By Denise Oliver Velez / Daily Kos
After writing Black History and Women’s History Month articles recently, I thought I would not be covering heritage months for a while. Out of idle curiosity I decided to check the month of April and discovered that much to my surprise, it’s Arab American Heritage Month.
I admit I knew nothing about it and asked myself, “Why didn’t I?” That made me determined to investigate and share what I discovered with readers. I figured it would be fairly simple, given the ubiquitous Wikipedia and the use of several internet search engines (no luck, except for events happening in Maryland and Michigan). As of March 28, when I started writing, there was nothing posted at White House.gov, nor could I find a listing under presidential proclamations.
Arab immigrants and their descendants have made important contributions to the growth of this country. As doctors and scientists, engineers, bankers, teachers, entrepreneurs and entertainers – and so much more – Arab contributions and heritage are woven inextricably into the fabric of American society. Arab American Heritage Monthpresents a great opportunity to celebrate and recognize the achievements of Arab Americans throughout our history…
We encourage you to learn more about Khalil Gibran, Dr. Michael DeBakey, Zainab Salbi, and the many other Arab Americans who are making an impact. Our sister organization, the Arab American National Museum, is a great resource for learning more about Arab Americans’ contributions to U.S. society. Happy Arab American Heritage Month!
Given the heightened anti-Arab, anti-Muslim rhetoric we hear daily via our national media—who cover the xenophobic and bigoted views of Republican presidential candidates and pundits with seeming relish—it’s important to highlight and join this celebration during the month of April and throughout the year.
The Metro-Detroit area is home to a very large Arab and middle eastern community and a third of Dearborn’s population is of Arab heritage, so it is a fitting home for a museum celebrating these cultures and their contributions to the mosaic of the United States.
The Arab American National Museum (AANM) is the first and only museum in the United States devoted to Arab American history and culture. Arab Americans have enriched the economic, political and cultural landscape of American life. By bringing the voices and faces of Arab Americans to mainstream audiences, we continue our commitment to dispel misconceptions about Arab Americans and other minorities. Since opening in 2005, the Museum has shed light on the shared experiences of immigrants and ethnic groups, paying tribute to the diversity of our nation.
“Reclaiming Identity; Dismantling Arab Stereotypes” is one of the museum’s online exhibits.
Just who exactly are Arab Americans? The Arab American Institute is an excellent site for data and information:
We are a diverse community of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, three and one-half million strong, who have come from throughout the Arab world. We are Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Palestinians, Iraqis, Jordanians, and Yemenis – from North Africa to Southwest Asia. We are Christians and Muslims.
Arab Americans’ history illustrates how the immigrant experience has shaped the United States. We are part of the American success story, showing what can be achieved when an ethnic constituency becomes fully engaged in the political and economic life of this country.
Since the first wave of immigrants arrived here more than century ago, Arab Americans have assimilated into mainstream U.S. life. We share the same economic and social diversity as all Americans, but we also share treasures brought with us from our native lands – a rich heritage and culture, a strong extended family network, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a drive for excellence.
The Institute has extensive demographic data on Arab Americans.
Selected Population Characteristics
- The Census Bureau estimates that at least 1.9 million Americans are of Arab descent; AAIF estimates that the number is closer to 3.6 million.
- Arab Americans live in all 50 states, but two thirds are concentrated in 10 states; one third of the total live in California, New York, and Michigan.
- About 94% of Arab Americans live in metropolitan areas. Los Angeles, Detroit, New York/NJ, Chicago and Washington, D.C., are the top five metropolitan areas of Arab American concentration.
- Lebanese Americans constitute a greater part of the total number of Arab Americans residing in most states, although in Georgia, New Jersey, and Tennessee, Egyptian Americans are the largest Arab group.
- The largest Arab American community in Arizona is Moroccan, Rhode Island has a plurality of Syrian Americans, and Nebraska and South Dakota have a plurality of Sudanese.
- While the largest Palestinian population is in California, the greatest concentration of Palestinians can be found in Illinois.
- There are almost as many Iraqis living in Michigan as there are living in California, even though California is over three times larger than Michigan.
To test how much you know about Arab Americans, here’s a quick quiz:
1) In the United States today, are there more Arab-American Muslims or Arab-American Christians?
2) Approximately when did Arab Americans begin arriving in significant numbers on the shores of the United States?
3) Which Arab-American poet authored one of the best-selling books of all time?
4) Name the Arab-American actor who had the lead role in a long-running TV show about an obsessive-compulsive investigator.
5) Who’s the first women’s studies professor at Harvard Divinity School?
6) A famous Arab American has been a visionary consumer activist and four-time presidential candidate. Name him.
7) This Arab American is the executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. Who is she?
8) What major international award did the Arab-American chemistry professor Ahmed Zewail win in 1999?
9) This poet was showcased on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on Broadway.
10) This state saw the first ever Senate race between two candidates from Arab-American families. Name the state and the candidates.
I did not do well on the quiz, but did know about author Kahlil Gibran, whose book The Prophet has been translated into 40 languages. He was born in Lebanon on January 6, 1883 and emigrated to the United States with his mother and other family members when he was 12.
Though I (like many young people of my post-beatnik-morphing-into-the hippie-generation) walked around with a copy of The Prophet in my jeans pocket, I never learned his history, nor did I think of him as “Arab.” His prose-poetry was, to me, universal.
Gibran’s father initially worked in an apothecary, but with gambling debts he was unable to pay, he went to work for a local Ottoman-appointed administrator. Around 1891, extensive complaints by angry subjects led to the administrator being removed and his staff being investigated. Gibran’s father was imprisoned for embezzlement, and his family’s property was confiscated by the authorities. Kamila Gibran decided to follow her brother to the United States. Although Gibran’s father was released in 1894, Kamila remained resolved and left for New York on June 25, 1895, taking Khalil, his younger sisters Mariana and Sultana, and his elder half-brother Peter (in Arabic, Butrus).
The Gibrans settled in Boston’s South End, at the time the second-largest Syrian-Lebanese-American community in the United States. Due to a mistake at school, he was registered as “Kahlil Gibran”. His mother began working as a seamstress peddler, selling lace and linens that she carried from door to door. Gibran started school on September 30, 1895. School officials placed him in a special class for immigrants to learn English. Gibran also enrolled in an art school at a nearby settlement house. Through his teachers there, he was introduced to the avant-garde Boston artist, photographer, and publisher Fred Holland Day, who encouraged and supported Gibran in his creative endeavors. A publisher used some of Gibran’s drawings for book covers in 1898.
Gibran’s mother, along with his elder brother Peter, wanted him to absorb more of his own heritage rather than just the Western aesthetic culture he was attracted to. Thus, at the age of fifteen, Gibran returned to his homeland to study at a Maronite-run preparatory school and higher-education institute in Beirut, called “al-Hikma” (The Wisdom). He started a student literary magazine with a classmate and was elected “college poet”. He stayed there for several years before returning to Boston in 1902, coming through Ellis Island (a second time) on May 10. Two weeks before he returned to Boston, his sister Sultana died of tuberculosis at the age of 14. The year after, Peter died of the same disease and his mother died of cancer. His sister Marianna supported Gibran and herself by working at a dressmaker’s shop.
His family’s story mirrored that of many immigrants to these shores. His philosophy transcended one faith.
Many of Gibran’s writings deal with Christianity, especially on the topic of spiritual love. But his mysticism is a convergence of several different influences: Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Judaism and theosophy. He wrote: “You are my brother and I love you. I love you when you prostrate yourself in your mosque, and kneel in your church and pray in your synagogue. You and I are sons of one faith—the Spirit.”
Far away from the world of prophets and poetry, the most recognizable Arab American for many decades was likely Danny Thomas, television and film star, comedian, and producer.
One of 10 children, Danny Thomas was born as Amos Muzyad Yakhoob Kairouz on January 6, 1912, in Deerfield, Michigan, to Charles Yakhoob Kairouz and his wife Margaret Taouk. His parents were Maronite Catholic immigrants from Lebanon. Kairouz and Taouk are two prominent families from Bsharri. Thomas was raised in Toledo, Ohio, attending St. Francis de Sales Church (Roman Catholic), Woodward High School, and finally the University of Toledo, where he was a member of Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity. Thomas was confirmed in the Catholic Church by the bishop of Toledo, Samuel Stritch. Stritch, a native of Tennessee, was a lifelong spiritual advisor for Thomas, and advised him to locate the St. Jude Hospital in Memphis. He married Rose Marie Cassaniti in 1936, a week after his 24th birthday. In 1932, Thomas began performing on radio in Detroit at WMBC on The Happy Hour Club. Thomas first performed under his Anglicized birth name, “Amos Jacobs Kairouz.” After he moved to Chicago in 1940, Thomas did not want his friends and family to know he went back into working clubs where the salary was better, so he came up with the pseudonym “Danny Thomas” (after two of his brothers).
He was living in Ward 6, Toledo, Lucas County, Ohio, according to the 1920 U. S. Census as Amos Jacobs, the same in the 1930 Census, and in 1940 living in Ward 2, Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, as Amos J. Jacobs, a radio and theatrical artist. Further, the 1930 Census states his parents were born in Syria; while the 1920 Census states that they were born in “Seria”, and that their mother tongue is “Serian”. Indeed, Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1920, and Lebanese immigrants were then identified as Syrians in most of the world and as Turks in Latin America.
Thomas gained national fame as the star of the television sitcom Make Room for Daddy, later called The Danny Thomas Show, and was also a noted humanitarian who founded St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, “a pediatric treatment and research facility focused on children’s catastrophic diseases.”
His acting and philanthropy legacy were carried on by his daughter Marlo Thomas.
Humor is a tool that many groups who are “othered” in the United States have often used to build bridges and understanding. The Arab-American community has drawn on that tradition, and we need this humor now more than ever.
Pictured at the top of this post is Maysoon Zayid.
Early in her acting career, Maysoon Zayid realized she’d get a lot more stage time if she showed off how funny she was. As she told the BBC, “It became very obvious to me that in the United States of America, a fluffy ethnic disabled chick was never going to get a job unless she did stand-up.”
A Palestinian woman from New Jersey, Zayid jokes about her family, global culture, and her life with cerebral palsy. Along with Dean Obeidallah, she founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival…She spends several months of the year in the Palestinian Territories running workshops for disabled and orphaned kids in refugee camps, using art to help them deal with trauma. And yes — if you’re an Adam Sandler fan, you’ll recognize Zayid as the woman behind the beauty-shop counter in You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.
“I have cerebral palsy. I shake all the time,” Maysoon Zayid announces at the beginning of this exhilarating, hilarious talk. (Really, it’s hilarious.) “I’m like Shakira meets Muhammad Ali.” With grace and wit, the Arab-American comedian takes us on a whistle-stop tour of her adventures as an actress, stand-up comic, philanthropist and advocate for the disabled.
Amer Zahr ”is an Arab-American comedian, speaker, writer, and adjunct professor at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. Drawing on his experiences growing up as a child of Palestinian parents, he finds the humor in society, culture, and politics.”
Zahr was highlighted in this August 2015 special report in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs:
One thing all Palestinians share—be they in Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank or the Diaspora—is pain. The pain of statelessness, dehumanization and injustice is inescapable and at times all-encompassing. Palestinian-American comedian Amer Zahr acknowledges there is no ignoring or hiding this pain. He does believe, however, that Palestinians can choose how to process and express their suffering. “Laughing and crying are not that different,” Zahr told an audience at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC on June 3. “We’ve all seen someone laugh so much that he starts crying. But sometimes you might even see somebody cry so much that he starts laughing…They come from the same place.”
The absurdity of everyday life in Palestine, Zahr believes, often leaves no option but laughter. “It’s living in a completely alternate universe where things happen there [in Palestine] that don’t happen anywhere else in the world, and where normal things don’t happen,” Zahr explained. “You may cry at the ridiculous, but we Palestinians laugh at the ridiculous.” With this guiding principle, Zahr is able to do something few others are capable of: generating boisterous laughter at the mention of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israeli settlements, or the decimated enclave of Gaza. Zahr admits that his comedic routine—which also touches on his life as an Arab American—is a form of therapy. “When I’m on stage, it’s therapeutic for me to talk about these things,” he said. “I think if I didn’t have that, I’d be much angrier than I am.”
If you have never seen the documentary The Muslims Are Coming!, I highly recommend it.
The Muslims Are Coming! is a 2013 American comedy documentary film co-directed and co-starring Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah. It follows a team of Muslim-American comedians as they tour the American South and Southwest performing free standup shows, and engaging in community activities, with an aim to “reach out to Middle America” and counter Islamophobia.
The film opens with a montage of television and radio clips of comments from figures such as Frank Gaffney, Herman Cain, Ann Coulter, Bryan Fischer, Pat Robertson, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Maher, and Donald Trump expressing fear of Islam, or mistrust of Muslims.
Farsad and Obeidallah explain what motivated them to attempt to change the negative perception of Muslims in America: for Farsad it was claims that Obama was a secret Muslim (with its implication that being Muslim was in itself something negative); and for Obeidallah it was the virulence of the opposition to the “Ground Zero Mosque”. In Columbus, Georgia, they visit a gun show and perform in a bar. They perform in Gainesville, Florida. In Lawrenceville, Georgia, they set up a “Ask a Muslim Booth” in the town center. At the Islamic Center of Columbus (also known as Masjid Al-Jannah), they stop to have iftar. At AMF Peach Lanes in Columbus, they invite community members to “Bowl with a Muslim”.
After performing in Birmingham, Alabama, they invite passers-by to play “Name That Religion” where they try to guess if a quote read to them came from the Old Testament, New Testament, or the Koran. In Tupelo, Mississippi, they attempt to get on a American Family Association radio show. After being denied their request to get on the air, they drop in on the AFA headquarters and have an audience with the General Manager Dr. Buster Williams. Back in Lawrenceville, they visit Bulls-Eye Indoor Range & Gun Shop to shoot guns. In Murfreesboro, Tennessee, they visit the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro (the site of a controversy beginning in 2010) and perform at Middle Tennessee State University. In Tucson, Arizona, they perform at El Casino Ballroom. In Salt Lake City, Utah, they perform at The Complex, and in front of the Salt Lake Temple they hold a sign inviting passers-by to “Hug a Muslim”.
The xenophobia and prejudice faced by Arab Americans cannot be solved solely with humor. One of the books that addresses the conflicts of dual identity is How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, by Moustafa Bayoumi.
Just over a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois posed a probing question in his classic The Souls of Black Folk: How does it feel to be a problem? Now, Moustafa Bayoumi asks the same about America’s new “problem”-Arab- and Muslim-Americans. Bayoumi takes readers into the lives of seven twenty-somethings living in Brooklyn, home to the largest Arab-American population in the United States. He moves beyond stereotypes and clichés to reveal their often unseen struggles, from being subjected to government surveillance to the indignities of workplace discrimination. Through it all, these young men and women persevere through triumphs and setbacks as they help weave the tapestry of a new society that is, at its heart, purely American.
After the book was released, it created a major problem in New York City and became the subject of heated debate.
In New York City this week, an institution is being accused of using Islam to subvert American culture—but this time, it’s on the other side of the East River. The controversy over Brooklyn College’s Common Reader program doesn’t hold a candle to the Ground Zero mosque debacle—thankfully, Sarah Palin has yet to tweet on the subject—but it’s gotten more than a few people riled up in the past few days. The most riled might be Bruce Kesler: the conservative blogger and Brooklyn College alum wrote the college out of his will when they assigned Moustafa Bayoumi’s “How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? Being Young and Arab in America” to all incoming freshmen.
Bayoumi, a Brooklyn College professor, examines the lives of seven Arab-Americans, six Muslims and one Christian, living in Brooklyn after 9/11. The college chose the book because “it contributes to the discussion of a subject that is pertinent to Brooklyn today—i.e., the stories of Brooklyn’s many immigrant communities who come from diverse areas and cultures of the world.” Detractors, with Kesler at the helm, say it is an attempt to indoctrinate young, impressionable students with what must inherently be an anti-Israel, anti-American treatise. The Common Reader program resembles many taking place in orientations across the country right now: freshmen read a single book and discuss it, hopefully reaching the same intellectual space of debate and critical thought as classes begin. With any luck, students who disagree with what Bayoumi has written will be taught—and, perhaps, encouraged—to form a cohesive argument against it.
Bayoumi’s book won an American Book Award in 2008. Published in 2015, his most recent work is This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror.
Over the last few years, Moustafa Bayoumi has been an extra in Sex and the City 2playing a generic Arab, a terrorist suspect (or at least his namesake “Mustafa Bayoumi” was) in a detective novel, the subject of a trumped-up controversy because a book he had written was seen by right-wing media as pushing an “anti-American, pro-Islam” agenda, and was asked by a U.S. citizenship officer to drop his middle name of Mohamed.
Others have endured far worse fates. Sweeping arrests following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 led to the incarceration and deportation of thousands of Arabs and Muslims, based almost solely on their national origin and immigration status. The NYPD, with help from the CIA, has aggressively spied on Muslims in the New York area as they go about their ordinary lives, from noting where they get their hair cut to eavesdropping on conversations in cafés. In This Muslim American Life, Moustafa Bayoumi reveals what the War on Terror looks like from the vantage point of Muslim Americans, highlighting the profound effect this surveillance has had on how they live their lives. To be a Muslim American today often means to exist in an absurd space between exotic and dangerous, victim and villain, simply because of the assumptions people carry about you. In gripping essays, Bayoumi exposes how contemporary politics, movies, novels, media experts and more have together produced a culture of fear and suspicion that not only willfully forgets the Muslim-American past, but also threatens all of our civil liberties in the present.
As anti-Arab, anti-refugee, and anti-Muslim rhetoric continue to escalate in the United States and in Europe, those of us who are not from these communities or familiar with them need to educate ourselves and take active steps to reach out in friendship, solidarity, and appreciation for their history and place in our increasingly diverse society.