“It was the mother colony of all Syrians in North America”
June 22, 2019 9:33 AM   Subscribe

Strangers: the Syrian diaspora in 19th century New York. While they were predominantly Christian, like the majority of immigrants flooding into the country from other parts of the world, they were Arabs. They spoke Arabic. Their shop signs were in Arabic. They had over 40 local newspapers which were printed in Arabic. Some lasted only a couple issues. Others, like Kawkab America and Al-Hoda, lasted decades, and became debating forums for issues all immigrants faced when they came to the U.S. “They were trying to figure out who they wanted to be in the U.S.,” says Jacobs. “There was a debate in the community about how much of their identity they should give up, how much they should sacrifice to become Americans.” The language they spoke however, often misidentified them as Turks, having come from Ottoman provinces in Syria and Palestine.
posted by Ahmad Khani (9 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
There's a great profile of the Syrian community in Detroit in No Passport Required, Marcus Samuelsson's food / culture show on PBS. I had no idea but the Syrian community goes way back there, several generations. There's a lot of new immigrant refugees now but the history goes back a long way.
posted by Nelson at 9:37 AM on June 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Hundred years later, the same struggles are being fought all over the globe, including fighting for your identity when you are part of many different cultures.

I swear there needs to be an Immigrant's Handbook that navigates you through the many things you will experience in your new country regardless of where you are from or headed to. Things that takes you and your family years in not decades to discover and understand.

Thanks for this.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:14 AM on June 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

Thank you for posting this! I have a lot to read up on now.
posted by mdonley at 10:20 AM on June 22, 2019

Ameen Rihani's 1911 novel The Book of Khalid (Wikipedia; full text) is an interesting work of related interest, e.g. "And Shakib from his cage of fancy lets loose upon them his hyenas of satire. In a squib describing the bats and the voyage he says: 'The voyage to America is the Via Dolorosa of the emigrant; and the Port of Beirut, the verminous hostelries of Marseilles, the Island of Ellis in New York, are the three stations thereof'" or "And here we reach one of those hedges in the Histoire Intime which we must go through in spite of the warning-signs. Between two paragraphs, to be plain, in the one of which we are told how the two Syrians established themselves as merchants in New York, in the other, how and wherefor they shouldered the peddling-box and took to the road, there is a crossed paragraph containing a most significant revelation," etc., etc. Sort of like Tristram Shandy, it's a book people would have called postmodern if it had been published in the 1970s or 1980s.
posted by Wobbuffet at 1:13 PM on June 22, 2019 [5 favorites]

Really interesting, thanks for posting.
posted by sallybrown at 4:36 PM on June 22, 2019

I remember a subplot about the Syrian immigrant community in one of the Betsy-Tacy books.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:27 PM on June 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

I don't like the way the authors distinguish between "Syrians" and "Jews", and ignore the fact that the Jewish community of Syria was very significant and that many Syrian Jews ended up in the US. Here's a link to the Wikipedia page for the largest early synagogue for Syrian Jews in the USA, Congregation Magen David. It's very substantial and must have had predecessors, but I was unable to find any information on them. Similarly, I presume that there must have been many Muslim Syrians, Druze Syrians, etc., but after browsing her book on Amazon I see that Jacobs specifically limits herself to Arab Christians - that is, people who were specifically both Arab and Christian.

A restriction like this would be justified if she were more frank about the limitations of her work, but by calling them "the" Syrian colony her implication is that Arab Christians were the only Syrians to settle in the US. Worse, she treats people described as "Arabs" as if the term were reasonably equivalent to "migrant from Syria", and then excludes people "who have names that may or may not be Arabic". Consequently, she unreasonably expands the category of "Syrian" to include, e.g., Egyptians (Greater Syria extended as far north as Antioch and as far south as el Arish, but did not include Egypt or Arabia) and she then artificially excludes people without Arabic names on the grounds that "they may be missionaries or other nationalities from the Ottoman Empire." This is wholesale erasure and I find it hard to believe that she was acting innocently.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:45 PM on June 22, 2019 [8 favorites]

This absence is addressed specifically in both the introduction as well as a longer post by Jacobs titled "A Special Relationship: Syrian Christians and Syrian Jews in 19th Century New York". I do not think there is a "wholesale erasure" and no reason to ascribe motive.
When I was researching my book, Strangers in the West, about the Syrian colony of New York City in the nineteenth century, I was immediately struck by the absence of Syrian Jews in the colony. I would have expected that these new immigrants, whose first language was Arabic, would have been most at home among others who shared the same language and to a certain extent, the same culture. Although that was not the case, there were some special relationships that grew up between certain of the Syrian (Christian) colonists and some Syrian (Jewish) immigrants. It’s not that they intermarried or that they socialized together, but there seemed to be more to their relationship than simply buying and selling.

The two Jewish men most intimately connected to the Syrian colony were Ezra Sitt and Jacob Dwek, both from Aleppo, and possibly cousins. They are credited with being the first Syrian Jews in America. The two men traveled together, arriving in New York from Liverpool on the SS Germanic in July of 1892. Both were called farmers by the ship’s purser (a catch-all designation when no occupation was known), and both were literate (which probably means they weren’t farmers). Sitt was 27, Dwek was 29. By the time they arrived, there was a flourishing Syrian (Christian) colony on Washington Street running north from the Battery; many Syrian merchants already had successful wholesale or importing businesses. If indeed Sitt and Dwek were the first Syrian Jews, the Syrian Christians were virtually the only Arabic speakers in New York at this time. The two men must have felt at ease as they made their way up Washington Street, where the conversations and signs were in Arabic, Syrian restaurants served familiar food, and men were dressed as they were at home. Perhaps the two men came for the Chicago world’s fair, which took place from May to November of 1893. A third Jewish man, Murad J. Shemtob, born in Baghdad but who had lived in Manchester, England for many years did indeed come for the fair: he arrived in the United States in 1893, serving as an interpreter for a Persian prince. After a tour of the American west with his prince, Shemtob settled in New York, made the acquaintance of Dwek and Sitt, and became another quasi member of the Syrian colony.
posted by Ahmad Khani at 9:01 AM on June 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

The Underpants Monster, the local Syrian/Lebanese Catholic community is also in the Deep Valley books Winona's Pony Cart (in which the gift of a baklava saves the day at a birthday party) and Emily of Deep Valley (in which it figures more prominently).

Maud Hart Lovelace also wrote about Brooklyn's S/L Catholics in The Trees Kneel at Christmas( set in contemporary Truman era)
posted by brujita at 11:02 AM on June 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

« Older It sucks to go to the doctor if you’re trans   |   Desus and Mero Give a Crash Course in Wokeness Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments