‘‘The history of their American experience was, by comparison, too insignificant and too fleeting to warrant recording,’’ she wrote.
So, what filled the cultural void? American myth and history. ‘‘Lacking ancestral legends and heroes that had an organic relevance to their lives, they adopted American legends as their own — presidents, cowboys, athletes and men like Charles Lindbergh,’’ Naff wrote.
Maybe the Titanic — itself no slouch as an American history tale — looms so large in my grandfather’s legend because the sea at that time of its fateful passage was filled with Middle Easterners seeking a new life, including on the ‘‘unsinkable’’ ship itself. There, 154 of the Titanic’s passengers were Arabic; 29 survived.
Those who did included 24-year-old Catherine Joseph, who was sailing steerage with her children, 6-year-old Michael and 2-year-old Anna. The passenger record indicates her husband, Peter, sent them back to Lebanon a few months earlier to save money, but called them back to Detroit.
We know these facts about the Joseph family because of ‘‘Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,’’ which spent several recent months at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, the capital of Arab-America. Visitors learned about passengers and their fates on special tickets handed out at the exhibition’s entrance.
It didn’t take years for the tales of those on the Titanic to be told. Arabic-language newspapers from New York’s Little Syria played a particularly aggressive role in helping to identify victims and provide support to families and survivors — something it was uniquely equipped to do.
‘‘The entire Syrian community of New York identified with the difficulties of those who had left their homeland seeking a better future in a new land,’’ Leila Salloum Elias wrote in 2005 in an essay that laid the groundwork for a new book, ‘‘The Dream and the Nightmare: The Syrians Who Boarded the Titanic.’’
‘‘They were reminded of their own journey across ocean and sea,’’ she wrote. ‘‘The Syrian community considered the ship’s Syrian passengers as part of it.’’
What kind of impression did that leave on my Jiddo? I wonder if he was there to see newspapers report, connect and advocate on behalf of those on the ship, and if those efforts helped him decide to launch his own newspaper a few years later in Detroit.
No doubt he was lured like many other immigrants by the promise of Ford’s ‘‘five bucks a day’’ to make Model Ts. But he saw another, less material motive: Muslims making Michigan their home would need a spiritual leader. He could put his Islamic studies to work to help build an American community.
More help in my quest comes from the National Archives, the main repository for pieces of the American story. Naturalization records contain details about where and when an immigrant came to the United States — and my grandfather’s record is among them, at the Archives’ Chicago branch. It teases me even more.
He listed himself as a sewing machine operator. He had a scar on his left palm. His signature — in a sturdy, stylish penmanship for a man who wasn’t raised reading or writing English — attests that he is neither polygamist nor anarchist.
I press on. Genealogy specialist Constance Potter runs a general search on several conceivable spellings for Hussien Karoub. As far as the archive is concerned, no record exists of my grandfather’s 1912 arrival.
That’s unsurprising. Many ports of entry were overflowing with huddled masses. Immigrants’ names were taken verbally, so there’s no guarantee that our best guesses on spelling match the elusive record. And until 1935, there was no National Archives.
‘‘There were all these years when things could disappear,’’ Potter says.
While she admires my pursuit and recognizes my disappointment, Potter consoles me with an existential parting shot about who we are as Americans.
‘‘Everyone’s ancestor was somewhere on July 4, 1776,’’ she says. ‘‘Whether signing the Declaration of Independence or somewhere in Syria, they were there.’’
Every quest, particularly when it comes to your own history, eventually arrives at a crossroads with some version of the same question: What is the point?
Why struggle to pin down my grandfather’s details, to separate truth from tall tales? Surely it’s not to feel more American. The day my family moved from becoming to belonging has long since passed.
Does my faltering attempt to retrace his journey make any difference? After all, he made it. He became one of the United States’ first imams, opened the nation’s first free-standing mosque and started a newspaper, the American-Arab Message, for a community that would become one of the largest outside the Middle East.Continued...