The increasingly malignant stereotype of Arab and Muslims as terrorists appeared in the 1960s with the Arab-Israeli war but hit warp speed after 9/11. It came in actions — anti-Islamic hate crime cases reported to the FBI spiked after the terrorist attacks — but it came more commonly, casually and sometimes just as cruelly in words:
Go home. It’s as perplexing as it is offensive, especially to those whose American story stretches back a century. Where exactly is home for someone who was born in the U.S.? Or came here seeking a better life — and succeeded? Or fled tyranny for opportunity? In times of crisis, the public forgets how long Arab and Muslims have been in the U.S. or what they've contributed.
So, in the face of foes and a forgetful public, it is left to Arabs themselves to remember and remind others of where they've been. That presents difficulties — not only with facts that were never committed to paper but also with facts that bump into something equally potent: family consensus.
I've known since I was little that my grandfather made up his birthdate. Why? Because the village where he was born didn’t keep records. His gravestone lists his birth year as 1893; his petition to become a U.S. citizen, filed in 1919, says he was born on Dec. 20, 1892.
That led me to another surprise: learning he registered for the World War I draft in 1917, a full decade before being declared a citizen. The document shows his birthplace as the ‘‘Syrian Arab Republic’’ and his occupation as ‘‘grinding for Ford Motor Co.’’ The registration also details back problems, which likely kept him from being drafted. His address is on the same street in the Detroit enclave where, just four years later, he would lead what was likely the first mosque in the United States.
In Danbury, a whole section of town is referred to as ‘‘Little Lebanon,’’ where immigrants like my grandfather came to work in fur and hat factories. One Arab immigrant whose time there wasn’t lost to history was William Buzaid, who opened a fur-cutting factory in 1910.
Hassan is working with the city’s Lebanese American Club to learn more about the paths of its forebears. She welcomes my call for help in finding facts to fill my story, knowing it could in turn help Danbury and Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and many other places where Arab-Americans traveled through or put down roots during the Great Migration of 1880-1924. The peak for those coming from what then was known as ‘‘Greater Syria’’ was from 1910 to 1914.
Even after trying several variations of Karoub — Kharoub, Karoob, Karub, Karroubi — I came up empty. Maybe, Hassan suggests, he was among those who came through Baltimore or Boston. Maybe even Canada. Maybe he didn’t enter at Ellis Island at all.
Maybe. A word I can’t seem to escape.
Devon Akmon also wants to fill in some ancestral blanks. He lacks even more basic facts than I do. He knows this much: He’s half-Lebanese, like me, and his family came from northern Lebanon. But who came to the U.S., and when?
‘‘This is the hard part. This is what we don’t know,’’ said Akmon, now deputy director of the Arab American National Museum. ‘‘They first came to Kentucky. That’s the story I want to figure out. ... It’s family history. Knowing your family’s story only back a generation — it seems so mysterious.’’
To know more, he said, enhances his ‘‘sense of self-worth.’’
How can details like these disappear so soon? A relative’s reluctance to reminisce is a common obstacle for the family historian, and Akmon said his grandfather didn’t talk a lot about his past.
It’s a challenge in his day job as well. ‘‘Trying to do research on Arab-Americans in the early ... 20th century is very difficult,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s so underdocumented.’’
That’s an underlying theme of the 1985 book, ‘‘Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience,’’ by Alixa Naff. It draws on dozens of interviews with pioneer immigrants and their descendants from more than 25 communities, including my uncle — a son of Hussien Karoub who followed him into ministry.
You come away with one overarching feeling: The ancestry quest of Arab-Americans is common to all immigrants, be they Irish, Italians, Germans, Jews or others. It is the story of most everyone in America.
Yet Syrians are one of the least studied of America’s ethnic groups — partly because they were smaller in number and the formal Arabic language was not widely understood by Western students and scholars before World War II. But Naff says the blame also falls upon Arab immigrants, who ‘‘neglected to study themselves.’’Continued...