This panel explores the history of Arabic-speaking Ottoman immigrants to the Americas from the late-nineteenth century to the early-twentieth century. While scholarship on those in the mahjar has been developing for decades, it has seen a flourishing in recent years, particularly in response to growing border restrictions and xenophobic politics of our current era.
This panel presents cutting-edge scholarship in the field. First and foremost, its geographic scope covers the movement and lives of Arabic-speaking people not just to the United States, which generally dominates the field, but those who moved to and through Brazil and Canada as well.
It incorporates new sources, such as previously unused Arabic-language memoirs, newspapers in New York and Sao Paulo, and personal archives of migrants in Massachusetts. Additionally, it takes up new historiographic questions, or revitalizes ones long marginalized, including the role of Arabs in Brazilian revolts of the 1930s, the intersections of sectarianism and race in America, and personal archiving as an information practice in constructions and understandings of the self.
At the core of the varied approaches, historiographic questions, and sources used here is a focus on and direct engagement with the themes of identity, belonging, race, inclusion/exclusion, and connections to the homeland. As such, these new approaches and new sources serve to re-invigorate and add layers of complexity to the history of Arabic-speaking migrants to the Americas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Recent scholarship has highlighted the liminal spaces occupied by the Syrian mahjar in the United States in the late-19th/early 20th century, whether in terms of their racial identities or their status as Ottoman subjects living in an Entente-allied nation during the First World War. This paper further explores these themes through the story of Gabriel Elias Ward, a Lebanese man who came to the United States in 1897 and served the United States military both as a soldier and Spanish interpreter in the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), as well as in the Canadian military in World War 1. Using his war memoirs published in New York under the title al-Jundī al-sūrī fī thalāth ḥurūb (The Syrian Soldier in Three Wars), as well as his military records and contemporaneous American newspapers in both English and Arabic featuring articles about Ward, this paper traces the contours of Ward’s life from his upbringing in Tripoli, Lebanon, his education, his Syrian expatriate networks around the world, his experiences serving in several wars, and the financial hardships he faced in old age in New York City. The paper looks at the intense patriotism Ward expressed towards the United States in his war memoirs and newspaper interviews, and argues that it must be understood through the lens of previous historiography on segments of the Syrian mahjar who pushed for a United States Mandate in Syria following the end of the First World War. Additionally, there is a noticeable shift in how Ward presents himself and his identity to his non-Arab American audiences as time progresses. As a young veteran of the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century, Ward often identified himself as Brazilian in official documentation as well as in interviews with English-speaking American newspapers. Only later as a middle-aged decorated veteran of multiple wars did Ward choose to identify himself as Syrian. This section of the paper argues that Ward’s shift in his self-identification must be understood within the context of the changing racial categorization of Syrians as white in early 20th century America.
In recent decades, historians of the Syrian mahjar (“place of migration” or more conceptually, diaspora) have corrected the popular narrative that emigration from Ottoman Syria was a response to sectarian violence targeting Christians in particular. Instead, they have shown how late nineteenth-century emigration was the result of structural economic forces as well as complicated personal motivations and trajectories. And while these same scholars have also highlighted the ways in which the institutions and mobilizations of the mahjar were often organized by and through sect, less emphasis has been placed on the ways in which this diaspora negotiated their civic and political subjectivities through sectarian belonging. Syrian-Lebanese of the mahjar spilled much ink over the divisive role sectarianism played in the diaspora, with Phillip Hitti claiming in his book The Syrians in America (1924) that: “The Syrian is a man without a country par excellence. His patriotism takes the form of family and sect.” Such reticence to examine the mahjar specifically through the lens of sectarianism is perhaps due to the above-historiographic corrective, as well as the field’s intervention that Middle East sectarianisms are not primordial but constructed and produced at specific historical junctures.
This paper puts the rich historical sources of the Syrian-American press in conversation with French and American archival sources of the early twentieth century. Publications such as al-Huda, al-Bayan, and Mir’at al-Gharb—all newspapers published in New York—allow us to analyze the ways in which sect and sectarianism in the mahjar were key processes through which the Syrian-Lebanese diaspora exercised and negotiated transnational influence vis-a-vis homeland and one another. Yet sectarian sentiment was not a simple articulation of religious difference. Often times, Syrian-Lebanese writers used the discourse of racial difference to express their political disagreements with their rivals in the mahjar. With a focus on the diverse positions of the diaspora vis-à-vis political watersheds like the Syrian Revolt of 1925-1927, this paper investigates the unique slippages between sect and race. It argues that in order to fully understand diasporic politics and sectarianism, we must consider the racially charged landscape of the post-World War I United States.
Until recent decades, personal archives have been largely sidelined in the Information Science field for a putative lack of evidentiary value. In the case of migrants’ personal archives, evidence is not necessarily tied to an event or transaction, but rather an identity, a personhood, or a belonging. The study of personal archives aids us in our reimagining of what constitutes an archive, and further helps us to interrogate the very principle of evidentiary value that is imposed on archival materials. In the same way the post-structuralist turn in archival theory has emphasized the active role of archivists and archives alike in creating and shaping historical narratives rather than merely preserving them, both the processes and materials comprising personal archives and other information practices of diasporic subjects are highly consequential in identity-formation — building identities rather than merely memorializing them. Codes, heirlooms, pictures, art, film, and other collected materials serve to represent identity in lack of a spatial homeland to inhabit which legitimizes that claim. For the descendants of Ottoman immigrants, they are a means of reimagining what it truly means to be of a place, repurposing pasts to fit into the new spaces and disparate geographies that are inhabited presently. Archiving here becomes a quite dialogical act, one which generates migrants’ identities rather than claiming to subsume them into collective identity as some criterion or rite of passage. This paper considers the role of personal archiving as an information practice in these subjects’ constructions and understandings of the self. It examines the personal records of Arab migrants from the Ottoman Empire and their children in the United States, including a recorded oral history of a Syrian immigrant in Massachusetts, and the written records of the son of a Palestinian migrant who fled to New York during the seferberlik. These private archival materials bring insight into the attitudes and transformations of diaspora subjects, demystifying processes of assimilation and emphasizing the role of information practices including the construction of personal archives as well as the creation of information grounds such as the mahrajan in maintaining cultural boundaries in the mahjar. Studying these personal fonds helps us to understand the future of what it means to be an agent of this diaspora, as they tether people to their heritage and simultaneously create new ways of embodying that identity.
In 1932, the state of São Paulo revolted against the federal government of Brazil. Among its demands was the promulgation of a new Constitution. Unexpectedly, Syrian and Lebanese migrants joined the revolutionary ranks, participating in a civil war that defined that Latin American country. Arabs donated money and supplies, sewed military uniforms, took up arms, and went to the frontlines. In the newspapers they published in São Paulo in Arabic, they justified their actions as a contribution to a country that had welcomed them when they most needed it. In this paper, I argue that the participation of Arabs in the Revolution of 1932 represents an inflection point in their history in Brazil. Until then, Syrians and Lebanese engaged in long-distance nationalist projects tied to the Syrian and Lebanese nations in the homeland. During the São Paulo revolt, however, they showed a willingness to defend a host country to which they progressively felt attached. In the influential newspaper “al-Afkar,” for example, they often spoke of Brazil as “al-watan al-thani,” or their “second nation.” My paper relies on extensive fieldwork in São Paulo, including periodicals published in Arabic and Portuguese, donation receipts, photographs, memoirs, and a 1933 Arabic translation of revolutionary leader Menotti Del Picchia’s pamphlet “A Revolução Paulista.” Based on these untapped sources, I contribute both to the historiography of Brazil—which has so far ignored the participation of Arabs in 1932—and of the Levant—which rarely considers what Syrian and Lebanese migrants were doing away from the homeland. Furthermore, I add to the growing literature on Arab revolutions, incorporating primary sources from the diaspora.