The Arab Americans: A History
By Gregory Orfalea
Olive Branch Press, 2006. 500 pages
Gregory Orfalea’s “The Arab Americans: A History” is a lively collection of personal, historical and statistical observations of more than a century of Arab-American history. A virtual community mural emerges, embellished by the candor and warmth of personal and family experience, as well as analysis and research, interviews and poetic rumination. It is a fond celebration, as well as an assault on the ignorance and negative stereotyping that shadow Arab Americans – and a fond, avuncular admonition urging his fellows to keep moving toward the light that is created by literature, political action and personal achievement.
Orfalea, who was born in Los Angeles, acknowledges that the book, which took 25 years to research and write, is the result, first, of a personal quest into the identity, culture and world view of his people – a people whose story has too often been hidden, more often distorted and diminished. His writing reflects his journalistic and creative writing experience: he is director of the Center for Writing at Pitzer College, where he teaches creative nonfiction and the short story, and is the author of several earlier works.
This volume is a substantial update of Orfalea’s 1988 “Before the Flames: A Quest for the History of Arab Americans” (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988). It is not the first time that Orfalea saw his work published only to have it re-appear in a fuller form a few years later. In 1982, a small booklet of poetry called “Wrapping the Grape Leaves: A Sheaf of Contemporary Arab American Poets,” edited by Orfalea, was published by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. That collection was expanded in 1988 to a full length anthology, “Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab-American Poetry,” co-edited by Orfalea and Sharif Elmusa.
Orfalea’s family history in America goes back to 1878, when Dr. Joseph Awad Arabeely left his home in Arbeen, Syria, and became what one newspaper described as the first Arab immigrant in the U.S. (although Orfalea also tells of a camel driver named Hajdi Ali who was hired by Jefferson Davis to cut a camel trail across the Southwest).
The emigration that was to follow in that first wave, according to Orfalea, was sparked by collective experiences such as the Druze-Maronite massacres, the wooing role of American missionaries in Syria, the chaos (and conscription and taxes) in the final years of the Ottoman Turkish empire, and the starvation of one-fourth of Lebanon’s population during World War I. That, on top of population explosion and a resulting land squeeze, pushed out many more. Each successive wave left a different scenario behind, and found a shifting landscape in the new homeland.
Orfalea’s expanded, revised portrait of Arab Americans outlines three waves of mostly Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, then outlines and analyzes the community’s “Political Awakening” in the 70’s and early 80’s, with the formation of several national organizations, giving examples of the progress they were able to make. He includes his own stint at the National Association of Arab Americans, an organization founded in 1972. Throughout the telling of the saga of the immigrants and their offspring, Orfalea keeps up with developments in the Old Country, as wars and occupation change the political and civilian landscape, even in the U.S.
Whereas in today’s post 9/11 world, the Arab American faces new threats, it was assimilation that threatened the community’s vigor in the past. Orfalea found many of his grandparents’ generation “too involved with dissolving into America, disappearing, sinking like old coffee into the new soil.” Arab Americans were silent about their past, partly because of their sense of family privacy, and partly because after the oil embargo of 1973, Arab Americans became, in the words of Nicholas Von Hoffman, “the last ethnic group safe to hate in America.”
In the chapter titled “Stumbling Toward Peace,” he looks at two incidents that rocked the Arab-American community nationwide – the assassination of Alex Odeh, West Coast director of the ADC, who was killed by a pipe bomb explosion in his Santa Ana office on Oct 11, 1985; and the federal campaign against the L.A. 8, with ongoing attempts to deport, under the McCarthy-era McCarran-Walter Act, a group of Palestinians and one Kenyan. Both incidents stunned the community, leaving a chilling effect that ironically, would foreshadow the nightmares of post-9/11.
As for that striving toward the light, Orfalea looks at the burgeoning number of Arab Americans whose prose and poetry has emerged to create a genuine literary genre, and points to accomplishments made by individual Arab Americans who have become everything from mayors to movie stars to successful entrepreneurs. However, the series of in-depth profiles and feature article interviews of prominent Arab Americans are nowhere near as inviting as the accounts of Orfalea’s own family, where we meet the exterior and interior landscape in vivid, personal narratives, told in lively prose. At times, this aspect of his writing approaches sheer poetry. It is, therefore, a book you can pick up and flip to one section or another, in an almost encyclopedic fashion. In any case, it is well worth more than one read.
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid