Hani Bawardi, The Making of Arab Americans: From Syrian Nationalism to US Citizenship. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Hani Bawardi (HB): My intellectual pursuits began when I set out to understand the dominance of my peers in small business ownership in Flint, Michigan. My research led me to Roy (Rushd) Farah, the son of Ameen Farah, the man who started a hundred-year-long business dynasty built on patron-client relationships and clan migration. I discovered that Rushd Farah, who emigrated from Nazareth to the US in 1913, was at the center of the first known organized political work on behalf of his beloved Greater Syria, a journey that consumed sixty-two years of his life. When Roy entrusted me with his father’s manuscripts and books, researching Arab American identity became a quest to understand my experience and that of the Arab American activists with national reputations and their organizations. This book is the first step.
Farah’s papers include dozens of meticulously preserved correspondences, pamphlets, and books. These including letters he received from Mikhail Naimy, Iskandar Yazeji, Jerusalem’s Mufti, Hajj Amin Husseini; and Sultan Al-Atrash, the leader of the Great Syrian Revolt against the French. The papers revealed untapped history of major formal political organizations that needed to be part of the discourse on Arab Americans beyond the presently recycled backgrounds.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
HB: Based on these papers and a large body of supporting evidence, The Making of Arab Americans presents the most complete records on the operations of four neglected formal political organizations: the Free Syria Society, 1915); the New Syria Party, 1926; The Arab National League, 1936; and the Institute of Arab American Affairs, 1945.
Based on archival evidence, much of which was produced by members of the famous Pen Bond (Al-Rabitah al-Qalamiyah) themselves, I establish that formal political organizations did not begin with the founding of the Association of Arab American University Graduates as a result of the Arab Israeli war of 1967. Although one of he most important organizations Arab immigration since the loss of the remainder of Palestine, the AAUG is an extension of a much deeper history that needs be told. The organizations discussed in the book gradually attained a high degree of sophistication, and arrived at the same goals as any contemporary nonsectarian Arab American organizations: to provide accurate reliable information on Arab and Muslim societies and histories, and to promote a balanced US foreign policies in the Near East. The challenges they faced were no different than those encountered by AAUG, the American Arab anti-Discrimination Committee and AAUG. This book begins the process of alleviating gaps in our knowledge in order to weaving a narrative that encompass stages of Arab American advocacy.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
HB: This research is integral to making available new material on the Arabic-speaking immigrants as part of developing a new minor in Arab American studies at my institution. It also dovetails into my research and teaching load on Islam, the Arab Near East, and keen interest in translations of buried treasures from the turn of the twentieth century.
Overall, this is a major effort to contribute a narrative that connects strands of new research on nonsectarian collective action, reassessing information on the immigrants’ social coherence across a void in the scholarship on Arab immigrants’ organizations from the 1910s through the end of WWII. A major objective of this book is to draw attention to the need for historiographies, biographies, and most of all translations. The material in the original Arabic is abundant and staggeringly important.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
HB: The Making of Arab Americans can be a valuable resource to readers looking for fresh new information on what fueled the early Arab Americans’ passions, not only on behalf of their ancestral lands, but also in terms of their desire to help their adopted country project a balanced and fair policy abroad. Ultimately, the book sheds new light on how, when, and why immigrants from all parts of Geographic Syria (contemporary Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and historic Palestine) subscribed to Arab American identity.
The impact of this book will be difficult to ignore for two reasons. First, the research and conceptual framings are simply new and rely on massive manuscript collections never used before. Second, the research also puts to rest any doubt that political advocacy as part of formal and national organizations began before World War I, and that such advocacy has had profound effect on the immigrants’ views of themselves. Therefore, this study could be an instrument for redressing gaps on the immigrants’ long history of coherent collective action beyond recycled notions of sectarianism. Such information would make it possible to examine the trajectory of Syrian identity through tumultuous historical events, and ultimately a better grasp of the challenges facing Arab and Arab American communities cross the US
J: What other projects are you working on now?
HB: I am conducting video interviews with key post-1965 Arab American activists across the US. These are members of the generation that succeeded the pre-World War II pioneering activists in the book. These interviews will complete the picture on the life of Arab American social and political advocacy. These are the people who founded the contemporary major Arab American organizations. Much like those of their predecessors, their stories await excavation and documentation into as part of a coherent narrative.
I am translating a section titled “History of Syrian Immigration to the United States” from Fr. Basil Kherbawi’s massive book History of the United States (1913). I also have plans to translate Habib Katibah’s ‘Ithāt Wataniyah, (Nationalist Sermons, 1921), and Abdelmaseeh Haddad’s Hikayat al-Mahjar (tales from the Diaspora).
Since my book was published, I located thousands of papers that will serve separate treatment of the many topics in the book—transition from Syrian to Arab American identity and when, how and why ascription to Lebaneseness resulted in what is perceived to be a separate identity at the expense of Syrian collective identity.
J: How does your book contribute to or diverge from previous scholarship on Arab Americans?
HB: The book dismantles several assumptions within Arab American studies that have become canonical due to lack of original research in Arabic-language manuscripts.
I challenge the salient ideas that formal political advocacy began after the founding of the AAUG, or that WWI, or even the Balfour Declaration somehow evoked a new approach to political and social concerns. Although the importance of AAUG us secure in Arab American life, its activities and core message are in fact rooted in fifty years of political advocacy by the pioneers discussed in my book. My conclusions explain that prolonged and essentially racist immigration restrictions from 1924 to 1965 targeting all, save Northwestern Europeans, obscured most of the political activities of the pioneers. Adding to the disconnect between the scholars who became active after 1965 and the early advocates, is the changing political reality. After WWII, talk of Arab nationalism and defending the Palestinians simply fell on the wrong side of the fence from US’s policy of containment within the framework of British imperatives, not the least of which was Iraqi oil, but also safeguarding the Suez Canal, and using Zionism as an outpost for that purpose.
This study gleans new content from the literary output of the early immigrants at the time of their arrival, including the early writings and speeches of Gibran in 1911, Habib Katibah in 1916, Mikhail Naimy in 1915, Fuad Shatara in 1917 on a host of issues. Faris Malouf and Ameen Rihani, too, throughout much of their lives repeatedly and incessantly delineated Syria’s borders to be the Taurus Mountains in the north, the Mediterranean and the Euphrates east and west respectively, and the Sinai in the south. The point is that they did this in the face of British and French colonial ambitions in close coordination with nationalists in the homelands before WWI, and also did so despite general ignorance in the US of the history and the culture of the Arabs of Syria. This collective memory, of being Arab Syrians including from the Lebanon area accompanied the immigrants on their journey to the Americas in the 1880s and 1890`s, propelled their social and political advocacy.
J: Why haven`t scholars in the field explored organized political advocacy prior to the 1967 war?
HB: The founding members of the AAUG, and their friends, who are by default the founders of Arab American studies as we teach it, were consumed with responding to the cataclysmic events of 1967 when the remainder of Palestine was lost. Among their concerns was finding an outlet for their scholarship in an intensely hostile environment. In addition to the shock of losing all of Palestine to Zionism, it was a time when Zionist influence in the US became intense. Obscured in part due to interruption of mass immigration lasting until 1965, just two years before 1967, was an earlier trauma, the Palestinian Catastrophe (Nakbah) of 1948. The scholars had no reason to ask about, nor could did they have had reason to suspect that the Arab National League and the Institute of Arab American Affairs withstood the brunt of Zionist attacks and constant harassment in the 1930s and 1940s. Attempting to finds a way to connect the dots between such events, I discovered that the lack of contact between two distinct generations is one reason for the lack of contiguity in the scholarship. Other far more complex reasons involve rising US interests in the Near East that quickly became compatible with British colonialist agenda, until oil and containment trumped all concerns.
By the time Alixa Naff interviewed Farhat Ziadeh in the early 1990s, the only surviving member of the Arab National League (1936-1939) for her collection of 450 such interviews, she had little cause to robe into his recollection of that organization, or his remark that Columbia Chair, Rashid Khalidi’s parents actually met at the office of the Institute of Arab American Affairs, where Ismail Khalidi served as the organization’s Secretary.
This book also points to the need for systematically writing Arab Americans into immigration and ethnic studies generally. Naff’s interviews and archives ensured that future scholars would “come along and use [her collection] and write the next chapter” as she put it. However, she came from that in-between space: she was two generations removed from pioneers such as Shatara, Katibah, and Malouf. Yet she was at the AAUG’s Tenth Annual conference telling stories her interviewees shared with her. My book tells these surviving activists and their hairs the stories she never heard.
J: How might this study contribute to future scholarship on Arab Americans?
HB: This study raises questions concerning the lack of adequate historical mentorship and resultant absence of coherent narrative in the Arab American experience. Immigration restrictions and changing political landscape account for the disconnect between early writings and the seminal scholarship of Suleiman, Edward Said, Janice Terry, Barbara Aswad, and others. But changing political and social climates are also contributing factors. Few scholars are concerned with, or receive mentoring in, historical studies or translations from the large body of writings by Elia Madey, Nasib Arida, Rashid Ayoub, in addition to Katibah, Malouf, Najib Diab, editor of Mrāit al-Gharb, Rihani, and Anton Zraick, editor of Juran-ul-Kurdi. While lack of native language skill is a real problem, the scholarship is steadily moving away from asking when and how events shaped the Arab immigrants’ experiences, and is becoming circumscribed by abstract post modernist interpretations. The book recalls a distinguished track record of preserving and defending Arab culture in the US over five decades by the above in addition to Khalil Totah, Peter George, Ismail Khalidi, Ameen Farah, Abbas Abu-Shaqra, and many more. Their stories so far have not been treated as foundational to the Arab American saga, largely due to absence of requisite language skills and disciplinary parochialism. Absent also are the stories of women activists who left a distinguished trail of writings and activities no less important than the men. Agabia Malouf, Mary Khouri, Odell Samra and many others deserve separate research beyond my book.
Excerpts from The Making of Arab Americans: From Syrian Nationalism to US Citizenship
From Chapter Five
On August 6, 1936, three months after the largest Palestinian revolt until that time culminated in a prolonged general strike, the founding of the Arab National League was reported in a communiqué in the Arabic-language publication Al-Sa’eh . The ANL was replacing the Arab Renaissance Society (Jam’iyat al-nahdah al-‘arabiyah). A letter from Fuad Shatara to Ameen Farah clears up confusion about several variations of the names of the organization that was the precursor to the league. Occasional interchangeable references to the ANL and the Palestine Renaissance Society, as well as the appearance of other social groups with some Arab orientation, suggest that a single national political organization was not present during the nine years following the Syrian revolt in 1925 save for the New Syria Party. This, however, does not mean a cessation of individual and coordinated support for Arab causes. This was a period of adjustment to the political realities of the mandate and the practical pressures of the Great Depression.
In this chapter I chart immigrants’ lives during that confusing period through their writings, and I trace the genesis of the Arab National League to events and personalities on the US East Coast before the NSP was founded. In the years that followed the Syrian revolt against the French, Syria’s cause was kept alive by persistent albeit sporadic gatherings of activists from New York, Michigan, and elsewhere. Arabic-language magazines and newspapers, especially As-Sameer in New York, continued to provide a forum for conversations among immigrants in which they maintained their connection to their Arab past and Syrian identity. The rebels’ defeat by the French and severe economic hardship in the United States account for the lack of a single national political organization from 1927 until the founding of the ANL in 1936. Here I attempt to fill this uncharted period within the scantily researched history of the Syrian immigrants and conditions leading to the founding of the ANL.
From Chapter Seven
Totah, the institute’s executive director, and his friend Rabbi Elmer Berger of the Council for Judaism said hecklers made debates an unpleasant ordeal for all opponents of Zionism. Berger and Khloussi Khairy of the League of Arab States (Arab League) were “howled down” by a disapproving audience in a debate with Louis Lipsky and other Zionists. Police officers patrolled the debate halls to keep order such as during a radio broadcast by WJZ. Both Berger and Totah recalled the unfair tactics employed against them in their memoirs. Berger empathized with the Palestinian Totah’s frustration in the face of intimidation and maltreatment by hosts and audiences alike. He cited Totah’s recollection of an event arranged by the B’nai B’rith in which two Zionists, who spoke well beyond their allotted time, and Professor Harlow, an ardent Christian Zionist, outnumbered him. During the debate, Totah’s stock argument that Jews and Arabs lived in peace until the advent of Zionism must have seemed immaterial to reinvigorated supporters of Zionism, as did his arguments that controlled Jewish immigration to Palestine should not override the majority’s hopes of equality, let alone drive Palestinians into exile in two years.
The institute bore the brunt of well-financed programs by the Zionist side. As early as June 1945, a campaign to raise $4 million to combat anti-Semitism by reaching every man, woman, and child in the United States was launched by the Joint Defense Appeal of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. While news media reported on the effort, a confidential memorandum from Philip Chasin to its chairman, Nathan M. Ohrback, described it as a “gigantic undertaking that requires facilities, strongly constructed . . . built up over a period of ten years of special techniques and experience in defense work.” Chasin helped organize fund-raising for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. In 1941 he became the executive director of fund-raising for the Joint Defense Appeal sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. To opponents of Zionism, the professed reach of Chasin’s program had a chilling effect. In the ostensibly confidential memo he did not mince words in using anti-Nazism as the pretext for such a huge undertaking while anti-Nazi sentiments were still fresh: “Every dollar spent today has greater fighting value in terms of tomorrow. There is no better time to capitalize on the momentum of the nation’s anti-Nazi feeling than today.” The “militant effort to expose and destroy anti-democratic forces in America” was presented by Chasin as a high-powered educational program, geared to reach every man, woman, and child every day of the year, . . . a program through the press, . . . over radio, . . . through advertising . . . comic books . . . schools . . . speakers. . . community services . . . movies . . . churches . . . labor . . . and special groups, . . . a program that expands in accordance with expanded needs. ; is is a coordinated defense program . . . involving professional techniques and mass media geared to reach all the 136,000,000 American men, women and children.
Part of realistically assessing the impact of the scholarship of AAUG members on the cultivation of an Arab American narrative is considering how inquiry into the immigrants’ past would have to include a critical, honest, and penetrating look into the fog of both disasters, in 1967 and 1948. Such an inquiry would have had to pierce through two distinct political and social stages: pan-Arabism as a movement to unify the Arab world based on nationalist feelings and the decline this movement suffered after the defeat of 1967. It is not helpful to continue to ignore the persistence of rallying by the Arab Americans behind the homeland following calamitous events in the Arab Middle East. Arab Americans, however scholars conceive of their identities based on malleable theories of social construction, still rally on the steps of city halls and sidewalks in times of political crisis or triumph much as those before them did when motivated by pan-Syrian and later pan-Arab feelings. These common threads in their lives across generations hold clues as to how they forged pragmatic agendas from their position as US citizens, that is, the same activities of their contemporary Arab and Muslim American organizations. The Arab American past is laden with lessons on strategies for the future of Arab American institutions. It is time to consider the lessons as part of a more complete narrative of Arab immigrant experiences.
What Rashid Khalidi has called the “lost years” following the Nakbah in 1948, when Palestinians seem to have “disappeared from the map,” created a fog that obscured five decades of political activity on the part of Arab immigrants in the United States. My aim in this study has been to pierce the fog surrounding the lost years and reveal the formerly unseen Arab American nationalists whose work and activities have so far been unfortunately neglected.
[Excerpted from The Making of Arab Americans: From Syrian Nationalism to US Citizenship, by Hani Bawardi, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2014 University of Texas Press. For more information, or to order a copy of this book, click here.]