The Secret History: Reframing Arab American Origin Stories Through a Queer Lens

Angele Ellis
“Friends and fellow peddlers” Daher and Khalil singing together, 1920s. Faris and Yamna Naff Arab American Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Series 2, Box 72.
Possible Histories: Arab Americans and the Queer Ecology of Peddling
By Charlotte Karem Albrecht
University of California Press, 2023
Charlotte Karem Albrecht begins her groundbreaking study with an Arab American family origin story that departs from the heteronormative narrative of intrepid immigrant peddlers achieving success and assimilating into white American society — a narrative codified by, among others, the noted Arab American historian Alixa Naff, whose archives Karem Albrecht used as a primary source of research for this book. When Karem Albrecht came out to her parents in her early 20s, her parents told her that her great-grandfather Nick Karem had been bisexual, “beaten up for cruising.” As Karem Albrecht discovered, this story still circulated in the Lebanese community of Louisville, Kentucky, where Nick Karem, the father of nine children, founded a restaurant that provided a living for the Karem family into the 1960s.
No records exist of Nick Karem being arrested for these reputed activities. (Karem Albrecht’s mother attributes this to influence with the local police department. Karem’s was a popular restaurant — as well as one that followed the laws and customs of a segregated society by requiring its Black customers to take their food outside for consumption.) Yet the story persists. To some of Nick Karem’s descendants, it is a slander on the Karem family, but to those who — like Karem Albrecht — identify as queer, it has become a symbol of solidarity and a starting point for further exploration of identity.
“The Secret History: Reframing Arab American Origin Stories Through a Queer Lens” by Angele Ellis is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 27, No. 84, 2023.
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