New worlds of print

David Tresilian , Tuesday 9 Jun 2020

The Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram and magazine Al-Hilal were not the only titles founded by Syrian-Lebanese entrepreneurs over 100 years ago, as a look through the archives of the American press reveals, writes David Tresilian

Kawkab America
Kawkab America

Many readers of Al-Ahram Weekly will remember that the origins of Al-Ahram go back to the arrival on Egypt’s shores of two Lebanese brothers, Beshara and Selim Takla, towards the end of the 19th century and their foundation of a new newspaper of that name published first in Alexandria and then in Cairo.

It paved the way for a flourishing collection of other publications founded by Syrians and Lebanese in Egypt that contributed to the expanding newspaper and magazine landscape of the time, among them the magazine Al-Hilal, founded in the 1890s by the Syrian writer Jurji Zaydan and like Al-Ahram still going strong today, and the newspapers Al-Muqtataf, a weekly, and Al-Muqattam, a daily, founded by the Syrian emigres Faris Nimr and Yacoub Sarrouf.

But how many readers will be aware that this Syrian-Lebanese penchant for setting up newspapers was not something restricted only to Egypt? Between 1890 and 1920 Syrian and Lebanese immigrants to the United States founded some two dozen Arabic-language newspapers in the East Coast cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, with some of them being continually published over several decades and achieving significant wider circulation.

The Syrian and Lebanese diaspora of this period in the United States is perhaps still associated in many minds with the name of Gibran Khalil Gibran, an originally Lebanese poet and writer who made a name for himself in both Arabic and English and is still perhaps one of the best-known and most widely read Arab writers worldwide.

Gibran’s The Prophet is still on the world’s bestseller lists in its English version, though perhaps his letters to the Lebanese-Palestinian author Mai Ziyada are at least as widely referred to in Arabic, with their feelings for each other having become proverbial in the period. Though the two never met, Ziyada helped to introduce Gibran’s writings to a wider audience through her famous literary salon held in Cairo in the 1920s and 30s.

But reducing the Arab diaspora in the US to Gibran massively distorts its scope, since he was only one of a group of Arab writers who gathered in Boston and New York at the end of the 19th century and produced a body of work that had significant influence both in the United States and in their Arab homeland. Called the Al-Rabita Al-Qalamiya, or Pen Club, it included writers such as Ilya Abu Maadi, Mikhail Naima, and Amin Rihani, who went on to become contributors to East Coast Arabic-language newspapers and magazines, as well as, in Rihani’s case, many English-language ones as well.

These writers, called the Mahjar, or emigrant, generation, were part of a larger movement of people from the Levant to the United States at the time, as well as to Latin America, Europe, and parts of Africa, that have made the Syrian-Lebanese one of the largest of all Arab diaspora populations. According to US scholar Alixa Naff, while “about 25 per cent of the 107,593 Syrians admitted [to the US] between 1899 and 1940 returned to the homeland… by 1940, over 200,000 Syrians called America their permanent home.”

Many of their descendants play significant roles in American life today. Former US Senate majority leader George Mitchell, former US senators James Abourezk and James Abdnor, and former Congressional members Pat Danner of Missouri, are all listed as being Arab American by descent by the Arab American Institute in Washington DC and are among the many others celebrated at the Arab American Museum in Dearborn in Michigan. US congresswomen Rashida Tlaib is of Palestinian descent, and former US presidential elections candidate Ralph Nader is the son of Lebanese immigrants to the United States.  

The late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said also traced his family back to his father’s decision to leave his native Palestine for a new life in the United States before World War I when Palestine, like today’s Syria and Lebanon, was a part of the former Ottoman Empire.

Writing in his 2000 memoir Out of Place, Said remembered that his father Wadie had gone “first from Haifa to Port Said in 1911 where they [he and a friend] boarded a British freighter to Liverpool… before they got jobs as stewards on a passenger liner to New York… Arriving in New York without valid papers, they bided their time, until, on the pretext of leaving the ship temporarily to visit a nearby bar, they boarded a passing streetcar ‘going they had no idea where’, and rode it to the end of the line.”

Wadie Said subsequently served in the US expeditionary force during World War I, acquired US citizenship, and later came to Egypt to set up a thriving business in Cairo.

While the contributions of the Pen Club to the development of modern Arabic literature and particularly those of Gibran are comparatively well known, recent years have seen a new interest in this movement as a whole, possibly owing to the rise of academic studies devoted to the movements of peoples in the past and the constitution of present-day diasporas. There has also been a desire among the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who made the journey abroad to discover more about their ancestors.

The foundation of the Arab American National Museum in Michigan in 2005 could be part of this new interest among second, third, and fourth-generation Arab Americans. A note on the museum’s website, for example, says that it is “the first and only museum in the United States devoted to Arab American history and culture” and “by bringing the voices and faces of Arab Americans to mainstream audiences, we continue our commitment to dispel misconceptions about Arab Americans and other minorities.”

Something similar might be said of the Arab American Institute, which says on its website that it was founded, this time as far back as 1985, in order “to nurture and encourage the direct participation of Arab Americans in political and civic life in the United States” and “to serve as a central resource to [US] government officials, the media, political leaders and community groups on a variety of public policy issues that concern Arab Americans and US-Arab relations.”

More recent books and exhibitions have sought to excavate and reconstruct the histories of Arab Americans. There was a pathbreaking exhibition at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration in New York City in 2017 that was an eye-opener for many visitors, for example. Many visitors to this exhibition, called “Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community’s Life and Legacy”, may not have realised that the area of Lower Manhattan now occupied by parts of the financial district was once called “Little Syria” owing to the Syrian-Lebanese community that lived and worked there at the beginning of the last century.

However, this interest has not always been present. When Alixa Naff, herself of Arab origin, began her research on the Arab American diaspora in the United States in the 1960s, for example, there was very little published work on this community. Fortunately, she was able to conduct her research at a time when many of those who had originally arrived were still alive and able to answer questions.

Much of this material went into Naff’s pathbreaking book Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience, published in 1985, and her original archives are now housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington as the Faris and Yamna Naff Arab American Collection.

Young Gibran
Young Gibran

NEWSPAPERS: But none of this quite explains the interest in setting up newspapers or in fostering the talents of writers among members of the early Syrian-Lebanese immigrant generations.

Presumably the Takla brothers saw Egypt as fertile ground for their newspaper project since controls on the press in Egypt in the later 19th century were less than they were in directly controlled Ottoman territories (Egypt was still nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire), and commercial opportunities in Egypt, still enjoying the cotton boom that the country had experienced during the US Civil War when supplies had been halted from the Confederate States of the US, were higher. Egypt was a centre of developing Arab nationalism, and its newspapers were forums for sometimes intense political and cultural debate.

Writing on “journalism and the press” in his History of Modern Egypt, historian P J Vatikiotis says that Nimr and Sarrouf had wanted to “disseminate progressive reform ideas which could serve as the basis of a secular national independence movement” through their newspapers Al-Muqtataf and Al-Muqattam, whereas Zaydan, in Al-Hilal, was interested in seeking “a rapprochement between Muslim and non-Muslim Arabs in the common cause of Arab regeneration and reform.” The Takla brothers, in Al-Ahram, were “initially critical of British policy” — the British were occupying Egypt at the time — “and in favour of a continued link between an Egypt ruled by the khedive and the [Ottoman] sultan in Istanbul,” he comments.

The newspapers thus had clear editorial lines, but in New York or Boston the situation was likely to be rather different, since there the Syrian-Lebanese writers were setting up Arabic-language newspapers and developing a literary movement on foreign and generally non-Arabic-speaking soil. Their relationship to their surrounding environment would thus not have been the same, and they would have drawn on different writers and targeted a different audience to that of Al-Ahram or the other newspapers in Egypt.

Fortunately, as a result of the new interest in the Pen Club and the early Arab American generations on the part of their descendants in the US and today’s Syria and Lebanon, anyone wishing to read these materials is much better off today than was the case even a decade or so ago.

Many people may have memories of reading such material in dusty research-library archives, fighting with microfilm machines and loading up often cracked or torn microfilm rolls of archive material under the beady eyes of librarians. But this no longer has to be the case today, since many institutions in the United States have been digitising these materials and making them available to wider audiences on the Internet, perhaps pre-eminent among them the Moise A Khayrallah Centre for Lebanese Diaspora Studies at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

This centre, named for Arab American businessman Moise A Khayrallah, has been busily digitising and annotating print runs of the major Arabic newspapers that appeared in the United States between around 1890 and 1920 and supporting research projects on them. It is a fascinating and essential resource for anyone interested in these early Arab American generations and in the literary movements they fostered.

Material made available by the centre tells us, for example, that Kawkab Amirka (Star of America) was the first Arabic-language newspaper published in the United States. It was published in New York City between 1892 and 1908, and at first it was released on a weekly schedule, but in 1898 it was upgraded to a daily paper. The roughly 300,000 copies per issue were circulated to subscribers across the world. Though it circulated in the Ottoman Empire as well as in the United States, in its first issue it stated its intention to express the “true interests” of the early Arabic-speaking diaspora, the Centre says.

It tells us that Miraat Al-Gharb (Mirror of the West) was one of the longest-running Arabic newspapers in the United States published from 1899 until the late date of 1961. It was founded by entrepreneur Naguib Diab and owned by his family until its closure. In addition to its significant longevity, it was important for its affiliation with the Eastern Orthodox faith. As a counterpoint to the Maronite Christian viewpoints that are often associated with the early Syrian-Lebanese immigrants, Miraat Al-Gharb provided valuable insight into the religious, political, and intellectual diversity of the early immigrants from Syria, the Centre adds.

It also tells us that in 1908 businessmen Salloum Mokarzel and Habib F Otash published an Arabic and English Directory (Al-Dalil) of the businesses owned by Syrians (Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians) in the US. With over 3,300 businesses noted, the Directory represents a significant sample of early immigrants, and thus can be taken as closely resembling the overall Lebanese-American population. It lists in English state, city and street addresses of the businesses, the names of the owners, and the types of businesses that they ran. In Arabic, the Directory provides the names, type of business, and their natal village, town or city in the Middle East.

But there are also many more newspapers than these, including titles such as Al-Akhlak (Ethics), Al-Ayyam (Chronicles), Al-Bayan (The Bulletin), Al-Fatat (Youth), Al-Hoda (Guidance), Al-Kown (The Universe), Al-Majalla Al-Tijarriya (Commerce Magazine), Al-Nasr (The Eagle) and Al-Wafa (Fidelity), among many others. The Moise A Khayrallah Centre has done extraordinary work in providing essential clues for those wishing to find their way through them, including on the newspaper’s religious, political, and other affiliations. Looking through some of this material, one finds fascinating nuggets of information, sometimes in the news and opinion articles, but just as often in the advertisements and other non-editorial materials.

The advertisements provide clues about how the new immigrant generations acclimatised to life in the United States, advertising everything from real estate to schools, wholesale and retail goods, business opportunities, and passage to and from Syria and Lebanon. The articles cover the standard news stories of the time mixed with heavy helpings of opinion. There are also other pieces that may provide evidence of a strong desire for integration, while retaining a Syrian and Lebanese heritage, despite sometimes still-faltering English-language skills.

One piece discovered by the present author while browsing through back numbers of Miraat Al-Gharb was an early article explaining the background and customs of the US festival of Thanksgiving, the Eid Al-Shukr, even today mysterious to many visitors to the United States, to the newspaper’s Arabic-speaking readers. There are some charming mistakes and misapprehensions in the article, but these only add to the impression of an earnest desire among Arabic-speaking readers of Miraat Al-Gharb to understand the customs of their English-speaking neighbours.

THE MAHJAR GENERATION: However, for literary and more broadly cultural purposes, perhaps the go-to newspaper is Al-Funun (The Arts), an Arabic-language literary journal published in New York City by entrepreneur Nasib Arida.

Arida was born in Homs, Syria, in 1887 and immigrated to the United States in 1905. He published the first issue of Al-Funun in April 1913, and the magazine became an important forum for the literature associated with writers of the Mahjar generation including Gibran Khalil Gibran, Mikhail Naimi, and Amin Rihani in the form of short stories, essays, and poems.

The first edition of Al-Fanun includes a letter from the editors to “all readers of Arabic” as well as a manifesto statement, a kalama ila al-qarie (Word to Readers), that connects it to other literary magazines appearing at the same time in languages such as English, French, and Russian. It is explained that Al-Fanun will be concerned to renovate Arabic literature and literary expression notably by bringing it into contact with the best of what is appearing in other languages. Looking at the contents of the first edition, there is certainly a strong emphasis on translation, perhaps as a way of bringing the work of the Pen Club into line with European and other modern and modernist writing.

Only a handful of pieces in the first edition are by Arab writers (there is a piece by Rihani and several by Gibran), with the rest consisting of translations into Arabic of writing by Russian writers (Gorky and Turgenev, among others), as well as by Victor Hugo and, strangely, Oscar Wilde. The emphasis seems to be on a kind of creative eclecticism, with later issues indicating the speedy assimilation of modern European writing — there are many translations of Nietzsche in Al-Fanun at a time when the German writer was only slowly being translated into English in often inadequate versions.

The Arabic-language publications appearing in the US at this time might be felt to have a Janus-headed aspect, with some looking primarily towards the opportunities offered by the new US environment, particularly the commercial magazines, some seeking to comment on events in the Arab world, and some, perhaps most, trying to do both at the same time.

Thus Al-Fanun, whose contents were notably cosmopolitan, often more so than many of the English-language magazines appearing in the US at the time, also sought to comment on events in the Arab world during World War I. There was a special issue on Suriya Al-Mankouba, “afflicted Syria”, in October 1916, for example, with the magazine being given over to discussion of the Nakba fi Suriya, “the catastrophe in Syria”, as the former Ottoman Empire found itself fighting on the doomed German side during World War I. This edition includes a long piece by Rihani on the humanitarian situation entitled “hunger” and a long essay, unsigned, on the ongoing wartime crisis.

While browsing back numbers of century-old newspapers and magazines is not to everybody’s taste, in the case of the Arabic-language publications appearing in the US in this period there are perhaps special reasons for doing so. One is that it can restore to wider consciousness aspects of US and Middle Eastern history that are sometimes forgotten, probably at least in part also the motive of contemporary moves to draw attention to the Arab American heritage by institutions such as the Arab American Museum in Michigan and exhibitions such as the Little Syria exhibition at the US National Museum of Immigration at Ellis Island in New York City in 2017.

Another is that it can help us to understand better how history is experienced, and made, among people not always given pride of places in history books or on school or university syllabuses.

According to UK academic Robin Ostle writing in the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, “the lasting significance of the poetry of the Mahjar, especially that produced by the writers of the Al-Rabita Al-Qalamiya, [was] first, the fact that these poets were removed from immediate contact with their own societies [and this] meant that they were less inhibited by the dominant canons of literary taste… Second was the fact that their achievements did not pass unnoticed inside the Arab world, particularly since theirs was a pocket of immigrant culture that could not establish fruitful connections with the surrounding English-American scene.”

None of this is wrong, and it is a valuable summary. But it can sometimes help, in order to understand the materials out of which such synthetic statements are made, to look directly at materials like the US Arabic-language newspapers of the period, among them Al-Fanun, since these can help to appreciate the individual hopes and struggles of those involved and refocus one’s gaze on the often messy primary sources from which standard historiography is formed.

There may also be connections to be drawn among other newspaper-founding members of the Syrian-Lebanese diaspora in other parts of the world, among them Beshara and Selim Takla and their contemporaries in Egypt.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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