Kansas State University professor Michael W. Suleiman is conducting an extended study of the social and political history of Arabs in the United States. In his study Suleiman is mining the newspapers and journals published by and for immigrant communities in Brooklyn, New York, Detroit, Chicago, and other U.S. cities with large Arab populations. While the Arab-American experience has become a popular subject of study only recently, Suleiman has been doing pioneering research in the field for several decades now.
Suleiman’s Arabs in America: Building a New Future (Temple University Press, 1999) is a pioneering scholarly production that brings together essays by 21 prominent scholars from a variety of disciplines—including anthropology, economics, history, law, literature and culture, political science, and sociology—to examine the history and influence of Arabs in the United States and Canada. The book includes studies of Jordanian migrants in Texas and Ohio, political activities among Arab-Americans in Detroit, and the differing ideologies of Shi’a Muslims in the United States. Suleiman’s forthcoming publication--The Arab-American Experience in the United States and Canada: A Classified, Annotated Bibliography (Ann Arbor: Pierian Press, 2004. ISBN: 0-87650-395-4)--will provide researchers with a comprehensive guide to Middle East scholarship and resources.
Research on the Arab Diaspora presents many challenges. Very little of the published legacy of the early Arab communities survives today and much of what does survive is in Arabic. For many years there was little interest in what many viewed as an insular culture, despite the fact that people of Arab descent have been contributing to U.S. and Canadian culture since the 1870s in fields as diverse as literature, science, politics, medicine, and commerce. Newspapers have offered scholars like Suleiman a valuable window into the Arab-American world of the 19th and 20th centuries. They contain copious documentation of the interests, political activities, fortunes, and values of the immigrant communities.
Newspapers like Al-Hoda, Kawkab America, Al-Bayan, and others also mirror the distinct identities of each of the various communities. Suleiman writes, “There was a communal solidarity, but the community was a collective of several communities. The sectarian and regional disputes that separated the Arabs back home were also salient in this ‘temporary’ residence.”
Suleiman describes the important roles that newspapers played in immigrant Arab societies. They were, he asserts, “socializing agencies conveying the messages of their sectarian leadership.” For the Orthodox there was Kawkab America; Al Hoda was the newspaper of the Maronites, and, later, Al-Bayan the newspaper of the Druze. “Within each community there were rivalries and competing newspapers, each claiming to be the best defender or representative of its sect.”
Today the surviving newspapers from this era are particularly valuable because of the scarcity of other kinds of evidence. Very little archival material is available because the papers of important Arab American organizations and public figures are rarely available in public institutions. The essays in Arabs in America show researchers’ heavy reliance upon newspapers and journals and oral histories. The survival of the newspapers is largely due to the prescience and energy of area studies bibliographers like George Atiyeh of the Library of Congress. For many years Dr. Atiyeh scoured library collections and was able to gather for microfilming about a dozen titles. These include: Al-Nasr, Al-Ayam, Al-Bayan, Al-Sayeh, Kawkeb America, Al-Kawn, Al-Hoda, Meraat-ul-Gharb, Al-Funun, Al-Samir, and the Syrian World in English. Where only fragments and broken runs of Arab American papers had been available in various repositories, the Library of Congress collection created a critical mass of historical materials.
The Center for Research Libraries recently acquired the Arab-American Newspapers from the Library of Congress microfilm collection, which will soon be available for use by scholars at CRL member institutions. (See page 3). This body of material will no doubt enable those scholars to enlarge our knowledge of the Arab Diaspora and its communities, building upon the important seminal work of Professor Suleiman and others.