Arab Americans - Orientation

Identification. Americans of Arab ancestry are a heterogeneous amalgam of national and religious subgroups. Their link is a common Arab cultural and linguistic heritage, which has profoundly influenced the Middle East for over fourteen centuries. Historically, "Arab" referred exclusively to the Arabic-speaking tribes of the Arabian Peninsula and parts of the Fertile Crescent. Today, the term is understood to be a cultural/linguistic and political designation. It embraces various national, religious, and regional groups that share overlapping histories and national political aspirations, although significant differences and regional loyalties remain strong. No single set of racial or physical traits defines all Arabs. Nor can they be identified with a single religion (Islam), as is often mistakenly done, for not all Arabs are Muslims (about 6 to 10 percent are non-Muslims, mostly Christians and some Jews). In fact, although Islam originated in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Qur'an (its holy book) was written in Arabic, the vast majority of Muslims are not Arabs, but Indonesians, Pakistanis, Asian Indians, and Persians.

Arab Americans hail from only a handful of the twenty-one countries that compose the modern Arab world: Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. In terms of recency of arrival, Arab Americans fall into three diverse groups: recent arrivals, long-term immigrants, and Native-born descendants of earlier generations of immigrants.

Location. Arab Americans live primarily in cities or adjacent suburbs. Many recent arrivals tend to gravitate to Arab neighborhoods, where ethnic grocery stores, restaurants, bakeries, clubs, and religious centers are concentrated. These neighborhoods tend to be working class and lower middle class in character. The largest is found in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan; others are located in New York and Chicago. These "Arab Towns" have largely replaced the "Little Syrias" of earlier immigrant generations. The more assimilated long-term immigrants and native-born Arab Americans tend to eschew the ethnic neighborhoods for the middle-class suburbs. The major concentrations of Arab Americans are found in Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and Houston. Smaller communities are also found throughout the Northeast and Middle West.

Demography. Exact population figures are difficult to ascertain owing to imprecise immigration and census data. Scholars tend to agree on 2 million as the number of persons of Arab ancestry in the United States, with another 80,000 in Canada. In comparison, the population of the Arab world is over 150 million. The largest single concentration of Arabs in North America is in Detroit, which is reputed to have about 250,000 Arabs. Native-born Arab Americans and longestablished immigrants make up the largest share of the Population, which was fairly stable through the mid-1960s. Beginning in the late 1960s, the population in North America witnessed rapid growth owing largely to the influx of tens of thousands of new immigrants.

Linguistic Affiliation. Most assimilated Arab Americans use English as their primary language or only domestic language. Many recent arrivals use Arabic as their primary language, employing English as needed in contacts outside the home and the ethnic community. Arabic speakers converse in the regional dialect of their home village or town. Some Iraqi Chaldeans speak Chaldean (a Semitic language) as their only domestic language; others know only Iraqi Arabic or combine the two languages. Second-generation Arab Americans usually reach adulthood retaining very little of their parents' Native tongue.

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