely than assimilated Arab Americans to resolve marital unhappiness through divorce.
Boys and girls are reared differently, though the degree is determined by the level of assimilation. Boys are generally given greater latitude than girls. At the extreme end of the spectrum, girls are
Formal authority lies with the husband/father as it does in Arab society. Women play important roles in socializing children and preserving kinship ties and in maintaining social and religious traditions. The degree of hospitality in the home is held up as a measure of a family's standing among Arabs everywhere, and in this respect Arab Americans are no different. Guests are given a special place at the dinner table where they are feted in a ritual display of hospitality arranged by the women of the household.
Outside the home, the role of Arab American women has fluctuated with the ebb and flow of the immigration tide. As communities become assimilated, women tend to assume leadership roles in community organizations in the mosque or church, or in community-wide endeavors like the organization of parochial schools. With each new influx of immigrants, assimilated women tend to lose ground in those institutions that attract new immigrants (e.g. the mosque). Quickly women who at one time were among the leadership find themselves taking a back seat or even ousted from the institution.
Education is highly valued among wide segments of the community. Affluent households prefer private schools. Working class and middle class members tend to send their children to public schools. A recent trend in some Arab American Muslim communities is the growth of Islamic parochial schools. These schools, favored by recent immigrants of all classes, are still in their infancy.
In her analysis of the 1990 census data, ElBadry found that Arab Americans are generally better educated than the average American. The proportion of those who did not attend college is lower than the national average, while the number of those attaining master's degrees or higher is twice that of the general population. Foreign-born Arab professionals overwhelmingly prefer the fields of engineering, medicine, pharmacy, and the sciences in general. Although native-born Arab Americans can be found working in virtually every field, there is a preference for careers in business, medicine, law, and engineering.
There are few formalized traditions of philanthropy in the community. Arab Muslims, like all Muslims, are enjoined to give a certain percentage of their annual income to charity as a zakat (tithe). But large contributions to community projects are not part of the community's tradition.
The three religious holidays celebrated by Arab American Muslims are also celebrated by Muslims everywhere. They are Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha. Ramadan is a month-long dawn-to-dusk fast that occurs during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Ramadan is a month of self-discipline as well as spiritual and physical purification. The fast requires complete abstinence from food, drink (including water), tobacco, and sex, from sunrise to sunset during the entire month. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan. A cross between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Eid is a festive and joyous occasion for Muslims everywhere. Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, commemorates the Prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael in obedience to God. According to the Quran, the Muslim holy book which is considered to be the word of God, the Angel Gabriel intervened at the last moment, substituting a lamb in place of Ishmael. The holiday is held in conjunction with the Hajj, the Pilgrimage to Mecca, in which increasing numbers of American Muslims are participating.
Some Arab Muslim families celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Muslims recognize Jesus as an important prophet, but do not consider him divine. They use the occasion of Christmas to exchange gifts, and some have adopted the custom of decorating a Christmas tree. Arab American Christians observe major Christian holidays. Followers of Eastern rite churches (Egyptian Copts, Syrian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox) celebrate Christmas on the Epiphany, January 6. Easter is observed on the Sunday after Passover, rather than on the date established by the Roman church. In addition, the Eastern Churches, particularly the Coptic church, mark numerous religious occasions, saints' days, and the like, throughout the year.
Christians still comprise the majority of Arab Americans nationally. The Muslim component is growing fast, however, and in some areas, Muslims constitute an overwhelming majority of Arab Americans. Arab Christians are divided between Eastern rite churches (Orthodox) and the Latin rite (Uniate) churches (Maronites, Melkite, and Chaldean). In the beginning, all Middle Eastern churches followed Eastern rites. Over the centuries, schisms occurred in which the seceders switched allegiance to Rome, forming the Uniate churches. Although the Uniate churches formally submit to the authority of the Roman pope and conform to Latin rites, they continue to maintain their own patriarchs and internal autonomy. Like the Eastern churches, the Uniates also allow priests to marry (though monks and bishops must remain celibate). The Middle East churches retain distinct liturgies, which are recited in ancient Coptic, Aramaic, Syriac, or Chaldean depending upon the particular sect.
Arab Muslims are nominally divided between Sunni and Shiite ( Shia ), the two major branches of Islam. The schism dates to an early conflict in Islam over the succession of the Caliphate —leader—of the religious community following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sunni faction won out, eliminating leaders of the opposing faction lead by the Prophet's nephew, Ali, and his sons. Ali's followers came to be known as the Shia —the partisans. Over time the Shiites developed some unique theological doctrines and other trappings of a distinct sect, although to Sunnis, the differences appear inconsequential. The majority of Arab American Muslims are Sunni. Arab Shiite Muslims are mostly from Lebanon and Iraq, as well as northern Yemen.
The most significant change Muslims make in adapting Islamic ritual to life in the United States is moving the Friday sabbath prayer to Sunday. For decades, Arab American Muslims have resigned themselves to the fact that, because of job and school obligations, they would not be able to observe Friday communal prayers, or jumaa. Recently, however, growing numbers of worshippers attend jumaa. Arab American Muslims also forego some of the five daily prayers devout Muslims are obligated to perform because of a lack of facilities and support from mainstream institutions. Technically, Muslims can pray at work or school if the employer or school authorities provide a place. Increasing numbers of devout Muslims insist on meeting their ritual obligations while on the job.
Religious disputes tend to be confined largely to competition between groups within the same sect rather than between sects. Thus, for example, in Dearborn, Michigan, which has a large population of Lebanese Shiites, competition is rife among various Shiite mosques and religious centers for followers from the Shiite community. Sunnis in the area generally belong to Sunni congregations, and are not viewed as potential recruits by the Shiites. Similarly, Arab Christian denominations tend to remain insular and eschew open rivalry with other denominations.
In her review of the 1990 census data El-Badry estimated that 60 percent of Arab Americans work as executives, professionals, salespeople, administrative support, or service personnel, compared to 66 percent of the general population. Many Arab Americans are entrepreneurs or self-employed (12 percent versus seven percent of the general population).
Arab Americans are concentrated in sales; one out of five works in the retail sales industry, slightly higher than the U.S. average of 17 percent. Of these, El-Badry observes, 29 percent work in restaurants, from managers to busboys. Another 18 percent work in grocery stores, seven percent in department stores, and six percent in apparel and accessory outlets.
Data on Arab Americans receiving unemployment benefits are nonexistent. However, in the southend neighborhood of Dearborn, where several thousand mostly recent Yemeni and Lebanese immigrants reside, many felt the brunt of the early 1980s economic recession which hit Detroit's automobile industry particularly hard.
Although politically marginalized, Arab Americans have attempted to gain a voice in U.S. foreign policy since the late 1960s. The first national organization dedicated to such a purpose was the Association of Arab American University Graduates, Inc. (AAUG). Founded in the aftermath of the devastating Arab defeat by Israel in the June 1967 war, the AAUG sought to educate Americans about the Arab, and especially the Palestinian, side of the conflict. The group continues to serve as an important forum for debating issues of concern to Arab Americans. The early 1970s saw the establishment of the first Arab American organization devoted exclusively to lobbying on foreign policy issues. Named the National Association of Arab Americans, the organization continues to function at present.
After a decade of increasing stereotypes of Arabs in the United States, a group of Arab Americans led by former Senator James Abourezk (1931– ) of South Dakota founded the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in 1980. While not a lobby, ADC sensitizes the news media to issues of stereotyping. The organization has had less success with the entertainment media. More recently, the Arab American Institute (AAI) was established to encourage greater participation of Arab Americans in the electoral process as voters, party delegates, or candidates for office.
Arab American influence on local and state government is limited mainly to Dearborn and a few other localities where their numbers are sufficiently large to be felt by the political establishment. Get-out-the-vote campaigns have been moderately successful in this mostly immigrant, working-class community. Participation in unions is limited to the working class segment of the Arab American community. While the history of this participation remains sketchy and incomplete, individual contributions have not escaped notice. As early as 1912 an Arab striker was killed in the famous Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)-led strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. In the 1930s, another Arab American labor activist, George Addes, played an important role in the left coalition inside the United Auto Workers leadership. In August 1973 Nagi Daifallah, a Yemeni farm worker active in the United Farm Workers Union, was brutally gunned down with another organizer by a county sheriff. At the time, California was emerging as a center for Yemeni immigrant workers. Yemeni and other Arab automobile workers were also active in union activities in the Detroit area in the 1970s. During the October 1973 Arab Israeli War, an estimated 2,000 Arab workers protested the purchase of Israeli government bonds by the United Auto Workers union. Arab auto workers boycotted work on November 28, 1973, forcing the closing of one of two lines at a Chrysler assembly plant.
Arab Americans have made important contributions in virtually every field of endeavor, from government to belles lettres.
Among the many Arab American academics, Edward W. Said (1935– ) stands out as a world-class intellectual. Born in Jerusalem, Palestine, and educated at Princeton and Harvard universities, Said has achieved international renown as a scholar in the fields of literary criticism and comparative literature.
In the entertainment field several Arab Americans have achieved celebrity status, including singers Paul Anka (1941– ) and Paula Abdul (1962– ), actors Danny Thomas (1914-1991), Marlo Thomas (1938– ), Vic Tayback (1930-1990), and Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham (1939– ). Musicians include "Tiny Tim" (Herbert Khaury; 1922-1996) the ukelele-strumming, falsetto singer; surf guitarist Dick Dale (b. late 1930s); singer Tiffany (Tiffany Renee Darwish; 1972– ); musician Frank Zappa (1940-1993); and G.E. Smith, former guitarist for the Saturday Night Live Band and frequent collaborator with musician Bob Dylan.
Arab Americans abound in the television and film industries. Jamie Farr (1934– ) portrayed cross-dressing Corporal Klinger on the hit television sitcom M*A*S*H*, and Moustapha Akkad produced the blockbuster Halloween thrillers. Khrystyne Haje starred on the television sitcom Head of the Class and was picked as one of the 50 most beautiful persons in the United States by People Magazine. Amy Yasbeck (1962– ) and Tony Shalhoub (1953– ) have become recognizable faces due to their work on the popular television sitcom Wings. On the show, Yasbeck played the lustful, money-hungry Casey Chapel while Shalhoub portrayed Antonio Scarpacci, a lonely taxi driver. Shalhoub has also won acclaim for his roles in such films as Barton Fink, Big Night, A Life Less Ordinary, and Men in Black. No list of Arab American entertainers would be complete without mention of Casey Kasem (1933– ), the popular radio personality who grew up in Detroit. Kathy Najimy (1957– ) is an award-winning comic actor who played a nun in the movie Sister Act. Mario Kassar (1952– ) is the head of Carolco Pictures, which helped make Rocky, Rambo, and the Terminator films.
Arab Americans have developed vibrant art communities. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, for example, the "Electric Arab Orchestra" entertains the city with its exciting blend of Arabian music and rock and roll. In the San Francisco Bay area of California, the Bay Area Arab Film Festival presents an annual review of Arab films. The festival was founded in 1997 by Arab Americans for the purpose of promoting Arab and Arab American cinema.
Joseph Abboud (1950– ) is the winner of several prestigious design awards.
A number of Arab Americans have played prominent roles in government at the federal level. The first Arab American to be elected to the U.S. Senate was James Abourezk (1931– ) of South Dakota. Abourezk earned a reputation as a fighter for Native American and other minority rights while in Congress. Current Senate majority leader, George Mitchell, Democrat from Maine (1933– ) is the offspring of a Lebanese mother and an Irish father. The most prominent Arab American woman in national government is Donna Shalala (1941– ). Prior to her appointment to a cabinet post as Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton Administration, Shalala headed the University of Wisconsin. In the preceding administration, another Arab American, John Sununu (1941– ), the son of Lebanese Palestinian immigrants, served as George Bush's White House Chief of Staff. Beyond the official circles of government, consumer advocate Ralph Nader (1934– ) ranks as one of the most prominent Arab Americans in the public eye. His activism has had a lasting impact on national policy.
Still other Arab American politicians include Michigan Senator Spencer Abraham and Representatives Nick Joe Rahall II, a Democrat from West Virginia, and Pat Danner, a Democrat from Kansas. Former politicians include Senator James Abdnor of South Dakota, Representative Mary Rose Oakar of Ohio, Representative George Kasem of California, Representative Abraham Kazen, Jr., of Texas, Representative Toby Moffett of Connecticut, and former Governor of Oregon Victor Atiyeh.
In the field of poetry, several Arab Americans have achieved recognition. Sam Hazo (1928– ) is an established American poet, as well as founder of the International Poetry Forum in Pittsburgh. Palestinian American Naomi Shihab Nye (1952– ), and Lebanese American Lawrence Joseph (1948– ) are also well-known poets. Helen Thomas (1920– ), the White House reporter for United Press International, has covered the presidency since 1961. William Peter Blatty (1928– ) is the author of the novel The Exorcist, and screenwriter Callie Khouri (1957– ) received an Oscar award for Best Original Screenplay in 1990 for Thelma and Louise. Writer and director Tom Shadyac is responsible for Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and the 1998 remake of The Nutty Professor.
In 1999, USG Publishing announced the creation of a writing contest for Arab Americans. Called "Qalam" (Quest for Arab-American Literature of Accomplishment and Merit), the contest will recognize achievements by Arab Americans in the areas of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. USG Publishing, based in Chicago, Illinois, publishes Arab American books and pamphlets among other materials.
One of the most prominent Arab American scientists is Dr. Farouk El-Baz (1938– ), who works for NASA as a lunar geologist and assisted in planning the Apollo moon landings. Dr. Michael DeBakey (1908– ), the inventor of the heart pump now serves as the Chancellor of Baylor University's College of Medicine. Dr. Elias Corey (1928– ) of Harvard University won the 1990 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. George A. Doumani made discoveries that helped prove the theory of continental drift.
Doug Flutie (1962– ) won the Heisman Trophy and quarterbacked the Toronto Argonauts to a championship in the Canadian Football League. Rony Seikaly (1965– ), born in Lebanon, played center in the National Basketball Association for the New Jersey Nets. Jeff George (1967– ) is a quarterback for the National Football League's Minnesota Vikings.
The Arab American community has traditionally supported a number of local electronic (radio, cable and broadcast TV programs) and print media. The Arab American community is increasingly relying on nationally-produced programming.
There have been only a couple of national, bilingual Arabic-English publications produced in the United States. First published in 1992, Jusoor ("Bridges") is a quarterly, which includes poetry and essays on politics and the arts. In 1996, a periodical called Al-Nashra hit the newstands. Al-Nashra has a web site at http://www.arabmedia.com . Listed below are several national publications of long standing that enjoy wide Arab American readership.
International Arabic newspaper (English and Arabic).
Contact: Raji Daher, Editor.
Address: P.O. Box 416, New York, New York 10017.
Telephone: (212) 972-0460.
Fax: (212) 682-1405.
Religious and political weekly printed in Arabic and English; founded in 1937.
Address: 17514 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Michigan 48203.
Telephone: (313) 868-2266.
Fax: (313) 868-2267.
Arab Studies Quarterly.
Magazine covering Arab affairs, the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy.
Contact: William W. Haddad, Editor.
Address: Association of Arab-American University Graduates, Inc., 4201 Connecticut Avenue NW, Number 305, Washington, DC 20008.
Telephone: (202) 237-8312.
Fax: (202) 237-8313.
Jusoor: The Arab American Journal of Cultural Exchange.
Contact: Munir Akash, Editor.
Address: P.O. Box 34163, Bethesda, Maryland 20827-0163.
Telephone: (301) 263-0289.
Fax: (301) 263-0255.
Contact: John F. Mahoney, Executive Director.
Address: Americans for Middle East Understanding, Room 241, 475 Riverside Drive, Room 245, New York, New York 10115.
Telephone: (212) 870-2053.
Fax: (212) 870-2050.
News Circle/Halqat al-Akhbar.
Monthly periodical that presents issues and news of the Arab American community and the Arab world.
Contact: Joseph Haiek, Editor.
Address: Box 3684, Glendale, California 91201.
Telephone: (818) 545-0333.
Fax: (818) 242-5039.
Arab Network of America (ANA).
A national network that broadcasts Arab language radio and television programming in six metropolitan areas (Washington, D.C., Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and San Francisco).
Contact: Eptisam Malloulti, Radio Program Director.
Address: 150 South Gordon Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22304.
American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).
Founded in 1980 by former Senator James Abourezk to combat negative and defamatory stereotyping of Arab Americans and their cultural heritage. This is the country's largest grass-roots Arab American organization.
Contact: Hala Maksoud, Ph.D., President.
Address: 4201 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20008.
Telephone: (202) 244-2990.
Fax: (202) 244-3196.
Online: http://www.adc.org .
American Arabic Association.
Individuals interested in promoting a better understanding among Americans and Arabs through involvement in charitable and humanitarian causes; membership is currently concentrated in the eastern U. S. Supports Palestinian and Lebanese charities that aid orphans, hospitals, and schools. Current activities include: Project Loving Care, for children in Lebanon and Israel; Boys Town, for orphans in Jericho, Jordan. Sponsors seminars and educational and cultural programs; conducts lectures.
Contact: Dr. Said Abu Zahra, President.
Address: c/o Dr. Said Abu Zahra, 29 Mackenzie Lane, Wakefield, Massachusetts 01880.
Arab American Historical Society.
Encourages the preservation of Arab American history, publications, and art. Publishes quarterly Arab American Historian.
Contact: Joseph Haiek, Chair.
Address: P.O. Box 27278, Los Angeles, California 90027.
Fax: (818) 242-5039.
Arab American Institute (AAI).
Dedicated to involving Arab Americans in electoral politics, mobilizing votes and funds behind Arab American candidates at various levels of government. The Institute also encourages Americans to become involved in the Democratic and Republican parties.
Contact: Dr. James Zogby, President.
Address: 918 16th Street, N.W., Suite 601, Washington, D.C. 20006.
Telephone: (202) 429-9210.
Fax: (202) 429-9214.
Arab Women's Council (AWC).
Seeks to inform the public on Arab women and their culture.
Contact: Najat Khelil, President.
Address: P.O. Box 5653, Washington, D.C. 20016.
Association of Arab American University Graduates, Inc. (AAUG).
The oldest national Arab American organization. Founded in the aftermath of the Arab defeat in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War to inform Americans of the Arab viewpoint. AAUG's membership consists mostly of academics and other professionals. The organization sponsors intellectual forums and conferences, and publishes books as well as the journal Arab Studies Quarterly.
Contact: Albert Mukhaiber, President.
Address: 2121 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Suite 310, Washington, DC 20007.
Telephone: (202) 337-7717.
Fax: (202) 337-3302.
Attiyeh Foundation (AF).
Cultural and educational organization conducting projects about the Middle East. Works to promote awareness of Arab culture and history through people-to-people contact. Publishes Ethnic Heritage in North America.
Contact: Michael Saba, President.
Address: 1731 Wood Mills Drive, Cordova, Tennessee 38018-6131.
Najda: Women Concerned About the Middle East.
Promotes understanding between Americans and Arabs by offering educational programs and audiovisual presentations on Middle Eastern history, art, culture, and current events.
Contact: Paula Rainey, President.
Address: P.O. Box 7152, Berkeley, California 94707.
Telephone: (510) 549-3512.
National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA).
The major Arab American political lobby in Washington devoted to improving U.S.-Arab relations. Like ADC, NAAA also combats negative stereotypes of Arabs.
Contact: Khalil E. Jahshan, Executive Director.
Address: 1212 New York Avenue, N.W., Suite 230, Washington, D.C. 20005.
Telephone: (202) 842-1840.
Fax: (202) 842-1614.
Online: http://www.steele.com/naaa/ .
There are two archives devoted to collecting the papers and related memorabilia of Arab Americans. There are no research centers or museums dedicated to Arab Americans.
The Faris and Yamna Naff Family Arab American Collection.
Contact: Alixa Naff.
Address: Archives Center, National Museum of History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Telephone: (202) 357-3270.
The Near Eastern American Collection.
Contact: Rudolph J. Vecoli, Director.
Address: Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota, 826 Berry Street, St. Paul, Minnesota 55114.
Telephone: (612) 627-4208.
Abraham, Nabeel. "Anti-Arab Racism and Violence in the United States," in The Development of Arab-American Identity, edited by Ernest McCarus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
——. "The Gulf Crisis and Anti-Arab Racism in America," in Collateral Damage: The 'New World Order' at Home and Abroad, edited by Cynthia Peters. Boston: South End Press, 1992.
Arab Americans: Continuity and Change, edited by Baha Abu-Laban and Michael W. Suleiman. Normal, Illinois: Association of Arab American University Graduates, Inc., 1989.
Arabic-Speaking Immigrants in the U.S. and Canada: A Bibliographical Guide with Annotation. Edited by Mohammed Sawaie. Lexington, Kentucky: Mazda Publishers, 1985.
Arabs in the New World. Edited by Sameer Y. Abraham and Nabeel Abraham. Detroit: Center for Urban Studies, Wayne State University, 1983.
Crossing the Waters: Arabic-Speaking Immigrants to the United States before 1940. Edited by Eric J. Hooglund. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.
The Development of Arab-American Identity. Edited by Ernest McCarus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
El-Badry, Samia. "The Arab Americans," American Demographics, January 1994, pp. 22-30.
The Immigration History Research Center: A Guide to Collections. Compiled by S. Moody and J. Wurl. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1991.
Naff, Alixa. Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.
Orfalea, Gregory. Before the Flames. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.
Shain, Yossi. Arab-Americans in the 1990s: What Next for the Diaspora? Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, 1996.