Samir Mattar

Coming to America:

Documenting Early Lebanese Immigrants

By John G. Moses,
Utica, NY Educational Publications
New York, Revised Edition, 2001

"... that great human success story, the Lebanese in America, a group who have done so much to help..."
Malcolm Kerr's Inaugural Address, American University of Beirut, 1982

To understand the history of the United States fully, we must learn the story of immigration: how various nationalities - all Americans now - contributed to the building of this nation, while their ethnic backgrounds refract in the multifaceted features of the nation. John Moses, in his recent book "The Lebanese in America," makes an important contribution to the history of immigration in this country. In chronicling the Lebanese immigration to the United States over the past 100 years, Moses plays his part in fulfilling the Arnoldian mandate for "... men of culture..." to "...have a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best ideas of their time." He has collected, compiled, preserved, and made available archival, statistical, and other published resources on the origins, assimilation, and cultural integration of the Lebanese community into American society. For Lebanese Americans and, indeed, for all Americans who are interested in the Lebanese past and their contributions, this little book presents a wealth of information.

Moses focuses specifically on Lebanese - rather than Arab - Americans. "The Lebanese in America" is about the tides of Lebanese who left Mount Lebanon during the repressive Ottoman Empire before World War I and crossed borders and oceans for lands unknown. They were escaping persecution and desperate conditions, apprehensive but full of hope and faith. They fled poverty and destitution, filled with the prospect of a new life of plenty in freedom. Many of them began as door-to-door peddlers, traveling the country, hawking their wares from Manhattan to the dirt roads of Iowa and beyond, selling clothes and other necessities to remote farms. It was strenuous work and required long hours of walking, carrying a heavy suitcase of merchandise, usually bedspreads, shirts, combs, and brushes. It was as hard as the work they had left behind, but in America they discovered a robust sense of challenge and fulfillment in boundless opportunity. An early Lebanese immigrant once proposed that a statue be erected to the dauntless Lebanese peddler. Moses records many legends about the Lebanese peddler, but I would be most interested to find out how he became renowned for his ability to "make a wine cellar out of one grape." Paul Bunyan, move over!

There is a lot of information in these 87 pages - 100 years of anecdotes, analyses, and archival material. Moses shares with us many stories of successful Lebanese in all walks of life, including tales of his own family. It is a valiant effort at "transmitting the past to future generations," and it is helpful for quick references. Who among us has not felt the special thrill of discovering original documents and frayed photographs portraying the lives of our ancestors? The chance to touch something they touched, to see what they saw or, perhaps, how they were seen - has a unique power and immediacy, even intimacy. Reading Moses' book has some of that thrill about it. In some respects, it is reminiscent of conversations with our collective Jiddis about the entrepreneurial feats of our ancestors who came to this land in search of a better life. The faces in the photographs speak to us. We begin to appreciate the obstacles our parents faced as new immigrants: learning a foreign language, coping with solitude and pangs of nostalgia for the homeland they knew and loved, braving the new environment and, perhaps, worst of all, suffering hurtful stereotypes and discrimination. However, we are left craving details about these early Lebanese - interesting characters all, their mores, routes, clashes and communions with the American buyer, learning English in their inimitable way, and their final settlements off the road.

Was the Lebanese immigrant really unique? The portrait that emerges from these pages is that of a good, proud, fiercely independent yet gregarious, affable family person struggling to make the most of opportunities. They maintained awareness of ancestral origins through the institution of the family, preserving ties to the "old country" by sending financial support or sponsoring relatives to join them. Moses' affection and admiration for the resolve, the nerve, the courage and the strength of the first Lebanese immigrants is evident throughout the book. It is possible to sense, though, a fear lurking beneath the plethora of facts, images, and stories: that all this "real" history may dissolve in the mists of time. Moses has kept the torch flaming, challenging us to carry on.

Today, of the 3.5 million Americans with Arab heritage, four in five were born in the United States and about 75% are Christian, compared with only 5% of Arabs in the Middle East. Most of these Americans trace their origins to the waves of Lebanese Christians who came at the turn of the 20th century. They assimilated with relative ease into American society mainly because of the general similarity in religious outlook.

Unlike the early immigrants in Moses' book, the recent groups of Lebanese have come here already educated or specifically for the purpose of obtaining higher education, and they come from all religious backgrounds and all parts of Lebanon. It would be fascinating to document their progress. Thus far it appears that the new Lebanese are a chip off the old block, marketing their learning instead of peddling their wares, but committed to successful and seamless integration into American society, their new home. Surely, most Lebanese will continue to consider themselves very rich, rich in the heritage they brought with them, and rich in new possibilities. Ubi bene, ibi patria.

This article appeared in Vol. 7, no. 37 (Fall 2001).

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