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The Mahjar
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4. The Mahjar

There are many [female] qashé sellers who are chaste in soul and body, . . . and they may be forced to sell either because of poverty or because they have no one to support them, [or] because they have someone they have to support and he is like the useless beast.

– ‘Afifa Karam, al-Huda, 14 July 1903

Regardless of the reasons which prompted men and women to leave Mount Lebanon for “Amirka,” few thought they would stay long. They expected to land somewhere, work for a while to gather money, and return home to live the good life. Focused as they were on these straightforward goals, only the most clairvoyant among the emigrants could have anticipated that the voyage would be far more complex. Even fewer could have foretold that the days spent peddling lace and buttons, shopping for food and clothes, and strolling in the streets of their adopted communities would be transformative. Almost none would have expected that their experiences in the mahjar would entail social and cultural contacts that necessitated a self-conscious examination of their individual and collective identities.

Yet, all these things did happen. Emigrants from Mount Lebanon arrived in the United States at a time when a predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, and protestant middle class was ascendant. Through a cult of domesticity, hierarchical notions of race and ethnicity, and physical distance from the working classes and cities, members of this class had come to ascribe to themselves a positivist “modernity.” As the members of this class became more isolated from the tumult of the cities in their suburban retreats, they grew increasingly suspicious of and alienated from social and ethnic groups that they deemed “foreign,” including immigrants. Directly—through “philanthropic” works and public schooling—and indirectly—through their insistence that they represented the nation—this middle class projected disdain and patronizing attitudes toward immigrants. Thus, Lebanese emigrants came to be regarded as part of an “East” depicted as irrational, emotional, unclean, and suspicious by a hegemonic middle-class culture. In this manner, the world came to be neatly and absurdly divided into two irreconcilable categories of “us” and “them.” Such a dichotomy forced immigrants to articulate and defend a sense of self in the midst of a larger society that contradictorily sought to “Americanize” them while shunning them.

But there was not a single overriding notion of what that “self” was. Opinions ranged widely between those few who sought to emulate the middle-class United States in every facet, and those who considered any departure from “tradition” a disaster. This effort—carried out as it was in community newspapers and private conversations—left little untouched. At the intersection of many of these inquiries was the family: a microcosm of gender roles and social relations. Inside and outside the physical house, people argued, got upset, compromised, and stomped off in the search for a surety that they thought they had with regard to marriage, parenting, women's work, and other defining social traditions. Out of these processes emerged a tentative new class with a hybrid cultural ideology and social structure which challenged the very precept of “modern” and “traditional,” “East” and “West.” It is to this dialectic process that we now turn.

Making Money

After surviving the jitters induced by immigration officials at Montevideo in Uruguay or Ellis Island in New York, the immigrants were eager to find a compatriot or relative to help them. They needed a place to stay, food, and work. Shortly after arriving in their new communities, immigrants sought someone to supply them with items to peddle (buttons and lace, thread and needles, crosses and mementos from the “Holy Land”), point them to a job, and generally teach them the ropes. Some sought out relatives. Michel Haddy recalled arriving in New York with his brother on the 4th of July, 1895, just in time to see the decorations (including “Uncle Sam”) and watch the fireworks. A few days later they boarded a train to Bloomington, Illinois, to search for a brother-in-law who “had opened up a store in the country.”[1] Two years before Michel Haddy arrived in the United States, Skiyyé Samaha had traveled with her father “straight” to Toronto to seek out her uncle, who had been peddling there for a while.[2] Upon arriving in New York in 1893, Kamila Gibran took her children—including Khalil—directly to the Syrian quarter in the South End of Boston, where cousins and more distant relatives had settled a few years before.[3] And there are many other examples of family migrations from Mount Lebanon to the Americas.

Either back in Lebanon or while crossing the Atlantic, some emigrants heard of a person to look for. In 1890 Assaf Khater left his wife, Malakeh, and their three children in the village of Lehfed; he wanted to make some money because his work in the gendarmerie was proving frustrating socially and unsatisfying financially. While he was waiting in Marseilles for the next boat to “Amirka,” some Lebanese emigrants asked him to join them on their trip to Uruguay. En route, one of the emigrants, who was making his second trip overseas, told stories of what to expect there. Thrown in amidst the wildly imaginative descriptions of “jungles” and “Indians” was advice to seek out the Skaff family in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. Well established there since the early 1880s, the Skaff family, this fellow traveler said, could help immigrants get started on their journey to wealth. Sure enough, on disembarking at the port in Montevideo, Assaf made his way to this family, which outfitted him—on credit—with a qashé (peddling valise) filled with baratijas (bric-à-brac like safety pins and combs) and a few words of Spanish like “Vendo barato. Tuto a veinti.” (“I sell cheaply. Everything for twenty cents.”)[4] Soon thereafter he was on his way, selling trinkets to make a living.[5]

In Fort Wayne, Indiana, Salem Beshara became well known to immigrants from Lebanon as a man who would find them a place to stay and a job to earn money. As Michel Haddy tells it,

All who came [to the United States from Rachaya—a town in southern Lebanon] would say “I am going to my Uncle Salem Beshara in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.” There was Druze man with us, and when Mr. Arbeely [the interpreter for immigration officials at Ellis Island] asked who he was going to meet, he said “my uncle Salem Beshara.” Mr. Arbeely said, “how is it that a Druze is related to a Christian?!” But he let us through anyway because he knew who Salem was.[6]

Another measure of Beshara's popularity is found in the registry of baptisms at the Catholic cathedral in Fort Wayne. Tafeda Beshara, who went in there once to look up a birth certificate, exclaimed to her interviewer, “And so help me, if he [Salem Beshara] was a godfather to one, it must have been twenty-five that I saw [in records covering just few years].”[7] Many other suppliers came to play this same patriarchal role. Daher Hobaica in Utica, New York, Tom Beshara in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a Mr. Uthman were all “supplier, banker, protector and provider” for immigrant peddlers within their respective communities.[8]

Other immigrants arrived without a clue about whom to contact. For those, Washington Street in New York City or the barrio de los Turcos in Buenos Aires provided commercial and cultural ports of entry into the mahjar.[9] There they found a place to stay, familiar foods, suppliers of goods, and guides for the first few days or weeks peddling their wares. At Ellis Island, hotel agents barely waited for Alice Abraham and her companions to be “examined under the electricity for . . . [the] eyes” and to answer the immigration officials' questions through an Arabic interpreter before descending on them with offers of places to stay.[10] After eighteen days at sea, sailing from Marseilles to New York, the seventy-two villagers from ‘Ayn ‘Arab were welcomed into the folds of (the same?) hotel agent, who “took money from each of us. So we went and stayed in his hotel.”[11] Shortly thereafter they would be absorbed into the transplanted Lebanese community. As one New York Daily Tribune reporter observed, these immigrants moved out of the hotel and into crammed boarding houses “as at least sixty per cent of the men either have no families or have left them behind in Syria; . . . [even] families who are here [permanently] find their homes utilized as headquarters by those who are not yet settled.”[12]

Regardless of whether they were venturing alone or seeking out a relative, immigrants (more often than not) needed work. They found employment in a wide range of jobs stretching from homesteading in South Dakota to selling life-insurance policies in Buenos Aires. However, the majority appears to have taken one of two paths to making money: commerce or factory work. In a survey conducted around 1902, Lucius Hopkins Miller found that a little over a quarter of the Lebanese immigrant population living in New York City was engaged in industrial factory work. Slightly over half of the same population traded in goods either from a store or from a qashé.[13] Numbers from Argentina portray a similar spread in occupational activities. Using statistics published by the contemporary Lebanese press, Ignacio Klich notes that 53.3 percent of the population in Argentina worked in either the sedentary or the itinerant form of commerce, and factory workers made up another 17 percent of that population. (The advanced stage of industrialization in the United States—as compared with that in Argentina—may account for the difference in the numbers of Lebanese immigrant factory workers in the two countries).[14] In both cases (New York and Argentina) there seems to have been little interest in agricultural activities of any kind. But, then, this is hardly surprising given the permanent residential nature of farming, which would not have fit the itinerant goals of most immigrants, who had every intention of going back to Lebanon after accumulating enough money. As a result, peddling and—to a lesser extent—factory work were the favored “callings” of the Lebanese immigrant.

A large number of immigrants took up peddling, at least for the first few years of their lives in the mahjar. Going door to door selling trinkets and baubles, dresses and combs had much to recommend it to the emigrant from Mount Lebanon. This type of work did not require a great deal of capital, training, or skill. In the words of one disparaging Argentine commentator, “A peddler needs no capital to begin to trade. He [or she] always finds some merchandise . . . on credit. He [or she] generally succeeds in selling his [or her] goods . . . at [a] price that is 10–15 times higher than the object's real value.”[15] In more positive terms, a Lebanese woman—who had emigrated to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1908—explained her interest in peddling to one inquirer: “Believe me, during the first Christmas season I made $500.”[16] But quick money was not the only attraction. Coming from a peasant background, immigrants were less inclined to work in an industrialized setting that was alien in its dehumanizing rhythm of labor, dark and enclosed environment, and impersonal culture.[17] And having declined work in the silk factories of Mount Lebanon as dishonorable, they certainly would not have arrived in the mahjar with the intention of joining the assembly lines of American industries, even if some ended up there eventually. Lastly, following in the footsteps of previous immigrants, who had made their money by peddling wares, was much easier than striking out into new, uncharted employment territory.

For all these reasons the qashé became the hallmark of Lebanese immigration to the Americas.[18] Starting out as novices in this trade, new immigrants needed some training. For a couple of days or even weeks, they traveled with someone who had had experience enticing customers to purchase a few cents' or dollars' worth of merchandise. Sometimes it was a relative. Michel Haddy was trained by his cousin, and when Skiyyé Samaha first came with her father to Canada (1893) she went out peddling with her aunt. “I was so young, I started to cry. I cried all the time.”[19] At other times newcomers went with veterans of the trade they had met at a supplier's shop. “They [the veterans] would find hotels, teach . . . [the newcomers] routes, and guide them in other ways. And, the owners of the stores would give . . . [the veterans] five percent of whatever the newcomers bought from the storeowner.”[20] In his memoirs, Faris Naoum reminisced that he trained six newly arrived immigrants and received a 6 percent commission on merchandise purchased from Salem Beshara.[21]

Among the first things these “greenhorns” learned were the stock phrases of the trade: “Buy sumthin', ya [oh] laydee.” Sometimes the women would add a sing-song rhythm to the appeal replete with (a slightly exaggerated?) drama of existence. Mary Matti had her favorite:

Qadmi, qadmi, ya Mrs., Qadmi
[Approach, approach, Mrs., approach]
Buy sumthin', father dead fil blad [in the old country]
Buy for shoes, lil awlad [for the children][22]

Other phrases that they acquired helped explain their hunger or their need for a place to stay. But beyond these few verbal bridges to American society, communication for this first generation of emigrants remained difficult. One woman who was peddling wanted to know what time her train was coming. “She began to motion to a man and make a sound like a puffng train—boo, boo, boo, tûm [time]—He couldn't understand her; . . . finally she turned to him in anger and said in Arabic: you are as dumb as a donkey, don't you understand?”[23] Another young peddler, mistaking a customer's response (“I'm busy”) for the Lebanese feminine imperative (qanbzi, or squat), sat down on her haunches until another peddler rescued her from her most uncomfortable position.[24]

Beyond the frustrations of language lay the intricacies of American currency, the art of packing a suitcase just one button below its explosive threshold, and the skills needed to capture the eyes of wary customers. The tutor of Mary Amyuni told her to “hold up the rosaries and crosses first; say they are from the Holy Land because Americans are very religious.”[25] But perhaps the most crucial business lesson was on how to make a profit. Watfa Massoud was told, “If you buy a dress for $10, sell it for $20 and take $10 from the customer first before giving her the dress. Then, if she wants credit, give it to her; but always get your cost first.”[26] Such profit margins were mostly attainable in the countryside, where farmers had little access to stores and dry goods. There, the novice would quickly learn, lace bought for 5 cents a yard could be sold for 15, and holy pictures which cost 10 cents should be offered for a dollar.[27] In the city, competition and experienced hagglers drove the profit margins lower. One peddler, responding to an inquiry by the U.S. Pushcart Commission of Greater New York, stated that like his fellow traders he asked for the highest price possible because “if we ask a woman for half a dollar, she gives you fifteen cents, and if you ask for fifteen, she gives you three.”[28]

Taking lessons from veteran peddlers was not always helpful in a straightforward fashion. After a particularly difficult day of peddling, Nasim Samaha came back complaining to an experienced woman peddler that all the other peddlers were having doors opened to them but not he. She said to him:

You are not speaking to them in the Rachaya [town in Lebanon] accent, are you? What an ass you are! Talk to them in a Damascene accent. So he went out the next day and began using the Damascene accent, and tried to act appropriately refined to match it. He held up a pair of earrings [for a woman customer] and began to swing them back and forth, speaking all the while in the sing-sing intonation of the Damascene accent and finally put them to her ears. She picked up a broom and swatted him with it and chased him away.[29]

A novice woman peddler learned about using customers' bathrooms the hard way. On her first trip out, her companion told her, as a prank, “'Don't say you want to go to the toilet; it will cost you $5 for each time.' So all day she peddled, and although the need arose she didn't ask any of her customers to use the bathroom for fear of paying $5. Finally she got desperate and went back to her partner begging. He told her he'd arrange it with the next customer. He did and told her to give him the $5, . . . which he kept and used to buy his friends drinks that evening as he told the story of his prank to all who would listen, . . . including the poor woman!”[30]

Along with the serious and humorous lessons came the quick realization that it was not easy to make money. Life on the road (whether bustling city streets or lonely rural lanes) was filled with challenges. In the cities immigrants had to contend with the police and with collecting from customers. In the countryside, there was the ever-present concern about finding a place to bed for the night and food to quiet rumbling stomachs. Everywhere, there was pressure to make money. (In case the immigrants had forgotten the purpose of their trip to the Americas, letters from home—with requests for money, inquiries about profits, and so forth—jogged their memory.) Immigrants talked of frozen feet, hands, and noses, of women's frozen skirts slashing cold ankles, and of begging for a room or stable in which to stay. On one of his peddling trips, Faris Naoum was accompanied by a fellow villager's wife. One night, he wrote:

When I asked for sleep and said she was my wife, they would not believe me. [She was forty-five and he was twenty at the time]. When they would see her they would not give us accommodations. We continued walking until we reached a small town. There was in it not a hall or a boardinghouse. We had left the town about one mile when I saw . . . a small building. I jumped the fence; . . . it had windows and a round door which was closed. I opened my kashshi [qashé] and I used scissors, No. 9, [to open the window] and we entered. We saw two cases. . . . From our fatigue we did not see the graves. . . . Then the moon came out. The woman looked outside and cried out, . . .“We are sleeping in a mausoleum and the dead are beneath us in the boxes!!!”[31]

On top of all these problems was the simple fact that there was no gold to be shoveled off the streets of American cities. Even if most immigrants did not believe in such fairy tales, many did have great expectations for the fortunes to be made in the “New World.” A few did indeed make large sums of money in short periods of time. One immigrant had amassed a fortune amounting to $70,000 in 1910, or some twenty-five years after his arrival in New York; another had opened a glove factory in Gloversville, New York, which sold $400,000 worth of goods in one year alone.[32] But for most the economic reality was not quite so rosy. It is quite difficult to generalize about annual incomes of peddlers since that depended on a host of subjective and objective factors. Anything from the price of Midwestern corn in the United States to the talents of the individual peddler would cause a fluctuation in income. And a severe winter would easily reduce the profits of peddlers by limiting their sales. Still, from the notes of various contemporary observers, we can surmise some figures. Writing in 1911, Louise Houghton estimated the average annual income of peddlers to “vary from $200 to $1,500 a year.”[33] Miller ventured a guess—because “very few of the peddlers could [would?] give a correct estimate of the average amount of their monthly earnings”—of “perhaps $10 to $12 a week [of gross income from] industrious peddling.”[34] A quick calculation produces an annual income of about $450, if we assume that for at least a few weeks the peddler could not (for any number of reasons from illness to cold weather) knock on doors. Work in factories generated even lower incomes for the Lebanese immigrants. Essa Samaha, who had emigrated to Worcester, Massachusetts, around 1900, earned $3.55 per week at a factory.[35] Latifa Khoury began working in a glass factory when she was only fourteen years old. She wiped glasses for about one year, earning a little over $2 in weekly wages.[36] In later years workers in “heavy industries” like the Ford automobile factory would earn higher wages, ranging from $5 to as much as $12 per week.

Working Women

Regardless of the type of work immigrants engaged in, their annual incomes were hardly as large as the ones they had daydreamed about in Lebanon. So, how did they send back to Lebanon $300 and $400 checks every six months?[37] The answer to this question has two parts: emigrants were extremely frugal, and each family had more than one breadwinner. For many years emigrants hung on to conservative notions of the subsistence economy, which they had grown up with in the villages of the Mountain. It took quite a while for these peasants to make forays into the consumer society as it was emerging in the big cities of America. And when they did, it was a quick dash to test the waters before retreating for fear of being swallowed up by the dizzying eddies and currents of “modernity.” Joining the flow—if they ever did—was indeed a slow process.

They were never quite comfortable paying for shelter, buying a variety of clothes, and eating extravagant amounts of meat. Faced with the abhorrent novelty of paying large sums of money for rent, immigrants balked. If they could not refuse, then at least they could lessen this constant drain by crowding together in small apartments. In the cities of the United States, Brazil, and Argentina, immigrants chose to begin their sojourn in “dark and dank” quarters. Counting immigrant families and apartments in New York City, one observer found that over 70 percent of the “families” lived in apartments that rented for less than $14 per month and that were made up of two rooms or even one.[38] One of the rooms might receive sunlight, but more often than not the apartment's window looked away from the street into an internal yard. On average, the same observer calculated methodically, four to five people lived in these apartments. Sleeping under those conditions meant spreading mattresses across the whole floor. The “scientific” tone of these characterizations becomes slightly more impassioned when the report states, “The number of baths in the Syrian homes . . . can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and there are very few private closets, . . . many [of which] are constructed in the illegal sink fashion.”[39] Taking baths “on Saturdays” meant setting a galvanized steel tub in the middle of the kitchen and having relatives and neighbors swirling around the lone bather. In winter the discomfort was accentuated by the bitter cold, which was barely staved off by a single wood- or coal-burning stove. (Piped heat was a luxury only those paying upward of $360 in annual rent in 1909 could afford.)[40]

In outlying areas, crowding was even worse. In an article entitled (in a straightforward racist fashion) “Don't Like Arabs,” which appeared in the July 16, 1901, issue of the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, neighbors complained of “the deportment of fifty Arabians who represent the colony [of Lebanese immigrants] living in a building . . . at 1220 South Third Street.”[41] The building included only two apartments and a store below them, so living conditions were dense. In Spring Valley, Illinois, the story was the same. Recalling the “time of the emigrants,” the daughters of George Abdelnour described the peddlers' house on Minnesota Street. “It was used by all the peddlers when they were in town. It had one kitchen and often about two dozens at a timead daydreamed about in Lebanon. So, how did they send back to Lebanon $300 and $400 checks every both men and women, husbands and wives, single men and single women—daydreamed about in Lebanon. So, how did they send back to Lebanon $300 and $400 checks every slept there on the floor, two or three families in one room. A man and his wife maybe partitioned off with a drape or something.”[42] Squeezing together for warmth and frugality was also common among immigrants in Fort Wayne, Indiana. By sleeping ten, twelve, or even twenty “souls” to a room in the “hotel” of Salem Beshara, emigrants limited their rent to $5 or $10 a month.[43]

Cramming into an apartment meant that there were “strangers” in the midst of “families.” Boarders were a necessary part of the formula for cutting costs. Many families took in boarders because the dollar or two they paid reduced rent costs by 10 to 20 percent. For those desperate to save money, this reduction in costs was nothing to scoff at. Out of a total population of 1,891 immigrants in Brooklyn in 1904, some 464 were boarders, men and women who were not directly related to the family with whom they were staying.[44] Living cheek by jowl limited the social privacy of families. Coming from a society that was suspicious of admitting “strangers” into the physical spaces of the “family” for fear of a fadiha (scandal with sexual overtones), a family that took in boarders added significantly to their social stresses. How were parents to keep the “honor” of their daughters from being sullied by rumors and innuendoes? How was a husband to guarantee that nothing unseemly would transpire between his wife and a boarder? These were difficult questions, not easily answered given the financial realities. For most immigrants, the answer was simply to accept increased interaction between men and women either on the road or at home. Yet, as we will see later in this chapter, some observers were not quite so accepting of this interaction, especially since it “tarnished” the image of “Syrians” from the perspective of the American middle class.

Having a great number of people tromp through an apartment or house not only was socially inconvenient but also made for more work. Someone had to clean up the constant mess. And staying “clean” in America was inherently more difficult than it was in the old country because, as one Sicilian woman exclaimed, “We had no blinds, no curtains and the floors were all made of stone. You have no idea how simple life was over there.”[45] This could have easily been the sentiment of a Lebanese immigrant as both cultures shared much in peasant background and early immigrant experiences. Within the city, chores became more intense and regular than they were in the country. City grime assured the need for more clothes and more washing. Instead of going to the local village stream once a month to do the wash, immigrant women had to launder the family's clothes every week in the kitchens of their apartments.

Cooking was no less a hassle. For starters, the usual foodstuffs were not always available. Trying to cook kibbé in the “New World” became a logistical nightmare of importing the heavy stone mortar and pestle, buying bulgur wheat, locating lamb meat, and finding all the necessary spices. Even when such items could be found in the larger Lebanese communities, the task of cooking became more cumbersome because it was a lonelier experience. When she was bound within the kitchen of an apartment, the “housewife” found that cooking elaborate meals became less of a social event and more of an isolated chore. Even if we do not exaggerate the extent or immediacy of this change (women and men continued gathering in kitchens to talk and work together), the shift was palpable to the immigrants. Children—who would be helping their mother in the village—were now in school or working. Other women who would have come calling in the village homes were themselves either working outside or inside their own homes. Even the mother, wife, or sister who was expected to do the cooking was herself working eight- to ten-hour days trying to bring in money.

All of these people worked because frugality could go only so far. It was quickly evident to many immigrants that everyone who could had to work outside the house in order to make ends meet. Almost every adult had to walk miles, stand for many hours, or sew late into the night just to make a living. Women were no exception. In droves they left the “house” and went into the “public” spaces to make money. Although we do not know the exact numbers of women who worked at peddling or other jobs, we can estimate that it was a majority. In New York, for example, we know that officially 38.1 percent of immigrant Lebanese women worked either peddling or in a factory.[46] Further south the numbers were smaller but not by much. Klich estimated that in Argentina somewhere around a fifth of the women worked alongside their husbands, and Clark Knowlton dismissed immigrant women's work as minimal in Brazil by noting that only a quarter worked.[47] In fact, it is quite certain that immigrant women worked at earning money in far larger numbers, albeit in ways hidden from the eyes of male observers. Based on interviews with immigrants in the United States, Alexa Naff contends that anywhere between “75 and 80 percent of the women peddled during the pioneer years [1880s–1910].”[48] Even women who never peddled or who left that job worked in other venues. Many helped in family stores or sewed items at home that were later sold by a male relative, and some even worked as servants in the houses of rich immigrants. Informally, women took in boarders, cleaned and cooked, and contributed a modicum of order in a chaotic world and time. That alone was of immense—albeit nonmonetary—value to the whole family.

Going back to the “tangible,” we find many testimonials to the long and hard work of women so that their families (in the mahjar or back home) could survive. In the words of one descendant of immigrants, “Women weren't afraid and were strong and even women up to 70 years of age peddled.”[49] Budelia Malooley recounted how “Mother arrived and started to peddle in Spring Valley, . . . must have been in her mid-teens at the time. She resumed peddling on her return to Spring Valley from Lebanon after my father died and I was born [about the first part of 1904]. She'd make $5 to $10/week. She'd have to send money back to Rachaya to support my sister and brother.”[50] Women were drawn to peddling for several reasons. Primarily, and as noted above, most families would not have attained their financial goals without the work of women. But at other times women had no option but to work as they were the sole or main “breadwinners.” For Sultana al-Khazin, work was a necessity of survival for her and her children. Sultana traveled to Philadelphia in 1901 to join her husband. However, on arrival, she discovered, much to her dismay, that he was living with another woman named Nazira. His plan was for all of them to live together in the same house as one family. Sultana was not quite so cavalier—to say the least—in her approach to marriage, so she packed up the three children and moved out on her own. Soon she was selling linens door to door.[51] Some women lost their husbands not to infidelity but to death. They, equally, had to contend with raising a family on their own. Alice Assaley was widowed when she was only in her twenties. In order to raise her son and daughter without her husband or any other male relatives, Alice worked first as a janitor and later as a peddler in Springfield, Illinois.[52]

Houghton remarked on another reason for women's work while discussing the misguided attempts of U.S. social workers to induce “Syrian” women to abandon peddling for more “honorable and lady-like” pursuits. Rhetorically she asked, “Why should she [an immigrant] give up the open air, the broad sky, the song of the birds, the smile of flowers, the right to work and rest at her own pleasure to immure herself within four noisy walls and be subject to the strict regime of the clock?”[53] Of course, one must take the pastoral bit about “song of the birds” and “smile of flowers” with an immense grain of salt; life on the road was hardly this romantic. However, hidden amidst the flowery language is a good deal of common sense and truth. Peddling for some women was not only a necessity but an escape.

Mayme Faris vividly remembers arguments between her father and mother about her mother's peddling.

My mother peddled when my father had the [supply] store. It was a controversy between them; he didn't like her to; he didn't like her independence. She wanted more for them. She worked hard; two or three days after my sisters were born, she would be up washing and not long after that she'd take her stuff and peddle. Once my father got mad and destroyed her satchel—in front of the other peddlers and the women who lived around there too. No, she wasn't disgraced. . . . She stopped it for a while and when she felt they needed more money, she would go. But independence was a big thing in their [women's] lives.[54]

Sophia Mussallem was equally persistent and restless in seeking financial independence. Starting in 1885, when she first immigrated to the United States at the age of fourteen, she worked. From Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Green Bay and Watertown, then across to the Oklahoma Territory, she peddled all the way to Muskogee. Throughout her expeditions she stashed away money to fulfill the dream of owning a store, which she finally accomplished in Muskogee.[55] And Oscar Alwan's mother made more money as a peddler than did his father. “She was a strong woman. . . . She was never afraid, people [in upstate New York] loved her and waited for her to arrive. She knew how to deal with people, she was a good saleswoman.”[56]

Of course, not all enjoyed this “freedom”; for some it was a burden more than anything else.

[In Toronto,] there was a girl from Rachaya who peddled and it was cold and the snow would come to her waist and she'd have to walk from door to door, street to street. It was very difficult in those days. One day she despaired. She took her suitcases and angrily threw them aside saying “ah, when will I be rid of you, you qashé. When?” A Lady nearby asked her “what's the matter?” she answered nothing and sighed heavily. This lady turned out to be Arab—she asked the peddler in Arabic: “Are you an Arab?” She answered: “yes.” The helpful lady said in Arabic, “If I find you a husband will you marry him?” The girl answered yes, find me one. I will marry anyone so I can finish with this qashé and from peddling. The lady found her a man and the girl married him and was happy with him.[57]

While sounding like a variation on the story of Cinderella, this tale embodies the frustrations some women must have felt with the hard life they encountered in the mahjar. Hauling on their backs for mile after mile satchels weighing twenty-five or fifty pounds was exhausting. Knocking on doors and struggling with hand gestures and broken English to make a sale was agonizing and humiliating at times. This frustration occurred because the context of labor had changed in the crossing of the Atlantic. While in the village most people worked and lived in similar ways, the same was not the case in the mahjar. There the gap between rich and poor was far more glaring, especially to immigrant women who knocked on middle-class doors all day long. The suspicious or pitying looks they received only added mental burdens to their physical labor. In comparison with the elaborate entryways and wallpaper that decorated middle-class homes, the tenement housing to which they returned every evening must have been depressing. And even if many of these women were strong, they tired of the routine of working all day only to come home and work half the night.

It should be obvious by now, from all the “althoughs” and “whiles” that are sprinkled throughout the preceding paragraphs, that the experience of immigrant women varied considerably. Their desire for work as well as their need and reasons for employment were hardly uniform. But the fact that they all worked, at one time or another, outside the “house” is the common thread running through their varying experiences. Abandoning the “private” space of the house and sallying forth on a daily basis into the “public” world of city streets was a new experience for most of these women. It was made even more so by the fact that these spaces were being divided by gender in U.S. society even as they arrived at Ellis Island. Social workers and the burgeoning middle class of the United States did not expect womet—he repository of morality in society—to work in the sullied world outside the home.[58] Thus, these women not only were transgressing their “imported” gender boundaries but also were also trampling—as it were—across the terrain of a middle-class world rising all around them. Their work—born of economic necessity and individual desire—was implicitly and explicitly questioning both the “traditional” and the “modern” notion of women's role in society. Equally, the crisscrossing between “private” and “public” spaces was wreaking havoc on the lines that were being drawn between the two by the emerging middle class. Altogether, then, immigrant women were challenging the simplifying division of the world surrounding them, making the ideas of “modern” and “traditional” largely irrelevant and presenting an alternative notion of “America.”

Finding Community

Directly and indirectly, the middle class responded by seeking to “civilize” the immigrants even as it shunned them.[59] In the words of one social worker, “Old standards must be changed if we are sincere in our desire to attain a higher form of civilization. The strangers from across the water must be taught to discard un-American habits and conventions, and to accept new ideals.”[60] Or as M. A. Howe wrote in 1903, “To cope with these new conditions [the influx of immigrants] the same efforts are being made in Boston as elsewhere in America. The attempt to amalgamate the diverse elements into a common citizenship goes forward through hundreds of agencies—the public schools, the social settlements, the organization of charities, secular and religious, designed to meet every conceivable need of the unfortunate, but in such a way as to create citizens instead of paupers.”[61] Immigrants could not be allowed to hover indeterminately between the “modern” and “traditional,” for such a position would expose the absurdity of these ideal types and their irrelevance as either historical devices or symbols of the present world. Immigrants were expected to choose, and to choose to be “American.”

This was not a vague and diffused sense of citizenship. Rather, most social workers attempted to universalize “modern” middle-class life.[62] Domesticity for women, leisured children, and working fathers were the norms of the middle class. These same values were projected as the ideal to which immigrants must aspire because it was culturally “superior.” Such sentiments were not the reserve only of conservatives—who were more likely to demand the deportation of immigrants—but were the primary goal of the more liberal of the “settlement houses.” As one writer noted in The Survey, a progressive social-reform magazine: “The social and moral life of a smaller family where the father earns enough to support wife and children, and where the mother can devote her time to the care of them, and where neither she nor the children go out and help in the support of the family, is superior to that of a family with a large number of children where the wife and often the older children must slave.”[63] Ethnically, settlement workers also shared the chauvinism—if not the fears—of the larger middle class. For instance, in Americans in Process, a study issued by the South End House in Boston, Italians were characterized as an “excitable race,” Jews as having a “an instinct for sharp practice in trade,” and Syrians as “liars and deceivers.”[64]

And although some settlement workers struggled to protect the right of the immigrants to retain control over their identity and values, they inadvertently undermined that same goal, as was most evident in their approach to children and adolescents. Settlement workers were “shocked to discover the number of parents who regarded offspring as potential sources of revenue.”[65] Horrified by the “abuse” of children, these workers called for enactment of better labor laws and for more rigorous enforcement. As Gwendolyn Mink shows in her study The Wages of Motherhood, progressive social reformers believed that Americanization would emancipate immigrant women and their children.[66] Far more radically, reformers like Robert Hunter, Florence E. Kelley, and Lillian Wald argued that the state should intervene on behalf of the children by “taking them off the street.” In blunter terms, a social worker by the name of Philip Davis argued that the unprotected street child was “public property of which the community is trustee.”[67] And children were not the only ones who were to benefit from this paternalism. Adolescents—a social category constructed in the U.S. mid-Victorian climate—were also to be afforded “protection” from their immediate families by guaranteeing them the same solicitude reserved for middle-class youth.

Public schools were equally active in “assimilating” the children of immigrants to an “American” life that was imbued with middle-class values. As their numbers increased from 160 in 1870 to 6,000 by the end of the century, the reach of these schools grew.[68] And their purpose was specific. In the words of one New York high school principal, “Education will solve every problem of our national life, even that of assimilating our foreign element.”[69] Or, as the Cleveland Americanization Committee advertised in a 1917 poster, public schools were to draw immigrant children from their parents' “Peasantry” to “American City life.”[70] In this fashion many children were exposed to the narratives of “American modernity” and learned to feel that their own languages, dress, and customs were stigmas in an intolerant environment.

And these were the sentiments of the more progressive elements in the landscape of U.S. social politics. The majority of the middle class exhibited a far more bluntly racist and reactionary attitude toward immigrants. The “Syrians” experienced several famous incidents of racial prejudice. Congressman John L. Burnett proclaimed in 1907 that the “Syrians” were “the most undesirable of the undesirable peoples of Asia Minor.”[71] He was followed in 1914 by Judge Henry Smith of Charleston, South Carolina, who denied George Dow his application for citizenship on the premise that “his skin was darker than the usual person of white European descent.”[72] Houghton—who wrote four essays about Lebanese emigrants in the United States for the socially conscious magazine The Survey—shows this prejudice to be not simply a phenomenon of the South. Stating it rather delicately, Houghton attributed the “clannishness” of the three thousand Lebanese in Boston to the fact that “even the best of Boston people . . . appear unable to appreciate certain characteristics of the Syrian nature and temperament.”[73] In fact, by 1900 the nativist movement had spread to the North, where it attracted a wide following.[74]

Confronted thus on an almost daily basis by people who gazed at them benevolently and otherwise as “foreign,” immigrants found themselves in a situation they did not encounter back in their villages. There they never had cause to see their clothes as unfashionable, nor did they regard their words and food as “exotic.” In the village, children were brought up in a tight (and at times claustrophobic) social environment, where they were expected to follow closely in the footsteps of their parents. In the mahjar, public schools and exposure to a wider and culturally more powerful range of social lives made children more prone to depart from the straight and narrow path. Social workers, bent on “Americanizing” and “sanitizing” the lives of these immigrants, came into the tenements and questioned the most intimate details of their existence.

As all these forces pulled and tugged at the social fabric of their existence, immigrants became aware of the need to reweave that cloth even as its threads frayed at the edges. In other words, they had self-consciously to (re)discover who they “were” and to reconstruct their “home” as a container of their identities. “Home,” as it emerged, was a concoction of romantic memories stoked by distance, new realities that required a place, and plenty of gaps in between.

In apartments, on the street, in coffeehouses, at churches, and in social gatherings, questions about “tradition” were debated, argued, and not always resolved. The nature and contents of this debate are most apparent to us through the pages of Arabic newspapers, a new medium of public expression for the immigrant community.[75] Statistically, between 1892 and 1907, twenty-one Arabic dailies, weeklies, and monthlies were published in the United States alone. Seventeen of these were based in New York City, and most did not survive for long. Nonetheless, when one considers that by 1907 there were only fifty thousand Lebanese immigrants in the United States who had access to eleven publications, it becomes clear that the Arabic press did indeed flourish as a new medium of communication for the community. And while we do not have exact statistics about the number of subscribers, we can guess at these numbers from anecdotal evidence. Al-Huda gave a glimpse of its readership when it stated in one defensively toned editorial that even the best Arabic newspaper (a self-referential term) in New York City could not expect its readership to total more ten thousand and that new subscriptions did not surpass two per day. However, it claimed that this low number of readers could be attributed to the fact that many “borrowed” the newspaper from their friends. Thus, we can safely assume that a sizable percentage of the community was exposed to a newspaper that “was beneficial to them . . . and gathered for them various news and helpful information.”[76]

Despite their early tendencies to publish self-serving articles and insulting diatribes, the newspapers matured over time and began to include serious discussions of social and political issues that faced the Syrian community in the “West.” With titles such as The Guidance, The Immigrant, and The Mirror of the West, these newspapers clearly regarded themselves as the guideposts for the immigrant community. Their purpose was to instruct readers about the ways and habits of the “West” and how to deal with all the changes living there entailed. This purpose is all the more pronounced when we note that in the late 1920s the title of the most popular Arab American newspaper was The Syrian World—a heading that signified a dramatic shift in perspective. The articles, advertisements, and serialized novels which appeared in these newspapers were important in shaping the way the community looked at itself; they promulgated idealized notions about fashion, love, marriage, work, and a host of other subjects. In other words, Arab American newspapers provided a mirror for the community; in it members could see their growing differences from those left behind and from the “Americans” amidst whom they were residing.

Framing the debates were two quite disparate positions. A “dialogue” that appeared in al-Huda on March 22, 1898, illustrates these extremities and is worth quoting in full.

(Two Syrians: A Syrian Nationalist and an Americanized Syrian)

Americanized Syrian:

Are you still a villager? Haven't you become civilized?

Syrian Nationalist:

Do good manners allow you to insult me this way when you are pretending to be so civilized?

Americanized Syrian:

We alone know what it is to be civilized and we regret that you are not one of us.

Syrian Nationalist:

And what are the benefits of joining your kind?

Americanized Syrian:

Don't you understand that we are all intelligent? For when we become Americanized, we are able to earn more without working hard and we help each other by gaining greater prestige.

Syrian Nationalist:

But, I am from the East and I prefer to preserve the honor of my forefathers.

Americanized Syrian:

After what I just told you, are you provoked because I called you a villager? Haven't you heard of Darwin who denies that man evolved from man? We are what we are as a result of the evolutionary process. And, your preserving the honor of your ancestors is pure ignorance and lack of education.

Syrian Nationalist:

I have not read Darwin and I gladly leave that honor to you. But you can be what you want to be; I am going to remain an Easterner. My original ancestor was Adam and it is likely that his language was Arabic. Long live the East! Down with its enemies.[77]

Here one finds in abbreviated format the distinctions between “modernity” and “tradition.” There is the appeal to Darwin and scientific “truths” as the underlying foundation of U.S.—and by extension Western—civilization. Juxtaposed with that “us” is an “East” that is simple, peasant, ignorant, illiterate, and religious. There is the proposed entry into the ranks of the “middle class,” as opposed to a clinging to the village. At first glimpse, then, it would appear that this dialogue accepts the civilizational divide between “East” and “West.”

Yet, these words are also self-consciously vaudevillian in their intellectual poses. The reader is alerted to that from the start since the article appeared in al-Huda under the title “Wit and Humor.” In addition, it is quite easy to recognize that the tone of this “dialogue” mocks the con-cept of “Americanization.” This mockery is most evident when the “Americanized Syrian” proclaims that “we are able to earn more without working hard”—a contrarian notion to the “Protestant work ethic,” on which the middle class prided itself. Moreover, “good manners” are set against the notion of “civilization”—two concepts that were supposedly intertwined in middle-class culture. On the other side, we find the “Syrian Nationalist” (a new category that had not existed before) proclaiming that Adam was likely to have spoken Arabic—a claim that is at once unbelievable and empowering against the “scientific” knowledge of “modernity.” The total intended effect is thus for the reader to observe the ridiculousness of both positions and to join the writer in shunning such absurd bifurcations. In other words, this article was ultimately a rejection of the divide between “East” and “West,” even as it outlined their positions.

In this sense the article reflected the fact that most immigrants hovered in between these positions. They continuously mixed and matched (or mismatched for that matter) what they brought with them and what they saw in the streets and homes of the Americas. New “traditions” were created out of these combinations in compromises that tried to straddle the cultural and class divides which separated Lebanon and peasants from the mahjar and immigrants, and the mahjar and immigrants from the larger middle-class world surround them. Thus, what we see among the immigrant communities in the Americas is the rise of a class whose members (for the most part) tried to distinguish themselves as different (culturally and socially) from middle-class America as well as from peasant Lebanon. In this process little was spared from argument and scrutiny. Fashion in clothes, ways of rearing children, social etiquette, religion, education, communal identity, and women's work were among the most prominent themes around which the various debates swirled. But all were elements of carving out a place within an overpowering cultural and social space as defined by middle-class “America.”

Gaining a sense of community was one of the first tasks that faced immigrants bent on retaining some semblance of control over their collective and individual identities. Coming from villages that were occupied, for the most part, by members of extended households, immigrants identified community with their immediate surroundings. Household and village were the markers that most regularly and predominantly contoured a peasant's sense of belonging. Only on rare occasions did peasants have to refer to religious background to identify themselves. Yet, in the mahjar these markers were not quite as utilitarian. As peasants emigrated beyond the physical space of the village and became dispersed across the Americas, it became harder to use the clan or village in any concrete fashion.[78] Even when family members and villagers from the same locale congregated in, say, Boston or Montevideo, they were no longer as isolated from other clans and villagers. For example, in Fort Wayne, villagers from Rachaya, ‘Ayta, ‘Irna, ‘Ayn ‘Arab, and Bloudan, along with people from Zahleh and Beirut, shared kitchens, meals, and stories about life on the peddling road. In New York City—and larger cities in general—the diversity of backgrounds was even greater.[79] Furthermore, outside the Mountain, the reference to a village or clan became somewhat meaningless, at least when one was dealing with the larger American societies. It would have meant little to a Criolla from Argentina, who regarded all immigrants from Lebanon as Turcos, to be told the village from which an individual hailed. Nuances of regional accents that villagers had used in Lebanon to identify “strangers” would be equally incomprehensible across the language barriers. While in Lebanon the crumpled topography of the mountains kept communities fairly well separated, the flattened terrain of the mahjar afforded immigrants no such isolation. In Detroit, for instance, the Lebanese community living on Congress Street was bordered by “Italians, Irish, and blacks, and children of different nationalities were friends.”[80] The same “national” diversity equally pervaded the compact urban space of Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and most other cities. For all these reasons, then, a new sense of community had to be forged and grafted onto layers of existing identities.

At the highest level of abstraction emerged the “Syrian.” From without and within the community this name came to identify all immigrants from Mount Lebanon. Thus, we find social workers referring to the “Syrian” community, and immigrants identifying themselves as from “Syria.” For instance, Houghton—one of the earliest social workers to write about the Lebanese immigrant community—refers to it as the “Syrian” community. In the maps drawn by the reformers of the Hull House which showed the ethnic distribution of immigrant communities in Chicago, the entry for immigrants from Mount Lebanon is labeled “Syrian.” This appellation extended into official circles by the first few years of the twentieth century. At that time immigration records at Ellis Island began to record the arrival of immigrants from the Mountain under the category of “Syria” as opposed to the previously larger category of “Ottoman Empire.” Immigrants themselves came to adopt this term, albeit in a far more limited and problematic fashion.[81]

Beyond the scope of this “national” identification were the more immediately relevant concepts of identity, among which was congregation along religious lines. Maronites, Melkites, and Syrian Orthodox families tried to build churches and attend them as a community of believers. However, given the wide geographic dispersion of these communities, the task was not easy. For example, before 1920, only ninety churches ministered to all three communities, which totaled close to 120,000 people. In addition, the active opposition of the Roman Catholic Church to the immigrant churches kept them from organizing any dioceses or appointing a bishop to serve them. Even the much more organized Syrian Orthodox Church faced a crisis in its membership until the first appointed bishop—Bishop Hawaweeny—sent out a pastoral letter in late 1912 “to his clergy and people forbidding them to accept the ministration of Episcopalian clergy who at that time were deceiving people into believing that Orthodoxy and Anglicanism were synonymous.”[82] With these stumbling blocks, churches could provide only limited venues in which the immigrant community could coalesce.

Another approach was to set up associations of all types. Secular in nature, these societies ranged from social clubs to women's charitable societies. Some lasted a few years (like the Young Syrian Society), while others are still going (the ‘Attiyeh family club). Most were narrowly focused on promoting the cohesion of a clan or of adherents of the same faith. Victoria Samaha was asked—politely but firmly—to resign from the Douma (a village in Mount Lebanon) Society after she married a non-Douma man.[83] But a few, like the United Syrian Society, which had no religious restrictions on membership, were interested in transcending narrow sectarian boundaries and promoting a new, large sense of collective identity. Regardless of the type of association that was formed, a debate was involved. This debate was a conscious attempt on the part of the participants to define their communal identity in an inclusionary as well as an exclusionary manner. Moreover, this sense of identity was in a constant state of tumultuous flux as new people with new ideas entered the community.[84]

Gender and Identity

Despite their importance, these identities were not a constant in the daily existence of immigrants in the mahjar. Referring to one's “Syrianness” or church or association was rarely necessary. A far more immediately relevant set of social signifiers were embodied in the “family.” And at that level the discussion about identities and social traditions was more pronounced and tendentious. Evidence is to be found in the various articles and debates that appeared in the “Syrian” press. Rarely did one encounter articles about national identity, the associations, or even religion—except for a good number of critiques of the “corrupt clergy.” Far more common were essays that dealt directly and indirectly with the establishment of a new social space with clearly defined roles for individuals and “traditions” for families—even though that clarity could never be attained. For some of the contributors to these debates, the subtext was a search for a way to establish an immigrant middle class. As one author put it, “It is time for everyone to know their place. . . . Not everyone who gathers some money becomes a member of the middle classes and not everyone who dressed his wife in a twenty dollar hat becomes a notable, rather social status in our days is the status of knowledge and manners.”[85]

A host of articles appeared in the Lebanese-American press that were specifically meant to articulate the outlines of these new manners and to map the horizons of this new knowledge. During the early years of immigration, for instance, several articles discussed the social behavior of immigrants. One such article was published in the “Social Conventions for the Man and the Woman” section of al-Huda under the title “Knocking on the Door.” Salim Mukarzel, the author, brought it to the attention of his readers that, “amongst the public in Lebanon, [entering a house] without asking for permission is not considered a failure but a sign of sincere friendship; . . . but here in the United States . . . entering upon [the private space] of a person without asking for permission is considered a fault.” Mukarzel went on to provide an inventory of the “modern norms for entering upon a friend or a stranger.” These are among those that he listed:

  1. No individual should enter upon another individual without first asking for permission, wherever he may be
  2. He must knock at the door, and if he is invited to enter then he would, and if he is not invited to enter then he must turn back even if he knew that those with whom he wants to talk are to be found in that room.
  3. The visitor must knock at the door gently
  4. [One] must not look through the keyhole into the room
  5. Excusing those whom you are visiting if he has [a reason] which necessitates turning back the visitor.[86]

These recommendations were obviously an attempt to redefine the social space of the immigrants. In essence, Mukarzel was concerned with establishing a “modern” set of manners which he believed should govern the social relations of individuals. He began his essay by establishing that Lebanon and the United States represent two social environments that sit on opposite sides of the modern/traditional divide. After essentializing both spaces in such a manner, Mukarzel clearly delineated the boundaries of the “modern” social space. In this conception—which he invites his fellow immigrants to subscribe to—social space is centered around the individual and not the household as a whole. Gaining access to such space ceases to be a privilege of belonging to a community and becomes dependent on being invited into that privatized territory.

The justification for this shift is provided by another author who wrote an article a year later pertaining to the same topic. Coming straight to the point, that anonymous author remarked that “the Syrian in this country visits his brother the Syrian and very often he is a heavy burden on his host, for he spends time in pointless and useless conversation and the time of the host is wasted between smoking the argeelé [water-pipe]and cigarettes and drinking coffee.”[87] Thus he superimposes on time a financial value: to visit “frivolously” is to waste that time—a most valuable commodity in the “modern” world.

If men's visits were—in the eyes of both writers—a waste of time, women's socialization was “the great disaster. . . . [The visit of the Syrian woman] is also heavier than a mountain” because it is spent discussing “trivial” subjects, eating, drinking, and smoking. The writer shows his absolute disdain for such frivolity by counseling that “visits in the absolute should be short because work is a duty; . . . and the woman also has duties some of which is managing her house by preparing food, sweeping rooms, cleaning the furniture and she is also entrusted with . . . raising children and other many things, so if she wastes time then how can she do all of this?”[88] Thus, not only were men expected to be more focused on isolated tasks than on building social relations within a community, but women also were to be equally attentive to “their tasks.” Only, in their case, women were to work alone at home emulating the domesticity of the middle classes. In this fashion, a new division of labor was being assigned to a social space that both authors are eager for their compatriots to adopt and which they regard absolutely as a staple of “modernity” and as a way to merge into the mainstream of American society. However, given that this advice was repeated for years to follow, it would appear that immigrants were not taking too well to these proposed boundaries.

Managing time and observing new manners (or not as the persistence of these advice articles demonstrate) were but one aspect of the new “modernity.” Parenting—which was also a subject of many articles and books in the mainstream media—was another arena that some authors sought to “rationalize” and “modernize.” Around the same time period (the end of the 1890s), other articles counseled readers how to be “modern” parents. One such treatise was written by Elias Qirqmaz, who argued that immigrant parents, but particularly mothers, were not rearing their children in a proper manner. In his article, which he wrote for al-Huda in 1899, Qirqmaz summarized all the “ills” that beset “Syrian” children under the title “The Misery of the Syrian Child in the Crib, and in the House, and in the Market.” He began his argument by marveling at the “health and vigor” so apparent among children of the “civilized foreign millal [plural of millet, community],” especially when compared with the “weakness” of the Syrian child. Then he noted that “Arab newspapers [in the mahjar] have long dedicated large space for doctors and researchers to show the great mistakes that mothers commit in raising their children.”[89]

These mistakes begin at infancy when “the mother throws the baby in the crib and begins to tie him up [swaddle him] to the point where he cannot breathe at times.” From there things only get worse as “she places the baby in the kitchen or in a room where the air is spoiled . . . or cigarette smoke hovers above the room like clouds.” If a child makes it to the age of four, Qirqmaz mused, then his digestive system is assaulted by all manner of foods that “his weak stomach cannot digest.” But the greatest mistake that parents were committing, according to our author, was in the moral upbringing of their children. He wrote, “We would like to bring [your] attention to the ugly habit which the people of our country have grown accustomed to and it is the habit of hitting a child. . . . [It is ugly] because it makes him like an animal who is not afraid of anything but the stick. And if he grows up then he stays in this way not doing anything except with fear and not saying anything except while shaking [from fear].”[90]

His solution to this problem was to morally educate the child and “to habituate him to respect the words of his parents.” He then proceeded to criticize parents (but, again, mainly mothers, “upon whom rests the advancement of the world in the future or its destruction”) for letting their children spend so much time “on the streets.” Such laxity, he complained, only brought the children to a lower level of “lying, cheating and general sleaziness.” Finally, Qirqmaz concluded this essay with the grave pronouncement that “it is better for parents not to have children born to them if they were to disregard them like most Syrians disregard their children in the big cities.”[91]

In 1903, Nasrallah Faris concurred with this judgement in the course of his essay “The Syrians and Schools.” He began his article in much the same way as Qirqmaz had, by drawing an unfavorable comparison between “American” and “Syrian” children. He wrote, “The Syrian does not care to send his children to school as opposed to the American whose child grows and becomes ready to accept the principles of science and moral education.”[92] The “American sends his little one [to school] to learn the sciences because he considers learning and morality the best inheritance he can leave for his children.” Juxtaposed with such an “enlightened” attitude toward education was the attitude of the “Syrian” who—per Faris—could care less about his child's education and who lets him “roam the streets and alleys and pick up insolent language.” In fact, things had gotten so “bad” in Bangor (Maine) that the “government . . . sent two of its officials to the Syrians to threaten the fathers with penalties and punishment if they do not send their children to the public schools.”[93]

Interspersed within this fairly good advice, we find cultural constructions that have little to do with reality and much to do with a world-view that sunders life into two mutually exclusive categories. Both Qirqmaz and Faris totalized the “Syrian” into a monolithic, “uncivilized” being who does not have the power of knowledge that the “West” possesses. Consequently, these authors stipulated for themselves and for “doctors and researchers” the role of transmitting that knowledge in order to “civilize” the community and bring it into the fold of “modernity.” In doing so, they sought to impose a capitalist division of labor on knowledge whereby “experts” would own and generate the “truth” while mothers would be the laborers in passing that information along to their children and in rearing them in “modern” ways. These ideas fitted with a new understanding of childhood and, to a lesser extent, adolescence. Children were to be isolated from the community and confined within the walls of the “private” home and the schoolroom in order to “protect” them from bad influences. They were to be sheltered from work and not required to contribute to the family's income. All these elements were obviously the hallmarks of middle-class life in the United States and means to perpetuate the isolation that the middle class was engendering by narrowing the focus of daily life to singular households rather than keeping that focus on an integrated community. Moreover, it assumed that having children lead such a middle-class life would create a happier and more “wholesome” childhood.

Standing in the path of these attempts to impose a middle-class view of “modernity” on the immigrant community was the fact that most Lebanese women worked outside the home. Consequently, the desired “cult of domesticity” could not be achieved without a construction of a new concept of “woman” and gender roles. Thus, we find—beginning with the earliest appearance of Lebanese newspapers (circa 1892)—articles dealing passionately and vociferously with the topics of women's work, their status, education, and comportment, as well as marital relations. By the turn of the twentieth century, a few of these newspapers (like al-Sa’ih,Mirāatal-Gharb, and al-Huda) were even dedicating regular columns to gender issues. Under the title “Womanly Topics of Discussion,” one or two (and sometimes three) articles on “womanhood” appeared in al-Huda at least every other day. And while in the late 1890s one only read the writings of a couple of women authors, by 1905 the number of such contributors had surpassed ten. On the one hand, most of these essays were attempting to deal with the contradictions women's work brought to light in the “traditional” patriarchal contract. On the other hand, this labor transgressed the “public/private” divide that was coming to define middle-class life in the United States—a life that, as noted earlier, some observers were eager for the community to join.

Elias Nassif Elias, a regular early contributor to al-Huda, was one of those. He argued that women's work tarnished the honor of the “Syrians.” To make his point, Elias told of an experience he had while sitting in the lobby of the Central House Hotel in Bridgewater, Maine. “While talking with some men about various matters,” he wrote, “[I heard] a light knock on the door, so one of us got up to open [it] only to find a Syrian woman weighed down by her heavy load; . . . and she sighed saying: I will sell to those men for the amount of 4 or 5 dollars and I do not care if they laughed at, or made fun of, me.”[94] With the stage set, Elias proceeded to describe a scene in which the “American” men ask the “Syrian” woman to do various “humiliating things” (such as letting one of the men tie her shoes), and in which they are patently making fun of her. Elias could not stand the situation anymore, so he left without identifying himself as a compatriot of the woman. Without reflecting on the irony inherent in his lack of intervention in the “degrading” affair, Elias proceeded—in his composition—to reproach the “Syrians” for letting “their” women work. He scathingly asked, “Oh, you dear Syrians who claim honor; . . . is it honorable to send your women to meander and encounter such insults.”[95]

As more immigrants made the move from itinerant peddling to a “respectable” settled life, the tone of the opposition to women's work grew more strident. A merchant by the name of Yusuf al-Za‘ini was far more explicit about the nature of the danger facing this “honor.” In his tract “The Female Qashé Sellers,” he proclaimed women's work as “a disease whose microbes have infested healthy and sick bodies alike,” and which leads women to “lewd, filthy and wanton behavior.”[96]

Five years later, in 1908, Yusuf Wakim wrote with concern about this same matter of women's unabated work and its effects on their “honor” and that of the “Syrian” community. He recounted that he knew “of one man who left his wife in Mexico with three children and came to Pennsylvania; [there] he met an emigrant woman who was still young and who had come to America to bring to her husband in Syria the old country the treasures of the new world. . . . [The two] went together to New York . . . living in a house whose owner is also living with his female partner.”[97] Maintaining that such examples were neither exceptions nor benign, Wakim advocated that the emigration of “Syrian” women should be prohibited or at least should be subject to certain conditions, in order to stop such licentious behavior. In fact, he asserted:

The useful medicine for stopping women's emigrating by themselves is for the Syrian press to strongly decry and criticize every Syrian man who allows his wife or daughter to come to America by herself, and for all the reporters and agents and readers of the Arab newspapers, in all of the lands of emigration, to make known every immoral woman and to announce the name of her husband and her family, place of residence, the date of her emigration, and the details of her life history and actions in the mahjar, and to decry every man that helps the Syrian woman to continue in her immoral behavior. . . . And if need be then it is necessary to inform Uncle Sam's government about the treachery of every treacherous man and woman.[98]

But the “concern” was not just about protecting an “honor” grounded in the “traditional” construct of patriarchy. Many of those objecting to women's work saw it as a departure not only from Lebanese norms but, more important, from the standards of the middle class in the United States, into whose ranks they were trying to gain entry. Elias—who slipped out ever so quietly from the lobby of the Central Hotel in Bridgewater, Maine—is a case in point. After chastising the “Syrians” for transgressions against “honor” because of women's work, Elias crossed almost seamlessly into the “modern” variation of patriarchy by concluding, “The woman was created for the house and the man for work, and it is shameful for the man and woman to exchange their jobs.”[99] Such an immaculate split, which had little to do with the lives of many immigrants, was an essential element in the attempt to form a Lebanese middle class in the mahjar.

Equally, all three articles share a common concern with infusing immigrant life with middle-class fears of sexuality run rampant. Using clinical terms, they identified women's work as the “disease” that was “infesting” the communal body and simultaneously destroying “traditional honor” and “modern morality.” In a singular turn of phrase, then, these authors collapsed women's economic independence with sexual freedom and defined both as detrimental. Part of the “cure” for these problems was to subjugate women to male authority and confine them to the “home.” This analysis of the situation and the resulting recommendation echoed the fears of the larger American middle class of sexuality and the restrictions its members imposed in order to confine female sexuality within the house.[100] And like the Anglo-Saxon bourgeois moralists who surrounded them, these authors sought then to universalize the “true” gender identity that derived from middle-class history and sensibilities. In fact, other authors argued that the only way to avoid the “fall” of women into “ruin” was to mix with the “middle classes of America” and not the lower classes, “with whom we the Syrians mingle.”[101] However, as Christine Stansell noted for the working classes of New York in the 1860s, “the . . . culture of [working-class] mothers [was] antithetical to the terms of home life and womanhood developed and championed by urban ladies.”[102]

The criticism leveled against women's work was met with mild objections from more liberal elements within the immigrant community. These contrarian views did not advocate women's work as inherently good but rather as a necessary evil. Speaking from an equally “modernist” and middle-class perspective, these writers tended to emphasize that the fault lay not with the women but with their “lazy” or “incapacitated” husbands or fathers. Read, for example, the following rejoinder by Nasrallah Faris. Reacting to Elias's story of the woman peddler, Faris wrote, “We agree with the writer that [a woman] should not travel to sell if her husband is capable of properly taking care of her needs and the needs of her house, but if that woman had emigrated and left in the country a sick man . . . or one heavily indebted then is it not permissible for her to sell? Or if her husband is with her and he was sick, then who will take care of him, or if he was a gambling drunkard then how can she depend on him?”[103] ‘Afifa Karam, one of the earliest women writers in the mahjar, took up the same theme in a later article. Addressing those writers who were maligning the “honor” of women peddlers, she said, “You ascribe licentiousness, depravity and immorality only to the [female] qashé sellers, but you are wrong because an immoral woman is not constrained from committing ugliness simply because she is living in palaces, or because she is imprisoned there.” Elaborating further on her defense of women peddlers, she emphasized that “you probably know that there are many poor widows or orphaned girls in the country [Lebanon] who are suffering from the pain of hunger, . . . they and their children. Those, therefore, were driven by circumstances and came to these lands [(the United States) to make a living].”[104] In this construction, women's work is dissociated from morality and honor, while its connection to class is maintained. Karam and Faris make it clear that only poor women work and, by extension, that work is a necessary evil and not a right for the woman.

Following in the same vein, other articles and editorials sought to dispel concern about women's labor by stating that a woman's honor, “like pure gold,” will not be tarnished by work. To emphasize that point, al-Huda reminded its readers that women had worked in the silk factories of Mount Lebanon without any visible side-effects and that they did so long before they arrived in “Amirka.”[105] Thus the “factory girls” of the previous generation provided a history and “tradition” of women's work. Yet even as this connection was repeated in defense of women's later work, it also built on the notion that working women are of the lower classes and that middle-class women have no reason to labor outside the house.

Nevertheless, even as they defended poor women's work as a necessity, these writers converged with their conservative counterparts in constructing an ideal of “womanhood” that was distinct in its “modernity” from the life experiences of most immigrant women and from the lives of “peasant women.” Thus we find the editor of al-Huda addressing the issue of gender roles with a lengthy article—replete with historical “evidence,” fables, and imagery from American life—that contended that men and women should occupy separate but equal places in society. Waxing poetic, the author wrote, “Jules Simon, the famous French philosopher said, 'The improvement of human society is by the improvement of women,' and others have said, “She who rocks the cradle with her left shakes the world with her right.' There is no doubt that the education of the woman and her elevation in status is an education and elevation of ourselves, because the woman is the nurturer of children, and children are the men and women of tomorrow.”[106]

Karam went further in elucidating the notion of “womanhood” by creating four mutually exclusive categories of “woman.” Seeking to dispel the mirage that the “American Woman” is perfect, she submits to her readers that sublime “womanhood” does not reside in appearances or external beauty but in deeds. Accordingly, a woman is either “good,” “deceitful,” “working,” or “ignorant.” The “good” woman is the one who attends to her duties and helps her mother while a young woman, and as a bride makes her husband happy and makes her house a paradise.” “Working” women, however, are not —“God Forbid”— necessarily without morals, but they do exist in an environment that is filled “with dangers” which could compromise their honor. However, for Karam, the worst two kinds of women are the “ignorant” woman, “the disease of civilization and the curse of modernization,” and the “deceitful” woman, who pretends to be “good” but is in reality a “snake that poisons the honey of life.” Trying to be beautiful, powdering the face, and wearing corsets to make thin waists were all considered frivolous affairs by Karam. Women were wasting money on external beauty while ignoring the need for an inner beauty that the “good” woman maintains through her proper manners and morals as well as through her knowledge of how to run her household efficiently and effectively.[107]

Education was a critical element for this new “good” woman. Education would allow the woman to fulfill her “natural” duty of being the “queen of her house and her small following: her little children,” a role deemed critical by these writers for the modernization of their community.[108] The editor of one Lebanese-American newspaper approvingly quoted an “American” magazine on this point. He wrote that the “educated, wise, gentle, hardworking and pure woman lifts her husband and brother and friend [to a better status] while the ignorant, frivolous, mean, and idiotic woman lowers them.”[109] Mariam al-Zammar, who saw women as “queen[s] of [their] house,” illustrated this point through the juxtaposition of two “types” of mothers: one is educated to “manage” her house, while the other is illiterate and incapable of taking control of matters inside her “kingdom.” The first mother plants “good seeds” and reaps “good fruit,” while the second produces wayward children.[110]

Or, as Karam wrote, “education and moral upbringing are part of the duties of the woman towards her children, so if she herself does not know them then how can she teach them [to her children].” To prove her point, Karam asked her readers to go with her in thought to the villages of Lebanon. She then asks, “Don't you find that every man there is a 'ghoul' . . . and why if not because his mother knows nothing other than the story of the ghoul so she teaches it to him.” Juxtaposing the “monstrous” upbringing in the “villages” (a term meant to indicate “backward traditions”) with the refined existence in the cities of the “West,” Karam concluded that the moral salvation of the “Lebanese” could be found only in the education of young women.[111]

However a serious obstacle stood in the way of attaining this level of “civilized” existence: men's recalcitrance. One author noted that “the [Syrian] man demeans, curses and hits the woman.”[112] Carrying this refrain, Karam noted in one of her essays that the “Syrian” woman is among the most pathetic women in the world and “that she is not of the same status as Western women.”[113] Asking rhetorically of her opponents in the debate (in this case an Iskandar Hatem), “What is the cause of this inferiority?” she quickly added, “If he [Hatem] tells me that the whole fault does not lie with the man, then I will answer him: with who then? Isn't it he [Hatem] who said that he [the man] is the manager of her affairs[?] . . . So if he respected . . . and dwelt on educating her does he not think that she will learn and acquire [better] status, and in fact [become] a complete woman.”[114] Thus, Karam creates a circular relationship between gender roles and status. A man cannot climb the social ladder of respectability without the woman at his side. Yet, for the “woman” to help in this process, she must be educated and made “complete,” and helping her become so is the responsibility of the man.

Later articles expanded on this theme, coupling a rise in social status with the notion of “equal but separate” gender roles. Both al-Zammar and Karam argued that marital harmony must suffuse the household in order to create an environment suitable for nurturing children and to keep them from vices like “drunkenness and gambling.” Such a state of being can come about, according to these moralists, only if the roles of the man are revised as well as those for the women. “When a man marries,” Karam wrote, “it becomes [part] of his primary duties to provide happiness to his wife and his children.”[115] Such happiness will not be attained unless he spends his free time with his family rather than in the coffeehouses or at the homes of people. Furthermore, and in exchange for the hard work that a woman puts into the house and its management, the husband should provide love, gentleness, and guidance rather than consider himself the “boss and the lawgiver within the family.” Although the woman must “of course” obey the man, this obedience should be voluntary rather than forced and derive from love rather than fear.[116]

“True” love was located at the heart of this marital bliss. Thus, it too had to be defined for the consumption of the readers of the press. The first step in this process was to depict previous marital relationships as “barbaric” and devoid of compassion, in order to make the contrast with “romantic love” all the more compelling. For this purpose, many serialized novels, poems, essays, and articles attacked the “tradition” of arranged marriage and exalted the ideal of romantic and free love. As one writer put it, “Love is one of the necessities of this universe and it is given to all.”[117] This sentiment was dramatized in many novels. One of these was entitled Layla. In one particularly saccharine passage, the father of Layla has the following exchange with his daughter: “Do you not know that I am planning to marry you to [your] paternal cousin, Yusuf, for he is the best man in our city and he has asked for your hand, so what do you say to that? So Layla cried deeply then sighed and said: Oh Father, do you not take pity on your daughter whose heart has been seared by love, do you not take pity on my youth, do you not take pity on my sorrows? If you insist on marrying me to Yusuf then I will die. I do not want any other than Farid as lover and husband.”[118]

Sprawled across the pages of Lebanese-American newspapers were articles that questioned more directly what Layla's father was attempting to do. Al-Huda launched this attack in a series of articles starting in 1899 and continuing through 1908. Throughout, new and “modern” rules for marriage were laid out to “enlighten” the readers. For instance, in an article dated March 5, 1899, the writer emphasized that marriage is not only desirable but economically “sound” since single men tend to waste their money on “immoral” behavior in “clubs, theaters and houses of ill-repute.” Approaching the issue “scientifically,” the author stated that men should marry between the ages of twenty-two and thirty and “should chose their mates not for their wealth but for their education.”[119] A little over a year later, the concept of “modern” marriage were expanded by another author, who declared that marriage should be based on “individual preference” and not be arranged or forced.[120] A. Hakim, who decried the “pathetic” custom of arranged marriage in an article in the Syrian World, expounded further on the reasons for “modern” marriage. Just as other authors linked the progress of society to the “cult of domesticity” and to “new” relations between husband and wife, Hakim contended that “modern” marriage “is the basis of happy family life, which in turn is the basis of the prosperity and progress of the nation.” Borrowing from the racial theories that abounded in the United States at the time, he went on to argue that “upon the outcome of our efforts along this direction will depend either the improvement of the status of the race or its deterioration.”[121]

In less racial and more universalizing and literary prose, the mahjar authors wrote poems and short stories criticizing these same marital “traditions.” Mikhail Nu‘aymi, Khalil Gibran, Nasib ‘Arida, ‘Abd al-Masih Haddad, and Amin Rihani—most of them members of the Pen Club—wrote to one extent or another in the tradition of Romanticism. They incorporated “the belief that the individual is an infinite reservoir of possibilities and that if society can be rearranged by the destruction of all oppressive orders then these possibilities will be realized and progress will be achieved.”[122]

More than any, Gibran fully embraced that tradition. For instance, he depicted his opposition to arranged marriages most powerfully in the four stories that make up Spirits Rebellious (al-‘Arwah al-Mutamarrida).[123] In one entitled “Rose al-Hani,” Gibran powerfully evokes the idea that love scorns social conventions. A young woman is married to an older rich man, who is kind enough and looks after her. However, her existence is shaken to its core when she meets her soul mate. After living a double life for a while—in which she is married to one man but loves another—she finally abandons her husband and goes to live with her beloved, ignoring in the process all social norms. In the second story, “The Bridal Bed,” the ending is more tragic and correspondingly more evocative of the theme of Romantic love. On the day of her arranged wedding, Layla sees her beloved and decides that she cannot follow through on what her socially ambitious father expects her to do. She meets her beloved in the garden, and when he refuses to run away with her, she stabs him to death, then calls the guests to come and watch her kill herself after delivering a sermon on life and love.

Like Gibran, Mikhail Nu‘aymi wrote scathing critiques of “tradition.” His were more eloquent in their subtlety. In one short essay, entitled “The Barren,” he depicted “tradition” as the scourge which destroys happiness and love. A couple's happily married life begins to unravel when the woman remains without a child for over a year. The assumption is made that it is her fault, and she is compelled by her in-laws' pressure to resort to “traditional superstitions” in order to become pregnant. Under the weight of these “traditional” expectations, her husband's love is slowly replaced with coldness and aversion. Finally, she commits suicide, leaving behind a note that tells her husband that while she still loved him, she could not live without his love.[124] “Tradition” in marriage, in gender roles, in raising children, and in the myriad of social relations and mores which governed daily life was thus evoked and attacked.

Yet, even among the most ardent critics of “tradition”—as an articulated, monolithic set of oppressive social relations—there was never a desire to abandon the “East.” For many of the same commentators who advocated the embrace of “modernity” in most aspects of life also recognized the coldness and alienation that the “modern” engendered in daily life. They saw the supposed innate “spirituality” of the “East” as an antidote to the materialism of the “West” and as a means to soften the harshness of the “modern” world. Thus, we find Gibran painting in words and drawings pastoral images of Lebanon which stand serene in their soft haziness. But not only writers employed such images to escape the “modernity” of the mahjar. Emotionally charged zajal rhymes, which became wildly popular after the 1890s among immigrant Lebanese, recalled images of daily village life and of working and living off the land. Emile Mubarak, one of the folk poets, wrote of how he missed plowing the soil behind an ox and smelling the fresh essence of newly turned soil. Another poet, As‘ad Saba, spoke of the month of April in the village, with the blossoming of trees and flowers and the start of agricultural life.[125] Romanticized as they were, these rhymes spoke of the distance these immigrants began to feel from the world they left and of their discomfort with the world they came to. Strung across that distance, the simple words were one way to come to terms with the tensions immigrants were experiencing.


Like other immigrant communities, then, the Lebanese came face to face with a new and politically charged map of the world which divided it into “traditional” and “modern.”[126] This state of being was depicted for the Yiddish community in New York in two cartoons which appeared in a Yiddish newspaper. One cartoon showed a group of men, women, and children sitting in an uptown theater and behaving as “Americans”—that is, listening passively and attentively. The second showed the same group revealing their “true” selves by being loud and boisterous, eating and drinking. The struggle was between alternative ways of becoming “American.”[127] For the Lebanese this tension was equally present. They were criticized and derided for their “way of life” in the words, social mores, and material culture of a powerful middle class in the United States. This criticism compelled some commentators to seek a “modernization” of their community that would bring its members close to being part of idealized middle-class life in the United States. Yet, other commentators—and even the same ones, as noted above—did not want to forego their “native” identities, which distinguished them as Lebanese, Syrians, Arabs, Easterners. In those they saw a set of identities that were satisfying emotionally and that allowed them a sense of uniqueness and individuality that “modernity” was threatening to immerse in its sea of middle-class uniformity.

As a result of this tension, immigrants were neither assimilated nor did they remain insulated in a cocoon of tradition. New hairstyles—including short hair for a few brave souls—lipstick, and other implements of “modern” self-decoration became tools for burrowing underneath the foundations of patriarchal control. Yet, fathers and mothers still kept a tight rein over the movements, labor, and actions of their daughters. Romantic love was propounded as the ideal of individual liberty that would lead to social progress, even as many immigrants continued to marry their paternal cousins. A woman was expected to become a “queen” of her house, at the same time as most women were outside their homes working to make a living. A man was counseled to stay home and embrace the middle-class norm of isolated domesticity even as more coffeehouses opened in the larger immigrant communities. Immigrants attended the nickelodeon, where they were supposed to passively see “America” and learn to be “American,” yet these theaters were the sites of self-expressive commentary and antics.

As a result of these dizzying circumstances, the construction of a new set of identities was a tumultuous affair that produced many variations on similar themes. Being “Syrian” or “Lebanese” was argued about but never really resolved; a sense of sectarian identity emerged and was submerged at various times; as a result, some felt that it was an essential element of their selves, while others derided organized religion as a curse. Most notably, however, the “family” as the locale of intense social relations was subjected to the same pressures of “modernization.” There were constant calls to shrink the scope of these families to an idealized nuclear family living a prototypical middle-class life. However, this “ideal” could not be realized. The relations which defined the “family” were never isolated behind closed doors but continued to extend—albeit in a revised form—into the neighborhood and even across the ocean. Relations between husband and wife may have grown more intimate, but that did not exclude either of them from their gendered spheres. Daughters and sons gained more independence, but many still had to work to satisfy familial obligations. In short, then, between 1890 and 1914 the Lebanese immigrant community constructed a new set of relations that were neither “modern” nor “traditional,” neither “Eastern” nor “Western.” Rather, these new identities were peculiar to their historical experience. And as much as “hybridity” differentiated them from middle-class “America” it would also come to distinguish them from peasant “Lebanon.”


1. Smithsonian Museum of American History, Alexa Naff Arab American Collection, Series 4-c-c, interview with Michel Haddy, Spring 1962. [BACK]

2. Ibid., Series 4-c-1, interview with Skiyyé Samaha, 1962. [BACK]

3. Robin Waterfield, Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998), 27. [BACK]

4. This phrase was common around the River Plate region of Argentina but is likely similar to the Spanish stock phrases supplied to peddlers in Uruguay. This phrase is cited in Estela Valverde's “Integration and Identity in Argentina: The Lebanese of Tucuman,” in The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration, ed. Albert Hourani and Nadim Shehadi (London: Centre for Lebanese Studies and Tauris, 1992), 316. [BACK]

5. Personal interview with Najibé Ghanem, September 1998. [BACK]

6. Smithsonian Museum of American History, Alexa Naff Arab American Collection, Series 4-c-c, interview with Michel Haddy, 1962. [BACK]

7. Ibid., Series 4-c-1, interview with Tafeda Beshara. [BACK]

8. Naff, Becoming American, 138–146. [BACK]

9. Barrio de los Turcos was the name given to the neighborhoods occupied by the Lebanese immigrants, who were lumped with all immigrants from the Ottoman empire as Turcos. In these areas the qashé was known as cajón de Turcos, which in common parlance today means a messy drawer or crammed handbag. Valverde, “Integration and Identity in Argentina,” cf. 7, 315. [BACK]

10. Smithsonian Museum of American History, Alexa Naff Arab American Collection, Series 4-c-1, interview with Alice Abraham, 1962. [BACK]

11. Ibid., Series 4-c-c, interview with Michel Haddy, Spring 1962. [BACK]

12. “A Picturesque Colony,” New York Daily Tribune, 2 October 1892. [BACK]

13. Lucius Hopkins Miller, Our Syrian Population; a Study of the Syrian Communities of Greater New York (San Francisco: Reed, 1969 [1905]), 11. New York housed the largest community of Lebanese immigrants in the United States. For instance, according to Miller, in 1901–1902, 38 percent of the 4,333 arriving immigrants recorded that city as their final destination, while the remaining 2,658 immigrants were spread out among the other states. Moreover, an overwhelming 73 percent traveled to a destination in the North Atlantic states, with the great majority among these (2,900 out of a total of 3,163) residing in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. I state all these numbers to indicate only that: (1) statistics from the community in New York do give us a good idea of the overall pattern of employment followed by all emigrants, and (2) when Massachusetts and Pennsylvania (two highly industrialized states as opposed to those in the Midwest and the South) are added to the picture, the argument becomes even more persuasive. [BACK]

14. Klich, “Criollos and Arabic Speakers in Argentina,” 273. [BACK]

15. The commentator, Rabbi Samuel Halphon, was actually chastising Ashkenazi Jewish itinerant vendors, whom he saw as a negative influence on the Jewish community in Argentina. However, his comments about the “get rich quick” aspect of peddling applies equally to the Lebanese immigrants. Quoted in ibid., 12–13, cf. 69, 275. [BACK]

16. Quoted in Afif Tannous, “Acculturation of an Arab-Syrian Community in the Deep South,” American Sociological Review 8 (June 1943): 270. [BACK]

17. In her work on Jewish and Italian immigrant women in the Lower East Side of New York City, Ewen noted many similar reasons why members of these ethnic communities took up peddling. Peddling, she wrote, “was also a way of avoiding the discipline of factory labor. One woman, who had just lost her job in a sweatshop, contrasted her work to that of her peddling sister by noting that 'in selling pretzels and shoelaces we need not support the contractor and the other go-betweens, as we have to do now.'” Elizabeth Ewen, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890–1925 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1985), 74, cf. 12, 169. [BACK]

18. This strong identification transcended the emigrant community and made its way into American popular culture in the form of the “Syrian” peddler, who was a prominent—albeit stereotypically lewd—character in the musical Oklahoma. A more flattering portrayal of Lebanese peddlers appeared in Christgau's children's book The Laugh Peddler. Published in 1968, the book recalls Christgau's fond memories of Hanna Yusuf, a peddler who made visits to her parents' farm in the lonely Minnesota countryside. Yusuf dispelled the monotony of farm life with his charm, friendliness, and compassion, and he ultimately saved two children who were lost in a blizzard. Alice Christgau, The Laugh Peddler ( New York: Young Scott Books, 1968), 13–16. [BACK]

19. Smithsonian Museum of American History, Alexa Naff Arab American Collection, Series 4-c-1, interview with Skiyyé Samaha, 1962. [BACK]

20. Ibid., Series 4-c-c, interview with Michel Haddy, Spring 1962. [BACK]

21. Smithsonian Museum of American History, Alexa Naff Arab American Collection, handwritten memoirs, Faris Naoum, 1957. [BACK]

22. Ibid., Series 4-c-2, interview with Mary Matti, Spring 1962. [BACK]

23. Ibid., Series 4-c-1, interview with Skiyyé Samaha, 1962. [BACK]

24. Naff, Becoming American, 188. [BACK]

25. Smithsonian Museum of American History, Alexa Naff Arab American Collection, Series 4-c-1, interview with Mary Amyuni, Fall 1962. This and similar comments are quite intriguing because they give us a glimpse into how the Lebanese emigrants “saw” the United States. It is also a telling sign of the fact that they were not simply passive bystanders in a society controlled by “others” but rather were active in defining that society from the periphery inward. [BACK]

26. Ibid., Series 4-c-3, interview with Watfa Massoud, August 1979. [BACK]

27. Ibid., Series 4-c-d, interview with Mayme Faris and Louis Labaki, 1968. [BACK]

28. U.S. Pushcart Commission of Greater New York, Report of the Mayor's Pushcart Commission (New York, 1907), 200. [BACK]

29. Smithsonian Museum of American History, Alexa Naff Arab American Collection, Series 4-c-1, interview with Skiyyé Samaha, 1962 [BACK]

30. Ibid. [BACK]

31. Ibid., handwritten memoirs, Faris Naoum, 1957. [BACK]

32. Louise Seymour Houghton, “Syrians in the United States,” pt. 2, The Survey 26, no. 2 (1911): 663. [BACK]

33. Ibid., 662. [BACK]

34. Miller, Our Syrian Population, 29. [BACK]

35. Smithsonian Museum of American History, Alexa Naff Arab American Collection, Series 4-c-1, interview with Essa Samaha, 1966. [BACK]

36. Ibid., Series 4-c-5, interview with Latifa Khoury, 1980. [BACK]

36. Presbyterian Church in the United States, Board of Foreign Missions, “Correspondence and Reports,” Fifty-Fourth Annual Report of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (New York, 1897), 225. [BACK]

38. Miller, Our Syrian Population, 16. [BACK]

39. Ibid., 9. [BACK]

40. Ewen, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars, 150–152. [BACK]

41. “Don't Like Arabs,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, 16 July 1901, 8. [BACK]

42. Smithsonian Museum of American History, Alexa Naff Arab American Collection, Series 4-c-5, interview with Amelia and Haseby Abdelnour, Spring 1968. [BACK]

43. Ibid., Series 4-c-1, interview with Tafeda Beshara, Spring 1968. [BACK]

44. Miller, Our Syrian Population, 46. Of these folks, 164 were women. [BACK]

45. Quoted in ibid., 149. [BACK]

46. Louise Seymour Houghton, “Our Syrian Immigrants,” The Survey 2, no. 3 (1911), 436. [BACK]

47. Klich, “Criollos and Arabic Speakers in Argentina,” 268–277; Knowlton, “The Social and Spatial Mobility of the Syrian and Lebanese Community in Sao Paulo, Brazil,” 298. [BACK]

48. Naff, Becoming American, 178. [BACK]

49. Smithsonian Museum of American History, Alexa Naff Arab American Collection, Series 4-C-5, interview with Mayme Faris, 1980. [BACK]

50. Ibid., interview with Budelia Malooley, 1980. [BACK]

51. Ibid., Series 4-B, interview with Dorothy Lee Andrache (granddaughter of Sultana), January 18, 1991. [BACK]

52. Ibid., Series 4-C-5, interview with Alice Assaley, 1963. [BACK]

53. Houghton, “Syrians in the United States,” pt. 2, The Survey 26, no. 2 (1911): 648. [BACK]

54. Smithsonian Museum of American History, Alexa Naff Arab American Collection, Series 4-C-5, interview with Mayme Faris, 1980. [BACK]

55. Ibid., interview with Eva Frenn, November 18, 1980. [BACK]

56. Ibid., interview with Oscar Alwan, July 16, 1980. [BACK]

57. Ibid., Series 4-C-1, interview with Skiyyé Samaha, 1962. [BACK]

58. For an excellent study of the rise of the middle class in the United States, see Mary Ryan's Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790–1865 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), and Stuart M. Blumin's The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760–1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989). [BACK]

59. “American” reaction to immigrants ranged greatly over the social and economic map of the United States. The nativists rejected immigration as “mongrelizing” the species. See, for example, John Higham's Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativisim, 1860–1925 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988). The elitist romantics imagined a “pure and noble East” that should not be sullied by “modern” industrialism. Waterfield's biography of Khalil Gibran has an interesting section on this group, particularly those residing in Boston. Waterfield, Prophet, 117–134. Finally, the social workers tried hard to assimilate immigrants into the mainstream of American life. [BACK]

60. Cecilia Razovki, “The Eternal Masculine,” The Survey 39 (1917): 117. [BACK]

61. M. A. de Wolfe Howe, Boston: The Place and the People (New York: Macmillan, 1903), 382. [BACK]

62. It is important to note that some social workers had a more critical approach to the ideal of middle-class life. For example, Simkhovitch noted that immigrant women had a stronger position within the family than “often obtains in families of a higher economic level.” Mary Simkhovitch, Neighborhood: My Story of Greenwich House (New York: Norton, 1938), 136; also see Jane Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1902), 40–41. And young charity workers like Addams came to recognize that the “tidiness” of the middle-class charity worker was hardly a claim to cultural superiority when in fact it represented “parasitic cleanliness and a social standing attained only through status.” Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics, 18. [BACK]

63. S. Adolphus Knoph, “The Smaller Family,” The Survey 37 (1916): 161. [BACK]

64. Frederick A. Bushee, “The Invading Host,” in Americans in Process; a Study of Our Citizens of Oriental Ancestry, ed. William Carlson Smith (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Edwards Brothers, 1937), 49, 52–53. [BACK]

65. Robert Arhcery Woods and Albert J. Kennedy, The Settlement Horizon: A National Estimate (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1922), 185. [BACK]

66. Gwendolyn Mink, The Wages of Motherhood: Inequality in the Welfare State, 1917–1942 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1995). See also Eileen Boris, “The Racialized Gendered State: Constructions of Citizenship in the United States,” Social Politics 2 (Summer 1995): 160–180. [BACK]

67. Philip Davis, Street-Land: Its Little People and Big Problems, (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1915), 227–229. [BACK]

68. Alan Wieder, Immigration, the Public School, and the 20th Century American Ethos: The Jewish Immigrant as a Case Study (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985), 49. New York City, which had the most extensive public-school system, was teaching 1,376 foreign students in 1879 and 36,000 in 1905. Gustave Straubenmueller, “The Work of the New York Schools for the Immigrant Class,” Journal of Social Science 44 (1906): 177. [BACK]

69. John Buchanan, “How to Assimilate the Foreign Element in Our Population,” Forum 32 (1902): 691. [BACK]

70. Cited in Richard N. Juliani, “The Settlement House and the Italian Family,” in The Italian Immigrant Woman in North America, ed. Betty Boyd Caroli, Robert Harvey, and Lydia Tomasi (Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1978), 119. [BACK]

71. A prominent Lebanese physician in Birmingham took the congressman to task about this racial epithet in a letter to the editor which appeared in the Birmingham Ledger on September 20, 1907. [BACK]

72. Discussion of this case—which captured the attention of the Lebanese community in the United States—appeared in a two-part essay entitled “Syrian Naturalization Question in the United States,” written by Joseph Ferris and published in the February and March 1928 issues of the Syrian World. [BACK]

73. Houghton, “Syrians in the United States,” pt. 1, The Survey 26, no. 1 (1911), 492. [BACK]

74. According to Higham, The Menace, an anti-Catholic, nativist newspaper, grew between 1908 and 1911 from a yearly circulation of 120,000 copies to 1,000,000. In many of its issues it propagandized that the Vatican was ordering Italian emigration to the United States in order to dilute and subvert its “American” nature. Higham, Strangers in the Land, 64. [BACK]

75. Few have studied the history of the Arabic press in the United States. The only major study of this medium was a dissertation written by Melki; it was mostly a compilation of the biographies of the various editors of the newspapers and magazines, as well as a discussion of the topics that were generally covered. Henri Melki, “Arab American Journalism” (Ph.D. diss., Georgetown University, 1972). [BACK]

76. al-Huda, 18 January 1905, 2. [BACK]

77. “Wit and Humor,” al-Huda, 22 March 1898, 16. [BACK]

78. Italians in the United States experienced a similar process of identity formation. For example, in Chicago an Italian-language radio hour had to appeal to all Italians, and that meant emphasizing and inventing aspects of Italian culture and experience that transcended specific villages and regions; at the same time it had to address the concerns of Italians in Chicago. [BACK]

79. Enamored as he was with quantifying the “colony of Syrians” in New York, Miller found that 17.7 percent of its members were from north Lebanon (Kisrawan, North Metn), 14 percent from “northern Syria” (in reality the Bsherri, Zghorta, and Ehden regions), 21 percent from Beirut, 5.2 percent from southern Lebanon (South Metn, Shūf ), 25.1 percent from Zahleh and its environs, and 1.25 percent from Rachaya and Marj‘uyun. Miller, Our Syrian Population, 18. [BACK]

80. Smithsonian Museum of American History, Alexa Naff Arab American Collection, Series 4-C-5, interview with Anthony L. and George J. B., and Edna M., June 1980. [BACK]

81. This is not the place to discuss at length the development of this identity, but it is certainly worth delving into, particularly as it pertains to the growth of various brands of nationalist movements in Lebanon. [BACK]

82. William Essey, “Lest We Forget: Raphael, Bishop of Brooklyn,” The Word 20 (May 1976): 12. [BACK]

83. Smithsonian Museum of American History, Alexa Naff Arab American Collection; Series 4-B-3, interview with Victoria Samaha, May 1962. [BACK]

84. Najla Saliba of Detroit described such a situation. Her Melkite club was started by Melkites from various parts of Mount Lebanon and Syria. However, “they couldn't get together because each was from a different village or city. Everybody wanted to come forward in the name of the place he came from.” Ibid., Series 4-B-1, interview with Najla Saliba, May 1962. [BACK]

85. “Talk of Abu Hatab,” al-Huda, 8 April 1905, 4. [BACK]

86. Salim Mukarzel, “Knocking on the Door,” al-Huda, 22 March 1898, 9. [BACK]

87. “The Visit,” al-Huda, 3 January 1899, 17. [BACK]

88. Ibid. [BACK]

89. Elias Qirqmaz, “The Misery of the Syrian Child in the Crib, and in the House, and in the Market,” al-Huda, 18 April 1899, 13. [BACK]

90. Ibid., 14. [BACK]

91. Ibid., 15. [BACK]

92. Nasrallah Elias Faris, “The Syrians and Schools,” al-Huda, 17 April 1903, 2. [BACK]

93. Ibid. [BACK]

94. Elias Nassif Elias, “The Syrian Woman and the Qashé,” al-Huda, 26 May 1903, 2. [BACK]

95. Ibid. [BACK]

96. Yusuf al-Za‘ini, “The Female Qashé Sellers,” al-Huda, 12 July 1903, 2. [BACK]

97. Yusuf Wakim, “Necessity for Putting a Limit of Law That Prohibits the Emigration of the Syrian Woman to American,” al-Huda, 13 January 1908, 4. [BACK]

98. Ibid. [BACK]

99. Elias, “The Syrian Woman and the Qashé,” 2. [BACK]

100. In the 1860s American writers on sexuality, such as Doctor R. T. Trall, placed the “passional expression of love” within the house and gave responsibility for its control to the woman. And while admitting the possibility that women can experience sexual pleasure, he and other writers either subordinated female sexual desire, or lust, “to the passive, loving faculties of feminine character or denied [it] entirely.” Mary Ryan, The Empire of the Mother: American Writing about Domesticity, 1830–1860 (New York: Haworth Press, 1982), 105. [BACK]

101. “Thoughts of Thoughts,” al-Huda, 12 January 1905, 3. [BACK]

102. See Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860 (New York: Knopf, 1986), 219. [BACK]

103. Nasrallah Faris, “Men and Woman Were Created to Work,” al-Huda, 11 June 1903, 3. [BACK]

104. ‘Afifa Karam, al-Huda, 14 July 1903, 2. At the beginning of this article, Karam wrote, without the slightest hint of sarcasm, “I read above the article [by Yusuf al-Za‘ini entitled “The Female Qashé Sellers”] words from al-Huda asking 'educated men to respond and criticize' without including educated women. But I ask from al-Huda to excuse this action of mine [writing in response].” At the end of the article, the editor of al-Huda wrote, “We wish if more of educated women were like the writer of this article, not afraid to appear in a literary setting nor of the objections against them by foolish people.” Both comments were indications that the entry of women writers into this field was a fairly novel event. [BACK]

105. al-Huda, 5 March 1899, 15–17, and 11 September 1906, 3. [BACK]

106. al-Huda, 8 April 1900, 2. [BACK]

107. ‘Afifa Karam, “The Woman as She Is Today,” al-Huda, 23 August 1898. [BACK]

108. Mariam Yusuf al-Zammar, “The Mother and Moral Upbringing,” al-Huda, 10 June 1908, 3. In 1903 Karam noted in al-Huda (14 July 1903, 2) that only 5 percent of “emigrant women” were educated. This is a difficult statistic to verify. Our other source of information is immigration records, which give a slightly higher figure for literacy among “Syrian” emigrant women. Immigration Commission, Reports of the Immigration Commission: Statistical Review of Immigration, 1820–1910, 61st Cong., 3rd sess., 1911, S. Doc. 756, p. 86. [BACK]

109. al-Huda, 1 September 1900, 2. [BACK]

110. al-Zammar, “The Mother and Moral Upbringing,” 3. [BACK]

111. ‘Afifa Karam, al-Huda, 6 June 1901, 3. [BACK]

112. al-Huda, 1 September 1900, 3. [BACK]

113. ‘Afifa Karam, al-Huda, 21 August 1903, 3. [BACK]

114. ‘Afifa Karam, al-Huda, 2 September 1902, 2. [BACK]

115. ‘Afifa Karam, al-Huda, 18 January 1905, 2. [BACK]

116. Ibid. [BACK]

117. Sahib al-Khatarat, “Thoughts of Thoughts,” al-Huda, 12 January 1905, 2. [BACK]

118. A Pure Syrian Woman, “Layla,” al-Huda, 2 March 1899, 19. [BACK]

119. al-Huda, 5 March 1899, 15. [BACK]

120. al-Huda, 3 November 1900, 17. [BACK]

121. A. Hakim, Syrian World, 3 (October 1928): 51. [BACK]

122. Antoine G. Karam, “Gibran's Concept of Modernity,” in Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Literature, ed. Issa J. Boullata and Terri DeYoung (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997), 33. [BACK]

123. Khalil Gibran, Spirits Rebellious (al-‘Arwah al-Mutamarrida) (Cairo: al-‘Arab lil-Bustāni, 1991 [1908]). [BACK]

124. Nu‘aymi, “The Barren,” in Kan ya ma kan, 59–94. [BACK]

125. Abdel Nour Jabbour, Ētude sur la poésie dialectale au Liban (Beirut: Publications de l'Université Libanaise, 1957), 140–142, 152. [BACK]

126. There is a multitude of books on this subject for other ethnic communities in the United States. For the Italian community, see, for example, Donna Gabaccia's From Sicily to Elizabeth Street : Housing and Social Change among Italian Immigrants, 1880–1930 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), and Michael La Sorte's La Merica: Images of Italian Greenhorn Experience (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985). [BACK]

127. Cartoons appeared in Nahma Sandrow, Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (New York: Harper & Row, 1977). [BACK]

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