Arab Americans - History and Cultural Relations



The first Arabic-speaking immigrants in the United States were a handful of nineteenth-century adventurers and sojourners. It was not until the end of the century that significant numbers of Arab immigrants began making their way to the United States. Their numbers were minuscule by the standards of the day, averaging several thousand per year, with the highest recorded number reaching nine thousand in 1913-14. World War I brought immigration to a virtual standstill. In the years immediately following the war, Arab immigration returned to its prewar level only to be restricted again by the legislation of the 1920s.

Many of the early immigrants left homes in Greater Syria, an Arab province of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I. In the postwar period, the province was partitioned into separate political entities (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan) under British and French rule. Although the area remains predominantly Arab and Muslim culturally, Christian, Islamic, and Jewish ethnoreligious minorities constitute its cultural mosaic. Many of the early immigrants were drawn from these minorities, especially certain Christian denominations (Maronites, Melkites, and Eastern Orthodox). Others included a small number of Muslims and Druze, as well as smaller numbers of Iraqi Chaldeans and Yemeni Muslims.

In general, the early immigrants were mostly illiterate or semiliterate, unskilled, single males, who emigrated without their families. Of the approximately 60,000 who entered the United States between 1899 and 1910, some 53 percent were illiterate, and 68 percent were single males. A notable exception was a small group of literati (writers, poets, artists, Journalists) who settled in places like New York and Boston. Politically rather than economically motivated, this group spawned an important school of modern Arabic literature. They formed the Pen League ( al-Rabita al-Qalamiyya ) under the leadership of Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), the celebrated author of The Prophet.

The early immigrants tended to settle in the cities and towns of the Northeast and Midwest, in states like New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. By 1940 about a fifth of the estimated 350,000 Arabs lived in just three cities—New York, Boston, and Detroit—mostly in Ethnic neighborhoods ("Little Syrias"). Many worked their way across America as peddlers of dry goods and other sundry items, reaching virtually every state of the Union. Some homesteaded on the Great Plains, and others settled in southern rural areas.

A second wave of Arab immigration to the United States occurred after World War II. The influx included many more Muslims than the previous one. It also included refugees who had been displaced by the 1948 Palestine war, as well as professionals and university students who elected to remain Permanently in the United States. These trends accelerated after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, a watershed for both the Middle East and Arab immigration to the United States. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed a massive influx of Arab Immigrants from Lebanon, Iraq, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Yemen, Egypt, and other Arab countries. Many had been displaced by war and political upheaval.

The early Arab immigrants followed a fairly smooth assimilation into mainstream society. Several generations later their descendants have achieved high social mobility. Some are household names: Danny Thomas, Ralph Nader, Christa McAuliffe, Paul Anka, Casey Kasem, Bobby Rahall, F. Murray Abraham. In comparison, the second-wave Immigrants have had a mixed time of it. Many have prospered economically, especially those in the professions and business. But others, particularly in the period following the June 1967 war, have had to contend with demeaning stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination stemming from the oil crisis, Middle East terrorism, and U.S. involvement in the region. These problems are more pronounced in areas where large numbers of recent arrivals reside.


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